August 2008 Volume Two Issue Five
The Oracle - Francesca Forrest
Fragrant smoke filled the spirit hall, so thick that from where twelve-year-old Five sat on the priests' side of the fire, the forms of the kneeling petitioners on the other side were mere silhouettes. The smoke couldn't veil their tension, though: Five saw how Crown Prince Hisa kept his head up while everyone else's were bowed, his eyes on the delegation from the Kingdom of the Plains. And what about the rigid shoulders of the warriors from the Kingdom of the Plains? Weapons were forbidden in the spirit hall, but even unarmed, the soldiers were intimidating.
The air resonated with the priests' humming. From the platform over the fire, almost invisible in the smoke, Five's little brother Gosling began to speak, his high, seven-year-old voice chanting words he would never think to string together when he wasn't in a spirit trance.
"The falcon circles the mountain and lands at the pinnacle. It looks to the north and to the south and is pleased with the breadth of its vision. The snow leopard follows the rivers downstream and offers jewels at the ocean."
The priests kept humming for moments more, but Gosling just stood there, head drooping, and at last Reverend Master Darada proclaimed, "The oracle has spoken!"
Old Warts-on-the-Hand put out the fire, and Bothersome Knee lifted Gosling off the platform and set him down by Five. She wrapped him in the blanket laid out in readiness and pulled him onto her lap, waiting for the smoke to clear enough to catch a glimpse of Prince Hisa's face and the faces of the visitors, though after that pronouncement, she could guess what expressions she'd find there.
Sure enough, the ambassador from the Kingdom of the Plains--one of that kingdom's numerous princes--and his ministers looked as pleased as well-fed cats. They seemed oblivious to the dark looks the local nobility from the Gate of the Mountain sent their way---but Five noticed when those looks came arrowing toward Gosling. Five hugged him tightly. No good blaming the oracle. It's the spirits you'd have to blame, and who'd be brave enough to blame them?
Prince Hisa helped old King Janna rise. The king turned toward his guests, but the ambassador spoke first, all smiles.
"The pronouncement from your oracle seems to accord precisely with that of ours. Since the spirits clearly favor this course of action, I trust we can quickly move to--"
"The oracle's words must first be interpreted," interrupted Reverend Master Darada, stepping between the ambassador and the king, and more importantly, between the ambassador and Prince Hisa, whose narrowed eyes and clenched fists threatened a quick end to diplomacy.
The ambassador laughed. "If ever there was an explicit pronouncement, surely that was one. Can any of us misunderstand it? The falcon flies on the flag of the Kingdom of the Plains--our royal house is Falconer. And as for the snow leopard, the clan of the snow leopard has ruled the Gate of the Mountain for generations. Come. The spirits can't be argued with."
"The spirits are at their most misleading when they seem to speak directly, and especially so when human hopes are high for a particular answer. You must wait for the interpretation, like any other petitioner. Princes or street sweepers, we are all as dust and ashes to the spirits," intoned Darada, eyes uplifted, as if he could see the spirits hovering somewhere near the ceiling.
The ambassador folded his arms, regarded the priest for a moment, then glanced at the man to his right. No, Five realized, not a man: a woman, but dressed like the men. She looked a lot like the ambassador. His sister? A princess from the Kingdom of the Plains, and not in colored silks and gauzy veils? Or maybe the woman wasn't the ambassador's sister at all. Whoever she was, she gave a slight shrug. The ambassador turned back to Darada.
"Before the spirits, human affairs are but flashes of light on the waters of the deep ocean," he replied. "We'll wait for your interpretation."
"You must not speak of the pronouncement until that time," said the reverend master.
"Oh no, of course not. And for your part, you certainly won't delay in the interpretation. Because if word of the pronouncement were to slip out, and people believed you were trying to obstruct the will of the spirits--well, we know what happens when the wrath of the spirits catches fire among the people," said the ambassador.
Reverend Master Darada bowed.
"In two days' time we shall have the interpretation," he said. The ambassador returned the bow, then bowed to the king and the crown prince. Gosling stirred in Five's arms. Bothersome Knee looked over and frowned.
"You shouldn't be lingering here," he scolded Five. "Look, the oracle's waking already. Take him back to his chamber and make sure he has some porridge."
"Yes sir." Five stood, then scooped up Gosling, blanket and all. His arms wrapped around her neck, just as they always had back home, when he had been a baby. She left by the priests' door in the back as the ambassador and his delegation were leaving by the main entrance.
In Gosling's chamber, he only ate half his porridge and let Five have the rest. She ate it with relish. Nobody was supposed to eat anything in the temple while sunlight shone within it, but Gosling was an exception, and he usually shared.
"What was the vision like this time?" Five asked him.
"Pretty. I like it when they're pretty. There were falcons and a snow leopard. They were playing--well at first it looked like they were fighting, but I think they were playing. The snow leopard let one of the falcons sit on its shoulder."
"What about jewels and the ocean?"
Gosling shook his head.
"I don't remember those things. There were apples though. Apples in the water. Maybe the water was the ocean, I don't know. What does the ocean look like?"
"I don't know. Lots of water. Bigger than a lake. I wonder why they don't ask you about your vision when they're trying to interpret your pronouncement," said Five, trying to scrape just a little more porridge out of the bowl.
"It's the words the spirits speak through you that are important, little one, not the pictures that fill your mind," quavered Gosling, in very good imitation of Warts-on-the-Hand.
Five giggled, then thought of all the angry faces in the vision hall after Gosling--or the spirits--had spoken.
"The king and the crown prince didn't like what the spirits said."
"It sounds as if the spirits want the king to turn the Gate of the Mountains over to the Kingdom of the Plains. Then he wouldn't be king anymore, though, and kings don't like to stop being kings."
"But if that's what the spirits want. . . no one can defy the spirits," said Gosling.
"But they can argue about if that really is what the spirits want," said Five. Into her mind jumped the memory of the parade that the delegation from the Kingdom of the Plains had formed as it wove through the streets of the city, up toward the king's palace. There had been the ambassador and other nobles, and then rows and rows of warriors in orange and gold, like a river of flame. What would all those warriors do if Reverend Master Darada and the others at the temple decided the pronouncement didn't mean what it seemed to mean? Would they just go home again? And what if the reverend master and the others decided it did mean what it seemed to mean? Would bold Prince Hisa, who had been so successful in driving back bandits high in the mountains, bow to fate? Or would he try to take on that river of flame?
"I'm sleepy," said Gosling, yawning. This always happened after a pronouncement. He'd come to, eat porridge, and then be sleepy. Five laid out his bedding and he climbed in and sighed.
"Can you sing me a song? Sing the one about calling in the geese," he murmured, eyes already closing. Of course he'd want that song. Back home, they'd nicknamed him Gosling because as a baby he was always toddling after the geese and ducks, and so Five had always sung him that one.
Sometimes remembering the times before Gosling was chosen to be the oracle made Five homesick, but not usually. Here there was always food, even if you had to wait for the sun to leave the temple before you ate. Gosling's being discovered as oracle had been good luck for her father, Five reflected, taking not just one but two mouths off his hands, as Five had accompanied her little brother as his personal attendant.
The door to Gosling's quarters slid open, and Bothersome Knee poked his head in.
"Is he asleep?" he asked. His bushy eyebrows were all bunched up by his nose, and his mouth seemed more pinched than ever. Maybe it wasn't just his knee bothering him this afternoon.
Gosling's chest rose and fell with his slow, even breaths.
"All right then," said Bothersome Knee. "You're to go fetch a few extras that the kitchen boy neglected to get at market this morning."
Five was supposed to serve the oracle exclusively, but the others in the temple seemed to see her as part of the general servant pool. Usually, though, their orders at least had some connection to the oracle.
"It's not my idea," grumbled Bothersome Knee. "I don't see why that useless kitchen boy can't go back out. But Reverend Master Darada suggested it." Bothersome Knee hesitated, then added, "Since you're going to market. . . if the herbalist is there, the good one. . ."
"I should get some of the special mixture?" asked Five.
"If she has it, yes I'd be much obliged." And he managed a little smile. Poor Bothersome Knee! It must be hard to properly attend the spirits when you were so stiff and your joints bothered you.
"For the evening meal you're to pick up some meadow mushrooms. Cook needs a lot, so you may have to hunt a bit. And lemons. See if anyone has lemons."
"Lemons? They'll be expensive."
Bothersome Knee pursed his lips.
"Yes, well. Frivolities. But it's not my place--and certainly not yours--to question. Here's the money. If you can bargain the prices down, do." He handed Five a bag, which she tucked into the sash of her tunic. Bothersome Knee nodded.
"Good girl. Off you go."
Five slid past several knots of priests as she walked along the outer veranda of the temple, including Reverend Master Darada himself, who was talking with someone in long, fur-trimmed robes. Silver glinted at his neck and on his fingers. A noble, then? One of the king's ministers? He was scowling, and a scar on his cheek made the scowl all the more fearsome. Five lowered her head and hurried by, and soon she was out of the temple, out of the temple grounds, and heading down the road.
The sun was getting low, and the crowds at the market were thinning. Lots of people were already shutting up their stalls. Lemons, lemons. And mushrooms. Who would have that many mushrooms? Back home Five and her siblings had gathered their own, but she couldn't imagine gathering so many that you had enough to sell. Someone jostled her as she made her way between two stalls. She bowed hastily and backed away.
She barely avoided bumping into someone else--the crowds may have been thinning but what people remained all seemed to be traveling in the opposite direction from Five. She pulled her shawl around her more tightly and continued against the current of people. Here was a stall selling exotic goods from the south, spices and citrus fruits and fine silk scarves. Five waited while the servants from wealthy households haggled with the foreign-looking man at the stall, then stepped forward. As the man took Five's coins, Five had an unnerving sense of being watched, but when she looked over her shoulder, there was no one there.
With the lemons safely purchased, she made her way to the herbalist's stall and bought Bothersome Knee's special mixture. Only mushrooms left to go.
"Sorry little daughter, I've not enough to fill your basket, but you can take what I've got. I think the farmer over there had some--hurry though, he's closing up," said the kindly woman whom she first approached. Five paid and thanked her, but again found herself hindered by a bustle of people as she tried to reach the farmer. Why must they press in around her? Wasn't the street wide enough, at this late hour, to walk without jostling? She looked up, and gulped. A man was looking back down at her. He was dressed like a commoner from the Gate of the Mountain, but his hair was long and tied back, the way the men in the delegation from the Kingdom of the Plains had worn it, and his eyes were dark and wide like theirs. And furthermore, she thought she had seen him before. He must have been among the petitioners.
Alarmed, she took a step back, only to bump into someone behind her, and twisting around, saw here, too, a tall man from the Kingdom of the Plains. And another on her right, and two more on her left. She was surrounded, and just as she made to run, the man behind her clapped a firm hand over her mouth, and the one in front of her grabbed her arm.
"Listen up," said the one holding her arm. "You're the oracle's attendant, aren't you."
With the other man's hand still over her mouth, all Five could do was nod.
"Well, you have to bring him out of the temple, to us, understand? His life's in danger. If you want him to stay alive, you'll get him out of there before the night's over. And don't let the priests find out what you're up to. They're in on it."
"Naran, you're terrifying her. Take your hands off her. You too, Mati." The speaker had appeared out of the crowd to join them: it was the woman the ambassador had turned to, back in the vision hall, the one dressed like a man. She had changed her clothes and now wore the gold and orange of a warrior from the Kingdom of the Plains. The man holding Five's arm let go, and so did the one who had had his hand over her mouth.
Five took off like an arrow, her feet sending up clouds of dust and mushrooms flying out of her basket as she ran. She turned into an alley, desperate for place to hide and catch her breath. As she sank down in a doorway, she heard the skid of feet on gravel, and looked up to see the woman in orange and gold, who planted herself in front of Five.
"You're pretty fast," the woman observed. "Don't worry, the others haven't followed. I'm sorry they startled you." She wiped a hand across her forehead.
"Are you going to let me go back to the temple?" The question came out thin and shaky, but Five had to ask it. She couldn't push past this woman, and even if she could, it looked like she couldn't outrun her.
"Of course. It's as Naran said. I--we--want you to bring the oracle safely out of the temple to us."
"Why do you want me to do that? I don't believe those things he was saying--no one would ever dare to hurt the oracle, especially not the priests! So why are you bothering with him? Wasn't the pronouncement good enough for you?" Tears threatened to rise in Five's eyes.
"Listen," said the woman in a low voice, "Did you understand what happened in the spirit hall this afternoon?"
"I guess I did. So?"
"Who welcomed the pronouncement, and who didn't?"
"The ambassador welcomed it. Prince Hisa and King Janna didn't. But Reverend Master Darada is right: no one can be sure about what a pronouncement means until it's interpreted. You should wait for an interpretation before you. . ." She hunched her shoulders and looked down, unable to finish the sentence.
"Never mind about that right now. Just stop and think. Who knows about the pronouncement?"
Five looked up. "What do you mean?"
"Nobody knows about the pronouncement who wasn't in the vision hall, right? If something were to befall the young oracle, then it would be as if there never were a pronouncement. If my brother Kirata were to claim there had been one, no one would believe him, especially if he were to say that the pronouncement so clearly favored the Kingdom of the Plains."
Erase the pronouncement by erasing Gosling? Oracles were only human. They could get sick and die, or meet with accidents, like anyone else. Would the spirits even care if Gosling were to die--the spirits, to whom human affairs were just flashes of light sparkling on water? The priests could find another oracle, the way they had found Gosling. No one should dare to harm the oracle, and yet, if Gosling's pronouncement meant disaster for the Gate of the Mountain, and without that pronouncement, King Janna remained king, and Prince Hisa remained the hero of the bandit campaigns, and life continued as it always had? Five felt as if her bones were turning to water.
"Your brother. . . he doesn't want to hurt Gos-the oracle?" she managed to ask.
"My brother's task is much easier if the oracle stays alive and all the people of the Gate of the Mountain hear his pronouncement."
Five tried to take a deep breath, but the air came in and out in ripples.
"Where do you want me to bring him?" she said at last.
The woman drew with her finger in the dust of the street, tracing a route to a house in a part of the city Five had never been to before. A secret place, the woman said. A hiding place. Five nodded her understanding, then turned to go--quite a task on legs with water-bones.
"Wait, little sister," the woman called. Five stopped.
"What shall I call you?" the woman asked.
"Five," said Five.
"You have four older brothers and sisters?" Five nodded again.
"And the oracle--what number was he?"
"Eight. . . but we called him Gosling." Then, after a moment's pause, "How did you know that he's my brother?"
"A guess. His words sound like yours, different from the people who live in this city. You're from the high mountains, aren't you." Five's eyes widened. The woman smiled.
"I've spent time in the high mountains, and been to the Kingdom of Cinnabar on the other side, too. And I know about taking care of brothers, as well. Believe me, I have many more brothers and sisters even than you, if you count half-brothers and half-sisters. You can call me Kota."
Five said the name over in her mind: Kota, Kota. Princess Kota? Commander Kota? "Just. . . Kota?" she asked.
"Just Kota will do. Now hurry--I've already kept you too long."
Five hardly heard Bothersome Knee thank her for his herbal remedy or Cook scold her for bringing back only half a basket of mushrooms and inferior lemons. Her mind was entirely on Gosling and how and when she could get him out of the temple. Right now he in the middle of a lesson with Warts-on-the-Hand. Would Warts-on-the-Hand try to kill him? Surely not! How could he, even if he wanted to? Slip a knife between Gosling's ribs, and be revealed before the world as a murderer? No, even if it was the crown prince himself who wanted Gosling removed, any would-be killers would have to make it seem like an accident.
Like death from an illness, maybe? The smell of cooking wafted over from the kitchen, and Five's stomach rumbled. White Ghost mushrooms looked just like meadow mushrooms, and it would only take one, mixed in with the meadow mushrooms, to make a dish deadly. She bit her lip.
The door to Gosling's chamber slid open, and Warts-on-the-Hand came out, carrying a scroll case. Five slipped past him and into the chamber.
"Something smells wonderful," said Gosling, rising to meet her and then taking a step into the corridor. "It must be nearly time to eat."
"But you mustn't eat anything, not tonight. You just have to push it around in your bowl and make it look like you're eating without eating," said Five.
Gosling's face became more and more unhappy as Five described being waylaid in the market and her talk in the alleyway with Kota. When she had finished, he didn't say anything, just looked down the corridor toward the library.
"You'll come along, won't you?" asked Five. He nodded, but hung his head.
"What is it?" Five asked.
"It's just---whoever it is. . . Prince Hisa or Reverend Master Darada or someone else. . . they're doing just what Warts-on-the-Hand says people should never do. If you try to thwart the spirits, it only makes things worse. Don't they all know that?"
"Powerful people are used to getting what they want," Five replied. "Maybe they just can't believe the spirits would go against them this way." It did seem unfair, she thought. Why should the Kingdom of the Plains get to rule over the Gate of the Mountain, too, when it was already so big and rich? Why should the crown prince, who had been so brave and cunning about pushing back the bandits, have to give up his birthright? But then she imagined Gosling, dead in some suspicious accident. No one's birthright was worth her brother's life, and as for the rule of the kingdom. . .
"How is the interpretation of your pronouncement going?" she asked. "Did Warts-on-the-Hand say anything about it?"
Gosling shook his head. "He sent me into the library to fetch the Scroll of Firsts, during my lesson," he said. When I was in there, Reverend Master Darada was yelling at Reverend Boja. He was saying never mind about how certain the first part of the pronouncement was, he wanted to hear about what the second part meant, with the apples and the ocean."
"Jewels," corrected Five.
"When you gave the pronouncement, you said jewels, not apples."
Gosling blinked. "I meant jewels," he said. "Jewels was what Reverend Master Darada said. I always think apples, though. Remember the apples at big sister's wedding? They were so delicious!" His face clouded over. "And I'm so hungry--are you sure I can't eat anything at supper?"
"Huh, hungry! You can't possibly be hungry--you had porridge before your lesson."
"You had half."
Five sighed. Gosling really didn't remember being seriously hungry, and maybe that was a good thing. "It won't kill you to go without supper for a day, but eating it might. So don't eat! Promise?"
"I promise," he said. His eyes were distant. "It'll rain. There'll be wind and thunder. We'll get wet."
Five crossed the chamber and slid open the door to the veranda. She glanced out at the sky above the mountains. It still looked clear, but that didn't mean much--weather changed quickly in the mountains. The sun was sinking; now only the tops of the mountains caught its rays. For the capital of the Gate of the Mountain, it had already set. The bell for supper rang, and Five's heart banged an echo.
She gave Gosling's hand a tight squeeze as she left him in the refectory and joined the other servants in the kitchen. Cook gave her a little of the steamed barley, with the mushrooms on top. She glanced at the others. Everyone was eating heartily. To poison Gosling, would someone be willing to poison everyone else, as well?
"If you're not hungry, I'll have yours," said the kitchen boy, one hand already on her bowl. She let him take it.
After the meal, Bothersome Knee came out with Gosling.
"I think he may be ailing. He hardly ate at all," said Bothersome Knee. "Reverend Master Darada even noticed and commented. And then you spilt the rest! That's a terrible waste, and a mess."
"I'm sorry. I know it's wrong to waste food. It was an accident. I just-I don't feel good. I think I just want to go to bed," said Gosling, clutching his stomach. Bothersome Knee sighed and shook his head.
"All right then, off to bed with you," he said. Five hurried him down the corridor to his chamber.
Inside, with the door closed, Gosling perked up.
"I didn't eat anything," he said. "Even after Reverend Master Darada scolded me. When do we go?"
"We have to wait for the priests to go to sleep. You might as well rest a while. I'll wake you up if you fall asleep." The wind was picking up outside, and the sliding door to the veranda rattled. Five lay out the bedding as a rumble of thunder made the floor tremble and rain took up a steady tattoo on the roof over the veranda. Gosling lay down, and in spite of the storm was asleep before long. Five sat quietly, listening to the rain.
After some time, when the temple had settled into stillness and silence, Five woke Gosling, who got up without a word and stepped out onto the veranda. Five was on the verge of following when something made her look back into the room. A flicker of light. A lamp. Her eyes widened. Someone had opened the door from the corridor and was standing there, lamp flickering in the breeze from the open veranda door. It was Reverend Master Darada. In the faint light of the lamp, he looked as startled as Five felt.
"Reverend Master. . . sir. . ."
"What are you doing? Why is the veranda door open? Cold air and rain are coming in."
"The oracle had a bad dream, that-that someone was trying to get in from outside. I was just showing him that it was all safe. I'll shut it now. I'm sorry."
Darada lifted the lamp up. Five quickly stepped back into the room and knelt down between the corridor door and Gosling's bedding, so that the lamp's rays sent her shadow dancing over the rumpled bedding. She patted the coverlet gently, then turned her face toward the lamp.
"It looks like he's fallen asleep again," she said, keeping her voice steady. Then, on impulse, she added, "I think he's feeling poorly." She held her breath, waiting for the reverend master's reply, but he just stood silently in the doorway, eyes directed toward Five and the bedding, but mind clearly elsewhere.
"Yes, feeling poorly," he said at last. "Well. If the spirits are so moved, he will feel better tomorrow. Good night."
Darada slid the door firmly shut, and from across the corridor, Five could hear him open his own door and slide that shut. Five sat frozen by the bedding for a few moments. Never since Gosling had become the oracle had the reverend master looked in on him. Five strained to hear any further activity in the corridor, but silence pressed round. With trembling hands, she folded Gosling's sleeping mat in half lengthwise and pulled the coverlet over it. There: it was Gosling, sleeping, if you didn't look too carefully. As she assessed the ruse, the door onto the veranda slid open, and there stood Gosling, shivering in the wind.
"I'm coming," she reassured him, then took him by the hand and jumped off the veranda and into the rainy night.
The route Kota had drawn in the dust took Five and Gosling down the back side of the temple hill, then further down to a place where impromptu houses huddled together against the slope. Remembering Kota's directions, Five followed the ditch that twisted and turned among them into the heart of the district, then looked around, trying to recall which of the many narrow doors opening onto the path beside the ditch was the one she was supposed to choose. One opened, and it was several seconds before Five realized that the slender figure in a coarse jacket and trousers who stepped out into the rain was Kota herself, dressed like any young wife from the neighborhood. When their eyes met, Kota smiled.
"Well done, Five. I knew you were clever and brave! Welcome little Gosling--come in out of the rain."
A cooking fire burned in the center of the house, and through its haze Five recognized the men who had stopped her at the market, as well as the man from whom she had bought the lemons. There was a pot on the fire, and the smell of vegetable stew made Five feel sick with hunger. To her joy and relief, Kota asked the lemon seller to pour some into bowls for her and Gosling, then brought them both thick blankets.
"The food should warm your insides and the blankets your outsides. We'll sleep here tonight, and tomorrow I'll take you to the villa where my brother and the delegation are staying," Kota said. She knelt down before Gosling and took his hands in hers.
"I'll need you to repeat the words of the pronouncement at the banquet my brother hosts that evening. Can you do that?"
"Pronouncements are supposed to be made from the spirit hall," he said, face solemn. "Then Reverend Master Darada proclaims them to everybody after they've been interpreted."
"Yes, I know. But Prince Hisa doesn't want it to be proclaimed, and the reverend master doesn't want to proclaim it. But if it doesn't get proclaimed, many, many people will die." Her face was as serious as Gosling's.
There was another rumble of thunder and a gust of wind that seemed desperate to tear the roof from the house. Instead, the door flew open--but through human agency, not the forces of nature, and suddenly the room was a confusing tumble of people shouting and struggling. Someone grabbed Five from behind; out of the corner of her eye she saw a flash of light on metal and then felt something cold and smooth against her neck. She froze.
"Tell your people to drop their weapons and kneel on the floor, or I'll kill you and leave your body for the night watch to find," said Kota, voice sharp. The room went quiet, and the blade at Five's neck lifted a hair, but Five still didn't move. She could see Kota had pinned one of the intruders to the ground with a knee to the chest and was holding a paring knife to his throat. It was Prince Hisa.
"Impressive spywork, though," Kota added, in friendlier tones, but without moving to release the crown prince. "I didn't expect you to find this place. I didn't think you bothered with the comings and goings of the people in your city's poorer districts."
"It's your comings and goings I bothered about, when I learned you weren't spending nights at the villa we had provided for your delegation," replied Hisa. "And as for dropping weapons, I'm afraid it's you who must drop yours, unless you want the oracle to die. Look." He pointed with his chin to where someone was holding Gosling in the same manner that Five herself was being held. Kota muttered a curse, and with a small shake of the head put down the paring knife and let the crown prince up.
"Good fighting, though," Hisa said, with a smile that faded as he ordered his men to bind the hands and feet of people from the Kingdom of the Plains, whom he bade to sit.
"Do you really think you can gain anything by suppressing the pronouncement?" asked Kota, her eyes following him as he paced the cramped interior of the house. "The spirits were being merciful to the Gate of the Mountain by offering it. You prefer to have Kirata take this land by force? You enjoy spilling the blood of your people?"
"And you?" Hisa retorted. "How many of your soldiers' lives is our little kingdom worth? Because I plan on making sure its cost is very, very dear. What makes the Kingdom of the Plains suddenly want to pluck this high-hanging fruit, anyway? Did your father take it into his head that he needed a mountain view?"
"It's the Kingdom of Cinnabar," said Kota shortly. "They have tired of sea battles and plan on using the Gate of the Mountain as a back door for an invasion of the Kingdom of the Plains."
Hisa shook his head. "There are too many bandit clans in the high mountains, with no loyalty to any kingdom. They'd never let Cinnabar's army through."
"Not true. They can be bought off--and their intelligence can be bought, too. Yes, intelligence: Cinnabar's commanders know all the details of your encounters with the bandits. They know your tactics as well as you yourself do. And their foot soldiers alone outnumber the population of this city. When they decide to march, the Gate of the Mountain is doomed. But our army could stand against them and drive them back, especially if we're in place before they come."
Hisa and Kota stared at each other in silence.
"Your army may be large, but it's completely ignorant of the mountains. You'd be fighting the terrain as well as Cinnabar's forces," Hisa said at last.
"And all the knowledge and experience in the world will be worthless if the people who hold it are obliterated. When your commanders have been killed and your troops are broken and scattered, what will it matter that you knew all the mountain paths and passes?"
Kota paused, but kept her eyes fixed on Hisa. He looked away, face grim.
"And when you yourself are killed," Kota continued, "What becomes of the Gate of the Mountain then? Will you fly gladly to the spirit realm, knowing you have left your people to the tender mercies of Cinnabar's warriors?" She leaned forward. "The Kingdom of the Plains and the Gate of the Mountains are like brother and sister. We speak the same language, the same spirits move over our lands. You should help us learn to use the mountains to our advantage. You be our teacher, and the Gate of the Mountain will gain the forces of the Kingdom of the Plains to protect it."
Hisa picked up the paring knife and made the blade catch the light from the cooking fire. It flashed like a signal. He knelt by Kota and looked her in the eye.
"You'd put your army under my command, then? Stay in the city as trusted allies and depart when the threat from Cinnabar has been dealt with?"
"No. Kirata must have control of this land." Kota spoke so softly that Five could barely hear her. Hisa laughed.
"Well, that's a necessity that I just can't accept," he said, thrusting the paring knife into the dirt floor. He stood up and looked over toward Five.
"Naku, release that girl." The knife that had kept Five so still was lifted, and the arm that had pinned both of hers behind her slid away.
Five exhaled deeply.
"So a little thing like you kidnapped the oracle," the crown prince said, wrinkling his brow as he looked Five over.
"I didn't!" Five cried. "I was saving him! So you wouldn't kill him." She glanced over at Gosling. The man who held him still gripped a knife in his right hand. Gosling's death was less than an arm's length away. Tears filled Five's eyes.
Hisa turned back to Kota. "Is that how you got her to do it? By telling her I was going to kill the oracle?"
"You deny it? You seemed willing enough to kill him just now. My spy in the temple said that's the plan that was hatched, between the reverend master and your man with the scar on his cheek."
"Lord Sala? I told him to encourage the reverend master to be inventive in his interpretation of the pronouncement, that's all," Hisa said, frowning.
Kota tilted her head. "Maybe it's less sacrilegious to sacrifice the oracle than it is to play with the words of the spirits," she said.
"Bandits, the Kingdom of the Plains, the Kingdom of Cinnabar, even the spirits," Hisa replied, lifting his hands. "Whoever--whatever--threatens the Gate of the Mountains, I must oppose."
"Not this way," murmured Kota.
"Yes, this way, until a better one reveals itself," Hisa replied. "Which brings me back to you--what are you called?"
"Five, your highness," said Five.
"Well then, Five, you must be my messenger to Prince Kirata, at the villa where the delegation from the Kingdom of the Plains is staying."
"You won't find him there," said Kota, sounding tired.
"Oh no? Where then? Does he prefer the poorer districts of our city, too?"
Kota laughed. "No, not him. No, I'm afraid while you've been distracted here with me, he's been setting some fifty soldiers out around the temple--to encourage the reverend master not to be inventive in the interpretation of the pronouncement, and not to delay it, either."
"Shall I summon two units of our own to meet them, your highness?" asked Naku.
Hisa shook his head. "Not yet. I think Five will persuade him to stand down. Five, you must tell Prince Kirata that we apprehended Commander Kota trying to abduct the oracle. The punishment for such a crime is death, but given that Commander Kota is also the prince's sister, and desiring good relations with our neighbors, we will commute the sentence, provided the delegation from the Kingdom of the Plains removes itself from the Gate of the Mountain immediately. Once we have confirmed that the last soldier and stablehand has passed outside our border, we'll return Commander Kota to him. Otherwise--" He looked down at Kota, "How did you put it? 'I'll kill you and leave your body for the night watch to find'? Tell him that."
"He won't do it," said Kota. "You'll just get the battle you're itching for."
"Of course he'll do it. You think the stories of you two haven't traveled to Gate of the Mountain? How you rescued him during the battle of the Jasmine Islands? He's honor bound. And--he'd be a fool not to."
"No. No, if he can hold the Gate of the Mountain, then his fortunes rise at home and he'll be among those our father considers for heir, but if he loses the Gate of the Mountain, he's finished. Never mind. You'll see soon enough." She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. On the other side of the room, Gosling yawned and rubbed his eyes.
"Do you understand the message?" Hisa asked Five, and she nodded. "Then go," he said, "and don't delay in returning." He pulled the paring knife out of the ground and wiped the blade on his trouser leg.
"Yes, your highness." She started to bow, but he waved her to the door. She opened it. The rain had stopped, and the air was much cooler now.
"Apples, Five!" called Gosling as Five was stepping out. She turned around. Gosling was smiling, and his face radiated contentment. Then he yawned again, deeply. "It's apples. They're the jewels he has to offer." He yawned again, and his eyes drifted closed, then open again. "Like at big sister's wedding," he added. Then his eyes closed a second time and stayed closed, and his body relaxed into sleep in the arms of the man who was holding him. Five pulled the door closed behind her and headed toward the temple.
Five held her arms to her chest to keep them warm. Without Gosling, she retraced her route much more quickly. Gosling and apples. The pronouncement said jewels, but Gosling had seen apples, kept thinking of apples. The snow leopard follows the rivers downstream and offers jewels at the ocean. If the snow leopard was Prince Hisa, did Gosling think that Prince Hisa should offer a tribute of apples? Five grimaced. She couldn't imagine the king of the plains preferring apples to jewels, even if Gosling considered them a special treat. Like at big sister's wedding. The bridegroom always offered fruit to the bride's family, a sign of his trust that the union would be fruitful.
Five stopped in her tracks. Was that what the second part of the pronouncement meant? A wedding offering, and not tribute? Prince Hisa--and Kota? Her thoughts turned as rapidly as her heart was beating. If they married, then could the Gate of the Mountain become part of the Kingdom of the Plains but remain under the rule of the clan of the snow leopard? Could that be what the spirits willed? But would the crown prince and the commander princess agree to marry? They hated each other. Or did they? Five thought back over the night's events and felt unsure. She clenched her teeth. It didn't matter if they did hate each other, she decided, if it was what the spirits willed. She resumed walking, but more slowly now, all her energy focused on the plan taking shape in her head. And here she was, in front of the temple already.
The flames in the lanterns that hung by the main entrance were very low. Five glanced at the sky. Was it that close to dawn? But stars still shone between the fast-moving clouds. All was quiet in the temple, but Five was aware of rustling and stirring on the grounds. She looked carefully. Yes, there and there, by the rhododendrons, soldiers in the pale tunics that would shine orange and gold in the light of day. And more over there, in among the yews. A clinking sound and the snort of a horse made her turn: here was Prince Kirata astride one of those magnificent horses from the Kingdom of the Plains, giants compared with the ponies of the high mountains. He dismounted, handed the reins to the boy who walked alongside him, and approached Five.
"I know you," he said. "You're the servant of the oracle. My sister said you'd bring him to her--so why do I find you here? Has she sent you with a message?"
Five's heart hammered fiercely, but she made herself look him in the eye and drew herself up tall.
"Yes, your highness, I have a message, from Princess Kota and Prince Hisa."
Kirata's eyebrows rose.
"It's this," said Five. "With the oracle's help, they have understood the meaning of the spirits' pronouncement. The Gate of the Mountain and the Kingdom of the Plains are to become one through the marriage of the prince and princess. The falcon shall indeed settle in the mountains, and the snow leopard shall stand beside her."
"What?" His voice registered incredulity--and anger. Five felt a surge of panic. Of course: Kota had said that unless Kirata--not Kota, but Kirata--could hold the Gate of the Mountain, his future in the Kingdom of the Plains was bleak.
"That can't be right," he said, eyes narrowed. Five could think of no response.
"It. . .it's what the oracle says," she managed.
"My sister would never abandon our plans and throw in with the prince of this tiny kingdom. She has sworn to support me, and my eye is on a greater throne than this one."
"But by following the spirits' will, both the Gate of the Mountain and the Kingdom of the Plains will be stronger and safer," whispered Five. Kirata raised an eyebrow, but said nothing.
"Otherwise, the Kingdom of Cinnabar--" Five continued, but Kirata shook his head.
"Kota can help me defend against Cinnabar. There is no need for an alliance with some interloping prince."
Five's heart sank. Her plan was failing. Maybe she would have been better off conveying Prince Hisa's threat, after all. Except that's not what the spirits want, and this is. But Prince Kirata seemed as willing to ignore the spirits has Prince Hisa was. Then what could persuade him?
I know about taking care of brothers, Kota had said. Did that matter to Kirata? Kota didn't think so, but Prince Hisa did.
"Princess Kota says this way will work better," Five said. "She says-she says. . . all this time she's been your ally and your support, and--and now you have to listen to her and trust her wisdom. If you turn away now, you'll lose her forever." A tremble had crept into Five's voice.
Kirata drew back a half step, as if her words were a blow he was trying to avoid.
Just then the door to the temple opened, and out strode Reverend Master Darada, followed by three of the temple servants, bearing lanterns, and old Bothersome Knee and two of the younger priests.
"What evil is afoot here?" Darada demanded. He caught sight of Five.
"You! What have you done with the oracle?"
Five heard a gasp, and saw Bothersome Knee staring at her with tears in his eyes.
"Little one, does the oracle live?" he asked. "Where his bowl spilled, beside the table, there were mice. . . they must have nibbled on the scraps the servants missed in tidying up." He shook his head, looking sick. "They were lying there so still, three of them. They were dead."
"Yes, he's alive," said Five. She took a deep breath and said, "He has a way of interpreting the pronouncement--"
"Nonsense!" said Darada. "The oracle is a little boy. He is the spirits' chosen vehicle for communication, but he hasn't the knowledge to attempt an interpretation."
"Chosen vehicle, whom someone tried to poison," said Bothersome Knee, voice rising. "Was it you, Reverend Master? Insisting that he finish his meal this evening past, when you've never cared before? And you were the one to discover he was missing--why? Why did you go into his chamber in the middle of the night?"
Darada opened his mouth but words failed to come out. Bothersome Knee's eyebrows descended dangerously low on his nose, and he turned back to Five.
"What did the oracle say, little one?" he asked. Before Five could answer, Kirata stepped forward, an odd expression on his face.
"He has interpreted the pronouncement in a way that both your Prince Hisa and I accept," Kirata said slowly. Five looked at him in surprise. He glanced at her, nodded slightly, then repeated Five's interpretation. One of the young priests turned to Bothersome Knee.
"That difficult portion--it was pointing to a marriage, after all!" he exclaimed. "Why did we doubt ourselves?"
"Because of his interference!" thundered Bothersome Knee, looking at Darada, who seemed suddenly smaller than usual, at sea in his magnificent robes.
"It was to protect the kingdom," Darada whispered. "For the sake of Prince Hisa."
"And yet Prince Hisa has embraced the interpretation," said Kirata.
"You tried to bend the words of the spirits to mortal purposes," Bothersome Knee said, "and I believe you tried to kill the oracle as well. Reverend Sarayu, Reverend Boja, please confine Reverend Master Darada to his chamber. When the oracle returns, we shall ask the spirits how to deal with him. As for the interpretation, let it be announced when the sun reaches the temple steps." The two younger priests each placed a hand on Darada and escorted him back inside the temple. Bothersome Knee lingered a moment, looking down at Five.
"You'll bring the oracle back to us, won't you?" he asked. Five nodded.
"Thank you for protecting him," the old man said. Then he bowed to Kirata and motioned for the servants to accompany him back inside.
Five looked at the sky. It was gray now; only the morning star was still visible. Soon the tops of the mountains would catch the morning sun, but there was still time before it reached the steps.
"I had better return to Princess Kota," Five said, fresh anxiety soaking her as she thought of Kota--and of Prince Hisa's command to return quickly.
"Yes, tell her to hurry to the villa," said Kirata. "I must speak with her about the future." Five bowed and took off along the now-familiar route.
A short time later she was pushing open the door of the little house. Everyone looked up, faces solemn. Exhausted. Gosling stirred, opened his eyes, and catching sight of Five, smiled. Hisa stepped forward.
"Well? He crossed his arms. Kota looked away, face impassive.
"The delegation from the Kingdom of the Plains doesn't need to remove itself from the Gate of the Mountain, your highness, because they will be celebrating your wedding--to Princess Kota," she said. Across the room, Gosling's smile broadened.
"Wedding? What? What are you saying?" He and Kota wore matching expressions of bewilderment.
"It's what the pronouncement means," Five said, feeling her cheeks grow warm as the words tumbled out. "The spirits mean for you and Princess Kota to marry. Then she stays here, the falcon in the mountains, and you help her train her army to fight in the mountains, to keep Cinnabar's armies away. You go down to see the king of the plains--'the snow leopard follows the rivers downstream'--and offer him wedding gifts: the jewels."
"Apples," said Gosling.
"Your country's promise of faithful service," said Kota, with a sidelong glance at Hisa.
"The clan of the snow leopard retains the throne of the Gate of the Mountain," said Hisa. He looked stunned. "The priests have given this interpretation?"
"It came to me," Five said, feeling her cheeks grow hot, "as I was going to the temple. But when the priests heard it, they said it was the interpretation they themselves had arrived at. They say they're going to announce the interpretation when the sun reaches the temple steps."
"And my brother?" asked Kota. "Does he accept the interpretation?"
"I think," said Five, "That he intends to be an ally to both you and Prince Hisa. He calls on you to join him at the delegation's villa."
Five looked from Kota to Hisa and back again. "So," she ventured, hands unconsciously clasping each other, prayer style, "About the marriage. Will you . . . do you . . . ?" Please, please, she thought.
Hisa and Kota regarded each other for a moment, then Hisa took the paring knife and cut the twine at Kota's wrists and ankles.
"It's not the most auspicious beginning for a marriage," he said, looking down.
She waved a hand. "Oh, well. I'm sure there have been worse," she said, smiling. She put her hand to his chin and lifted it, so their eyes met. He returned the smile.
"Definitely apples," said Gosling, running over to his sister.
"As many as you can eat," she replied, sweeping him up into her arms.
- END -