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© 2014, Tory Hoke, "She Commands Me"
Residents of Noage Itray could look up and see the ballcourt hanging ten miles overhead, four meters wide and fifty long from goal line to goal line. Stands stretched along each side, row upon row of seats slanting up and back. For the station's entire thirty-five-mile cylindrical length, buildings and gardens clung to its curving interior walls, bright with reflected sunlight. Noage Itray was the largest and wealthiest of the four stations in its Precinct—the second oldest of the four Precincts.
Under the ballcourt stands, proof of that antiquity, stood ranks of life-sized statues serving, crouching, springing to meet the ball. Elaborately painted wristguards, jewels on necks and arms, shimmered faintly in half shadow, each statue the result of the septennial elections decided on Noage Itray's Blue Lily ballcourt.
They were called the Hundred, though Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe had counted three hundred and seventy-two of them. On game days flowers decked each statue. The air would be heavy with their scent and the muttered prayers of worshipers as they streamed past, into the stands. Today the space echoed coldly, the stale remains of incense barely perceptible, the Hundred staring into empty, silent space.
Back in a dim corner stood Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe's favorite: a woman, rare but not unheard of. Her-Breath-Contains had entered Blue Lily Monastery at the age of four (he was older now, nearly twelve) and even then she had attracted his sympathy. She wasn't particularly pretty. She wore no jewels, only the short trousers of a ball player and an undecorated armguard that covered her from wrist to elbow, her hand curled into a fist to hold it in place. She wasn't jumping or crouching, only standing, her arms at her sides, her head tilted just slightly, as though she were listening to a voice only she could hear. But to Her-Breath-Contains she seemed imbued with personality. The name on the pedestal under her feet was She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey. She had been a friendly face to a small boy missing his nurse, surrounded by strangers in a cold, unfamiliar place.
Every day one of the monks—or more usually a minor novice like Her-Breath-Contains—would stand in the portico with an offering of boiled fish and recite their names. By the time Her-Breath-Contains was nine he'd learned the entire list by heart, but she wasn't on it. So he had counted. Three hundred and seventy-one names, three hundred and seventy-two statues of deified ballplayers.
It troubled him that she was left out of the daily offerings. She had been abandoned, forgotten. It wasn't fair.
But Her-Breath-Contains knew her secret. If he stood just right, with his fingers on the base under her bare feet, and bowed his head just the right amount, he could hear what she heard—voices in a room three hundred meters from where she stood, where monastery officials often held conferences. As far as Her-Breath-Contains could tell, no one else knew the room was bugged.
The abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death had taken an unusual interest in Her-Breath-Contains' education. Had said to Her-Breath-Contains more than once, Knowing what another does not know gives you the advantage. Had implied more than once that having any advantage at all could be a matter of life and death. Her-Breath-Contains had only recently understood why the abbot should be at pains to teach him such things, but even as a small child he had taken the lesson to heart. Once he had made his discovery, he visited She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey as often as he could, without raising suspicion.
Sometimes there was only silence. Other days dull, nearly incomprehensible theological discourse. Today it was about the Game.
" . . . woman they say. The Harime ship docked this morning." The voice belonged to Qefahl Brend, governor of the station, and the Precinct's representative to the Council of Four. Three days from now, the Game would either end or renew Qefahl Brend's tenure as tetrarch, depending who won or lost. Her-Breath-Contains had often heard his voice on broadcast. And though he wasn't supposed to know it, the tetrarch was Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe's much older brother.
"Well," said the abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death. "If she's pretty no doubt she'll be popular in the Hundred." A short silence. Her-Breath-Contains stretched aching shoulders, where he stood bowed before She-Commands-Me. "What troubles you?" asked the abbot.
"Blue Lily is undefeated in the past ten elections, nearly undefeated in regular play. White Lily is good, but not as good as Blue Lily. It's obvious how the game will come out. The governor of Harime can have no illusions, he knows he's not going to be seated on the Council, he knows whoever captains White Lily will die at the end of the game. He might as well use this as an opportunity to be conveniently rid of someone. I knew the names of the four likeliest candidates. But instead we get . . . this woman."
"Ah. You dislike surprises."
"Surprises," said Tetrarch Qefahl Brend, "are a symptom of faulty information."
"Or faulty premises," said the abbot. "Shall I tell you what Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns has discovered?" A pause. "He went to meet them as they disembarked. For the last year and a half this woman has played for an obscure Harime convent. Very small stuff, but she's a real ballplayer for all that. Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns says she has the look of a fanatic." The voice of the abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death changed slightly, became a touch too smooth and even, a tone Her-Breath-Contains knew well. It meant the abbot was saying something beyond just what his words meant. "Our captain, the monk Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns, is perhaps not as pious as he might be."
Whatever Her-Breath-Contains' brother the tetrarch had to say in response was lost. A voice among the Hundred startled the boy's head up, his heart racing. "You didn't waste any time!" Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns said, his confident tenor echoing around the statues.
An unfamiliar voice answered. "Why waste time, Brother?" A woman's voice, the accent old-fashioned-sounding, the words oddly precise. It made Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe think of singers, though he didn't think it was a singer's voice.
Seven-Brilliant-Truths laughed. Her-Breath-Contains stood still at the feet of She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey, hardly daring to breathe. Seven-Brilliant-Truths was the hero of the minor novices. He'd had his teeth replaced with moissanite, which shone glittering in his dark face when he smiled, and he smiled often. He wore the humble monastic coverall as though it were the embroidered and jeweled gown of a tetrarch. He'd always been condescendingly kind, even indulgent, towards the boys of Blue Lily Monastery, but the thought of him finding Her-Breath-Contains like this, at his private devotions, and worse, eavesdropping, made Her-Breath-Contains’ face heat uncomfortably.
"Introducing yourself, I take it," Seven-Brilliant-Truths said to the woman, blessedly still unaware of Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe. "Oh, glorious Hundred, numerous as suns, brilliant and brief as comets, children of the goddess, guarantors of Her mercy, I introduce to you Sister Ultimately-Justice-Shall-Prevail, who will join you three days from now."
The woman must be the captain of the White Lily team, from Harime Station. Her-Breath-Contains made a cautious movement, and the abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death spoke in his ear. "Of course we'll watch her."
The tetrarch Qefahl Brend made a dubious noise. "She's not the problem. Women . . . " Her-Breath-Contains shifted just a bit, lost the thread of the tetrarch's voice.
"You should go, Sister. Take the transport back to the Harime quarter and talk to people, bless some babies. They'll buy your icon in the market and brag to their children that they met you personally before I took your head off in the ballcourt." Her-Breath-Contains knew that Seven-Brilliant-Truths was speaking the literal truth—everyone knew that Blue Lily would win and White Lily's captain would die on the ballcourt at the conclusion of the game. But hearing it said so baldly, so boastingly, gave Her-Breath-Contains an odd feeling of revulsion. He shifted again.
" . . .urely, Tetrarch, your departed mother . . . "
"On that topic, what are you teaching my brother?"
"As I understand it," said abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death, "your brother Qefahl Aresh is on retreat."
"We're not overheard here? You assured me."
"We are not. This is, in fact, one of the most securely private places on the station, let alone the monastery." A pang of mixed guilt and exultation overcame Her-Breath-Contains. He had never told the abbot about his discovery at the feet of She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey. He told himself the abbot would approve, if only he knew. Would have been disappointed if Her-Breath-Contains had so obviously failed to learn what the abbot had tried to teach him.
"So," said the tetrarch Qefahl Brend. "Dispense with your pious fiction."
Her-Breath-Contains' back ached, and the conversation between Seven-Brilliant-Truths and Sister Ultimately-Justice continued, but at this moment nothing could distract him from the conversation between the abbot and the tetrarch.
"A monk," answered the abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death, "is severed from all family and social connections. When one takes vows one takes a new identity. I should not have to explain this to you."
An exasperated sigh. "What are you teaching the minor novice Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe?"
"Only the usual."
"Don't toy with me, abbot. I studied with you myself, back in the day. My younger brother's death was less convenient than sending him here. Let him learn his prayers and no more, or I might have to re-consult my convenience."
A strange feeling passed over Her-Breath-Contains, a shivery sensation that seemed to start both at the back of his neck and in his stomach, half a moment before he consciously understood what Qefahl Brend had just said.
"Don't look so shocked," continued the tetrarch. Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe's brother. "You play politics as much as I do."
"You learned a great deal from me," said the abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death. "But some things I was never able to teach you. You believe any display of piety must be either insincere or foolish. But no matter how ruthless I am, no matter how political—and I must be ruthless and political, for the sake of this monastery—I remain a servant of the Go—"
A hand landed forcefully on Her-Breath-Contains' shoulder and he dropped his hands from the statue base, straightened and spun, to see Seven-Brilliant-Truths frowning down at him. Her-Breath-Contains blinked at him stupidly. "Ah. . . ."
"Leave the child be," said Sister Ultimately-Justice. Her-Breath-Contains turned and saw her finally, a woman in the plain brown coverall of a monastic, her hair cut short. Her dark face looked just slightly odd in a way Her-Breath-Contains couldn't place. She seemed precise as her speech, and so solidly where she was, as though wherever she placed her feet she was rooted to the ground. He wondered if that was what Seven-Brilliant-Truths had meant when he’d said she had the look of a fanatic.
Seven-Brilliant-Truths was looking at him strangely, unsmiling. Not as though he were angry, but something else. "She your favorite?"
Her-Breath-Contains’ face went hot again. "Yes."
An expression flashed across Seven-Brilliant-Truths' face, quick and disquieting. He dropped his hand from Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe's shoulder and looked as though he wanted to step back.
"Very commendable," said Sister Ultimately-Justice, each syllable dropping exactly. "Can you tell me about her game?"
"She's not a player," said Seven-Brilliant-Truths, sparing Her-Breath-Contains from admitting his ignorance. "Not one of the Hundred. She's a, what do you call it, a symbol, an idea . . . "
"That." The strange expression remained on Seven-Brilliant-Truths' face. He looked at Her-Breath-Contains. "But you didn't know that."
Her-Breath-Contains gestured no, mortified. He didn't want to explain, didn't want to show anyone what a baby he was, had been. Didn't want to say, she was my friend when I was little. He waited for Seven-Brilliant-Truths to ask why her, or to mock him. Instead, the monk said, "She's more for visiting teams than for us, these days. When She-Who-Sprang-From-The-Lily commands . . . " He made a slicing gesture across his throat. "One obeys. You understand me, Sister." He grinned again, a flash of moissanite.
"I do," she answered, utterly unperturbed.
"She was the special devotion of the abbot Hold-Her-Commands-As-A-Mirror-To-Your-Heart, did you know that, boy?"
Seven-Brilliant-Truths turned to Sister Ultimately-Justice. "Surely you've heard of him, Sister. Hold-Her-Commands-As-A-Mirror-To-Your-Heart was meditating by the monastery fishpond with two of his disciples when he bodily transcended this world and was received by the Goddess. He physically stepped from this world to the next. A genuine saint."
"One of the disciples who witnessed it," Ultimately-Justice said, "became abbot in his place. The other died soon after."
"You're a student of Blue Lily history."
"No," she said. "It was obvious."
Seven-Brilliant-Truths blinked, frowned, stepped away from Ultimately-Justice. "I'll leave you to your prayers. Brother. Sister." He bowed slightly, turned and left. Her-Breath-Contains would have sworn he was unnerved. It frightened him.
"He's afraid of you," said Ultimately-Justice, with that careful, slightly rough voice, as though she had read his mind. "Tell me, are you ambitious like your brother?"
"Wh—" What little balance Her-Breath-Contains had gained was knocked away from him again. "How. . . ?"
"When was the last time you looked in a mirror?" Her-Breath-Contains didn't answer, and Sister Ultimately-Justice continued. "It is an unsuitable position for a child to be in. I will give you advice. Be aware of your surroundings. If you are ambitious, be also silent. Or you may find yourself a genuine saint at the bottom of the monastery fishpond."
Suddenly Her-Breath-Contains understood the implications of the story Seven-Brilliant-Truths had just told, and of Sister's confident it was obvious. Though he'd heard of the abbot's translation hundreds of times, the idea of murder had never occurred to him before. He thought of his brother saying I might have to re-consult my convenience and felt nauseated.
Sister Ultimately-Justice smiled mildly, rooted in stone. "What do you learn, contemplating She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey?"
She knows, he thought, knowing at the same moment that it was unreasonable. She couldn't possibly. He opened his mouth to speak and then remembered what she had just said to him.
"A quick learner." Her smile did not alter.
On game day, Noage Itray was an endless vista of blue, except for the irregular patch near one end and spinward, where residents of the Harime quarter had covered their roofs in white. The abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death had ordered Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe to accompany him down onto the court, and so he stood just behind the Blue Lily goal line, holding a gently smoking censer. Tetrarch Qefahl Brend was just on the other side of the abbot—tall, his dark face long and angular, hair braided back with embroidered satin ribbons, apparently completely unaware of Her-Breath-Contains' existence.
Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns stood ready to receive the abbot's blessing. He wore a loose robe of scarlet satin, covered in tiny blue lilies edged in gold thread. Gold hung from his ears and in layers around his neck, under wreaths of blue and orange flowers. The three other Blue Lily players were similarly decked, but not quite so resplendent as Seven-Brilliant-Truths. He received so many gifts, and such luxurious ones, that even when he had given the monastery its share he was awash in money.
Ahead, over the goal line, stretched the ballcourt. Atop walls four meters high, The Blue Lily and White Lily sides of the stands faced each other across the court. Both sides were already packed tight, except for seats in front above the center line, held open for the abbot, and for the tetrarch Qefahl Brend. And across the court, on the White Lily wall, the seat for the governor of Harime. The crowd was bright with colorful clothing, with flowers. The monks of Blue Lily Monastery, a swath of brown at the center line on the Blue Lily wall, had been fasting since yesterday, would still fast until the game was well over, but the secular spectators had broken their fasts that morning. Even over the incense the smell of the cakes and dried fruit they passed to each other made Her-Breath-Contains slightly dizzy with wanting.
"Brother Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns," said the abbot. "I have something to say before we step over the goal line." Behind the goal line teams could speak in private. Step over, and every word, every sound, was amplified for the spectators, broadcast to everyone watching in those blue-draped houses curving up and around, to the ships hanging outside the station, and eventually to every other station and Precinct under the Council of Four. Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns grinned, his moissanite teeth glittering.
"This is your first election game," said the abbot. "As you know, I captained Blue Lily before I became abbot. Three times, I put the mother of Tetrarch Qefahl Brend on the Council of Four. The first time was the most difficult." He stopped, looked up at the people crowding the stands, and shook his head. "We spoke last night of the allegory of She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey." Seven-Brilliant-Truths' gaze flickered to Her-Breath-Contains, then back to the abbot, who continued speaking. "You don't understand her significance. Ultimate obedience is not only required of the losing captain, but also of the winner."
"Of course, abbot," said Seven-Brilliant-Truths.
"You don't understand me. You won't until you put the blade to her throat, and see her blood pump out, see her expression as she dies. Maybe not even then, although I hope for all our sakes that's not the case."
"Sister is devout enough for ten of us," said Seven-Brilliant-Truths. "She's not afraid."
Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death sighed. "I will pray for you, during the game and after. I, and Brother Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe." The abbot put his hand on Her-Breath-Contains' shoulder, and Her-Breath-Contains was suddenly frighteningly aware of his brother, the tetrarch Qefahl Brend, standing on the other side of the abbot. "Let us begin, since you are so eager to see blood shed."
They all walked to the center line, to meet White Lily. Sister Ultimately-Justice wore only plain, short trousers, an armguard, and a single, broad wreath of white lilies that covered her shoulders and breasts. She stood silent at the center line, her arms at her sides, expression bland, head slightly tilted.
The Harime governor stood beside her, a smaller man than Qefahl Brend, round-faced, and older. He also wore his hair braided back, but the governor's robe he wore hung limp around him, as though it didn't quite fit him properly. Sister's teammates stood behind her, all wearing the same sort of embroidered satin, jewels, and flowers that Blue Lily's players wore.
Qefahl Brend stepped up to the center of the court. "Who will play for me?" he asked, the ritual question, his voice resonant and sure.
"I, Brother Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns, will play for you!" announced Seven-Brilliant-Truths, the ritual answer. He flashed his moissanite grin, and the Blue Lily side of the stands erupted into cheers and applause.
The Harime governor stepped up to the center, across from Qefahl Brend. But instead of asking the question, he said, "There was a time, Tetrarch, when you and I would have had to play this game ourselves." Silence, and then a puzzled mutter from the stands. "Sometimes I wonder if it wouldn't be best to take our own risks. Or perhaps to abolish the death altogether. Is it right to ask our captains to take the burden we should bear ourselves?" He shook his head, sadly Her-Breath-Contains thought. "Who will play for me?"
Ultimately-Justice spoke, in her precise way. "I, Sister Ultimately-Justice-Shall-Prevail, will play for you." Polite applause followed. Her-Breath-Contains found himself distressed. This was the Game, the one that all other games were a rehearsal for. It was, the abbot had once told him, the place where planning and maneuvering fell before the will of She-Who-Sprang-From-The-Lily. Captaining a team was the ultimate surrender to Her desire. The people in the stands knew they had come to see Sister Ultimately-Justice die, and that scattering of applause was all they could muster. It wasn't right. It wasn't fair.
For the next ten minutes, the abbot prayed, blessed the captains, blessed the middle court and back court players, asked the blessing of She-Who-Sprang-From-The-Lily on the spectators, the station, the Precinct, the territory of the Council. He took the censer from Her-Breath-Contains and wafted smoke towards the tetrarch and the Harime governor, the two captains. Still smiling, Seven-Brilliant-Truths held out his hands, rings three and four to a finger, the smoke curling around them. His middle court player stepped forward and did the same, and then his back court.
Sister Ultimately-Justice's hands were square and plain. She held them briefly in the smoke and then stepped aside for her middle court player. When he reached forward Her-Breath-Contains was struck by the contrast between his elaborately jeweled hands and Sister Ultimately-Justice's plain ones. A network of gold links and gems covered the back of the middle court's right hand from knuckle to wrist, and then fanned out into a series of jeweled chains that hung from there to a band around his upper arm, just above his elbow. It sparkled through the smoke, red and yellow and green. It was arresting and strange, almost barbaric-looking. Her-Breath-Contains had never seen anything like it. The middle court looked up, saw Her-Breath-Contains looking at him, and smiled. Her-Breath-Contains found himself resenting the man. This was one of the most important games of his life, and his team's captain was doomed to die at the conclusion of the game, and yet he smiled so casually.
Abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death sat in the front of the Noage Itray side, on the center line. Beside him was Qefahl Brend, directly opposite the governor of Harime, across the court in the Harime stands. On the other side of the tetrarch was a stranger, a pale, odd-looking man who spoke with a harsh accent. Behind the abbot, Her-Breath-Contains turned to his neighbor, an older novice. "Who is that?" he asked quietly.
"He's an out-system merchant. He wants contracts and concessions. He wants discounted docking fees and lowered tariffs. He's been positively pouring jewelry and imported luxuries onto the tetrarch since he arrived. I heard . . . "
But Her-Breath-Contains didn't learn what his neighbor had heard. The game was beginning.
Both teams had put off their satin and jewels—in Ultimately-Justice's case, she had removed the wreath of lilies—and now wore only trousers and armguards. Middle and back courts took their places, and the two captains faced each other across the center line.
The first serve was White Lily's, and Ultimately-Justice slammed the ball with her armguard powerfully enough to send it towards Blue Lily's goal line at a speed the back court player didn't anticipate. The ball grazed the side of his armguard and bounced off the Harime wall.
Blue Lily's middle court dove for it, landing face down, and hit the ball just before it bounced, driving it in a wide arc across the center line. Ultimately-Justice, with one hard, fast swing of her arm, drove it angling towards the Noage Itray wall, where Blue Lily would have to scramble to reach it, since they had all been trying to catch the ball in its bounce off the opposite wall.
But Seven-Brilliant-Truths was fast. He reached the ball and slammed it hard, back across the center line. White Lily's middle court tried to return it, but it flew into the stands, a foul.
The spectators on the Harime wall were sluggish at first, but after a few plays they realized that Sister Ultimately-Justice was playing to win. White Lily's middle court seemed to be having a bad day—he fouled twice while Her-Breath-Contains watched. But Ultimately-Justice was going to give Blue Lily as good a fight as she could, better than anyone had expected. Even as Blue Lily scored three goals in succession, the Harime spectators' enthusiasm strengthened. Her-Breath-Contains was pleased to see Seven-Brilliant-Truths, so grinning and sure of himself at the start of the game, compelled to fight for points.
The merchant leaned over to the tetrarch Qefahl Brend, raised his hand and gestured towards the ball as it flew over White Lily's goal line.
Draped across the back of his hand was a piece of jewelry nearly identical to the one Ultimately-Justice's middle court man had worn before the start of the game. Her-Breath-Contains' eyes followed the dangling chains that led to the same upper armlet. He frowned. Had the merchant been giving gifts to White Lily players?
"Blue Lily must score next," said Qefahl Brend to the merchant, answering a question he had asked but Her-Breath-Contains had not heard, absorbed as he was by the merchant's jewelry. "If White Lily scores, then both sides return to zero and the game begins again."
"Every time? Even if it keeps happening?"
"There was a game," said the abbot, "centuries ago, that lasted two months and six days."
"I hope this one won't be so long!" exclaimed the merchant. "I enjoy sports, but not to that extent."
It was clear the merchant knew virtually nothing about the game. And he was here currying the tetrarch's favor, so if he had given gifts to players, they would likely have been to Blue Lily's. So where had White Lily's middle court gotten his jewelry?
Her-Breath-Contains' seatmate had said, He's been positively pouring jewelry and imported luxuries onto the tetrarch since he arrived. The merchant might very well have given such a gift to Qefahl Brend.
"It doesn't matter how long it lasts," said the abbot. "Only that we do the will of She-Who-Sprang-From-The-Lily."
But, Her-Breath-Contains realized, Qefahl Brend cared nothing for the will of She-Who-Sprang-From-The-Lily. Sister Ultimately-Justice—or for that matter Her-Breath-Contains—was only a potential obstacle between Qefahl Brend and what he wanted. Her-Breath-Contains was protected by the abbot, so it seemed. Who would defend Sister Ultimately-Justice? Her own teammate had been bribed to help destroy her. "I have to go to the bathroom," Her-Breath-Contains said, rising, and excused his way out of the crowd of novices and took the stairs down to the cold and silent portico, and the staring Hundred.
Read part 2 here
This story is part of our 2014 fund drive bonus issue! Please donate to help us reach our goal and to publish the second part of this story. Read more about Strange Horizons' funding model, or donate, here.