The Stone Boatmen
By Sarah Tolmie (Aqueduct Press, 2014)
Excerpt from Book One, “The Book of the New Ceremonies”
The prince with no name gazed down from his tower at the stone boatmen in the harbor. His father had stripped his name from him just before his accession, and the statues he stared at so stonily below had stolen his face. Now he was Nerel: no one. He was waiting to choose his double for the feast of the Perihelion. In a moment the majordomo would enter, heading a solemn procession of merchants’ sons vying for the honor of being the prince’s nerelkho—as if he needed another ghost of himself, there being a hundred and four of them sailing eternally out of the harbor, frozen in their marble boats. He glowered down at them, his loveless stone brothers.
He turned from the window when he heard boots on the stairs. Normally on these occasions anywhere from four to six young men were found who bore some slight resemblance to the prince. It was considered lucky to be nerelkho; over the years, many had gone on to become mayors and other city officers. Now instead of the hissing shuffle of many feet winding up the long staircase, he heard one man come bounding up.
His breathless majordomo burst through the dark doorway. “Sire,” the usually reserved man said in a kind of whispered shout, clasping the prince’s hand to his forehead with trembling fingers. “You will not believe what I have found.” He called down into the black well behind him: “Come.”
Echoing footfalls rang in the hollow of the stairwell. Nerel was aware as never before of living in the stone throat of the tower, dwelling in the huge concave body of the building like a parasite—or, as he thought briefly of the endless ceremonies of renewal over which he presided, like some tiny, roving organ enacting repairs. His rare and acute anticipation made him feel suddenly small, the merest particle of the ancestors’ vast monument of stone, no longer its master. The footsteps stopped. From the shadowed entrance, into the light, stepped one of the boatmen. The prince gasped. He felt, for the first time, the same shock that other people felt on seeing his own person: he saw a living statue.
Turning to the majordomo, his hands fluttering open in a gesture of helpless inquiry, he said “Where—?” but was cut off as the young man hurried toward him. The youth with the face of the stone boatmen—Nerel’s face—seized the prince’s hand and bowed over it as the majordomo had done. Normally he would have snatched his hand away and called for a warding, as was his duty, since only members of his household were permitted to touch him. But that would have been like shunning his own image in the mirror. So, staring into the shocked eyes of his majordomo over the man’s bowed head, he did nothing. His household officer, a stickler for protocol, would normally have been about the warding with fullest rites of water and smoke and red thread, but he seemed likewise stunned.
Both prince and servant were overthrown by the appearance of this prodigy—a man who clearly knew nothing about life in the palace, not even its most elementary rules. Nerel recovered first. Seizing the initiative as the young man rose from his bow, Nerel touched him lightly on the brow with his open palm, reversing the hand that the youth had held—the prince touching, not touched—reclaiming his authority and offering the propitiation of order restored. The young man lifted his eyes.
“Who are you?” asked Nerel softly, “How can we not have seen you before? You belong to no guild?” He knew most of the guildsmen by sight, as their ranks were annually confirmed in the palace.
“Fisherfolk have no guild,” replied the young man, and one piece of the puzzle that he represented fell into place. Nerel had not, to his knowledge, ever met one of the fisherfolk. “My name is Azul, son of the chief of the fishing fleet, a man you will not have heard of, Sire. I have lived here all my life but never been near the palace before today. Yourself, Sire, I have seen before, at the Perihelion, although I did not know which was you and which the nerelkho. But that was only because I was so far away. This year, if I am to be nerelkho, as your officer says, then surely no one will know at all!” He stared solemnly into the prince’s face—and then suddenly, irrepressibly, grinned.
Nerel met his eyes and felt a new, even greater shock: one not of recognition, but of being recognized. Living as he did behind the boatmen’s face, under the nameless name of the prince, Nerel often felt that he was invisible. But Azul saw him. Perhaps, accustomed as he already was to seeing the boatmen’s face in his own, he was able to look right through it, straight to the man. He smiled into the prince’s eyes with an easy familiarity, as no one had done since his parents had died. Nerel wondered if he read his lost name there, so immediately did Azul seem to know him. “Azul,” he stammered. “Azul, that is no name. Or, not a usual one—a color-word, is it not? You have no other?”
“It is the fisherfolk’s word for the sea. They prefer not to name it directly—just by its color, you know? I had another name before, but no one uses it anymore, not since I came of age and people saw how much I looked like…” He shrugged, gesturing toward the window. “We do not speak of it, but I believe I was named again after the boatmen’s element, as a warding.”
Nerel remembered the whispering at court during his adolescence, when his freakish resemblance to the boatmen had become apparent. It was ritual to say that the stone boatmen—the ancestors—looked like the prince, their chief descendant, but it had never before been so true. His father’s face had not really resembled the face of the stone boatmen.
But Nerel took after his mother, a woman of massive repose with a trick of staring into the middle distance that made her look like the figures on the votive bronzes that were dipped into the harbor every spring on Ebb Day. Hers was a statuesque family. Her massy frame had much longer withstood the influenza that five years before had swiftly carried off his father. The death toll in the palace had been high, over fifty people in the end. His mother’s strength combined with his own youth had allowed the heir to survive. Her blood in Nerel had also produced, in her only son, a face that was so much like the boatmen’s it was almost a replica. By the time of his accession the uneasy whispering had settled into a general rumor, supported by the sage nods of the court ceremonist, that the young prince who so favored the ancestors would have a fortunate reign, despite its dark beginning.
Nerel understood at once that what was lucky in a prince was unlucky in a fisherman. He marveled that he and Azul were alike even in this, their birth names taken from them. He stared back at Azul, trying to see the missing name in his eyes, and caught a vanishing trace of a familiar anger and bafflement. His heart surged, and he said to Azul, “I was born under another name also. But now I am only Nerel the prince.”
The majordomo glanced sidelong at him, startled. In the features of Azul he detected a hitherto unknown sympathy, the sense of a shared secret.
“And do you,” asked the prince eagerly, “consent to be nerelkho?”
“Then bow—the short bow,” came the hectoring voice of the majordomo behind Azul. He was evidently returning to his duties with the zeal of one who had been neglecting them. Azul, glancing at the majordomo, bowed. So did Nerel. As the two young men straightened up, their noses almost touching (the majordomo, watching from the side, saw the same profile repeated and felt giddy), Nerel said formally: “I have seen that which is hidden, the part that is given to no one to see.” Thus he accepted the offering of the nerelkho—the only offering in the long list that the prince knew in which no other ceremonial object figured, for the offering of the nerelkho is himself. Azul looked briefly nonplussed. It is hard to be the object of a ritual about which you know nothing.
Yet to this empty and officious formula, as the prince thought it, Azul had a response of his own, unprompted, quick, and subtle: smiling faintly, he covered his eyes with both hands. The majordomo looked at once confused and scandalized. Nerel understood the gesture instantly; he had seen it before. Two old women, and once a young woman with a baby, had covered their eyes before him in the street the previous year. It was the sign made by the people in the winter offering to the boatmen, a city ritual that he recalled vividly from childhood, when he had stared down at the beach from his room, which faced west. His father had held him up to the window until he was tall enough to see out past the sill; he could still feel his father’s warm hands on his cold legs. He remembered the gathered people in their heavy clothes setting their small boats on the water, covering their eyes as soon as they had released the little craft, turning their backs on the tiny waxen lights as the boats floated out among the marble shadows at midwinter dusk, running for the road that topped the beach. Not until the foot of every man, woman, and child was off the pebbly sand would they turn to watch. It was said that if you kept your eyes on one light until it was extinguished, you could make a wish on it. Nerel had never been clear as to whether this was part of the ritual or just some childish superstition. He could not remember where he had learned it. The city rituals were not contained in the palace books. He had strained his eyes to follow the bobbing lights, though he was always too far away and wasted many wishes. Every year he had watched that surging line of heads run up the beach, matching the pace of the fragile sparks as they were carried away by the tide, a dark wave and a light wave parting at the shoreline. As he grew older he wondered more and more what the people wished for when they got to the road and whether their wishes came true. All this came back to him in a flash at the sight of Azul’s covered eyes.
Nerel was shaken. For him, it was rare that one ritual spoke to another; they were separate in his mind. The fisherman’s casual ability to link them together was foreign to him. It was as if Azul spoke another language.
Azul, uncovering his face, peered at the prince sharply. As his fingers parted to reveal his blue eyes, Nerel felt their gaze hit him as if on new skin. He felt that he had changed drastically in moments, old inner certitudes breaking up inside him. Azul seemed to register a difference. He tried to gather his fragmented thoughts: “Go with the majordomo; he will instruct you. We have three days before Perihelion, and there are palace rituals to be performed before the ceremony itself. It is all written in a huge book that we have in the library—we consult it every year, even the master of ceremony, as there is so much to remember.” Azul did not look pleased at the prospect of spending three days in the condescending company of the majordomo (Nerel had a wry vision of that paragon of formality arriving in a street of fisherfolk hovels), so the prince continued: “I can never recall it all myself, but I know it begins with a cleansing bath and a breakfast featuring hare. I will meet you later in the morning for the presentation.” Azul relaxed visibly. He nodded, turned on his heel, and without bowing or offering any other sign of leave-taking, rapidly descended the stairs. To Nerel, accustomed to the slow theater of court exits, it was as if Azul had suddenly dropped through the floor. The majordomo lingered by the stairwell, hoping for acknowledgment.
“How did you find him?” asked Nerel abruptly.
“A rumor reached me in the market, about a man who resembled the boatmen, what a stir he had caused among the fisherfolk. You know how they keep to themselves, so I thought he must be quite remarkable for such news to get abroad. He lives in what passes for a fine house down west of the water, among those wretched dwellings there. His father is a sort of chieftain among them. Is he not—” the majordomo hesitated—“remarkable?”
“Remarkable? Yes. I doubt that there will ever have been a Perihelion like this one, not in a thousand years… You have done well.” The majordomo flushed slightly and gave a short, stiff bow. Nerel waved him absently away. His gaze was drawn back to the window, back to the boatmen, his stone kin—his, and Azul’s. For a long time he had felt that the boatmen were inimical, diminishing him in their identical multitude. Yet he had not felt the same about Azul’s living face. Knowing that he was not the only one who bore the weird imprint of the boatmen lifted a burden from his heart; he was not alone in this fate or bond or chance likeness, whatever it was. Not the only one from whom the boatmen had stolen his name. Lately he had felt their lifeless weight in everything, in everyone; a growing coldness as if the world were turning to stone around him. Now when he looked down on their inert figures sailing away to the horizon he saw, all around them, the changing play of water.
His restless mind ran over the list of rites that would now occupy him, many more than would occupy the nerelkho, including one that did not appear in the book of the palace ceremonies. It was one that always struck him as macabre, and it would have to be attended to that night, after dusk had fallen and Azul had peacefully eaten his dinner in the great hall and retired to the prince’s bedchamber.
Nerel corrected himself: although it was likely to be the best meal Azul would ever have eaten, it would not be peaceful at all for a man of the fisherfolk surrounded by courtiers. All had uncomfortable duties at the Perihelion. The servants carrying the heavy tub of Azul’s bathwater with its grit and clippings down to the harbor were performing a task no less necessary to the whole, the book of ceremonies assured him. Necessary to the whole of what? the prince wondered: of some great series of ritual correspondences the ancestors had imagined for this day, for this feast, for the whole calendar, the world? To what end? Sometimes Nerel tried to picture what these links might be, their order and power and scope, but his mind would get lost in spiraling immensities.
The prince’s own Perihelion duties were not so much arduous as arcane. For most public purposes, the nerelkho would be the prince for the next three days—presiding over meals and palace audiences, dancing at an afternoon ball arranged by the merchants’ guild—while the prince-that-was took care of a multitude of small rituals hidden from the public eye. Nerel remembered himself as a boy, reading endless volumes on protocol and heraldry and the language of flowers, wearing out his elbows on the wooden table of the library as he tried to decipher dance notation; the majordomo was probably digging out those volumes even now.
Nerel suddenly wondered if Azul could read. What call would a fisherfolk man have for reading? Who did he have who might help him? There was no one except the royal schoolmaster, now elderly and deaf. And, the crucial thought came to him with a pang, what if Azul couldn’t swim? Surely the son of a fisherfolk chieftain could swim. The drowning of a nerelkho would be a terrible omen. For himself he felt no fear; he had been swimming practically from birth. It is a skill all princes learn, because of the Perihelion. He glanced down again at the distant boatmen, anchored fast on their marble pillars, and felt a flash of his old resentment: they need not fear drowning, he thought. But I would rather one of them foundered than that any subject of mine should die in their service. He could not recall ever having thought this before.
He turned his back on the boatmen and walked into the adjoining chamber, facing away from the harbor and toward the town, where he drew the heavy blinds and lit the first of the ceremonial candles. These came from a special supply made every year according to an ancient recipe; a candle only a hand’s-breadth long would burn for six hours with a strange blue flame. The secret of their making was recorded in the book of ceremonies, although their use was not. Their use, indeed, was the object of much speculation among the candle-makers, the majordomo, and the master of ceremony. They had concluded that the prince burned them in some private meditation, as no trace of them had been found in the public ceremonies.
Nerel placed the candles in the hidden wells and lit them, noting the time on the clock nearby; he would return in six hours to renew them. He opened the window slightly, as his father had always reminded him to do, for the fumes of these candles were strong and in a closed room would leave one breathless. He placed the warding of fine red thread across the door, leaving the glimmering dimness of the room behind him, and went down to breakfast and his duties of the morning.
After the series of meetings that took place this morning every year in the presence of the recorder, in which the prince formally delegated the powers of the palace to the majordomo, of the city and gates to the master at arms, of royal justice to the peace warden, and named his heir (childless, it was his first cousin, a quiet man ten years his senior, renowned as a hunter), it was time for the presentation. Nerel, always feeling after this particular morning’s events that he had just presided over his own death, usually attended this ceremony in a state of subdued depression. Normally he felt empty, as if he himself were the nerelkho and his ghost the real prince: he supposed this was the point. Unlike many ceremonies that he performed, this one usually made itself true, to his own mind at least: it drained the power from him and poured it into the nerelkho, a man lively and fresh to the ritual, usually in a state of wild excitement, where Nerel was dull and dead from its repetition. Not so today. Nothing was dull about this Perihelion; it seemed to him that the very air crackled around him. The ceremony would work in quite another way today.
Nerel stood quietly in his suit of sea blue with gold thread, screened from the waiting crowd of courtiers by the majordomo and the master of ceremonies, waiting near the floor mark for the sun to hit noon. The patch of light on the floor cast by the round skylight above brightened and dimmed as clouds passed over and slowly centered itself on the golden disc embossed into the dark marble. Hot light flared from it in the dim coolness of the hall. The master of ceremonies silently touched Nerel’s hand, and Nerel stepped past him onto the solar mark, his feet making a slight ringing just discernible to his ear. At the same time, from behind the warden and the recorder, stepped the nerelkho Azul, identical in his suit of sea blue and gold, placing his feet carefully on the disc. Back to back he stood with the prince, their matched arms outstretched. A rushing whisper passed through the hall like a soft wave striking the beach. A dead silence fell, and in that silence, unbroken by the usual coughs and mutterings, Nerel and Azul performed three shuffling sun-wise rotations. As his light-filled gaze slowly passed over the crowd, Nerel saw shock on the faces hanging like pale lanterns in the gloom. He felt their awe deep within himself, as behind him he felt the back of Azul, his shoulder blades pressing exactly into his own, the points of their skulls touching, the backs of their hands meeting precisely, to the same finger lengths. He felt the quivering tension in his neck and the tiny movements of his hamstrings as he moved his feet, as if they were one body. It seemed to him that everyone in the hall felt at the same time, the same thing. Not only was he joined to Azul, but both of them to the crowd; they were all one being.
In their three rotations, it seemed possible that three days had passed, which as the master of ceremonies had explained was the meaning of the rite, marking the days until the Perihelion. The life of this great being of which he was now a part ran fast, ageing and changing with each breath. It was born and lived and died like a mayfly in the space of those three rotations, and Nerel mourned it as he and Azul spun and marked its time, this expanded consciousness that breathed through the throng and fled just as it was discovering itself. People awoke as if from a dream when the prince and his ghost came to a stop, with Azul facing them. Nerel stepped away from his back like his shadow detaching itself, except that he could have no shadow at noon, and Azul was the prince. All eyes were on Azul, fixed on his perfectly familiar face, as Nerel left the hall. Courtiers closed in around the man he left behind.
Feeling strangely light and euphoric, Nerel walked the halls back to the tower chamber to check the draft of the candles in the wells. Servants passing averted their eyes from him and kept their faces still, as was prescribed for the prince-who-was-not-the-prince during the reign of the nerelkho. So blank were they, and so powerful his feeling of lightness, that he wondered if he had truly become invisible; he felt as if the slanting light from the high windows was falling through him. His emptiness was liberating. Yet his emptiness was not complete; rather it was a feeling of division or partition, for part of himself yet stood in the throne room. Even as he broke the warding thread on the door and entered the glimmering chamber, his mind’s eye saw Azul on the majordomo’s arm, struggling to make light conversation with the press of merchants and lordlings in the great hall, vainly saying in answer to sly questions that no, he was not the prince, such jests were forbidden during the high feast of the Perihelion.
All through the afternoon, as Nerel went about the prince’s private ritual, unobserved, checking details in the book, he led this double life: now Azul is leading the procession into luncheon, now with his stomach tightening he is hearing the orchestra tune up for the ball, with hesitating feet he leads the maiden of honor onto the floor for the first dance. He took the inventory in the room of instruments; with the help of the book, he located the sextant, the astrolabe, and the other devices yet more obscure, dusted them and oiled their tiny and complicated moving parts. He placed new parchment in the wooden box on the table with the star chart engraved on its surface. He sharpened the quills, as he did every year, so that all stood in readiness (though readiness for what he could not imagine). These customary tasks absorbed one level of his attention, but all the while he listened to an inner voice that told him, minute by minute and hour by hour, what his counterpart was doing: now the master of ceremonies plucks his sleeve at supper over some slip in etiquette, now Nerel’s sometime-mistress arches her plucked brows at him in bemused invitation, now at last he retires to the royal bedchamber and lies alone and unsleeping, his mind awhirl. Only when he judged that Azul was finally asleep in the early darkness of night were his thoughts able to break free to concentrate on the day’s last and strangest rite, the one his father had called the Light of the Mind.
The Light of the Mind
The candles had been renewed at the sixth hour, the red thread broken and retied, so that now when Nerel entered at the twelfth hour, the room was warm, with a sharp and sulfurous smell, and blue light gleamed dully up from the silvered wells in the windowsills, making a silvery hemisphere over each opening. Seated in a hard wooden chair facing the window, Nerel waited. Within a moment, the candles died, but the light did not go out: it changed, the blue hemispheres shrinking to a low and pale glow. Nerel stood, then plunged his hands into the wells up to the elbow. At the bottom his fingers touched two rounded objects, now almost hot to the touch. On these he placed his palms. Standing in the darkness, looking out over the sleeping town, he tried to compose his mind. He had always found this part of the Perihelion ritual both pointless and disturbing. He had never been able to attain the broad and deep state of calm his father had described, and far from experiencing visions, he usually wasted the three hours of his vigil fending off leg cramps, shifting his hot hands, and trying to resist a morbid compulsion to stare down at the silvery skulls on which they rested.
Tonight he did not resist, but looked straight down at the red blood glowing in his hands, at the flesh made translucent by the blue-white skulls that now glowed like banked embers after twelve hours of the candles’ heat. They were, evidently, human skulls—of what men, he did not know, although he suspected they had once been princes—but skulls that had been in some manner treated to retain light. In daylight they appeared normal, the color of bone with a slight silvery sheen, and they felt slick to the touch, smoother than wax. They could not be shifted or removed from the wells and stared endlessly northward through the walls, each with a smooth round hole drilled into its top, into which the candles were inserted. As the candles burned, wax would pool inside and around them. Nerel carefully removed the wax each time, which was no great labor, since wax never clung to or discolored their surfaces. Nerel often kept the pieces of wax—in fantastic shapes, casts of one part or the other of the skulls—for a few hours or days after the ceremony, hoarding them as evidence of this strange affair, which always seemed unreal after it was over and he had replaced the cunningly fitted oil lamps over the wells, hiding them for another year. He kept the waxen shapes in a locked box, though, and duly disposed of them in the kitchen fires, as his father had instructed.
His father, too, had found the ritual distasteful, but had explained it to Nerel with care, as he had all ceremonies, which he had approached with great seriousness. Ceremonies, he said, make pathways in the mind, guiding our thoughts in ways we do not always recognize, sometimes not until after many years of performing them, sometimes never. Yet ceremonies are always working, at the time of their use, and after. People are shaped by them, and in doing them, we retain, in some part, ancient forms of thought. Each year Nerel reflected on this as he turned over the wax castings, because they seemed to him in some way expressive of their predicament. He and his people were shaped by the rituals of the ancestors, but the resulting shapes were partial, crazy, impressions of mere parts, making no whole. Perhaps this was the best that could be expected of ceremonies, static forms around and through which the flow of life runs like hot wax. Only after one had run up against the same ceremony time after time, molding oneself to all its parts, could one know it entirely or express its full shape. A ceremony was a slow means of gaining knowledge.
Nerel rarely enjoyed such cogent thoughts during the Light of the Mind itself, a time during which his mind was hopelessly scattered, dwelling on each passing itch—sometimes he was a wildfire of transient itches, stuck in place, unable to move his hands—or even counting and recounting the rooftops. Tonight, though, was different; as he gazed down into the wells at his own glowing hands, he felt descending on him, as if from a great distance, the same quietness he had experienced in the throne room.
The skulls felt natural under his fingers, objects that had been grown, not made. All things seemed connected. The warmed blood in his hands passed up through his arms, through his heart and brain, passed through, eventually, all his flesh, as the energy of the skulls transfused his body. He felt suddenly that he wore the tower, the entire palace in its vastness of stone and timber, on his two arms like gauntlets. Out and northward he looked, like the skulls themselves, as if he had become their eyes, which he had always thought sadly blind, peering from windows still lit with lanterns and fires in which heads appeared like the pupils of a hundred orange eyes. He felt the dim bulk of the castle spiraling down and down through ranks and series of arches, weight shifting and transferring until it stood with spread toes on its foundations deep under the earth. From this huge and dim body truths came home to him that he had never been able to perceive before. He felt the world rolling away from under him, arching out into the unlit continent; he felt the slabs and baulks of the building clenched like muscles resisting an endless slow fall.
As his vision swept like a tide over the guardhouses and fortified mansions of town, over the granaries at its outskirts, the meadows and mountains behind them, over distant forests and mounting peaks, he gradually lost the sense of its leading edge. Nerel no longer looked out from the tower. Rather it was as if he had already arrived everywhere; his mind inhabited every closed alpine flower, every blade of grass, as if it had grown there always and he had just now discovered it. He wondered if this secret dweller in his head had always been there: was it, perhaps, the thing not seen, the nerelkho? All along inside him he had borne this vastness, an interior copy of the world, which now came out and touched ends with the world he walked on. No name could compass it, for it meant everything, all things in one, from which no part could be distinguished: Nerel, no one, was the right word for it.
So, finally, on the night that he performed the ceremony for the sixth time, Nerel was illumined by the Light of the Mind, and the first thing he perceived was the reason for the name of the prince under which he had chafed for five long years. His father had not, as he had previously believed, taken away his own proper name in that hurried ceremony just before his death, but instead had named him to the fullest possible extent, giving him a great gift. Nerel was one with the world. It is impossible to take away the world.
By the time he had furled back into the body he had been born in like a flower folding up its petals at night, the three hours of the vigil were long past. The skulls had cooled under his hands; they no longer glowed, and the room was fully dark. He prised the cooling wax from them and covered the wells with the lamps. The Perihelion candles were gone, and once again the majordomo would be stymied in his search for traces of them.
Nerel lit one lamp and sat by it, stretching his cramped legs, feeling newly present in his own flesh. He considered where he would sleep.
During the Perihelion, all the prince’s chambers belong to the nerelkho. As for the prince-that-was, he is left to his own devices. No servants attend to him, no meals are served to him; and he has to find his own bed. He remembered the first time, just after his accession, prowling around the palace half the night, finally collapsing onto a small couch in an antechamber off the great hall. One year he had sought out the servants’ hall and slept in a bed in a tiny room, little more than a cubicle. Later he had been worried that in doing so he might have forced someone out, perhaps to sleep on the floor, and he had ordered a bouquet sent up to the room, creating six months’ notoriety for one of the junior housemaids. Thereafter he had stuck to public spaces. Likewise he still found it curious and exhilarating to get his own food, venturing into the kitchens at odd hours, sampling dishes that were still being made or cutting off hunks of bread and meat with knives that always seemed to be conveniently at hand. He suspected that more food than usual was left out on these nights, and utensils were left lying about. Once he had come down to find a whole cake, elaborately iced in blue and gold, which should surely have been locked in the pantry, and he had remembered the small smile a young pastry cook had thrown him, even though she was not supposed to see him at all.
Tonight, though, he finally lay down and slept where he was, piling draperies on a settee in the corner. His feet stuck off the end a foot or more but he did not care. He was happy to sleep in the room in which the Light of the Mind had come to him.
His neck was awry when he rose, such that his head felt wrongly placed on his shoulders for much of the morning. He went about through the halls shrugging. He attended to various small rites, looking forward to the afternoon, when he would next meet with Azul. Preparations for the great ceremony moved on around him.
People would be gathering on the beaches now, clustering ever more thickly for the whole next day. Fruit-, fish-, and ale-sellers would be moving amongst the crowd, small tents and canopies providing shade for the lucky ones, though these would be taken down for the vigil itself, even in rain, so that the people would stand or sit through the vigil with their heads uncovered. Every year a contingent of the palace foresters and gardeners was sent out to dig pits for latrines—and to clear them later, carting the dirty sand to distant beaches to be carried out to sea far from the city. This was their least favorite duty, and the majordomo had to make sure they carted it far enough away. Such events of the city, Nerel reflected—as well as selling the day’s catch to the hungry crowd for spit-roasting—would once have been Azul’s whole experience of the Perihelion. But now, for a day and a night, he had been the prince in his palace. His world had expanded over that time as much as Nerel’s had.
Attended by the master of ceremony, Azul entered the library wearing the prince’s olive doublet, and Nerel had the impression that he had slipped in time and was seeing his own entry into the room the previous week, when he had last worn it. The doublet was one he had never liked because he had had the misfortune to have his portrait painted in it, and wearing it always brought to his mind the boring hours of stillness, the smell of resin and the stertorous breathing of the court painter, a petty tyrant whom Nerel’s father had tolerated because his work was good. Now he appreciated, for the first time, how good the picture had been, for Azul was exactly like it. Azul glanced at Nerel, and the prince saw behind his eyes the look of a door ajar, the same expression that he had glimpsed in his own eyes as he passed through the hall of mirrors that morning: the look of a man who has seen visions. The prince wondered if Azul—nerelkho—had been with him during the Light of the Mind. If so, he had been unable to distinguish him. As the vision of the previous night had gone on, he had lost the sense he had gained during the presentation, that sense of leading a twinned life with Azul. The outlines of their privileged relationship had been swept away along with all others. He could not hold on to his knowledge of the nerelkho as a single and distinct person; the role of nerelkho had leached out into everything.
For a moment Nerel felt strangely bereft as he looked at Azul. He might have known himself in this man, had the ceremony not intervened with a greater truth. Now he was burdened with the larger task of finding himself in all things, and all things in himself. Nerel’s wonderful resemblance to the fisherman, the wonder of their common resemblance to the boatmen, had been overshadowed by the even greater marvel of his own resemblance to all men—and to cattle and grass and pebbles and birds without distinction. A prince is accustomed to thinking of his very being as different from other men’s. Azul had seemed to prove this, to add luster to his identity, marking him out as the only man to have a mysterious twin. But no, Nerel now saw: we are all twins. He could no longer regard Azul in the self-congratulatory fashion of the previous day. Nor could he question him about the new light in his eyes without revealing the secret of the private ceremony, which was forbidden.
“My lord the prince-that-was,” began Azul hurriedly, “For that is what the master says I should call you—I didn’t know what to say after they told me I had taken your name for this festival, for if I am no one, what then are you?—greetings from the one who has borrowed your life. And what a life! Even its dreams are strange.”
“Are they?” asked Nerel, his attention caught. But he could think of no way to pursue the topic with the ceremonist standing attentively by.
“What a life!” said Azul again. “Is it always like this?”
“No,” said Nerel, considering, “Or at least, it is usually much like your past two days, but with fewer ceremonies. There are many prescribed for the Perihelion, and people become unusually attentive to slights and omissions in everything, so that sometimes so many wardings are performed it defies belief. I often find it best not to speak at all lest what I say become an occasion for another one.” A rueful smile told Nerel that Azul had already seen all too many of these. “So even your dreams are different here?” asked Nerel.
“Yes,” said Azul, softly.
The ceremonist, now seated at the table with the book open before him, coughed.
The prince sighed and invited Azul to sit. “Now we will learn our places in the great ritual, the one you have already seen from afar and that the people wait for even now. What do you know of it already?”
“Little,” said Azul, “Except that it makes people buy more fish. Everybody knows it has something to do with the boatmen, some warding or intercession. That much anyone can see from the form of it. And that it works in some way to safeguard the prince and his luck, by bringing him close to them. What especially matters to fisherfolk, though, is the stone powder. It floats on the surface of the water, sometimes for days after the ceremony, making it strangely smooth, and glistening at night. It’s good luck to get it on your hands, and babies born during the Perihelion are always marked with it. I was one such baby.”
“Indeed?” said Nerel. “And I thought only the prince or his nerelkho had ever been touched by that powder! And to think that the fisherfolk have used it all along! It has been made by a family of gunsmiths time out of mind, I have no idea how. It is marvelous stuff, with a property of clinging much greater than that of ordinary dust; a great mystery. And absolutely no smell. Somehow that has always seemed to me the oddest thing of all. How were you marked, then, as a baby?”
“On the head, hands, and feet. A tiny amount is smeared on and left to wear off, which takes days. So the baby glows in the dark in its hammock and is an object of wonder. Mine stayed on me for five days, a long time. People recalled it when I came of age and looked so much like the boatmen. At first it caused great fear, and there was talk of abandoning the Perihelion marking. But at last my father decided that surely it was a sign that it was a true ceremony. And so it still goes on. Any baby born to us this year will receive the marking as usual.”
The idea that there might be other private ceremonies outside the palace had never before struck Nerel: ceremonies not contained in the books in the library or the mayor’s office, where the books of city rituals were kept. Were they therefore not true? Had they come from the ancestors? Were the ancestors of the fishermen the same as the princes’? Was it because a ceremony was descended from the ancestors that it was true? Questions flooded his mind. He could put them to his own ceremonist, but he was sure such local rites would be unknown to him, and suspect, merely matter for more wardings. Yet it seemed to Nerel that Azul’s father was right: the truth of the fishermen’s ceremony was borne out in Azul. If Nerel’s own form was a sign of approval from the ancestors, Azul’s must be, too. If that was what these resemblances meant at all.
A notion of great daring came to Nerel. The master of ceremony was seated some distance away and busy with his book. “Azul,” he asked humbly, “If a fisherfolk baby is born this year, may I come and witness the ceremony?”
For the first time, Azul looked almost hostile, as if he feared the prince might interfere. “Why?” he asked directly. “Can fisherfolk not have ceremonies, too?”
Nerel clasped his hands together and then laid them deliberately on the table. “Yes, obviously, yes they can! But I have never seen one, nor even thought of one, until now. I don’t know why. There must be thousands of ceremonies in the city, in families, in guilds, and I never gave a thought to them. They are not written in the palace books. Perhaps there are other books of ceremonies, private ceremonies—why have I not thought of this before? And also some that have never been written down. What if, in some calamity, they should be lost? Who is to say how old they are? They should be collected and preserved—we should make new books. I should come and see the Perihelion marking rite, Azul, and many others.”
Azul looked surprised. “But would you not send a servant? Or your master of ceremony, to record it in his book, if that is the task?”
“No,” replied Nerel. “I will come myself. The master’s job is the care of the palace ceremonies, which is quite enough. The prince may come and go freely. He must be admitted everywhere, and all rituals are holy to him. How can a prince know his people if he does not know their ceremonies? I will see them with my eyes, witness them in my heart, and commit them to parchments like those in our library: the Book of the New Ceremonies.”
“Some of them may not be so new,” said Azul, “though new to you, maybe. My mother said that the silvermark has been among the fisherfolk for as long as the Perihelion itself has, and there are other rites as old, though small, and with no names. Better to call it the Book of Nerel—for surely, when you start looking, you will find that nobody knows all these ceremonies, the little ones used among the people, and that they are always changing, so they can never be fully known.”
Nerel was still, thinking the unthinkable, of ceremonies that changed. His book would never catch up; whatever he wrote would only be the rite that he saw that day, that might be different in some small matter the next time, and different again another. Would there be any point to such a book at all? Yes, he thought, smiling to himself, the Book of No One will also be the Book of Not, taking part of its meaning from what it does not say: always there will be something missing, a sign of the loss of knowledge, of what cannot be known. This seemed to him appropriate, a picture of the truth as it was known to him, never complete. For we are connected to the ancestors as much by loss as truth, and even among ourselves, by loss, by those things which are not said or known, and this also is worthy of memory.
The master of ceremony continued to pore over his book, oblivious. Looking at Azul seated beside him, a crucial question leaped to Nerel’s mind, and he blurted it out before his thoughts were composed: “Azul,” he asked, “Can you swim?”
“Oh, yes,” said Azul easily, “Everyone in my family can swim. My mother and sisters, too. My father taught us, as he said, to live also in the element that gives us our livelihood. Many disapproved and said it was strange, and there are many fisherfolk children who can’t swim a stroke, but my father goes his own way.”
Relief welled up in Nerel, so vivid that it seemed he saw a flash of color before his eyes. “Good,” he replied briefly, to hide his emotion. “I am glad. For the places of the prince and the nerelkho are chosen by lot, and I cannot assure you the place in the boat. The master will show us.” He gestured to the master of ceremony, who had finished reading over the description of the Perihelion rite as he did every year at this juncture, to hold a picture of it in his mind as prescribed. With a small flourish, the master removed from his robes an ancient wooden box, hinged with brass, and from it brought out a die, two opposite faces black, two white, two gray. He also removed a tiny wooden boat carved in silver-gray wood and a glass phial that Nerel knew to contain seawater from the harbor. He placed all these objects on the table.
“These I use to ask the questions,” the master explained to Azul. He picked up the boat and held it in his left hand. “This is for determining who will wait in the boat. Black is for the prince-that-was, white for the nerelkho, gray is no answer, and I must throw again.” He threw the die and it landed with a gray face up. He threw again. Again, gray. A third time. Gray. “Three times no answer! Maybe the ancestors themselves cannot decide.” He did not seem disturbed, but glanced shrewdly across at the identical faces of Nerel and Azul, squinted, and tossed the die a fourth time. A black face came up. “Aha!” he exclaimed, “The prince-that-was gets a place in the boat. It’s just as well that you can swim, master nerelkho. But we must make sure.” He replaced the boat in the box and took up the phial, for the place in the water. Holding it in his left hand, he cast the die once more with his right. Nothing, said the gray face. Another toss. Gray. Again. Gray. “The ancestors keep their secrets today,” said the master, merrily. He threw the die away from him, hard. It bounced and came up white. “White, you see, Nerel-of-the-Perihelion. You will swim. Never have the ancestors failed to distinguish these tasks, although it is written in the Book of the Master that once they kept the master waiting, falling gray and gray and gray for the space of a whole day and a night, unsleeping. I am glad that it was not me they kept waiting!”
“Thank you, master,” said Nerel, and Azul echoed him carefully. He took Azul’s hand, placed it formally in the hand of the master of ceremony, spoke the appropriate words: “I give you now the nerelkho, that you may instruct him in his task, the task of the swimmer. I take upon myself the task of the guardian.”
In the five times Nerel had performed the ceremony, twice he had been swimmer and three times the guardian. There was no telling how it would fall. His father once had been sick at the time of Perihelion, with a high fever that would not abate. Though his mother had waked all night performing invocations, his father had had to swim, according to the judgment of the die. And swum he had, while a fat merchant’s son sat in the boat waiting; and his father had come from the cold water with his fever broken. Nerel himself, who was an athlete, had preferred the times when he had been swimmer to waiting in the boat, which was usually as boring as the vigil of the Light of the Mind. As the vigil had been anything but boring the previous night, so he hoped there were new things he might learn as he sat in the flickering darkness of the harbor, with the torchlight splashing across the water, waiting for Azul to arrive.
Nerel rose from the table and gripped Azul by the shoulder, telling him to stay with the master and learn the details of the rite. “And you have yet a half-day and a day to reign in the palace. Enjoy it. Tell the majordomo you would like to see the horses, the hounds, the hunting birds. Order food that you like from the kitchens. Or take the royal junk out and show the courtiers how to catch fish, which, I assure you, they do not know how to do. You are the prince, and none can command you—except to make you do wardings.”
Azul laughed. Nerel left him sitting there, in the olive doublet, with a trace of that curious feeling, which seemed to be returning, that he was leaving part of himself behind.
On the eve of the Perihelion the sun set slowly, bronzing the water and transforming the stone boatmen from silver to gold. The beach was crowded; there was hardly room to stand or move. Tents and parasols had long since been shut away. It was time for the distribution of the masks. Servants came out from the palace laden with heavy baskets full of strips of black silk, folded double and stitched. They edged and crept through the packed crowd, making sure that every man, woman, and child had a strip, excepting only tiny babies under a half-year. People accepted their fine masks eagerly; for most, the fabric was finer than any they saw for the rest of the year, and the Perihelion silk pieces, their seams carefully unpicked, edged many garments and handkerchiefs afterward, beautifying them and endowing the wearer with luck.
Azul’s mother Joostan possessed, as her dower wealth, a black dress made entirely of Perihelion silk collected over many generations. She had worn it to her wedding, and soon her eldest daughter Marina would wear it to hers—after the baby was born and lived and throve for twelve days, as was the custom.
Many things connected her to the great ritual, she mused as she thrust her hand into the basket to receive her fortieth strip of silk: the dress, her son with his Perihelion marking and boatman’s face, and now her daughter, in labor and bidding fair to produce her baby before the feast was over, thus bringing a second Perihelion child to the family.
Most families had connections of their own to the great rituals, using them to mark times of weddings, funerals, and family rites, but hers had been touched by the Perihelion in a way that seemed remarkable to her and to the other fisherfolk: the chief of their families, chiefly marked, sharing in the glory of the first festival of the city. That Azul had been chosen as nerelkho now seemed to her inevitable, despite the fact that none of their rank had ever been known to be chosen before. Three of her other sons were on the beach, passing up and down, selling fish to the crowd; they walked proudly, knowing many eyes were on them: their brother was the prince’s ghost.
The hot and restless crowd, plagued by flies, stench, and noise, waited impatiently, at least until the evening bell had rung, when they were to cover their eyes with their masks. Mothers gave their children their last snacks, took them to the communal pits and then to the waterline to wash, and gently covered their eyes with the black strips, checking carefully for gaps. Husbands helped wives to wrap the cloths around their elaborately braided hair. Courting couples carefully marked out their partners in the crowd, for it was often said that the first person you saw when you removed the mask would be the one you would marry. All over the beach, people imposed upon themselves this voluntary blindness.
Small children cried and were comforted. Here and there a voice would be raised, shouting, exclaiming, or singing, but gradually a hypnotic silence grew, as if the power of speech had vanished with the power of sight. As always, within an hour of the donning of the masks, the beach was utterly silent, and anyone who could see—and there were none, for the unmasked infants slept in the deep quiet—might have witnessed the strange sight of a huge, blind, wordless throng, their black-striped heads facing the water, effortfully listening.
Listening, they heard the hiss and crackle of the many lit torches that sputtered by the waterline, marking the edge and throwing bars of light across the darkening water. They listened above all for the sound of oars, feathering almost soundlessly as they ferried the guardian to his place among the boatmen. It was never known in advance if the guardian was the prince or the nerelkho; nor was his place among the one hundred and four boatmen ever fixed. This was the mystery of the ritual, and it could not be resolved until the ceremony was over.
As the sun was setting and the crowd readying itself on the beach, Azul and Nerel each made their final, separate preparations in the palace. Azul donned again the blue and gold doublet he had worn for the presentation, to which was added a fluttering blue silk cape that flowed wavelike behind him as he was conducted by two valets to the tide portal, and Nerel stood in an underground chamber while the gunsmith and his apprentice painstakingly blew, breath by breath, with a small instrument like a bellows, a fine iridescent powder all over him, covering even his eyelids. Though they were apart, a kindred feeling slowly settled over them.
In each of their breasts a conviction of rightness was formed, a sense that things were taking their true course, one that obviated all fear and even joy, flattening emotions so that their minds stretched out without impediment, seeing past, present, and future in one calm continuity. Azul paused motionless at the end of a dank corridor that led out to a hidden exit in a watery cave that gave onto the harbor. Nerel, seated in the silvery boat of light wood that was a perfect replica of the boatmen’s, waited to be drawn out into the harbor, silently past the bound eyes of the waiting townspeople. They did not feel that they were waiting, but rather that they were already in the ceremony, that they had lived always in this greater ceremony, one that was their whole lives, which even the great ritual of Perihelion could but palely reflect.
When the listening crowd heard the two small splashes of the fore and aft anchors that fixed the newcomer among the boatmen carry across the water, and the bell rang, they pulled off their masks and strained their eyes. It was a good five minutes before the first voice muttered “There!” and the first hand pointed.
The deep stillness of Nerel in the silvery boat as he sat in a near-trance, his flawless finish of stone powder, and his eerie resemblance to the boatmen, made him nearly impossible to find as he floated among the shadowy forms. Only his eyes, blinking occasionally, gleaming in the glancing firelight, distinguished him from his stone companions—that and perhaps the slight, slight rocking of his anchored boat on the swell. Yet the waves lapping over the prows of the boatmen gave them the illusion of a similar movement, and when Nerel closed his eyes to rest them and showed his silvered lids, he became a statue: the hundred and fifth stone boatman, stone made flesh.
Or flesh made stone.
An evanescent sigh lifted up from the pacified crowd, drifting and coiling through the air like the silvery smoke from the torches, like the slowly spreading drift of silver dust swirling through the water surrounding the prince’s boat. Nerel heard the sound and thought it was the faint and quivering song of the lit stars that filled his sight as he gazed at the dark horizon; all things seemed to be speaking the same language.
He felt, as he sat gleaming in the rocking darkness, facing away from the world of men, that he had become an intricate silver machine like the ones in the room of instruments. Placed as he was among the carven images of men, the ceremony made him think of himself as a man, what a man is, the meaning of his form. Parts of his iridescent body caught the trails of light that washed across him from the torches, randomly fixed on tall stakes between the stone boats, that seemed to burn in midair: his silver hands, machines for grasping, writing, eating; his shins, with muscles that loosed and flexed like bowstrings, contributing their force to his actions of walking or dancing. He saw the separate parts of himself as a collection of tools of great workmanship, as fine as those made by the ancestors with their cunning cogs and wheels, for he too was an instrument made by them, an instrument for living.
The makers of the boatmen had lived and died, leaving them as monuments to their power over the world—the prodigy of stone that seemed to float—but they made them also in the shape of men, in whom the living power of such invention resides. The great ceremony of Perihelion thus spoke to Nerel now, telling him the true meaning of the living guardian’s vigil among the stones: it was not that the living man sought to model himself upon the dead statues, trying and failing to reproduce their eternity, but that he brought among them for this one night of the year a living vestige of the human power that had made them. And he realized that all along, the truth of the matter was not that he, Nerel, looked like the boatmen, but that the boatmen looked like him.
So that fear was laid to rest. His father was proved right, again, in his respect for the ceremonies, which Nerel had so long dismissed as empty; they were not dumb, but eloquent, if only one allowed them to speak.
So lost was he in these contemplations that he did not notice Azul’s approach until he saw his hand on the gunwale, making a dark mark on the silvery white like a word drawn on a pristine page. The nerelkho’s black head appeared, bobbing in the darkness off the port side, the cape lifting and swirling behind him like a dark wing, and he stared up into the prince’s face like a wet otter, his eyes flaring red in the torchlight. He said nothing, but reached up his other hand onto the gunwale and held on.
Nerel was suddenly conscious of him as an animal, a live thing thrashing in the grip of the alien water, but he felt no threat. He waited. With no warning and no word, Azul gave a mighty kick and heaved upward from his arms, freeing his whole torso from the waves, hurling himself at Nerel, grasping him by the shoulders and carrying him clear of the boat to plunge into the cold sea on the starboard side.
The waves closed over Nerel’s head. The nerelkho’s cape as well as his own entangled both of them, and Nerel felt the hot grip of hands on his shoulders and grew conscious of his own hands convulsively clutching Azul’s arms, whether in embrace or defense he did not know. The two of them sank like stones for the space of ten heart beats, and then, as one, struggled upward. Their heads broke the surface at the same time, gasping for air, face to face, their arms conjoined as if dancing. “Hail, Nerel the prince,” said Azul.
Dazed, Nerel replied by rote, “Hail, Nerel nerelkho.” Never before had he been so handled by a nerelkho, thrown from the boat in a single lunge, the strength of which had amazed him. The fretful merchants’ sons who had been swimmers before had merely pulled his hand, and he had rolled himself over the side. One, having swum for twenty minutes, cumbered by his clothes and cape, searching desperately for the prince’s boat among the carven figures, had been too tired to do even that. Only Azul had ever performed the true task of the swimmer: to find the guardian among the boatmen and drag him into the sea, washing away his silver powder and making him once again a living man.
Following some inner prompting, Azul had known Nerel’s place, had gone straight to his mooring; he was a strong swimmer, and he had arrived fresh. He had done what he had done because it seemed right to him, that the guardian who had been stone should be made flesh again by shock, by the power of feeling that stone did not have. So he had propelled the prince violently over the side, holding him and adding his own weight to the fall, bringing him back into life by the risk of death. He had felt the transformation in Nerel’s body, from stone to man, as he fell and sank lifelessly until the vital spirit had surged within him and he had fought and kicked and risen up again alive. That was how the ceremony had spoken to Azul.
He gazed into the prince’s face and felt the triumph of the sculptor in the ancient story, who succeeded in bringing his statue to life. For although Nerel spoke calmly, his eyes were wide, and Azul felt the prince’s limbs trembling beneath his hands. The two of them hung in the cold darkness of the water like stars in the firmament, bright dust pooling around them. Then they swam.
Azul reached the beach first and rose from the water a few paces ahead of the prince. There was scattered clapping from the waiting crowd as he walked up from the waterline toward them, and voices cried, “The prince, the prince; the swimmer comes.”
Azul’s wet clothes were dark and bore only faint traces of the guardian’s iridescence. Behind him the spectral figure of Nerel, glowing with traces and smears of powder silver-green in the torchlight, loomed suddenly upright out of the sea. As Nerel approached the crowd fell silent. Those who were sitting, stood. Rank after rank of faces, their eyes gleaming in the dark, turned to Azul and Nerel, the two stone boatmen come to life, the ancestors walking on the land of men. People covered their eyes, but then uncovered them to look again. Some turned to count the shadowy figures in the harbor. For years afterward it was said that two boats were empty: the guardian’s and one more.
Nerel and nerelkho stood on the beach amid the wondering people, their clothes dripping, a cold wind blowing over them, and instinctively they said nothing. The crowd, like a single curious animal, closed in on them, stroking their hands and garments, touching their faces, peering into their eyes.
Eventually, the crowd withdrew like an ebb tide, and even the clutching fingers of the smallest children plucking at their knees released. A path opened before them. Without speaking, Nerel and Azul walked through the crowd toward the palace, their wet boots squeaking as they reached the cobbled road. The soaked fringes of their cloaks dragged behind them, erasing their wet footsteps as they passed, to leave no trace.
Joostan had never seen the prince up close. She did not know why her son Azul had been chosen as nerelkho. She had expected to recognize him at once in the ceremony, and had camped for two days on the beach for a good vantage. But when, in the moonless night, she took off her mask with the rest and failed to know him, she thought only: why should this be more strange than the power that brings my grandchild tonight, twenty-five years to the day, almost to the hour, that Azul was born? The perfect resemblance was to her the stroke of destiny, the same mysterious will that brought Marina to her time tonight, a week past her due, when all the efforts of the midwives to start the labor had failed.
So she was the only one in the crowd of hundreds not gripped by a sudden holy fear when they saw that the swimmer and the guardian had the same face, and that it was the face of the stone boatmen. So long had this symmetry been building up in her mind, out of many small ones that linked her kin to the prince and the prince to the ancestors, through the Perihelion, that when it was revealed she felt not shock but fulfillment, as if someone had whispered in her ear the answer to a riddle she had not remembered asking but knew again upon the instant.
In a dreamlike silence Azul and Nerel passed up the great staircase into the palace, walking abreast. As they entered the great hall, light, heat, and noise hit them like trumpet blasts. A swirling, variegated crowd had taken possession of the chamber: women in bright silks, men in garnished doublets, their hands clutching feathered masks. An orchestra played. The court officers were assembled to receive the prince, now himself again, and the nerelkho, his honored guest.
Into this teeming mass passed the two dripping figures, carrying with them the stillness of the beach, which spread slowly out from their advance like dust motes swirling on water. When Nerel reached the dais he brought Azul up beside him, grasping his forearm under the elbow to assist him—an honor noted jealously by the majordomo—and turned to look out over the mosaic of upturned faces. Feeling, after the deep quietness of the vigil, as if he had never spoken before, Nerel said the first thing that came into his head: “Courtiers,” he said, “I give you Azul of the fisherfolk, prince of nerelkhos.” Thunderous applause broke out and rolled over them. “He has ruled over you for three days, no doubt to your great confusion.”
“Also to mine,” said Azul, quietly but distinctly, from beside him. A windy chuckle flowed through the crowd.
“I thank you for your attention to him, which is attention to me, according to the rule of the Perihelion. I thank the court officers for their assistance to him, and the master of ceremony for his scrupulous attention to the ritual, which this year, I am sure, will be long remembered.”
“And I,” said Azul, suddenly and clearly, “I thank also the lady Megarion, who was kind to me, and who alone believed that I was not you.” A measuring silence followed, and many eyes turned toward the wise and sardonic Megarion in her dark beauty, known to have been the prince’s mistress in time past, who tipped her fan to the prince and the nerelkho.
“Tonight is the night of the Perihelion ball. Let all don their masks and let the festivity begin!” Nerel raised his arms and performed the short bow. The front ranks responded with the deep bow. The orchestra resumed. The majordomo hurried forward to attend them. As prince and nerelkho passed down the side hallway toward the retiring room, where a collation awaited to refresh them before their return to the ball, Azul muttered: “My mother has sent word that my sister Marina is having her first baby tonight. It will be a Perihelion child, and so receive the marking at my father’s house.”
“Your sister to have a Perihelion child! So the birth of your niece or nephew will mark the beginning of the Book of Nerel,” replied the prince, quizzically. “When do we go?”
“You still mean to come, and leave the ball, then?” asked Azul.
“Yes,” said Nerel decisively. “For tonight is the night of that great ritual, the fishermen’s Perihelion marking, did you not know? How should the prince not attend, for a mere ball? Tonight is the opening of the Book of the New Ceremonies, the great work of my life, as I now see it.”
Azul looked at him seriously. “Then we should go now, as soon as we are dressed. I do not know if her child is yet born, but when it is, they will not wait, for me or for you. The custom is to perform the marking right after the cord is cut.”
So for the first time, the prince did not spend the night of Perihelion dancing among his court in the palace, but sitting in a stuffy and dim fisherman’s hut amid a crowd of astonished fishermen, waiting for the birth of a Perihelion baby.
Pausing only for fresh clothes, doublets of Perihelion blue, richer than any in Azul’s family had ever seen, the prince and the nerelkho left the celebrating palace and walked rapidly down to the mean houses of the fisherfolk along the waterline west of the harbor, standing out into the water on piles. To Nerel they seemed like roofed rafts.
Here he experienced the shock, greater than he had expected, of being mistaken for Azul and greeted by that name, sometimes with a clap on the back. Little did the fisherfolk know how many wardings they were spared. Yet all were conscious of the honor that the prince did them, and they treated him ceremoniously in return. The finest carven chair, as ancient as one in the palace, was provided for him. He was offered wine chilled in the sea, the bottles pulled up through the window by ropes, which charmed him greatly. Azul’s youngest brother, twelve years old, was set near him to ply a fan against the heat of the gathering.
He was introduced with great formality to Azul’s father, Rahel, chief of the fisherfolk, who greeted him with stiff and gracious words and responded with gravity to Nerel’s inquiries about the origins and practice of the marking ceremony. Rahel referred the prince chiefly to his wife, Joostan, who was then inside the inner room with the laboring woman. Lore-keeping among the fisherfolk is the preserve of women, like tallying and net-making. So her knowledge of these matters was greater than his, Rahel explained, and it was from her afterward that Nerel gleaned many of the details preserved in his book.
For several hours they waited in the semi-darkness lit by only a few candles, chairs and floorboards creaking as people shifted, random conversations being carried out on all sides. Many there present had been part of the mystified crowd on the beach earlier, but now there was no need to ask who had played which role in the great ritual, for the prince sat among them like a fallen star, glistening with the remnants of the stone powder. It seemed to them appropriate that the prince should witness the marking ritual while still covered with the silverfire himself.
Finally the safe birth of a baby girl was announced, accompanied by a yowling from the inner room. Out came Joostan, the child’s grandmother, bearing the tiny and naked infant close to her breast. Out came Marina, the new mother, borne on a small bed like a great lady in her palanquin. Azul’s father stepped forward, bearing in his hands a sieve of dull metal containing the powder, the silverfire of the ritual, which had been skimmed from the harbor some hours before.
He approached his daughter and knelt beside her bed, extending the sieve so she could dip her hands into it. And so she did, raising herself up with her elbows in obvious pain, but also with exaltation. Azul’s mother extended the small, writhing figure of the baby to her. Marina held her silvered palms up to the crowd and swiftly touched the baby on the brow, hands, and feet, leaving traces on her pink skin. The infant was quickly swaddled. Members of the crowd stepped forward in turn to congratulate Marina, whose marriage to the thrilled and harried youth sitting in front, who was the baby’s father, would now follow in twelve days if the infant survived.
Others congratulated the head of the family, Rahel, and his wife, on a second Perihelion child of their blood, and in their lifetimes, an unheard-of thing and surely a sign from the ancestors.
Nerel sat quietly throughout, taking what notes he could on his lap with a hand somewhat unpracticed and realizing as he did so the extent of the task he had taken on. He did not know how to organize his information into the customary categories used in the books of palace ritual, as some things did not seem to fit those forms, and he feared to forget words and phrases, and so copied them down hurriedly, in no order. He saw that he would have to go over it all at leisure, rationalizing and recopying it, before he could be satisfied with it as an entry in the Book of Nerel.
When the congratulations were concluded, Azul, Perihelion child and nerelkho both, stood before the assembly and, with the consent of Marina, Rahel, and the prince, named the new baby Perihelion. Some were shocked at this unprecedented use of the name, but as Azul’s father declared, looking at the prince as he sat among them on his hard chair, it was a new name for a new time.
Nerel and Azul still needed to perform one last ritual before they could part on Perihelion night. Though trifling to the prince’s mind, it proved to be perhaps the most important ritual of that whole long festival.
According to the palace Book of the Perihelion, before the nerelkho is released he must be paid for his service, paid with one type of coin only, a special silver piece minted from an ancient cast. Cast and coins alike are kept in a chest in the room of instruments. There, accordingly, Nerel took Azul when they returned to the palace late that night and there gave him a heavy, silver coin. The image of the stone boatman on one side was clear enough, but Azul puzzled over the image of a small, rare instrument on the other, holding it up to the light. Nerel led Azul to a table nearby and showed him the royal collection, which few people had ever seen.
“What are they?” asked Azul, peering at the tiny objects reposing on velvet.
“Objects of ritual. Devices of the ancestors.”
“Why are they here, in this room?”
“I don’t know. They have always been here. I attend to them every year. I have always imagined that they used them in ceremonies, though we do not.”
“They are tools, surely?” said Azul, moving closer, holding up a candle.
“Tools?” Nerel knew the names of most of them, and their separate parts, though not their function.
“Yes, like the brass scales used in the markets, or a blacksmith’s tongs—or a fishhook, even…” Azul picked up a small brazen instrument like a tiny clock (a clock was one ancestral device Nerel was familiar with, as there were three in the palace elsewhere, though none in public chambers) and examined it carefully. He did not ask the prince for permission. Nerel was aghast at Azul’s casual handling of the instruments. He always wore soft gloves in his annual rite of cleansing them. “See this?” he said, “The moving needle? It points one way, all the time. That way is north.” He picked up two more of them and carried them to the west window. “See—the needles quiver when you move them, but then they settle again—yes, it is as I thought, the needle points north, if it is not disturbed. Think if you had one on a boat! But for the waves, of course…” His words trailed off. Azul looked down at the gleaming dials, squinting at them critically.
“There is a mark on the casing here, a triangle. And on this one—and this one. Here. So, when the needle is settled on north, then, it points west. Like the boatmen. A triangle. West.” He gestured down to their dark forms in the harbor.
It struck Nerel that Azul had immediately grasped the purpose of the instruments in a way he could never have done. It was part of the fisherman’s wholly different sense of things.
Nerel had imagined ceremonies in which the little objects were used, from which great answers could be divined. He had always assumed that those unknown people who had made the boatmen had spoken a secret language of great power that they used in their ceremonies, and that they had used that language to communicate with the instruments. He now understood that it would have been no good asking them questions, as he had imagined, since they themselves were the questioners.
The might of the ancestors was no less marvelous than he had believed: they had indeed asked deep questions of the wind, the water, the earth and sky, but not with words. Rather, they had possessed tools that spoke to the world in its own unimaginable language and yielded up its answers. He had never before considered that the secret language of the ancestors could still be spoken. Yet here was the world, still speaking it—in whatever great power moved those tiny needles—and in the room of instruments lay the devices that could translate it into the languages of men, into numbers and signs and figures and words. Inside those tiny objects of crafted metal lay, coiled like the intricately folded paper snakes made for the spring festivals, a complex and unraveling system of signs that they had used to communicate with the world.
Azul had revealed all this to him in a single moment. He felt at once that Azul had stumbled upon the ancestors’ greatest ceremony, this rite of inquiry that the instruments had enabled. It had the power to dwarf those questions posed by his court ceremonist with his tiny wooden boat and phial and die, the tools of palace ritual. But he knew it was not for him. His task was chosen: the collection of the new ceremonies. It was more fit for his prince’s mind. Someone else, perhaps Azul, would have to pursue this other course. Perhaps it would become part of the fisherfolk lore. Azul would become custodian of the new knowledge and he, Nerel, of old knowledge from new people. These tasks were twinned, as they were.