Tashala’s Hair – Richard Strachan

Tashala’s Hair – Richard Strachan

June 2022

For the novices of Kilavastin, the monastery’s position high on the cold, north-facing flank of the mountain was enough to recommend it to even the most austere followers of the Path. The wind hared in over the plains from the ice fields in the distance, and most mornings would see the precincts dusted in a fine layering of silver frost. The chambers and cells and stone corridors were satisfyingly bleak, the windows shuttered only by thin partitions that rattled to the slightest breeze. The fire pits in the centre of each hall were lit to a strict and unyielding timetable: in the mornings, so the novices could brew their tea; and in the evenings, so their robes could be washed in great copper cauldrons and laid out overnight to dry. Meals were plain fare and luxuries were permitted only on the most sacred days. At the Feast of the Climbing Reed, the novices were granted a whole cup of fermented milk, and the evening of Crane Fall saw them lavishly stuff themselves with the first of the preserved fruit from the previous autumn.

It was a life of rigour and hardship, but few complained. In many ways it was an improvement over the quality of the lives they had known before, in families that scratched a dusty living from the dry fields of the south, where the waters of the valleys were acrid and slow. Out there, raids from the anernath, those horned and bloodthirsty daemons, were becoming more and more frequent. Kilavastin was a refuge from such hardship, and more than a refuge. High on the flank of the Tongue of Fire, the monastery was like a mouth shouting its prayers into the firmament, hollering to the twin moons of Aixe and Kast as they gazed down in pious approval. And when was a better time for the balm of prayer than when the land lay in such desperate straits, plagued by drought and poverty and war?

This was certainly what Gan thought, knuckling the sleep from his eye as he made his way to the meditation terrace on the edge of the monastery. His mother and father were reed weavers and they lived in a one-room shack on the lip of a dried-out lake, ten miles from the rocky foothills of the mountain. A day with a full stomach was one to mark on the village stele. When they had seen that he could decipher the prayers and blessings written by the mendicant priests whenever they passed through, his parents decided to send him to the monastery. High piety and low common sense found their complement in each other; one fewer of their many mouths to feed could only be a good thing, and for that mouth to be raised in prayer would double the benefit.

Gan had not seen them in five years. He didn’t know whether they still wove their living from the dying reeds or whether they had passed away into the firmament above, but he gave thanks to them all the same. Kilavastin was shelter and a guaranteed meal, and freedom from the threat of bandit raids or the dark attention of the horned ones to the west. More than that, it was a whetstone to a sharpening mind. He had always known he was a cut above the folk in his village and his life here was just the tangible proof. He would take all he wanted from Kilavastin. In time he would sit where the abbot sat each day to give them their lessons. He had no doubt, none at all. The scriptures of the Path might say that Doubt is the lathe of certainty, but Gan had no need of it. If the other novices were no more than cluttered collections of gathered wood, then he was already the carven chair. And as the scriptures also said, Let each thing that is made be made for its own purpose, and for what other purpose could Gan have been made but this?

He was a thin, reedy boy, his black hair shaven to the scalp. He was tall, although he made himself seem smaller by his hunkered, creeping gait as he passed through the corridors. His rope-soled sandals made no noise on the stone floor and the doors of the other cells, stained black with time, were still closed. Gan always made sure to be first up. It was a skill to wake before the rising sun. If you wanted to distinguish yourself, he had always thought, then it paid for your enthusiasm to be seen.

The steel morning was still glazed with the indigo of night as the sun began to rise. There was a smell in the air of frost and unleavened bread, the scent of rosemary, the acrid tang of brewed tea and mountain flowers. The terrace was empty when he reached it, the low dais at the southern end untenanted. Gan settled himself near the dais, sitting cross-legged on the stone and gnawing furtively on a crust of bread he had hidden in his robes. It would not be long before the other novices arrived to hear the abbot speak. Bread finished, the hard lump of it yielding to his throat, he closed his eyes and adopted a posture of meditation. He smoothed his brow, drew his mouth down slightly as if to indicate some knotty issue that he hadn’t quite resolved.

His eyes looked onto the darkness inside him. He thought unbidden of his mother’s face, his father’s bare and field-stained feet standing on the rushes of their hut.

He heard Quath and Hart come scuffling from the corridor into the open air, stifling deep, lung-laden yawns. The rustle of their white cotton robes, the scrape of their sandals against the flagstones. He could imagine the smoky plume of their breath in the cold morning air.

The weasel hunts when the sun is young,” Hart quoted in a whisper designed to carry. Quath giggled. Gan could hear him scratching at the lice in his hair. They were all due another shave soon. Gan inclined his head, acknowledging, but he didn’t open his eyes.

The poppy drinks the morning’s perfume,” he answered in a still, clear voice, “while the cactus slumbers.

Hart snorted through his nose and padded down behind him. Gan felt Hart’s rough finger prod into his back.

“Cactus. That’s the best you’ve got, eh?” he sneered.

“Well, the spines of the cactus are sharp and must be avoided,” Gan said without turning his head. “And you certainly are a prick …”

Quath bellowed with laughter. Gan opened his eyes and allowed himself a smile, although he knew he would pay for it later. He could feel Hart’s rich displeasure behind him. He was a lumpy, ill-featured boy, not one to let an insult go unpaid.

You’re the prick!” Hart hissed. The finger came prodding in again to Gan’s back. “The daemons take you, and your mother,” he said.

“Your mother is a daemon,” Gan retorted. “And your father pleasures himself on her horn every night.”

“Stop, Gan!” Quath choked. “You dole out insults like a rich man dispensing alms! My bowl is full!”

Hart’s voice came low and serious into Gan’s left ear. He could smell the boy’s breath, still rich with sleep. “You’re a wilful one, aren’t you? At least I don’t pleasure the Egg in his cell every afternoon … How do you like the feel of his horn, eh?”

The insult quivered in the air like a struck chord. Gan felt a wash of heat sweep over him. He remembered the precept, Emotions are the tether of the clay, and said nothing. He was taller than Hart and had the greater reach, although Hart had weight and solidity on his side. They had never fought, but even so, he wasn’t entirely sure that Hart would win. Despite the discipline of the switch and the leather strap, scuffles were common enough amongst the boys. Even so, he would not turn and strike.

Hart, emboldened, laughed with false mirth. If he had any further insult in his mouth though, he kept it to himself as the other novices began to file into the terrace, slumped in their white robes and still heavy with sleep. The initiates, younger boys with bare feet dressed in sky-blue tunics, filed in to sit on the very cusp of the terrace where it fell away into the open air.

A hush fell over the novices as the Egg hobbled in from the western cloister. The ripple of their talk faded away, until the only sound across the precinct was the high whisper of the northern breeze and the quiet tread of the abbot’s sandals as he climbed with effort onto the dais.

All bowed their heads, although Gan glanced up under his brows to watch the Egg limp slowly to the reed mat. The dome of his head was smooth and hairless; even the eyebrows and the eyelashes seemed to have faded with age, as sparse as winter grass. There was not a hair on his chin or lip, and his blue-veined legs, dark with bruises, were as thin as rope. He gathered his green robes about him and settled into position, coughing tremulously, his eyes milky white. His age-gnarled hands were cupped in his lap. Gan felt the white eyes draw across him as the abbot gazed out at the gathered crowd, all of them sitting patiently on the terrace waiting for him to begin.

The Egg saw everything, it was said. The fog of age might have laid its cloud across his vision, but that did not mean his sight was not clear. Gan certainly hoped so. He hoped the Egg could see the need in him. Every afternoon, he knelt at the door to the abbot’s cell, waiting to make himself conspicuously useful. Small errands, help with letters, filling the Egg’s water cup, brewing his tea — anything in exchange for whatever crumb of insight the abbot might let drop from his table. Knowledge was as food and drink to Gan, and he would take his fill. More than that, it was the coin of progress, and he would earn his keep. He wanted to make the abbot proud, to show him everything he had learned at his feet.

One day, he thought. One day, I will sit where you sit now.

As was the purpose of the lesson, the abbot waited until the novices felt emboldened enough to ask for a particular story. Tales from scripture or cosmology or from the Golden Precepts; tales of myth and legend and history; tales that would illuminate the soul’s endlessly refined condition in the ocean of eternity. Tales were the weft and weave of Kilavastin. They were how the monks and the initiates made sense of the world. Kilavastin itself, the monastery that sat atop the Tongue of Fire, was the tale that was told about it as much as anything else. Everybody knew of Kilavastin, where the first steps of the Path had once been taken. Here was where the words of the Way had first been spoken, and what was the Way but a story about how to live?

The cold air slithered over Gan’s bare shoulder. He prepared himself to speak — as everyone knew he would. It had almost become a tradition that no one would break the abbot’s silence until Gan had sallied forth with his first question. But then, breaking the hush, his voice braying in the morning air, Hart stepped suddenly into the gap instead.

“Please, master,” he said. “This unworthy one has a request he would humbly make?”

The Egg made no outward show of having heard. He sat there, all folded up into himself like a woven basket. Then, after a moment, the gesture visible only as a faint tremble in his jaw, the Egg nodded. Hart went on.

“I have heard — we have heard — that the anernath make great gains against the people, and that the lands groan under the weight of their evil. I thought there might be a tale that would speak to us in this time? In the scriptures it says, Those who would counter evil must first make themselves pure, and I thought perhaps the tale of the Peerless Knights might give us courage and inspiration? For who could be purer than the Peerless Knights, or we novices of the monastery who dedicate ourselves to the Path?”

There was a ripple of suppressed laughter. Even the most pious initiate would have trouble describing his fellows as being exactly pure

Gan masked his smile in case the Egg should happen to see. He flitted through the verses in his mind until he came to the passage Hart’s words had conjured up.

“Please, master,” he said sharply, arm raised. “This unworthy one also has a tale in mind, for which he would humbly ask so we can be illuminated by its wisdom.”

The white gaze of the Egg slid swiftly across Gan’s face. Gan bowed his head. He could hear Hart breathing heavily through his nose behind him.

The Egg’s voice was perhaps the most remarkable thing about him, and when he spoke, Gan felt the words thrum and settle across the still, empty air. For all his frailty, it was a voice of resonance and power, like a velvet note blown through the body of an oboe. He seemed able to project it to any part of the precinct with the same subtle force.

“Would you have your tale, novice,” he said, “before your fellow’s? Remember, it is said that All things must be answered in their proper order.

More laughter, but Gan had expected this. He countered swiftly with:

“But is it not also said, master, that The seed must be blown by a contrary wind to settle?”

Across the precinct he could hear the indrawn breath from the other novices, the respectful laugh at his audacity. On the Egg’s face there was the faintest twitch of a reaction, a flicker of the lip.

“If you seek only to illuminate your fellow’s request with your own,” he said, “be bold enough to ask it.”

“I believe the story I have in mind would better reflect the inspiration my fellow seeks. The Peerless Knights are, after all, peerless, and we could never assume to attain their level of purity. I seek only our enlightenment in requesting this, though I confess the tale is one that I would much like to hear. It has always moved me.”

He bowed deeper. He could practically hear Hart’s teeth grinding in his jaw behind him. Quath tittered uneasily, whispered: “Oh, he’ll get you for this, Gan! He’ll get you!”

But Gan paid no mind. He had reward enough, as he glanced up, in seeing the faint curve of the abbot’s lip, the glint of a revealed tooth.

“And what tale did you have in mind, novice?”

“Please, master,” Gan said. “This unworthy one would beseech you to enlighten us with the tale of King Raden. I believe it would shed light on the low desire for great things that my fellow’s request, perhaps unwittingly, has revealed.”

The Egg paused. The hands shifted in his lap. “And what do you know of this tale, novice?”

Gan swallowed. It was a tale his mother had told him when he was young, before he went to sleep; when the dusk stroked the fields with purple fire, and when the moons of Aixe and Kast began their graceful dance through the vault of night. But he would never admit as such here, of course. He would never hear the end of it from the other novices.

“Please, master,” he said. “I know only as much as my nature has permitted me to know, for my head teems with half-remembered tales. After all, is it not said that The clay vessel cannot be overfilled?”

The abbot, to much general astonishment, gave a short, flat bark of a laugh. Never had the Egg laughed in their presence before. Gan felt a strange tenderness then, that he had so moved him. The other novices almost imperceptibly leaned forward; if Gan had managed to so sting the Egg, then it stood to reason that the abbot’s words would be worth listening to.

“Very well,” he said to the gathered crowd. Hunched on the dais like that, he looked more like a little woven basket than ever. ‘Let us have the tale of King Raden then, and see if his travails cannot illuminate the ‘low desire for great things’ which the novice here has identified …”

In those days (the abbot said), far to the north, there was a great kingdom known as the Kingdom of Sabaenea, and King Raden ruled there in justice and temperance. The eastern lines of that kingdom stretched all the way to the sea, and the southern fringes covered what are now the borders of our own lands. Indeed, Kilavastin itself was part of its domain in those days.

Raden was a just king, beloved of his people, but it was his curse to be born in dark times. The anernath were already breaking from the earth of the western lands, spewing up from the pits of fire that wise men tell us boil at the very centre of the earth. Villages and towns fell to the flame of their swords, Men, women, and children were used most horribly in their dread rituals. Pirates raided far to the east, and for three years in a row the crops failed before the harvest. Drought and famine and war — the three signs of a changing time were upon him, and even the most just king has to bow before the signs he is given. Age was growing more heavily on King Raden, day after day, and he knew that his reign would soon come to an end. It could either end in the fire and slaughter of war against the daemons, or it could continue in fear and safety as long as the anernath suffered them to live. All he knew was that he could not be the king to lead his country onwards into whatever fate awaited it.

King Raden had a son, Janna, the prince who in the normal course of things would inherit Sabaenea on Raden’s death. It was in King Raden’s mind to abdicate his responsibilities and pass them on to a younger man, one better suited to the rigours to the age, but the thought made him most uneasy. He loved his son, but King Raden was wise and saw far, and he knew that Janna was the kind of man who might treat a kingdom as no more than the spoils of his own vanity. Janna was young and confident and strong, most fair to look upon, but those who have never had to struggle often lack the resilience to make hard decisions. There was ambition in him too. Ambition can often be yoked to a finer purpose, but there was a streak of cruelty in Janna that King Raden had long tried to ignore. The prince, it was said, took rather too much enjoyment in beating his hunting dogs, and he treated his servants little better.

One morning, King Raden’s daughter, Princess Tashala, came to him. A silk veil covered eyes that had been sorely weeping, but the king was at first so preoccupied with his own concerns that he did not notice her distress. Then, when she drew back the veil and he saw the sorrow on her face, he bade her sit and called for wine.

“What ails you, daughter?” he asked.

Princess Tashala sipped her wine and dried her eyes. She was a striking figure, fine-boned, tall, her long black hair breaking the bounds of the silken cords she had used to tie it up.

“Oh father!” she cried. “You must flee from here, while you still have the chance. Fear grips me in its chains, and I know for a very fact that your life is in danger.”

“Our lives are only given us for our allotted span,” King Raden said. “But tell me daughter, what makes you think I am at risk in the very centre of my kingdom? War draws near, I have no doubt, but it is not yet upon us.”

And then Princess Tashala told her father all that she had heard from the lips of her own brother. Prince Janna, who had no greater store of patience than he had of compassion, could not wait for his father to die in the natural course of things. He wanted the crown of Sabaenea now, for his very own, and he had boasted of such to Tashala — for, despite the differences between them, brother and sister were very close, and had been since they were children. No more than ten months separated their births, although Tashala’s arrival had killed the mother Janna spent the rest of his life mourning. Often, King Raden wondered if the sad death of his wife was what had made his children’s relationship both so feverishly close, and so unusually overwrought.

“You must believe that this is no idle threat. Janna means to kill you and seize the crown, and then by the light of the Path that guides us I cannot say what mayhem he will inflict upon the kingdom. He has long waited for this moment, father, and those whose hearts are so torn by desire will never make kind kings. Forgive me for bringing you such distress, but I fear that he would even take me for a bride, so twisted by his lust for power has he become. He has always blamed me for mother’s death, has he not, and now at last he will find a way to punish me for it!”

Now, King Raden, although struck deeply by these terrible words, was above all things wise. He knew that his daughter spoke the truth, for although she was in many ways a wilful and haughty character, she had a streak of iron in her that would not bend or break. If she had been made so distraught by what she had heard, then he knew that a moment of great seriousness was upon him.

Ask yourself what a king should do in such a trial. No one would have blamed him for dragging his son to his dungeons and ending the threat to his kingdom on the edge of the executioner’s blade. But although King Raden was wise and just, he was also a father. He could not kill his own son. Still less could he allow his son to become a murderer and kill his own father. Despite it all, he loved Prince Janna. The boy was his own flesh and blood, and who can think of their own flesh and blood as irredeemable?

Some, of course, would say that this was a terrible weakness, and that kings must put aside such mortal concerns if they are to rule with strength; for all things, even the love of a father for his son, must be subordinate to the needs of the kingdom. But the king, who knew his scriptures, also knew that weakness could be turned into strength, for is it not said that, The green shoot can be plucked with ease from the soil, and yet given time can crack the very mountains? In the same way a newborn child placed into its father’s arms soothes the beast inside him, perhaps a kingdom placed in Janna’s hands would cool the fire of his strange hatreds. The kingdom would be saved and Tashala would no longer suffer her brother’s unnatural attention — or at least, so Raden hoped.

He summoned Janna that evening. Having taken himself from the gambling table or from the arms of his courtesans, the prince strode into the throne room with all the arrogance of youth. He saw his father sitting there on the throne of Sabaenea, his head encircled by Sabaenea’s crown, and all he saw was an old man too weak to look his son in the eye.

Now, as I have said, Sabaenea was a rich and powerful kingdom, and the throne room reflected all its strength and majesty. The throne itself was of solid gold, with a cresting rail of jewel-encrusted silver. Rubies and emeralds sparkled from the arms, and the dais on which it sat was mantled in purple velvet. The long apron of the dais was guarded by the warriors of the king’s personal guard, giants near seven feet tall bearing ivory-hilted glaives, their heads capped with steel helmets. The room itself was larger than any lord’s banqueting hall, hundreds of feet from end to end. The walls held bas-reliefs of sculpted marble, depicting the legends of Sabaenea’s long and storied history, and the ceiling was a wondrous display of frescoes that celebrated the great victories of its armies. Raden was not a proud man, but he wanted his son to be certain that Raden was speaking to him not just as a father, but as a king, and that the decision he was about to make was coming from a position of the most unassailable power.

“You wished to see me, father?” Prince Janna drawled.

He wore his armour, the king noted; a gilded breastplate, a sword at his hip. The young man stood there as if he had spent half his day perfecting the pose, but King Raden saw far into his son’s hidden heart. The boy was anxious too. He had achieved nothing in his own short life and in a way he felt the shame of his privilege. He had never been given the chance to prove himself. All this splendour had hung in front of him all the days of his life, and who can live with such temptation and not become deformed by it?

“Indeed, my son,” the king said. He leaned forward in the throne, felt the weight of that golden circlet on his head, as he had felt it every day of his reign. “I summoned you here to give you something which I know you have long desired, which turns and twists in your mind day and night, and which I am convinced in the end you will not thank me for giving you.”

Prince Janna glanced at his father’s face, so grave and heavy with unspoken sorrows. “I thank you, father,” he said carefully, “although I confess this does not sound like the sort of gift a man may happily receive.”

“It is not,” the king said, bluntly. “And yet, I would give it to you all the same. I would save you from a course of action that would draw you far from the Path that guides us all, and then Sabaenea and your beloved sister must suffer the consequences of a father’s love, for good or ill.”

“You will have my gratitude regardless,” Prince Janna said. He bowed with a restrained flourish. “You know how much I value any gift from you, father …”

King Raden summoned his advisors and ministers, the heads of his armies, his chancellors and priests. He bade all of them witness, and then he removed the crown from his head and passed it to Prince Janna — King Janna, as he now was.

It is said that a monarch must take the crown with reluctance, in recognition of the hard duty thrust upon them, but Janna could not help himself. He snatched the circlet from his father’s hands like a child grabbing a sweetmeat from his nurse, so eagerly had he waited for this moment. After placing the crown on his head, Janna practically dragged his father from the throne.

With heavy steps, Raden plodded down the dais to the floor, pushing past the giants of his personal guard — now King Janna’s personal guard, sworn to protect the king’s life with their own.

“Is it done?” Janna asked, his eyes blazing. A smile flickered across his thin and handsome face. He looked, Raden thought, like the boy he had once been, eager for the games to begin on his birthday. “Is it right, am I now king?”

He looked pleadingly to the priests, the advisors, the generals, as if scared that they would contradict him. All of them, with the briefest of glances at the worn figure of Raden, who seemed to have diminished in only the few minutes since his son had entered the throne room, nodded their assent. It was done.

“All hail the king,” they cried as one.

“How mother would be pleased to see me now …” Janna whispered. Then he turned to the court and proclaimed: “There will be a change now in this kingdom, I swear it!” He grasped the sceptre, clutched at the hilt of his sword. “No more shall we skulk behind our walls in fear of battle. No more shall we let the daemons of the west press against our borders, killing the kinfolk of our neighbours. No longer shall the people go hungry from famine and drought. Open the granaries,” he commanded. “Raise my armies! Let every strong man and woman of Sabaenea take up the sword and prepare for war. Sabaenea will meet the challenges that face it head on, and we shall be victorious!”

Raden lowered his eyes. How to tell his son that the granaries were empty, that there were not weapons enough to arm his soldiers? How to tell him that the duties of kingship were to balance so many competing demands that a successful king was more like a pilot weaving a ship through the reefs and sandbars of a treacherous harbour, rather than one who sets a single course and takes it? He would find out for himself, in time …

“And one final command I make today,” King Janna declared. He raised the sceptre and pointed it at his father. There was the briefest moment in his eyes, the quickest flash of horror at the step he was about to take, but it was soon gone. “Guards — arrest this man. His failures have led us to the brink of ruin, and he will not go unpunished.”

And so the guards, who not five minutes before would have given their lives for him, took Raden in hand and cast him down into the dungeons of the king’s palace, there to await the king’s pleasure. It was no less than he had expected.

The dungeons were not as fearful or as grim as that word would lead you to expect. A dungeon is merely a place to keep a prisoner until they can be dealt with, and the simple loss of liberty is torment enough. The cell in which Raden was thrown was simple and bare, but not needlessly grotesque. It contained no more than a plain wooden bed and a hole in the ground for a toilet, but the floor was well-swept and the walls cleanly whitewashed. A barred window high on the eastern wall admitted the sunlight at dawn, and there was a thick woollen blanket for Raden to keep himself warm. He did not know what Janna planned to do with him, but reasoned that there was no point in tormenting himself with conjecture. All would become clear in time. Settling himself on the bed, Raden began to think back to his lessons in scripture, sending his mind to wander along the clear and uncluttered avenues of the Path, where none could touch it, while his body waited uneasily for the king’s judgement. He thought of Tashala, his daughter, and hoped against hope that he had not made a terrible mistake.

The first day passed in silence. The sunlight swung leisurely across the whitewashed wall, painting the bricks in gold and amber. Raden heard nothing from the other cells and saw no sign of his gaoler. No one brought him food or drink, or unhooked the slat in the cell door to check if he was well. No matter, Raden thought. Many are the people in Sabaenea who lack food in these dark times, and I should not complain if for once my stomach feels the pangs of an unaccustomed hunger.

But the next day passed in the same way, and still no one came to his cell. A man can be humbled through lack of food for a few days at least, but he cannot be humbled long through lack of water. Despite himself, Raden stood by the slat in the door and called for sustenance, but no one answered. He had been dragged to the dungeons, it seemed, to be forgotten.

Days and nights passed. Raden could imagine King Janna frantic with indecision over what he should do, finally paralysed into this cruel indifference. Janna hated his father for standing so long in his way. He loved his father for standing aside and giving him the crown. He hated his sister for killing their mother. He loved his sister because in some way she was all of his mother he had left. What awful conflictions had gone into this boy, Raden sighed, and how blind had he been to think that charity would smooth out these flaws.

He licked the moisture from the walls where it gathered on the brick. He cursed the clemency that had made these dungeons less foul than they could have been, for there were no rats he could trap for food. His stomach writhed with agony and his throat burned with thirst, and slowly he felt what little strength remained to him start to fade. And yet even now, after everything, he did not regret the decision he had made. His son might be killing him by inches, but he was not yet a murderer.

He could not say how much time passed before he received his first visitor. Each day dragged from dawn to dusk, changeless and austere. In the end, it was not Janna who came to see him, or any functionary of the dungeons, but Princess Tashala, who had spent every day since Janna’s succession begging the new king to allow her to see her father. Whether through guilt about what he had done, or simple love for his sister, Janna had finally agreed.

She appeared in that drear place like a glimpse of sunlight in a cloudy sky, her silks as vibrant as the flowers in the fields, her jewels glittering like stars. More dazzling than either was the love Raden saw in her eyes, the sorrow and the pity as she took his weakened body in her arms and sat with him on the bed.

“My lord, you cannot understand the grief a daughter feels when she sees her father brought so low,” she said. “My heart is heavier than stone. Janna is surely cursed if he treats you so abominably.”

“Forgive your brother,” Raden managed to say. His voice was as dry as the autumn leaves that clattered about the forecourts of the palace. “After all, he has not killed me yet. Janna has never had to make a decision in his life before, and he only does what he does now for the good of the kingdom, I am sure. A crown must forget those who wore it before, as it cleaves to him who wears it now.”

“He does what he does only for his own good, of that I have no doubt,” Tashala scorned. “Even now he talks more of our marriage than he does of the duties of a king. He claims his love for me is pure, but it is only the love of a greedy man for that which he cannot have. And I swear, on our wedding night I will claw the eyes from his head rather than let him use me in such a disgusting violation of the Way!”

It grieved Raden deeply to hear this. Truly, he began to realise the scale of his error. He had given Janna the crown to prevent his son being consumed by his desires, but was his own need to protect his son not just another kind of desire in its way? The scriptures were surely true when they said that desire was the snare at the side of the road to peace. The laws of Sabaenea, laid down an age ago when the world was young, could not countenance the crown being passed to any but the first born. Raden saw those laws now as great tendrils snaking out from the shadows of history and binding his hands to a decision he wished he had not made. But what can a father do against the love he bears his children?

Raden felt his spirits lower even further when he realised that his daughter carried no sustenance for him.

“Indeed not, father,” she said. “Janna’s guards searched me before I entered, and I was expressly forbidden from bringing you food or drink. I think he means for you to starve to death in here because he does not have the courage to wield the blade himself.”

“Then leave me now,” Raden said, “and let an old man suffer the punishment of his folly.”

It was then that Tashala unwrapped the scarves that kept her long black hair tied up from her shoulders. She shook it free and Raden saw that it glistened with oils. He could smell a light fragrance of honey and cinnamon wafting through the cell. Tashala took up a lock of that hair in both her hands and held it out to him.

“But I knew how vindictive my brother could be,” she said, offering it to him in all reverence. “Please. Sustain yourself.”

Suddenly he understood what she had done. As Tashala cradled him to her breast, holding him as he would have held her when she was a child, Raden took his daughter’s hair into his mouth and sucked and sucked, drawing the lacquered syrups from it. Lock by lock, he drank the sustenance she had prepared for him, the nourishment she had disguised in the oiled tresses of her hair. Slowly he felt a flicker of his old strength returning. The darkness that had been growing around the edges of his sight receded. The cold which he had felt creeping ever nearer in his lonely cell began to slacken.

“Feed from me,” Tashala whispered into the silence, and the only sound was the soft papping of Raden’s lips as he sucked the oils dry. “Feed, and be whole once more.”

She had saved his life, of that there could be no doubt. Glazing her hair with nutrients, her locks plump with rich greases, Tashala came to his cell whenever she could, and whenever Janna’s malicious caprice turned for a moment to a kind of mercy. Sometimes a day or two would pass, sometimes longer. When at last he heard the grinding click of the lock on his cell door, Tashala would rustle in with a sweep of her gilded silks and unravel the scarves from her head. Raden would fall into his daughter’s arms as she uncoiled the great loops and oiled plaits of her raven-black hair, and he would gather them up and swoon at the heady scents of cinnamon and burnt sugar. It was all he could do not to choke himself on each strand as he eagerly sucked it into his mouth, drawing as much of the goodness from it as he could.

The risks Tashala was taking were a marvel to him, her bravery an example he tried to honour. Truly she walked the Path in righteousness, and not for the first time Raden wished that this brave and resourceful young woman had been his first-born child instead of the callow young man he was now ashamed to call his son. The Law was all, Raden had thought in his foolishness. But are men and women made to serve the Law, or is the Law made to serve men and women instead?

As he sat in his bare cell, day after day, meditating on the Path and on all the varied steps that had led him to this moment, Raden tried not to imagine his son’s confusion that his father yet lived. If his mother had lived, perhaps … Would there still be such an absence in his boy, such bewilderment and vice?

And then, months after Raden had abdicated, King Janna came at last to the dungeons of his palace to visit his father.

He bade his guards wait outside, those seven-foot giants who had once guarded Raden himself. His breastplate was glazed with dust, notched here and there by sword cut or axe blade, and his lean and once-handsome face was drawn with strain. His hand flexed on the hilt of his sheathed sword. Raden sat on the edge of his cot and watched his son, and for a moment it seemed as if their places had been reversed; that Janna, worn out with guilt and strife, had been thrown into the dungeon while Raden sat patiently to await his excuses.

“I confess it surprises me to find you still alive, father,” the young king said. His voice cracked as he spoke, brittle with fatigue. “I have Tashala to thank for that, I suspect. I don’t know how she has done it, but she is ever wilful.”

“She honours me with her loyalty,” Raden said, without malice. “And she honours the Path. Perhaps she hopes I can still intercede with you, and turn aside your foul desire to marry her.”

Janna flinched. He rubbed the dust from his eye and seemed to reel for a moment. Again came to Raden that image of him as a boy, crying at some childish injustice.

“I see the hatred in her, every time I look on her face,” he mumbled. “I thought us closer than any two people in the world, but I suspect I have deluded myself on this, as I have on so much else. I am not so arrogant or selfish as you have long assumed me, father.”

“Then you no longer torment her with your attentions?”

“Let us say that I have postponed our marriage until the war is won. I will persuade her with my victory, and …” He strode from one side of the cell to the other. He was unable to meet his father’s eye, and when he spoke it was as if he were speaking to himself. “A victory which I confess seems further away than I would have ever thought possible …”

“You seem surprised to find war a complex and unpredictable thing,” Raden told him. “Reasons why I always strove to avoid it. Nothing overwhelms like war.”

Janna gave a flat and mirthless laugh. He wiped his eye again and Raden realised that he was brushing away tears.

“Complex and unpredictable, and expensive beyond all measure …”

“Why do you come here, my son?” Raden asked him gently. “Do you seek to torment me further, or is that blade on your hip designed to end my suffering at last?”

Janna rounded on his father, but there was no rage or anger in his expression. There was only the dark despair of someone pushed beyond his limits, and suddenly aware of what those limits actually were. When he spoke, it was as if he dreaded anyone overhearing what he had to say.

“In the name of the Path we follow,” he sobbed, “what do I do? I thought the anernath merely some kind of savage beast, but they are things of smoke and midnight, utterly without mercy … There is rebellion in the north, and there are thousands — thousands — of people dead from the plague in the east. The granaries are almost empty, we cannot raise money fast enough to pay the army, and our defeats multiply like locusts in the hot season. It is all streaming through my fingers, father, and I cannot keep hold of it! Please, what do I do?

Raden looked at his son, not without pity. To have striven for so long, to have locked all his hopes into the box of one desire, and then to find that desire no more than a scattering of ashes that drifted through the air, elusive … Janna had found the limits of his own capabilities, and they had shocked him.

“Is the crown something you still want?” Raden looked his son in the eye, and that lean face twisted as if struck. “Would you clutch power to you still, or would you freely give it up?”

The choice, if it was a choice, wrestled across Janna’s face. He clawed at his breastplate as if trying to stop the power flying away from him. Desire and surrender were weighed in the balance of his heart; but in the end, one must always be heavier than the other.

“I would keep it still,” he whispered. His face was pale, as if he couldn’t believe the decision he had just made. “More than my mother alive, or Tashala at my side, it is the only thing I have ever truly wanted.”

“Then I cannot help you,” Raden said sadly. “And the only advice I can give is that what holds you in fetters must be given away. The only gift worth giving is that which is truly valued, and that which is still desired by the giver is no gift at all.”

“This is the advice you give me,” Janna wept. “My own father, who would see Sabaenea in ruins rather than lift his hand to help!”

“You have my help,” Raden told him. “You must unshackle your desire for power, and give it away to one more worthy. Only then will you be saved, and Sabaenea with you.”

With a cry of rage, Janna drew the first blue inch of steel from his scabbard. Raden sat there impassive, waiting for the blow to fall, but Janna did not swing the blade. He sobbed once, reeled back as the tides of his anger broke against the shore of his father’s indifference — for truly, Raden had made his peace with life and had reached the end of his Path. After all, Life must be capped with Death, and the wise man makes sure to meet Death’s eye when it approaches. For Janna though, Death was not yet a figure he could compass. He was young enough to think that Death could always be outfought.

“Go,” Janna said in a hoarse voice. He swung the cell door open and stumbled out into the corridor. “Leave this place. Find whatever refuge you can, before it is all pulled down in ruins about our heads.”

“May your Path be free of pain and hurdle, my son.” Raden said. In the doorway he paused to rest his hand on his son’s trembling shoulder. “I will go south to Kilavastin. You will find me there, when the time comes.”

“Forgive me, father,” Janna choked. “But if I ever see you again, I will kill you for all that you have done to me.”

And thus parted father and son, King Raden and Prince Janna, or King Janna as he was still for a little while after that. And as Raden left his cell and then the palace grounds, he knew more than ever that to hold something close which you cannot easily give up is to be held in chains, locked in a dungeon deeper and more impenetrable than the one he had just left. When desire is your master, then the Path is made ever more obscure.

The dawn had long since burned away by the time the Egg finished. The cold breeze had tempered a degree or two, and the novices’ bellies rumbled as the time of the day meal grew close. There was a sharp smell in the air of herbs and spices from the pottage bubbling in the cookpots. Soon the rigours of the day would properly begin.

“That is it,” the Egg declared. “The story of King Raden, and how he was nourished on Tashala’s hair, and how a kingdom was given away because of desire. Greed is ever a danger on the Path,” he said. “Go now, and think on this.”

His white eyes swept over the gathered novices as the story sank into them, and for the briefest moment they rested on Gan, as if to say: Heed these words, haughty one; for they are for you alone.

Gan joined the others as they filed from the terrace, looking back to see the Egg still sitting there on the dais, his papery bald head bowed, his blue-veined legs still crossed. Gan wanted to go to him, to ask more, to learn more, to be of service. All I want is to learn, Gan wanted to tell him. What else could be told of King Raden and Prince Janna? Did Raden ever make it to Kilavastin? What happened to Princess Tashala once her father left? Did King Janna die in battle, in his war against the daemons? Did he regret the clemency he had shown to his father at the end? When his mother had told him the story, it had always ended with King Raden forgiving his son and leaving his cell to become a saint of the Way, performing miracles in the ruins of Sabaenea. Was this King Raden’s fate? It made him feel uneasy not to know.

But once a question had been answered, it was not permitted to be reframed and it was up to the novices to parse the meaning from it. The Egg had spoken. That was all there was to it.

Precepts and orders and rules did not stop Gan’s mind from pivoting uneasily around the story for the rest of the day, though. There were lessons in it for him, he knew. He just had to find them. Sabaenea had fallen many years ago and the war with the daemons was something that had lasted as long as people could remember. Some said that it would never end, because how could things of smoke and midnight ever be defeated by human arts? Perhaps in the end, he thought, Kilavastin itself would fall to them.

But no, it was impossible to imagine such a thing. As Gan washed the empty bowls when the day meal was done, his hands plunged into the tepid water of the kitchen sinks, he couldn’t imagine the monastery falling into the same ruin as Sabaenea. It was eternal, surely. It was the cap of the mountain, the crown of the Path. It was the place that was woven of stories, and it would never fall as long as there were monks to learn them.

He was sweeping the corridors that led from the precinct to the storerooms, thinking about Raden and his wanderings through the kingdom, and thinking also about Princess Tashala and the unguents she had soaked into her hair — treacle? Beef fat? Butter and sugar? What had she taken to him? — when Hart and Quath appeared from the linen cupboards at the other end of the passage. Their arms were piled high with fresh sheets and blankets. When they saw Gan, they both laughed and dropped their voices into a hearty mutter.

“Afternoon, Gan,” Hart said with a curl of his lip as they passed. “Or should that be ‘Prince Janna’ …”

Quath guffawed loudly and buried his mirth in the pile of sheets he bore. Gan leaned on his broom and kept his eyes level with them.

“Janna?” he said lightly. “I am not king yet, but I have no doubts you’ll both be my subjects one day.”

Hart, squat and lumbering, shook his head and squared himself against the slighter boy. The sheets he carried were a barrier between them.

“What gives you such balls to think like this, eh?” he spat. He pushed with the pile of sheets, and Gan stumbled back, dropping his broom. “You’ll no more be the abbot than I will. I know my worth, and the place it gives me. I am content with it. But the Egg sees you, Gan, always chafing at the bit. Even if you can’t see yourself.”

Gan swallowed. He tried to keep Hart’s eye locked in his own, but of a sudden all the words of scripture he could have thrown back at the bigger boy fell away from him. A fist in the gut he would have expected, a twist of the arm and a knuckle in the eye, but not this scorn. This low blame, this angry disappointment. He had no weapon against it.

“You think the Egg sees me as Janna?” he said. He tried to sound light-hearted, but his voice felt thick in his throat. “I would have thought King Raden more appropriate, personally.”

“And how do you figure that?” Quath giggled. “Raden was humble, wise. He did what he thought was right. So did Tashala. All you care about is looking better than anyone else.”

“That’s not true,” Gan said. He could feel his cheeks flushing red.

“Look at him,” Quath mocked. “It’s finally sinking in … That’s your problem, Gan. You know scripture, fine. But do you really know it?”

“Don’t think yourself more than you are,” Hart muttered. He took the weight of the sheets in one hand and jabbed a finger at him. “Suck the Egg’s hair all you want, but you’re not King Raden. Not even close. You’re Janna, boy. Lost with desire, and led astray. Grabbing at what you don’t deserve. The Egg couldn’t believe you’d ask such a question and not see yourself in the answer. No one could.”

It’s a hard thing to see a truth suddenly revealed, especially when it’s visible to everybody except yourself. Gan seemed to see the lines of the story reframe themselves, and the grasping, wheedling figure of Prince Janna fade into the background where he belonged. In his place stood Princess Tashala offering her hair to her father, and beside her was King Raden, saddened by what he had done even when he knew it had been done for the best of motives. He thought suddenly of his mother, twisting the dry reeds into lengths of twine. He saw his father, his face lined with exhaustion.

When Hart and Quath had trundled off down the corridor, chuckling to themselves at the victory they’d scored in rendering him speechless, Gan stooped to pick up the broom. He leaned against the wall until his heart had settled.

He thought of Janna, standing in the door to his father’s cell, his breastplate rent with battle, his clothes drenched in the dust of the roads. Weak, grasping, arrogant. But for a moment, as Gan composed himself again, he wondered at the strange courage it would have taken for Janna to walk down into those dungeons. He had gone to stand before the only person who truly knew the depths to which he had sunk, to ask the man he had imprisoned for help. That was why Janna had let his father live, Gan thought. It had taken courage to show that humility, and he could not betray that courage by committing such a base act afterwards. At the very end, Janna knew his true merits at last.

He felt his heart twinge at the thought. Perhaps the story then was about Janna’s humility? Perhaps that was why the Egg had decided to tell it, and why those white eyes had rested on him at the very end. Until they had experienced the humility of knowing their limits, nobody knew what they were really capable of. That went for Gan as much as for anybody else. And then the king, after revealing those limits to his son, and realising his own limits in turn, slowly made his way to Kilavastin …

In the name of the Path, he thought, raising his eyes to the ceiling. Tales were twisting things right enough. They always told more than you really understood. Perhaps the Egg meant him to understand that he was like both Janna and Raden? Ambitious, callow, only aware of his limits after he had been humiliated? Realising only afterwards why he had been sent to Kilavastin in the first place – not to succeed, but to serve.

Then, as the words of the story swept through him once more, Gan knew that he might not be King Raden; but he was certainly not Prince Janna either …

Later that evening, he made his way to the Egg’s cell. He bore the tea things on their lacquered tray, the ebony pot and cup, the simple clay bowl of dried leaves, the little crock of honey.

The Egg sat at his desk, drawing a reed stylus down a scroll of manuscript as he traced the letters of the text. Gan boiled the water by the blackened copper stove. Soon the fresh fragrance of the tea filled the room. It was getting dark outside, and the flame of the dusk stroked the open shutters at the window. Gan lit the candle in the lamp by the abbot’s elbow.

“You have something to say, novice?” the Egg said at last. His voice quavered in the silence, weaker than it had been that morning. Gan poured the black tea into the ebony cup, straining the leaves. He looked at the globe of the Egg’s head, the thin skin wrinkled above the back of his neck, the glint of his white eye as he sidled his gaze around to look.

Could it be him? How old was he really? How old was the tale they had heard that morning, the tale of King Raden and Tashala’s hair?

“Forgive my distraction, master,” he said. He took the water pot from the flame, setting it aside on the brick and bowing his head. “Truly, you see all things. But all day I have been thinking of the story you told us this morning. The tale of King Raden.”

“You should have been thinking of the Path, novice.” The Egg looked at him more fully now, twisting around in his chair. Gan bowed, until his forehead was nearly touching the stone.

“Indeed master, forgive me. But the story … it moved me more than I can say and I found myself lost in wonderings about King Raden, and whether he ever made it to Kilavastin. I have ever been a glutton for knowledge. It is my besetting sin.” He stared up quickly at the abbot’s face, peering closely at the eyes nestled there in their soft wrinkles of skin. “Of course, you must have known him yourself, master, when he came to Kilavastin …”

There. A flinch, the twitch of a nerve in his ancient cheek. Was it? Gan could not be sure. He felt a pang of guilt that he had put the question to this wise old man, and then the guilt melted into the swirl of a wry affection. He thought of Hart earlier that day, calling him Janna. But he was not Janna, who had thought he wanted a kingdom, but in the end only wanted the glory of being king. Gan thought of his parents in their reed hut, and the anernath, and the chance that had placed him here in the heart of Kilavastin. If the abbot were to offer him any gift, he would surely turn it aside. His parents had not put his foot on the first rung of a ladder, one that would lead Gan to the head of the monastery. They had put his feet on the Path. The gift they had given him was the opportunity to learn. That was all, and that was more than enough. In the end, you had to accept what you deserved, not what you wanted. That was what the Egg had done, he was sure. All those years ago, he must have truly known his merits at last.

Gan felt himself wilting under the abbot’s attention. After a moment the Egg turned aside and addressed himself to his manuscript again. The dusk had fractured now into shards of red and purple. The night was coming on. The only light in the cell was from the lamp at the abbot’s elbow, the faint yellow glow of the flame in the copper stove.

“King Raden did not arrive at Kilavastin, alas,” the Egg said.

“Then what happened to him, master?”

The abbot sighed. He seemed to deflate in the chair, like a pig’s bladder with the air let out. He placed his stylus on the desk and folded his hands in his lap, still with his back to the room.

“King Janna lost his war, and lost the loyalty of his people. Princess Tashala killed herself when the anernath finally spilled into the grounds of the palace. Janna found her body lying in her chambers, the poison still bitter on her dying breath, and in his madness and grief he fled. He became a vagabond, flitting through the ruins of Sabaenea, hiding from his enemies until even his enemies had forgotten about him, assuming him dead. And then, one day, during his many and dangerous wanderings, he came at last across his father for the final time. King Raden was sitting at a wayside shrine, contemplating the Path, when a dusty, ragged beggar approached him. He saw that it was his son, much abused by the rigours of his journey. He remembered the words his son had said at their last meeting: ‘Forgive me father. But if I ever see you again, I will kill you.’”

Gan raised his eyes. “And did he?”

The Egg shook his head; slowly, painfully. “No, for his father spared him even that. King Raden made no effort to defend himself, but submitted to where the Path had led him. He was a wise man, as we have said. He reached out for Janna’s sword, and when Janna placed it into his hand, King Raden ended his own life rather than allow his son to become a murderer. And so that is the end of King Raden’s story, and the end of every story where desire is the master. Sorrow, heartache, death.”

“And what of Prince Janna?” Gan asked, a lump in his throat. He did not say it to the abbot, but the tale as told by his mother had never reached so far. He had always wondered what happened to the prince once the tale was done, but he could never have imagined this squalid death at a wayside shrine. For obvious reasons, it had not been thought fit for a child’s ears, and as he heard the words it was as if Gan felt a last fragile part of his childhood wither away from him. Even the dream that he would one day sit in the abbot’s place seemed no more than a childish fantasy that he was ashamed to have entertained.

The abbot stood up from the desk. Pain flickered like lightning across his face. He hobbled over to the bed, Gan skipping ahead of him to arrange the pillows so he could sit up and take his tea. On the meditation terrace, the Egg would never have answered these questions. The tale was told, and that was all there was to it. But here in his chamber, perhaps the precepts did not apply so rigorously. The law was, after all, made for men and women, and not the other way around.

“Prince Janna …” he groaned. “Ah, Prince Janna, who had been tossed this way and that by all the whims of his nature, whose hand had failed at everything it touched, and who had brought nothing but ruin and misery in his wake … What happened to Prince Janna, I wonder … What would a son feel who had been the cause of his father’s death, and whose father had been nothing but kind and indulgent to him, who had forced his beloved sister into an early grave? Where would he go for peace and absolution? What of Prince Janna when he finally realised where his life had taken him, and what he had done …”

Their eyes met. Gan bowed once more, his heart racing. The abbot closed his eyes, sat back on the pillows, the great bald head like a polished stone, the mouth bloodless and dry. Gan went back to the tea things and stirred in a spoonful of honey to the ebony cup. He brought it over to the bed and the abbot’s eyes opened once more. It was getting dark now. The candle was burning low.

“Here, master,” he said quietly, his heart overflowing. He held out the tea cup, offering it to him in all reverence. “Please. Sustain yourself.”

Your thoughts?

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