Sunday, September 26, 2010
In case you're interested, here's another chunk of Lilitu:
Things settled down by the following day, but contrary to her mother's prediction, they never did return to normal.
Rahminah and Hamid stopped sleeping together; an icy politeness descended over the remains of their marriage. Lilitu was miserable, and kept to herself, spending long hours reading in her room. When she did try to speak with her mother, Rahminah deflected all her questions, and would only discuss the most trivial matters; when Lilitu spoke to Hamid, there was always a pained sadness in his eyes that made her want to flee his presence as soon as possible. In short, just as adolescence was about to descend on her with all its attendant madness, her childhood, which had been so very happy, was poisoned at the end.
It was during this awful time that a new gardener came to work at the house, and he had a good looking son named Oded, about Lilitu's age, who assisted him. There was a large bed with many sorts of flowers along the mansion's wall beneath Lilitu's window, and she took to watching Oded discreetly from above, being very taken by the youth's curly hair, which was so very much unlike her own straight black tresses, and his boyish physique, which would generally be revealed about midway through the morning, after he worked up a sweat and removed his shirt. Looking at him was one of the three things that took her mind off the collapse of her whole existence.
The others were two books, a work on natural philosophy and a big collection of ancient Achaean poems. Regarding the first, Lilitu guessed that Zufir had given it to her in order to halt her constant questions about mating and breeding; as for the second book, he'd apparently given it to her thinking that it was Volume One, rather than Two. Ultimately, he realized his mistake, and fetched it back from her, looking very flustered, but in the meanwhile, Lilitu had had quite a time with it. Some of those old Achaeans had been very dirty-minded people, willing to set down just about anything that came into their heads, and most skillfully at that; as a budding poetess, Lilitu could see that these people were very great geniuses, and it was plainly the sheer quality of their poetry that had persuaded later generations to spare it from the flames. But the filth was all the filthier for being better expressed, and between all that classical literature and a great deal of very natural natural philosophy, Lilitu's adolescent mind was considerably inflamed, and before long she was watching young Oded with a fairly clear idea of what might be done with him.
That was where it rested for some while, however; boys were just about the worst sort of trouble. Her mother had always advised her to steer clear of them, and evidently she knew a good deal about it; moreover, all the maidens in those old poems got into horrible difficulties, and half the time wound up with no recourse but to be turned into trees or clouds or rabbits to escape the attentions of awful young men. And so Lilitu contented herself with merely watching, and, sometimes, touching herself. Whenever she encountered Oded in the gardens, she didn't have a thing to say to him; she was even somewhat relieved whenever she overheard snatches of conversation from him, and he sounded rather stupid---it made her that much less likely to act upon her impulses. But, viewed from a second-story window, he was a clarion call to masturbation.
By the time that Zufir took Volume Two back, and gave Lilitu Volume One instead, she was very greatly changed.
One day, as she was returning from a solitary walk among the fig trees, she saw her mother in the main courtyard, speaking to a group of servants; all at once, as Lilitu approached, her mother seemed to lose her balance, and would have fallen if one of the menials hadn't caught her. Gathering up her skirts, Lilitu rushed over.
"Mother," she said, "are you all right?"
"I'm fine," said Rahminah, but she didn't look it---there was sweat on her forehead, and her face, normally fairly pale, was even whiter than usual, almost Lilitu's shade.
"You nearly fell," Lilitu said.
"I just felt a bit light-headed," Rahminah said.
"Perhaps you should see Master Feyd," Lilitu said, referring to the household physician; a number of the servants nodded agreement--- Rahminah was a good mistress, and they were plainly concerned.
"I've seen him," Rahminah said. "It's nothing."
"Did he say that?" Lilitu asked. "How often do you have these spells?"
One of the serving-women answered: "Too often---"
Rahminah silenced her with a glare, then told Lilitu: "Don't worry."
"I had something like this when I was young," Rahminah said. "It'll pass."
But it didn't pass.
The fainting spells grew more frequent; once Lilitu found her mother slumped at the bottom of the stairs. Losing all appetite, Rahminah began to waste away. Master Feyd was helpless, indeed, didn't even know what was afflicting her. He sent for other physicians, but they were baffled too. Rahminah took to her bed.
Lilitu was desperate to keep her company; at first, Rahminah attempted to keep her from spending too much time in the room. But presently, Lilitu rebelled.
"Why do you keep trying to push me away?" she demanded. "It's not as though I have anything else to do."
"It's unhealthy for you to stay in here."
"You started this before you even got sick," Lilitu said. "You act as though you don't love me anymore."
"Don't say that," Rahminah said.
"Don't push me away. What are you afraid of?"
"There are things I don't wish to discuss," Rahminah said.
"We don't have to discuss them," Lilitu answered. "I just want my mother back."
Rahminah blinked as though something had stung her; she looked towards the window. In the soft light, her hands and face had a translucent quality, like that of pale marble, that Lilitu found oddly beautiful. After a time, Rahminah said: "You know everything anyway."
"Weren't you listening, out in the hall?"
After a bit, Lilitu shrugged, and said: "Maybe."
Smiling feebly at this silly evasion, Rahminah looked back at her. "Maybe?"
"I thought you didn't want to talk about it."
"What should we talk about, then?"
"I have nothing to report," Rahminah said. "Sick people are really very dull."
"Have you been reading?" Lilitu asked.
"Off and on. But I get so tired. It's hard for me to even hold a book."
"Would you like me to read to you?"
Lilitu smiled. "I'd be delighted."
So the rift between mother and daughter was closed. And for the next several heartbreaking months, Lilitu read to Rahminah, and watched her die. As the end approached, the one hope she nurtured was that Hamid and Rahminah would reconcile before the end.
"You should come and talk to mother," Lilitu told him.
"Has she asked for me?" Hamid replied.
"I'll come when she asks for me," Hamid said.
"She doesn't want to, because she doesn't think you will."
"Has she said that?"
"No," Lilitu said. "But I know what she's thinking."
"What a clever girl," Hamid answered.
Lilitu said: "She's your wife---"
"For what that's worth."
"She'll be gone soon."
"You're a doctor now?"
"You should make your peace."
"We are completely at peace with each other," Hamid said. "A veritable graveyard, our marriage."
"Some things can't be helped."
"Do it for me," Lilitu pleaded.
"For you?" Hamid smiled at her sadly. "And what are you to me?"
Her first impulse was to say your daughter, but she caught herself.
He shook his head and looked away from her. "I shouldn't have said that."
"No," she said.
"None of this is your fault."
"Please," she said. "Go to her."
He shook his head again and walked away.
Later that day, Lilitu was washing her mother's face with a damp cloth.
"That feels nice," Rahminah said faintly, smiling, her eyes closed. Lilitu found herself thinking of smoke, wisps about to dissolve into thin air. She imagined that a ghost would look very much the way her mother did now.
"You're a good daughter," Rahminah went on. "I know I keep saying that, but it's true."
She fell silent. Lilitu leaned back in her seat, putting the cloth in the washbasin on her lap.
"Has Hamid been by?" Rahminah asked. "I've been sleeping so much...''
"He wants you to ask for him."
"What if he doesn't come?" Rahminah asked, so softly that Lilitu barely heard her.
"What difference does it make?"
Rahminah didn't answer.
"Mother?" Lilitu asked. "Mother?"
But, hand to her mouth, she saw that the change had come.
Devastated as she was by her mother's death, she was keenly interested in Hamid's reaction, hoping that he had the sense to be properly stricken, so she wouldn't have to despise him utterly...to her relief, he seemed to be deeply anguished in his unworthy way, weeping openly at the bedside and the funeral, and having Rahminah interred in the family tomb.
He didn't share his grief with Lilitu, however. While she saw him every day at dinner, at least, he said very little, treating her very much the same way that he'd treated her mother. She made several attempts to draw him out, but he'd have none of it. Again and again that terrible question came back to her: What are you to me? Indeed, she had no reason whatsoever to think that his affection would ever return. It made no difference that he'd lost Rahminah too, that he was almost completely isolated; why should he seek solace from a living, breathing reminder of the sins that had rotted out his marriage?
He'll never love you again, Lilitu told herself. He might tolerate you, but whatever you had with him is as dead as your mother…
Faced with this, she tried to tell herself it wasn't really so bad. What did she want with the man besides food and shelter anyway? He wasn't intelligent, he was a coward, he was fat; even if he hadn't been fat, he still would've been ugly, and had very little in the way of charm. He smelled. His family name was ridiculous. He wasn't even her father.
The best thing about him was his gardener's son.
As her mother had worsened, Lilitu had simply stopped paying attention to Oded, even when he was someplace very convenient to be ogled, and suitably half-dressed. But now that her grief was being replaced by simple displeasure with Hamid, she began to think that, at some point in the near future, she might take up her daily observations---and all that went with them--- again. It had seemed to her that masturbation in a time of mourning was surely disrespect to her mother. But disrespect to Hamid---masturbating under the man's own roof---seemed almost mandated.
In the end, though, it took a whole new enormity on his part to push her over the edge, indeed, to propel her well past peeping and fiddling in her own bedchamber. A mere two months after the funeral---a most insufficient mourning-period by any rational standard---Hamid put aside his grief and fell completely and apparently contentedly under the sway of The Witch, The Whore, The She-Pig, The Jackal's Head, The Monster, The Open Grave, The Infected Wound, The Nail in the Ear, The Needle in the Eye, The Coal on the Tongue, The Tumor, The Mother of Flies, The Mother of Maggots and Flies, The Mouthful of Broken Glass, The Swamp of Sunwarmed Liquid Shit, Everything That God Detested---
Rahminah had told Lilitu a great deal about this woman; Shiraz was a cousin of Hamid's, and when Rahminah first attracted his attention, Shiraz had been living at the mansion--- Hamid had been thinking very seriously of marrying her. But once his affections shifted to Rahminah, Shiraz had led all his other relatives in the campaign to destroy his new romance. There had been several encounters between Shiraz and Rahminah, and the last had been a battle royal---after the two had smashed a dozen pieces of crockery on each other, and stabbed each other with forks and knives (Rahminah had shown Lilitu a scar on her shoulder), Rahminah had thrown Shiraz out a second-storey window at the inn. Shiraz had left Sawaliyeh after that, vowing never to return.
But word had reached her of Rahminah's death---Lilitu suspected Hamid might have sent a letter---and now, having just lost a spouse herself, The Abomination had returned. Hamid welcomed her into his house; sulking in her room, Lilitu received a curt written command from her father to attend dinner, and decided she might as well, if for no other reason than to get a look at her mother's hated arch-rival.
Lilitu was unhappy to see that Shiraz was really quite handsome; Rahminah had said she was good-looking, but Lilitu had hoped Shiraz would've lost her looks in the meantime. The Bitch of Bitches was tall and well-dressed in Sung silks, with a beautiful silver headpiece set in her hair; she had a slight double chin, but her features were nicely defined for the most part, her expressions tending towards the chilly, her smile very slight and rather sarcastic, quick to come and go. Her eyes were heavy lidded, the lashes abundant. Just at first glance, Lilitu hated her even more than she had expected to.
"And this is my daughter, Lilitu," Hamid said. "Lilitu, my cousin Shiraz."
As though she were startled by what she was seeing, Shiraz stared at her closely for a few moments.
''Most striking,'' she said at last.
Even though she disliked being complimented by the woman, Lilitu bowed, certain that something other than mere loveliness had surprised Shiraz...for one thing, Lilitu wasn't all gotten up, and that kept most people from seeing how good-looking she was.
''And speaking of striking daughters,'' said Hamid to Shiraz, ''Yours seems to be settling right in...''
Across the room was a young woman in green, about Lilitu's age and height, whispering something to the prettiest of Hamid's maids, who was called the Lark; all at once the Lark drew back, as though she'd just heard something shocking.
Apparently realizing she was under discussion, the girl in green came over.
''Sayida,'' said Shiraz, ''this is your cousin Lilitu.''
Eyeing Sayida, Lilitu knew now what had startled Shiraz so; Lilitu was very fond of admiring herself in the mirror, and clearly saw that Sayida looked just like her, although, since she and Sayida weren't actually related, that was rather puzzling...
Lilitu wondered if Hamid had noticed the embarrassing similarity. Unlike Lilitu, Sayida was elaborately and skillfully made up; her hair was long and in ringlets, which trailed down on either side of her face, whereas Lilitu wore hers much shorter. But Sayida's slanted grey eyes were virtually identical to Lilitu's, there was the same pout to her lips, and her skin was precisely the same milky white…
"Easy to see you two are cousins," said Yussef Habibi, a house guest standing nearby.
''Is it?'' Hamid asked.
''Really, old boy, you're as blind as a bat,'' Yussef replied.
Hamid squinted and glanced back and forth.
Sayida smiled and took Lilitu's hand.
"We're practically twins,'' she said, and slipped one of her fingers between two of Lilitu's, sliding it up and down slowly. To her surprise, Lilitu found the feeling rather agreeable, (she'd read about certain ancient women doing things with each other, and had found it all intriguing) but, deeply suspicious of Shiraz's daughter, withdrew her hand gently.
Later that evening, after they'd eaten, Hamid was called away, leaving Lilitu with Shiraz, Sayida and Yussef. Lilitu had already made several attempts to excuse herself, and tried to escape once again as the servants were removing the remainder of the food, but Shiraz called her back.
"Please," she said, ''I'd like to get to know you."
Lilitu turned. "Would you?" she asked.
"I knew your mother," Shiraz said. "Did she ever speak of me?"
"I don't recall."
"Come," Shiraz said, and patted the cushion next to her.
"Your mother and I weren't exactly the best of friends," Shiraz said. "Couldn't be helped, really, and I think you know why. But you and I aren't rivals. There's no need for enmity.''
"Will you be staying long?" Lilitu asked.
"My father didn't propose to you, did he?" Lilitu asked.
Shiraz narrowed her eyes---their lashes were so thick, it was an instant before Lilitu realized that she hadn't closed them entirely. "Wouldn't he have told you?"
Suddenly realizing that she had already given up too much about the state of her relationship with Hamid, Lilitu didn't know how to answer.
"Wouldn't he?" Shiraz pressed.
"Certainly," Lilitu said.
"Then why did you ask?"
"Don't worry," Shiraz said. "I don't want to come between you and your father. As I said, I want to be your friend."
Sayida came over and sat down next to Lilitu. "I want to be your friend too," she said.
The next morning, Lilitu, angrier with Hamid than ever, and fondling (somewhat guiltily) the memory of Sayida's digit moving lasciviously between her fingers, decided it might well be time to return to Oded-watching.
Her bedroom window was set with two intricately carved lattices on hinges; since the holes were too small for proper viewing, she opened the lattices a bit, pulled up a chair, and looked out from between. It was now midsummer, he'd already gotten himself all sweaty, and hardly had she settled when he took off his shirt, his glistening back all copper-red and beginning to show a little real muscle. He was down on all fours, weeding, and she wondered what it would be like to be down on all fours in front of him, just like those animals she was always watching...she was just about to start hiking her skirt up when the lattices in a window opposite swung wide open, and there stood cousin Sayida, who put a bowl of something, grapes perhaps, on the windowsill and then rested herself on her elbows beside it, brazenly watching the gardener's son, reaching into the bowl at intervals and popping whatever it was she took out into her mouth.
Go away, Lilitu thought.
But to her dismay, Sayida remained right where she was, and it wasn't long before Oded's curly head came up, and he began glancing her way; he started getting himself into various poses that looked quite artificial and provocative to Lilitu, and Sayida responded by asking him his name.
"Oded," he said, wiping his forehead. "My father's the gardener here."
"You seem to be gardening as well," Sayida observed.
"I also chop wood," Oded answered, getting to his feet. "And polish things."
"I bet you do," Sayida replied, sounding amazingly as though she was impressed by his answer.
"My father says I'm a polishing fool."
"Perhaps you'd let me help you."
"Help me what?"
"Polish something. Don't you have an item we could bring to a very high shine?"
Lilitu was almost sure she was talking about his penis, but before Oded could answer the question, Sayida glanced over her shoulder as though she'd heard something, whispered: "Have to go,'' whisked her grape-bowl off the sill, and swung the lattices shut.
Ooo, Lilitu said, under her breath, stamping her foot, far too agitated now to get anything accomplished.
The following day, Oded didn't appear, at least while Lilitu was watching; the day after that, he put on quite a display, but seemed to be making a point of staying over towards Sayida's window. No doubt to his keen disappointment, she never showed herself at the casement, but along towards mid-day, as he was putting his shirt back on and starting off for his noontime meal, Sayida came with a small basket and presented it to him. There was some sort of exchange, which Lilitu couldn't catch; then Sayida departed, while Oded sat down on a bench, opened up the basket, and took out fruit, a small wine-bottle, and flatbread.
Lilitu swore...how much more of her life was going to be encroached upon?
That evening, after dinner, Sayida took her aside.
"You have the room right across from mine, right?" Sayida asked.
"Yes," Lilitu replied.
"What do you think of Oded?"
"The gardener's son," Sayida said. "How do you control yourself?"
"Boys are trouble," Lilitu answered.
"Not if you know how to handle them," Sayida said.
"And you do?"
"My sister taught me," Sayida declared. "She taught me everything. She's very clever, and she married very well---a Mirkut noble, if you can believe it. She went to live in a palace a thousand miles from here, and has five hundred slaves to attend her. And all because she knows how to handle boys. Do you want to come up to my room?"
Lilitu was hesitant.
"What's there to be afraid of?" Sayida asked.
"Your mother doesn't like me," Lilitu said.
"But I'm not my mother. As a matter of fact, I can't stand her. Very nasty. Come on."
"I don't know...''
"I've got some wine up there."
Lilitu squinted at her.
"Do you like wine?" Sayida asked.
"Not very much. But I'd be happy to watch you drink."
And listen very closely once your guard's down…
"Fine," said Sayida.
They went up to the room. Sayida locked the door, then fetched the bottle; Lilitu sat on the window-sill as her cousin poured herself a glass.
"Sure you don't want any?" Sayida asked.
"Quite," Lilitu said.
"You don't have any moral objection, do you?" Sayida asked. "Some people think this stuff should be banned."
"Feel absolutely free," Lilitu answered.
"Very good of you," said Sayida, and took a sip, sitting cross-legged on the edge of her bed. One-handed she undid her sandal-straps and flipped the sandals off onto the floor, wiggling her toes.
"I think I've got very pretty feet," she said.
Lilitu looked at them and thought so too, but didn't say anything.
"Yours are very pretty too, just like mine," Sayida said. "Of course, everything about you is just like me."
"Strange, isn't it?"
"Very. Especially since you're not related to my mother."
"Who told you that?" Lilitu answered.
"I've heard some things. And I've got eyes. If your father's your father, I'll eat a live toad---"
Lilitu stood up.
"Wait, wait," Sayida said. "I'm not trying to hurt your feelings...''
"Then why are you talking to me this way?"
Sayida said: "My father isn't my father."
"So I shouldn't mind being insulted?"
"I wasn't insulting you. Us bastards should stick together. It's been pretty hard on me, knowing what I know."
"Do you know who your father was?" Lilitu asked.
"If I didn't know better, I'd say he must've been yours.''
"Do you know?"
Sayida downed the rest of her wine-cup. "He was a Naiman drifter, named Urugtai. Apparently my step-father, or foster father---"
"What do you call men who didn't father you?" Lilitu asked.
Sayida shrugged. "Anyway, my mother's husband didn't have a clue. And even though it must've been pretty plain to everyone that he wasn't my father, she got away with it."
Lilitu winced inwardly, not so much at the thought of Shiraz's sin, but to think that Rahminah and her rival had so much in common …
"Do you really hate her?" Lilitu asked.
"Oh yes," said Sayida, pouring herself another cup. "But not because she's a slut. Hell, so am I, and I only wish I could be more open about it."
"You're pretty open about it as it is," Lilitu said.
"Well, mother was just as bad as me, at least when she was younger. It's only natural to see someone like Oded, or that Lark girl---"
"Her too?" Lilitu asked, sitting back down on the window-sill.
"Why not? All this stuff about sin, it's just rules, like in a game. Who makes them up, anyway?"
"God," Lilitu answered.
"No, people, so they can control you."
"You don't really believe that, do you?"
"Sure I do. I knew this very wise man once, Sibi Shariq. He'd been one of those Sharaj fellows---"
"A Sharajnaghi?" Lilitu said. Enemies of the Black Anarites, the Sharajnaghim were white wizards, revered as holy men in some quarters.
Sayida nodded. "Anyway, he was off on his own, because they didn't want him anymore---"
"He said we were all God. They hated that. He said all sorts of high-flown things to me, and I don't remember too much of it, but that part really stuck, because it meant I could do what I wanted. That's how he talked me into---" Sayida giggled.
"Letting him do it to me. He was my first man."
Lilitu just stared at her, her mouth hanging. "You did it with a Sharajnaghi?"
Sayida nodded. "Wasn't bad at all. But my father---foster-father or whatever--- found out the next day. He'd been pretty happy with Sibi up till then, but once he learned what he'd been up to, he set his men on him. Shariq blasted them all over the courtyard, then took his leave."
"Did your mother ever talk to him?"
Sayida giggled again. "Behind closed doors? I suspect so. Don't know if he convinced her of anything, although--- she wants to do all sorts of things, and sometimes she goes right ahead. But she doesn't want me to have any fun. And she's going to be a big problem for you, too."
"Because she's dead set on marrying your whatever you want to call him. She always wanted him, and now that your mother's out of the way---"
"Has he proposed?" Lilitu asked.
"I don't think so," Sayida said. "But it won't be long. I'm telling you, they're going to get married, and soon, and then you'll be in a lot of trouble."
"She said she wanted to be friends," Lilitu said.
Sayida laughed. "Your mother took her man and threw her out of the window. She wants your head on a plate."
"You said you wanted to be my friend too."
"But I mean it," Sayida said.
"Leave Oded alone," Lilitu said.
Sayida laughed. "Have you done it with him?"
"No," said Lilitu.
"Do you know how to do it with a boy?"
Lilitu shook her head.
"Do you know how to do it with a girl?"
"I'm not sure," Lilitu said.
"I could show you," Sayida answered. "Why don't you come over here and sit with me?"
"I really must be going," Lilitu answered.
"Don't you like the way I look? We're so much alike. It would be like doing it with yourself. Don't you ever look at yourself in the mirror?"
"Girls aren't supposed to do it with each other," Lilitu said.
"There are places where everyone thinks it's just fine."
"What do you mean? Like the Achaean islands, in ancient times?"
"Never heard of them. But there is this city called Khymir, way down south---"
"It's up north."
"Whatever. But everyone there does just as they please."
"It's supposed to be a terrible place," Lilitu said.
"People just say that," Sayida replied.
"I don't want to do it with you."
"And you're just saying that." Sayida replied.
But Lilitu went out into the hall, closing the door behind her.
Thursday, September 23, 2010
Review of Mark E. Rogers’ Yark by Michael Critzer for NexGen Pulp
As I was walking through the guest hall at Balticon this past May, my eyes were drawn to a stack of pinup paintings on a table. Once I picked up a compilation of them, I could not put it down. The paintings, which I later learned were done with acrylics, sprung to life. The women’s expressions and muscle structure seemed to writhe on the page. Upon purchasing the book the artist told me he was also an author. I’m ashamed to admit that I had not heard of Mark E. Rogers before then, and that was certainly my loss. Many of our NexGen Pulp readers will recognize the author of the famous Samurai Cat series. But there is much more to his repertoire. The recent rerelease of his zombie novel, The Dead, has been received with much acclaim, and his fantasy stories are not to be missed.
I walked away from his table, however, with Yark, his most recent novel. It bills itself as a parody, but that is a gross reduction of the witty and well crafted story. It is better described as a reimagining of the The Lord of the Rings universe, where instead of hobbits, salvation to Middle Earth and the downfall of Mount Doom comes from within, from the efforts and conscience of an Orc, or Yark, gone bad, or good, as the case may be. The story begins with Snash, a Yark, who is about to be harvested from the fruit they are grown in. The reader is introduced to the world of Mount Adamant through Snash as he calls forth the knowledge of his surroundings that was bred into him. But Snash is not like other Yarks; he is in touch with a deeper hereditary line that keeps him from the more diabolical attributes of Yark nature.
Yark is, in fact, filled with parody, but is far from a point by point, tongue in cheek retelling of Tolkien. The storyline is drastically altered, and any events that are reinvented are well integrated into the plot. The Tolkien-esque universe serves as a platform, rather, for satires of government, philosophy, and social responsibility. Serpentar is a totalitarian who rules with a form of collectivism propagated by the department of Inspiration and Exhortation with slogans like, “Abasement IS the Answer” and “The Inevitable is Inexorable.” Each Yarks’ pay is held in “perpetual trust” to “invest in the future,” and submission is enforced by the department of Burning Curiosity. Snash, however, encounters various groups of rebels who favor forms of government ranging from democracy to constitutional monarchy.
In hindsight, the real action of the plot takes a long while to get started, but the reader does not mind it in the least. The atmosphere that Rogers weaves, Snash’s minor exploits and the growing friendship between him and his motivator, charm the reader so that when the big action picks up, the slower pace is almost missed.
Rogers’ illustrations add to the experience as well. They provide incarnations that somehow match exactly what the reader has already pictured mentally from the text. They are interspersed just frequently enough so as not to appear random, but not too frequently to interfere with the flow of the narrative.
I highly recommend this book and its author to any genre fiction fans who would like a bit more substance than the assembly line franchise novels that often fill up the limited genre shelf space in bookstores. I’ve never encountered a book quite like Yark. Fantasy and Tolkien fans will be thrilled, and even one who has never been exposed to The Lord of the Rings will appreciate the well-told tale. Rogers’ style is addictive. It’s unpredictable but integral – philosophical but whimsical. I’ve already begun The Dead, and I look forward to reading The Nightmare of God.
Yark, Nothing but a Smile (his collection of pinup art), and other works from Mark E. Rogers can be ordered on Amazon.com. His website is www.merogers.com, and he has a facebook and a youtube channel displaying much of his artwork and illustrations: http://www.youtube.com/user/TheBigLebbowskii .
Sunday, September 19, 2010
One of the reasons I haven't posted too much recently is that I've been working on my novel, Lilitu. You may remember the title character from the Zancharthus books...well, she's the star in this one...it's all about the way in which she became such a twisted little tart, and how she got to Khymir. I just finished the final draft; the book should be out in weeks from Infinity Publishing; an excerpt follows. I might post more...hope you like it.
Chewing a horn of his moustache, his stomach intensely sour, Hamid Ben-Babd paced in exquisite suspense, praying that prayer wouldn't prove necessary, and that if---God forbid--- it did, the Almighty would make him, retroactively, the father of the child who was about to be born.
He couldn't, or so he told himself, be absolutely certain the baby wasn't his. It was entirely possible (though hardly probable) that his seed had won out over so many others. Someone's had done the trick; it could've been his. Stranger things had happened. Miracles happened. After all, he was praying---on and off--- for one now.
But as the vile feeling in his stomach intensified, his supplications faltered. Deep inside, he knew perfectly well that his seed had been bested, and that the King of the Universe had more on His mind than making Hamid Ben-Babd the father-after-the-fact.
In his desperation, Hamid decided on a much more modest request, begging merely that the child wouldn't be so obviously unsired by him that anyone could tell just by looking at it. But when the door opened, and the midwife stuck her head out, and he saw that anxious expression on her face, he knew immediately that God hadn't listened even to that very small, reasonable plea. Fighting the urge to say something blasphemous, he settled instead for a weak little "Oh damn," and entered the room.
Hands folded on their stomachs, the other midwives were all standing along one wall; their chins were down, although they were eyeing Hamid from under their brows, about as nervously as the woman who'd looked out.
His wife Rahminah, on the other hand, looked like she didn't have a care in the world, indeed, as though she'd just awakened from a pleasant little nap. She wasn't pale, her slightly smiling lips were deep red, there were no dark circles under those lovely dark almond eyes, and her hair was neither lank nor tangled; he couldn't even see any sweat on her forehead. She looked wonderful. Staring Hamid right in the eyes without the least visible trace of guilt, she drew back the covers to reveal, suckling on her breast, a baby who was virtually a signed letter from God mocking Hamid's entreaties.
To begin with...The child was extremely white. Hamid wasn't dark for a Kadjafi, but he was...Kadjafi. Half Mirkut, Rahminah was lighter, but nowhere near so light as the babe. And the slant of the child's eyes (which were a most outlandish grey) far exceeded the slant of the mother's. Given all that, Hamid thought he knew who the father was---a Naiman called Urugtai who'd blown in off the desert a year ago. Wondering what to do, Hamid stared at his wife.
You'll be a complete laughing-stock, he told himself.
She watched him mildly.
You should have her stoned
"It's a girl," she said.
Should've had her stoned a long time ago…
But as he stood there looking at the adulteress, her beauty reminded him most poignantly of why he hadn't exposed her to the law; he couldn't have her and have her stoned as well.
She seemed to be aware of his thoughts; her smile broadened, just a bit.
That's it, he thought. Taunt me. Rub my nose in it…
"Nothing to say, My Love?" she asked.
He averted his gaze, asking himself:
How much of this are you going to take? She's using you for a chamber-pot...You're a Babd, the son of a noble family, titled for generations…
But being a Babd was nothing special. His ancestors had indeed been titled for generations, and had very little to show for it. Having risen to the lowest rank of Kadjafi nobility, they'd languished on that ledge ever since; just like his father and grandfather and great- grandfather, Hamid was a Protector of Figs, and he expected his son, if he ever had one (undoubtedly it would be some other man's child) would be a Protector of Figs too.
Title or no, Rahminah had betrayed him. Even a commoner could assert his rights, have an adulterous wife duly killed.
"Hamid?" Rahminah asked. "Husband?"
He looked back at her, but his attention was drawn to the baby, who was suckling as though she thought she might never have another meal, slanted grey eyes very serious, brow furrowed. The child looked at once so worried and so very pretty that Hamid's resolve, what there was of it, completely melted. Rahminah might deserve death. But what would become of this tiny, beautiful innocent?
"Husband?" Rahminah asked again. "I apologize.''
"For what?" he asked, never shifting his gaze from the infant.
"Next time I'll give you a son,'' she said.
"Next time," the Protector of Figs replied.
In truth, despite the calm confidence of her demeanor, Rahminah hadn't been sure that Hamid's will would break. She knew he knew of some of her indiscretions and had let them pass, but she hadn't presented him with a baby manifestly sired by someone else. Appearances to the contrary, she actually felt quite guilty; she believed in God, and knew adultery was a sin, and was well aware that up until now, Hamid had treated her with astonishing lenience.
She'd given some thought to aborting the baby, but, unable to go through with it, had clung to the hope that it was actually Hamid's. It was, after all, her recollection that Hamid had had her after Urugtai that night, before Urugtai had her again; it wasn't entirely wishful thinking on her part.
If she'd been forced to bet, she would've put her money on the Naiman---if seed took after the man who sowed it, Hamid's had been defeated from the start. And once the child arrived, one glance had settled the question; after that, it all came down to Hamid's reaction, which had been characteristically cowardly. It was really sort of a pity he was so spineless; Rahminah would've preferred to have loved him. But he was the sort of fellow who, given the present circumstances, would refuse to have her stoned. She couldn't imagine loving a man like that.
How did you get into this situation? she asked herself, once he and the midwives had left. But really, she knew perfectly well. She had a very amorous nature, and it had gotten her into difficulties from the beginning. Back in Thangura, she'd been deflowered, very willingly, at the age of twelve, by her fourteen-year old cousin; soon after her fifteenth birthday, her father, after learning of several other episodes, had thrown her out of the house.
She'd been fortunate enough to find work as a maid at an inn, and had taken up with a troupe of dancing-girls, who'd taught her their trade, for which she demonstrated a genuine aptitude.
Indeed, she soon came to outshine them all, earning their jealousy for that alone; but worse still, she eventually became involved with each and every one of their men. When the breaking point came, the innkeeper decided to retain her and let the other girls go, whereupon they burned the place, and made several determined efforts to kill her.
Deciding it was high time to leave Thangura, she headed East along one of the caravan routes, soon losing the man she'd departed with in a brawl which had erupted over her; as she continued eastward, there was no shortage of work for a tavern-dancer, but she rarely stayed anywhere for more than a few months before she had to flee.
Ultimately she'd reached Hamid's protectorate, the oasis of Sawaliyeh; once she was installed in the local hostel, Hamid had discovered her in short order, and was soon showering gifts on her, much to the consternation of his friends and family, who suspected that, despite her spectacular looks, she was a consummate slut. Their warnings, however, fell on deaf ears, and Hamid proposed to her, and she accepted at once---he wasn't good to look at, or a good lover, but he had a great deal of money, and better still, men-at-arms. She didn't know if any cut-throats would come looking for her, but since she'd left a particularly atrocious mess at the last oasis, she resigned herself to wedlock with the Fig-Protector.
Not that she resigned herself to being faithful. The possibility never even entered her head. She wasn't happy with her own tendencies, but experience had taught her to respect them. If she went more than a few days without satisfaction, she simply couldn't think; she grew irritable, and unpleasant, and made others miserable, and so, for everyone's sake, she strayed---that is, if such purposeful pursuit of gratification could be described as straying.
When Urugtai swept in from the desert and joined the household guard, he seemed the veritable answer to a prayer, although, knowing God's attitude about adultery, Rahminah rarely asked Him to supply her with lovers, and only when she was in a very bad way. Urugtai was short and not particularly handsome, but he was remarkably intelligent for a barbarian, was uncannily good with languages (he knew a dozen at least), and spoke Kadjafi better than she did; he was extremely funny and could turn a phrase more skilfully than anyone she'd ever met. Best of all, he was a splendid lover, so endowed with sheer animal spirit that he'd even succeeded---as she now knew---in getting a child on her, despite the drugs she'd been taking. She thought it very likely that, given her own nature and his, their child would be remarkably lascivious.
But, watching the baby on her breast---the infant was asleep now---Raminah hoped desperately that the girl would turn out, as children so often did, very unlike her parents.
"Please Lord," she said softly, "don't despise my prayers because I'm a sinner. I can't control myself, I wish I was other than I am, and I'm most unhappy. Don't condemn my daughter to the kind of life I've led."
At that, the baby woke, or, at least, those lovely grey eyes opened, regarding Rahminah sleepily.
"Be good," Rahminah said.
The babe's eyelids slid slowly shut. Rahminah smiled, watching the child's small round face.
What shall we call you? she thought.
She'd already given some thought to the question, ignoring Hamid's suggestions. She was partial to Avvah, Zuleika, and Yasmina, but had been leaning more and more to a name which she thought she'd made up, Lilitu. In reality, she'd overheard a conversation between two scholars at her father's house when she was four; the name had stuck, but she recalled nothing else. Had she been a delver into useless facts and ancient texts inscribed on clay tablets, she might have discovered that the name was extremely ill-omened, indeed, that it had belonged to a particular class of female demon. But Rahminah knew only that she liked the sound of it, and was determined to bestow it on her daughter no matter what her hapless husband thought.
As the years passed, there was much talk about her and her child. Rahminah's very considerable wiles, which had received much honing through the years, remained of necessity very sharp, and whenever Hamid seemed to have heard something (there were a number of signs) she went to even greater lengths than usual to make herself alluring, and to create difficulties between him and whoever was repeating the gossip.
Moreover, she found herself less willing to betray him. In part it was because Urugtai was gone, and she kept comparing prospective lovers, unfavorably, to him; in part it was mere prudence. But also, she had a child now, one that would soon be old enough to make some sense of the gossip, and to see that her mother, indeed, behaved in a very suspect manner. And so, by the time Lilitu was four, Rahminah had put aside much of her adultery, unless the opportunity was unusually good, and a very handsome partner presented himself; by the time Lilitu was five, it was all over, and though Rahminah missed it, she was no longer willing.
It was at that time that she developed a desire to learn letters, so that she might read the scriptures; after some prodding, Hamid procured a tutor for her, a retired schoolteacher named Zufir, and Rahminah proved a quick study. But her daughter, sitting on her mother's lap, or standing behind her on the chair, looking over her shoulder, soon proved even quicker.
One day, Zufir, amused by Lilitu's silence and expression of extreme concentration, prodded her in the side with his fingertip and said:
"Always so quiet."
Lilitu had been studying the word-list that her mother was copying. "Just being polite.''
"Is that so?" Zufir answered.
"You're here for mother, not me," she said.
She went on: "I can't imagine you want me pestering you with questions."
He laughed. "I don't know. You express yourself so nicely."
"Thank you," she replied.
"Do you have any questions, Lilitu?" Rahminah asked. "I'm sure Master Zufir would be happy to answer them."
"I was wondering," Lilitu said.
"Yes?" Zufir asked.
"Father has a foreign book. The letters look like ours, but not entirely."
Amused by her precocity, Zufir laughed.
"What's so funny?" Lilitu asked.
"Nothing. What's your question, exactly?"
"Did we get our letters from the foreigners, and change them, or did the foreigners get their letters from us?"
Zufir replied: "I'm not sure what foreigners you're referring to...''
''They got the alphabet from us and changed it over time."
"To suit themselves?" Lilitu asked. "I listen to foreigners, and they make sounds that we don't."
"That's very true," Zufir said.
"But if their sounds aren't the same as ours," Lilitu said, "they couldn't use our alphabet unless they changed it."
"Yes," Zufir said. "But they wouldn't have to change the way the letters looked. They could just use the same letters...''
"And match them to different sounds," Lilitu answered, nodding. "I understand." She was silent for a few moments. "I still don't know why the letters changed then. Could you find out for me?"
"I'll see what I can do," Zufir replied, exchanging a smile with Rahminah.
With the scholarly resources he had at Sawaliyeh, he was unable to find the answer to Lilitu's question, but he did allow her, from that point on, to participate in her mother's lessons. Having paid very close attention while Zufir was teaching her the letters, Lilitu knew all the shapes that needed to be made, and was very adept at writing them, much more so than Rahminah; and since Rahminah was still reading at a fairly elementary level, Lilitu had no difficulty in jumping right in. Within a few weeks, Zufir began giving Lilitu separate sessions, so that her mother wouldn't be at too much of a disadvantage.
For his part, Hamid was delighted by Lilitu's progress; she was a splendid daughter, very good company, charming, beautiful and, in spite of a slight mischievous streak, well behaved for the most part. Hamid would go for months without remembering that she was someone else's child, and even when his memory was jogged, Lilitu would say something so clever that all thought of the outrage that had created her was driven from his mind. One day he dropped in on her and Zufir just as she was writing some sort of composition.
"And what's that you're up to?" he asked.
"Some verse," she answered.
"You're a poet now?"
"Poetess," she replied.
"Pardon me. What's your poem about?"
"A puppy," she answered. "You'll like it."
"I don't like dogs."
"That's why you'll like it."
"What's it called?"
"Bad Puppy," Lilitu said. "Would you like to hear it?"
Hamid folded his arms on his chest. "By all means."
"My friend Sami loves him
But I can't think why;
If I didn't care about making her cry,
I'd swing him into the wall by the tail---"
At this, Hamid gave a shocked laugh, but she continued:
"He yaps and yaps all day,
And even though I can't tell what he's saying,
I'm sure it must be rude, and worse yet,
Even a baby can be toilet trained,
But this puppy goes everywhere, and never learns.
True, he's cute, but that's not enough---
I think I'll swing him anyway."
"Lilitu!" Hamid cried.
"Don't worry," Lilitu said.
"There's no puppy. I don't know anyone named Sami."
"Thank God," he said.
"It's an exercise," Lilitu said. "Master Zufir told me to make something up."
"I didn't tell her to imagine a puppy she'd like to kill," Zufir said.
"Are we finished, Master?" she asked.
"Go and play," he said.
She ran out.
"How did you settle on the name Lilitu, by the way?" he asked Hamid.
"Rahminah made it up," Hamid answered.
"No, I don't believe so," Zufir replied.
"What's wrong with it?"
"Nothing," Zufir said. There was a short silence.
"Are you having any difficulties with her?" Hamid asked.
"Not really," Zufir said. "Aside from the fact that it's a bit humbling, teaching someone who's so much more intelligent than I am. Occasionally she makes fun of me, just a bit, but it's not genuine disrespect, I think. And her little jabs are so funny that it's hard to get angry---"
"Would you like me to talk to her?" Hamid asked.
"No. I'd find her less entertaining if she stopped. But you should keep an eye on her. I could imagine her getting into trouble when she's older. She has a lot of questions about...er...embarrassing matters."
"Animals mating, things like that. She's very observant. I tell her I'm not a specialist in natural philosophy, but she clearly suspects I know more than I'm letting on."
"I see," Hamid answered. He thought for a few moments. "If she comes to you with those sort of questions, perhaps you should direct her to her mother---"
He broke off, suddenly wondering if this was a good idea.
"She says her mother doesn't want to talk about such things," Zufir said.
"Ah," Hamid replied.
Lilitu read everything in Zufir's small library several times; then Rahminah and the tutor persuaded Hamid to start buying more books, and before long, every caravan that came to Sawaliyeh brought some for the child. After mastering her own language to a very great degree, Lilitu indicated an interest in other tongues, and Zufir was allowed to bring in a second man, named Zeyd, to teach her classical Numalian. Zeyd also knew several eastern languages, and imparted those as well; her tutors took to bringing her to the place where the caravans stopped, a great open space beside the spring, so she could listen and speak to the interesting foreigners, particularly the children.
Once when she was just eight years old, Zeyd took her there late in the afternoon and, as had lately become his habit, went to flirt with a pretty woman who sold dates to the travellers; told to stay close, Lilitu wandered about in his general proximity, and soon attempted to strike up a conversation with a dark little boy she guessed was from Aryanastan. She knew enough of his tongue for them to get on, and she picked up some new words; he seemed to like her a great deal, and he smiled quite a bit, his teeth very bright against his dark skin, but presently his mother came and got him, dragging him off into a tent.
Lilitu looked about, but there didn't seem to be any other children around, at least in the vicinity of Master Zeyd and that woman he liked; preferring not to talk to adults---generally, they weren't convinced by her claim that she just wanted to listen to them, and plainly thought she was up to no good---she decided to look for lizards, which she was most interested in.
They lived under the scrubby trees that bordered the big open space; if the sun was high in the sky, they stayed in the latticed shadows, but late in the afternoon, they'd venture out a bit, and it was easier to catch them. Lilitu looked about to see if Master Zeyd was still sufficiently near, then went on the hunt. Sometimes the lizards ran, but if they were on their own property---it was her studied opinion that they regarded certain patches of dirt as theirs---- they actually stood their ground. Repeatedly dipping their heads, they changed colors, and swelled their bodies up; she guessed they were trying to scare her, a thought she found extremely comical, and she loved to watch them at it. Some were so confident of their own scariness that they let her get very close, which was very foolish, or would've been if she'd meant them harm---if one of the little blustering fools let her within arm's length, she got him, as she was very quick. Catching a half-dozen, she acquired some inconsequential bites, let the lizards go after she'd examined them. Just when she was tiring of this and about ready to go over to Master Zeyd and see if she couldn't put an end to his conversation with the date-seller, she spotted an especially big lizard which she really needed to show the tutor, who hated crawly things.
Giggling at the thought of scaring him, she closed in on the creature and caught it; big fat squirming reptile in hand, its scales raspy against her palm, she was still giggling as she started back towards the tents, but she hadn't gone too far when she heard strange shrieking and humming sounds behind her, and paused and turned. She saw a faint intermittent glow rising beyond the scrub; there came several cries of pain, and a brushy sound, as though someone were running through the trees. Presently a man appeared, running clumsily, weaving between them; reaching the fringe of the vegetation, he stopped and turned. He was dressed normally enough, but bald except for a topknot bound with metal rings at the base; Lilitu could hear someone else coming up on the far side of him.
Suddenly there was one of those screaming sounds, so near and loud that the lizard flinched and clawed her before she dropped it and clapped her hands to her head. Not even aware that she'd blinked, she saw the man much closer now, flying backwards towards her in a cloud of leaves and snapped-off bits of branch, his robes whipping with a thudding sound, his head tilted forward, topknot trailing over the front of it.
He landed with a thump right beside her, dust flying up all around around him. Gasping for breath, he was gripping the center of his chest, but still got to his feet; that terrible screaming noise came again, and she was aware of something barely visible---it made the landscape behind it wriggle slightly and go yellowish--- that shot right into him and blew him back off his feet again, some of whatever it was apparently splashing off him and knocking her back too. She didn't quite fall, but immediately squatted down, hands still over her ears.
It was a few seconds before she realized that another man had come out of the scrub, also bald but for a topknot, but much much bigger than the first man, and dressed all in flowing black robes; there were metal sleeves on his forearms, and he was adjusting them as he walked. A curved sword was tucked into his belt, along with some kind of big hook with a wooden handle. His mouth was set, and his head was tilted slightly downwards, so that his eyes were in shadow. He didn't seem to be in a hurry, and didn't even appear to be aware of Lilitu, for which she was thankful---until he stopped beside her and turned his face towards her, and she got a good clear look at his eyes at last. They were the stuff of evil dreams, pale blue and horribly hard; barely keeping from wetting herself, she squatted even lower, and looked away. Going to the man on the ground, he stopped long enough to stamp once on the fellow's chest---there was a splintery sound which Lilitu didn't realize was ribs breaking until years later----and continued forward.
Trembling, she remained where she was, watching him. Directly ahead of him there was a big tent, and men were shouting inside; all at once three came out, once again with topknots. Immediately the man in black halted and assumed a strange angry-looking pose, one foot well back, right arm raised, left arm down at his side, the fingers of both hands spread wide but curved like claws; again there was that screaming sound, and his robes lashed backwards as if in a gust of wind. Between him and the tent, a fog of dust rose from the air; suddenly the last man to come out---he stood between the other two, directly in front of the flap---went flying back into the tent. The last Lilitu saw of him was the soles of his bare feet---he'd come out of his boots.
His friends had already assumed poses of their own; they were standing in the shadow of the tent, and Lilitu saw the side of it flash with red and green light. There was a whoosh, and a vicious crack, and dust lifted from the ground once more; Lilitu thought the blast would've blown her away like a little leaf. But the man in black just stood there and took it; he might as well have been made of steel. An instant later, he unleashed another of his screaming strikes, which caught one of his opponents and hurled him back against the tent with such force that several of the tent-pegs were pulled, the ropes flying up over shelter's top. Arms folded over his chest, the victim slid partway down along the fabric with a peculiar movement that told Lilitu he was dead, although she wasn't sure why.
Howling, the third man hurled himself prostrate, digging his face into the dust, quivering hands locked together.
But this wasn't good enough for the man in black. Rushing forward, he brought his heel down behind the wretch's head, did it again---then vanished inside the tent.
For no good reason, Lilitu began to lower her hands, but a series of noises that were terrifying even by recent standards had her clapping her palms back to her ears; the tent billowed up and strained violently at its pegs, its flap flapping, flashes of multihued light visible through the opening, the tent-walls glowing; the sounds got steadily more frightening and the lights brighter until the tent simply burst. As the rags and strings floated down, Lilitu saw two silhouettes amid the settling fragments, facing each other. One stood rock-still and was much bigger, and was adjusting things on his forearms; the other, who might or might not have been the fellow who was blown back through the flap, was tottering, and soon fell over, whereupon the victor went over to him, and crouched down, then rose up again, dragging something behind him. There were still enough twists of torn fabric lying about to conceal the nature of this something until the man in black stepped out from among them, but Lilitu had already concluded it was his last victim before she saw that that was indeed the case; still squatting, not daring to move, she watched as the man in black dragged him over the ground.
As they came closer, she realized for the first time that he wasn't gripping his prey, but had that big hook of his in the fellow's shoulder.
All at once the snagged man began to stir and shriek, fighting and kicking, grabbing at the hook; never pausing, his captor shook him savagely twice, and the struggling stopped. Coming alongside Lilitu, the big man paused once more, regarding her with those cold hard eyes.
Shivering, she cried: "I'm sorry!"
"Have you been bad?" he asked.
"I don't know!" she cried.
He laughed through his nostrils and continued on his way, dragging his prize into the scrub and disappearing.
At once, there came a chorus of shouts; Lilitu stood up to see people rushing over to the tent and the dead bodies. The date-lady was with them, but Lilitu heard footsteps coming up behind her, and saw Zeyd running towards her.
"All you all right?" he cried.
"Did he say anything to you?" Zeyd asked.
"He asked if I'd been bad," she replied. "Who was he?"
"A wizard," Zeyd replied. "Black Anarite. They shave their heads like that."
"Then they were all Anarites," Lilitu said, wondering why they'd been fighting each other.
"Yes," Zeyd said, clearly puzzled too.
The date lady came up and stroked Lilitu's head. "You poor dear," she said. "Look at you shaking like that."
"He had terrible eyes," Lilitu said.
Later that night, while her mother was washing her, Lilitu, leaning over the side of the sunken bath, said: "I thought I'd never stop shaking."
Scrubbing her shoulders, Rahminah replied: "You have, though."
"I'm going to have nightmares."
"I shouldn't wonder."
"I don't think I'm ever going back by those caravans," Lilitu went on.
"I can see how you wouldn't want to," Rahminah said. "And we won't make you, of course."
After a long pause, Lilitu said: "Kind of a shame, though."
"I did enjoy talking to those foreign children, and learning all the words."
"Well," Rahminah said, "I'd be very surprised if we had any more wizard's duels anytime soon."
"Master Zeyd told me that the Anarites live far away, in the mountains. And that they sell slaves."
"They're very bad men," Rahminah said.
"Because they sell slaves?''
''We have slaves."
"But we don't sell them."
"Father does, sometimes."
"But that's not his trade. In fact, he doesn't have a trade.''
"He's a Protector of Figs."
"Who does he protect the figs from?"
"Do bandits steal figs?"
Rahminah laughed. "If they're hungry enough."
"Is fig a dirty word?" Lilitu asked, having heard something to that effect.
"Not exactly," Rahminah answered. "But it can be used in dirty ways."
"You ask too many questions," Rahminah said.
"Can I sleep with you tonight?"
"Father won't mind?"
"I think not. He loves you very much. He was very upset when he heard what happened, as you know. And besides...''
"He'll do what you say?"
"He's no match for mommy," mommy said, a trifle sadly.
Lilitu did indeed have bad dreams that night, and for the next several weeks, but once they faded, she felt somewhat braver, and after repeated assurances by her mother and everyone else that she had very little chance of ever finding herself in the middle of another wizard's duel, she began visiting the caravans again, with Zeyd and Zufir. Between her lessons and her books, and listening and speaking with the foreigners, she learned tongue after tongue; eventually Hamid came to rely on her as an interpreter. With all the traffic through the oasis, there was no shortage of work for her, but she found it all consistently fascinating, and was thrilled to be doing such important things for her father.
By then, however, she'd reached the ripe age of twelve; in spite of her value as a translator, Hamid began to think about finding a husband for her, preferably one from a family that outranked his own. His chance came when Sawaliyeh was visited by a company of horsemen commanded by Fahrd Al-Fahrdoun, lord of the much larger oasis of Aqarrah and a Protector of Figs and Dates. Having been out pursuing one Toghril Toqta, a Naiman brigand who was beginning to earn quite a name for himself, Fahrd had had the eminent good fortune of never catching up with him, the pursuit cut short by physical complaints from Fahrd Junior, who hadn't wanted to come in the first place; Hamid insisted that Fahrd sample his hospitality.
While Hamid's physician saw to the younger Fahrd, the Protector of the Figs and the Protector of the Figs and Dates went leopard hunting in the rocky hills northeast of Sawaliyeh; after a week of being eluded, they were drinking and laughing under the stars when Fahrd mentioned that his son needed a wife, and Hamid concluded that Fahrd would make an excellent father in-law for Lilitu, in spite of the fact that his son was such a dubious excuse for a young man.
"What do you think of my daughter?" Hamid asked, looking up at the constellation known as Abdullah's Leg.
"Beautiful child," Fahrd replied, then laughed: "Certainly doesn't take after you!"
Hamid had, of course, heard that many times. "But what do you think?"
"Of my Fahrd marrying her?"
The elder Fahrd laughed. "Do you have something against her?"
"I'm very fond of her," Hamid said. "Don't you like your son?"
"He'd make a good doorstop."
"He's not that bad."
Fahrd took a gulp of wine. "If you say so."
"It would be a good union, your family and mine. Aqarrah and Sawaliyeh, both in the same hands.''
"A tempting thought," Fahrd said. "Let me sleep on it."
"Take your time," Hamid said.
The following day, the hunting-party, leopardless, said farewell to the hills, heading southwest towards the oasis, over the dunes; even as they reached the road that led to Hamid's fortified mansion, Fahrd agreed to the marriage.
Hamid held a great feast that night, having ordered his servants to make the preparations before departing. The banquet was held in the mansion's main courtyard, with the guests seated on cushions around tinned copper trays six feet across, rimmed at the edges and filled with buttered rice mixed with pieces of succulent lamb; tucked down between the rice and rims were medallions of round flatbread. There were also pastries and small honeyed fowl, and to wash everything down, an abundance of excellent wine, all of this accompanied by spirited work from musicians Hamid had hired from the local inn, although Rahminah, loathe to remind everyone of her past, had drawn the line at dancing-girls.
At length, Hamid stood up and toasted his guests, then announced he had an announcement to make.
"I'm not an eloquent man, so I'll keep it short," he said, tottering a bit---he had already drunk a great deal. "Fahrd Al-Fahrdoun is a splendid fellow, of excellent lineage, and a peerless huntsman. We never lost the trail. Why, with these very eyes---" He indicated them with two fingers. "---I saw leopard-spoor that couldn't have been more than a day old...'' He paused, swaying. "Where was I?"
"I don't know," said Rahminah beside him. In truth, she had no idea of where he was going with this.
"Ah yes," he went on at last. "No more beating about the bush. I feel I've found a brother in Fahrd Al-Fahrdoun---we should all be part of one splendid family, hunting leopards and admiring constellations. Anyway, Fahrd the Younger needs a wife, and my daughter is of a very marriageable age...''
Rahminah reached up and tugged Hamid's sleeve. He bent down towards her, and she whispered in his ear:
"What are you saying?"
He pulled loose and straightened, declaring: "What I'm saying is that Fahrd and I have agreed to the union of our great houses...''
Rahminah looked at Fahrd the younger, wincing at the sight of him. The youth was an eyesore pure and simple, tall but scrawny, slope-shouldered, pigeon-breasted, chinless and hook-nosed, his face generously speckled with whiteheads; she practically expected him to start drooling.
"Mother," said Lilitu.
Hearing the shock and grief in her voice, Rahminah couldn't even bring herself to turn, and instead, tugged on Hamid's sleeve again. This time he fell down next to her.
"You didn't discuss this with me," she whispered.
"It's settled," he replied.
She thrust her face almost up against his. "No."
On the other side of him, Fahrd leaned into view. "What's wrong?"
"I need to speak with my wife," Hamid replied.
"Does she have some say in this?" Fahrd asked.
"Of course not," Hamid answered.
"Come on," Rahminah answered, standing, pulling Hamid up off the cushions.
"What sort of family do you have here?" Fahrd called as Rahminah dragged her husband from the courtyard.
As Lilitu, filled with horror at the thought of marrying Fahrd Ben-Fahrd, trailed at a distance, Hamid shook free of Rahminah's grip once more, demanding:
"Where are we going, exactly?"
"Upstairs," Rahminah replied.
They went to their chamber and closed the door, but the latch didn't catch, and the door opened, just a bit; as she stole along the corridor, Lilitu heard them snarling at each other. Going up to the crack, she looked inside just in time to see Hamid slap her mother across the cheek.
Rahminah staggered; her eyes flared and she looked as though she'd strike him back---Lilitu suspected she might well be able to best him, since he was drunk, far from fit, and rather a coward in her estimation. But Rahminah only put the back of her hand to her cheek and said:
"You should've told me."
"I saw my chance and took it,'' Hamid said. "It's a fine match."
Rahminah laughed scornfully. "Fahrd's son wouldn't be a fine match for a maggot, let alone my daughter."
"He's sickly. If she can get a son by him before he dies---"
"I assure you, "Rahminah said, "Fahrd's packing up even as we speak...''
Hamid cursed and started towards the door. Lilitu flattened herself against the wall. The door swung open, striking her; she heard him rush past. Then, after a few moments, she went out from behind it and into her parents' chamber. Her mother was sitting on the bed; she looked up as Lilitu approached. Lilitu said:
"You're not going to let him marry me to that...that...''
"I think I may have spoiled it for him," Rahminah said. Lilitu sat down next to her, and Rahminah put her arm around her, gathering her close against her side.
Lilitu heard a great deal of shouting; it was some time before her father returned.
"Get out," he said, and she scurried from the room, but paused outside, the door ajar again.
"He's going," He told Rahminah. "He called me an idiot, and said I'll be an even bigger idiot if I don't divorce you."
"I'm sorry," Rahminah said.
"No you're not," Hamid said. "This is just what you wanted, and just what I get for allowing you to keep me under your thumb, you filthy whore."
"Stop it," Rahminah replied.
"I should've had you stoned," he said.
Stoned? Lilitu wondered. For what?
"You don't mean it," Rahminah said.
"You're the one reading the scriptures all the time," Hamid went on. "What do they say?"
"I'm not the same person," she answered.
"Oh yes you are," he said.
"All I did just now was ruin your little plan.''
"I was trying to do her a wonderful favor, and you rubbed my nose in shit in front of fifty people."
"She doesn't need a marriage to a pimply hideous half-wit...''
"She'd be lucky if all she ever got was the crumbs from my table!" Hamid cried. "But she's done far better than that. I've housed her, fed her, loved her. Paid for Master Zufir and that other fellow. And after all that I put into her, you stab me in the back ..."
"I divorce thee," he said.
"You don't want to do that---"
"I divorce thee---"
Before he could say it the third and final time she broke in:
There was a long dead silence.
"You think I humiliated you tonight?" Rahminah asked. "Just wait until everyone hears that she's not your child."
What was that? Lilitu thought. She'd always wondered why she looked so completely unlike Hamid, but her mother had always assured her that she took after certain very-eastern-looking relatives on her side of the family...stunned, Lilitu was vaguely aware of Rahminah continuing:
"Don't give me that look. I'm not a good woman, and you wanted me anyway. It was a bad bargain, but you made it. You swallowed it all, and as nearly as I can tell, you were still happy. Well, you're the weakling in this marriage. If you had a spine, you wouldn't be in this situation. Don't push me. I'll do what I have to do."
Barely breathing, Lilitu sat dumbfounded.
"Go ahead, tell," Hamid said, after a time. "No one will think less of me. Not now. Everyone's known. It was obvious from the start. All you have to do is look at her."
Rahminah was stopped by this at first. But then she rallied: "Oh, but husband, I could tell everything. I didn't just do it with Urugtai. And I didn't stop after Lilitu was born. People will be laughing about you for the next hundred years."
He said quietly: "I should kill you right now."
"Am I to believe you'd do it yourself? All these years, and you never exposed me to the law...what's changed?"
"You humiliated me...''
"You're a master at being humiliated. You've had so much practice. What does it matter if you've gotten a bit more? Things will return to normal. And my daughter will not be married to Fahrd Ben- Fahrd."
There was a heavy finality in her words; it was plain to Lilitu that her mother had the upper hand, decisively, and that Fahrd the Younger was a dead issue.
But Lilitu felt neither relief nor gratitude; there was only shock. She felt cold and weak, as though she were being drained of blood. Her father, whom she truly loved, even if he was a weakling, wasn't her father; her mother, whom she loved a great deal more, was an adulteress.
And you, she told herself, Are a wretched hopeless little bastard…
Eyes brimming, she turned and made for her room.