Chapter Seventeen: Blaspheming
Writing a book was harder than Talyn expected. He discarded four first chapters that respectively meandered, failed to match the prior book's dialect, gave away too much about its real origins, and sounded like something written by Talyn's authoritarian primary school teacher.
Talyn had no experience with writing. He'd listened to plenty of people thinking about the original Yaanorel, but they were all familiar with it - exposed to it as children, taught it by their parents. His book was going to be new. The audience might have different filters up for novel concepts; they might hedge out ideas in the "revelation" he provided even if those ideas weren't any weirder than what they already believed.
He decided this would go much more smoothly with a test audience.
He visited Sarid.
She was still living in Paraasilan housing, although when he arrived at her apartment, she appeared to have found a little work - she got up to answer the door in the middle of sewing a typical Ryganaavlan outfit for a customer who wanted it for a play and cared about authenticity. All three of her children were playing on the floor at her feet, with toys that looked used and of possibly magicked origin but didn't, in themselves, exhibit magical properties.
"You," Sarid said, when she'd opened the door to see Talyn. He'd arranged his hair to hide his ears again. No point in alarming her.
"Yep," Talyn said. She didn't remember his name; he helped her out. "It's me, Talyn. Do you have a couple of angles? I can pay you for your time again."
"Yes," she said. So she didn't have enough work that it filled up all her time. Most people who wanted Ryganaavlan-looking clothes were probably just as happy to have them stitched together by spell.
"I want your help with something. It's about kids like Sinhar. I know a lot of parents in Ryganaav want to save their kids like you did but can't - maybe they never get a chance because the kid shows magic in front of witnesses, or maybe they can't bear to leave their other kids behind like you had to. I have an idea to help those kids. Do you want to help them? Or is it just Sinhar you cared about?"
Sarid looked at her son. "Your hands, Sinhar, use your hands," she said softly, when he floated his toy, and he caught it out of the air and pouted. She looked back at Talyn. "I... Well, of course they're going to the hells, but they don't have to do it when they're children."
"Right," Talyn said coaxingly. "It doesn't actually say in the Yaanorel that you have to kill people with magic immediately on sight - just that they have to die. But you know Sinhar will grow old like anyone else." Except Talyn himself, if he kept up his forbidden activities, but that wasn't topical.
"I've been spying on the high priest -"
"Spying on vi'Yan?" exclaimed Sarid. "You set foot in the Temple of Makas and His Sons - to use subterfuge to watch the private meditations of -"
"Yes, yes, but I was already going to hell, right?" Talyn said. "I didn't hurt anyone. My point is, I've been spying on him, and I know he's had a big revelation from the gods. He hasn't told anybody about it yet, but he's going to write an entire new holy book. But the gods don't just give him every word. They communicate in high sacred ideals, not in mortal language. Vi'Yan has to decide how to put things." The voices often came in very clear language, but Sarid didn't know that.
Sarid turned this over in her head. "You plan to present yourself in a disguise to vi'Yan as - as some kind of scribe, to take dictation and alter his choice of words. Is that it?"
"No," Talyn said, "of course not. He has to write it all down himself so it will be true holy writ, since he has divine authority and obviously I don't." This placated her. "But I'm going to talk to him about it." Inside his head in the voices of his hallucinations. "And I want to know what to suggest to him, that will most help people like Sinhar, and you." And devils and magic-users in general, but Talyn figured he could make the first chapters about topics Sarid would be sympathetic to, and finish the sections on other things alone with that practice under his belt.
"Oh." Sarid backed into the apartment, and left the door open for Talyn to follow her; he shut it behind him, patted Path on the head as he passed the place on the floor where she was playing with her stuffed snake, and sat across from Sarid in the living room.
"Will you help me?" he asked Sarid coaxingly.
"Why do you care if vi'Yan's choice of words is honored?" Sarid asked, after another silence. "You're not one of us - wouldn't you like to take his finished book and replace it with one you made up entirely?"
"But then wouldn't all the priests who prayed for confirmation of the new book know it was a fake?" Talyn asked innocently. "And then I wouldn't be able to accomplish anything."
Sarid didn't question the supposition that he believed the Yaanor gods were real, only his willingness to obey them; she accepted that explanation. "So you need to be subtle enough that the gods will tell all of the priests to abide by the new book."
"Yes, exactly," Talyn lied.
Sarid bowed her head. "You think you can be of more help to children like Sinhar than the gods would already have been?"
"Well, I spied on the high priest long enough to know that the new book is already going to be gentler on them," Talyn invented. "But I'm worried that - apart from the priests who'll obviously be able to check by praying - people won't accept it immediately, and some of them might keep to the old ways even though the gods don't want that anymore. Vi'Yan isn't that good a writer - he does sermons, not books, and he's never had to push an idea this complicated and important before. He might not be able to convince everyone."
"That sounds likely," Sarid acknowledged. "Even if you... help... there will be resistance."
"Yes. I want to minimize that. For my own reasons, but of course I can't do anything to prevent the gods' true message from getting through." He resisted a temptation to say this in a sickly-sweet pious voice.
Sarid nodded once. "I'll help you," she said.
Over the next couple of weeks, Talyn funneled his notions of what the book needed to say through Sarid's understanding of how it needed to be said. What he was writing was still dreadful, morally bankrupt stuff. Little caterpillar-inches towards decency.
It couldn't be very long. Ryganaav didn't even have printing presses, and paper was scarce; every copy of the Yaanorel was handwritten on thick handmade sheaves. It was long and still had full penetration, but the new book, to get anywhere fast, would need to be able to propagate pretty quickly. Besides, he was trying to pass it off as an update, not a replacement. Maybe he could outright replace everything in fifteen years.
The "Yaanor-daan", as he'd titled it, commanded its readers to treat the money one gave to one's bride's father as a gift, not a payment for an item. This was justified with handwaving about goodwill between families and hints of indecency about lying with one's property, rather than any respect for wifely autonomy, but it might give him an in to adjust it later. He reified the minor social stigma he'd seen about giving one's wife visible bruises, which he'd seen serve to limit domestic abuse, although the original book was enthusiastic enough about physical discipline for an unruly female possession that he doubted he could excise it entirely so soon. He'd considered also raising the minimum age for marriage to sixteen, but decided to hold off until the next book there too.
He mandated sending magical children out into the desert, not killing them directly. From Sarid, he learned that sorcerers and lights weren't the only ones sentenced to die for devilish taint - infants born deformed in such a way as to suggest devil heritage, along with their mothers, were also put to death. He added them to the provision. With their mothers, the babies might survive the exposure long enough to be picked up by a charity. (He was planning to find a way to anonymously tip off the organizations that already worked in Ryganaav about the changes, after the first copy of the book was set down. He'd bribe Kaylo to invent a spell to detect shunned Orisik and Sinharik and mothers-with-babies if he had to.)
The book extended preemptive forgiveness to anyone caught at minor neglect of the faith such as missing several temple services, although for realism he had to couch this in admonitions that the absentees be bustled back into temple as soon as possible. Actual religious pluralism would be a long time coming, and would probably devastate even the parts of the culture that were worthwhile.
And one chapter promised its readers that magic couldn't taint a person by mere association. Woven into this was the hope that humans from other backgrounds could be redeemed, so Ryganaav alone would not be expected to reproduce its way to ascendancy without help. Talyn didn't think Yaanor would win many converts from the neighboring countries, but if he could get the Ryganaavlanik willing to interact nonviolently with such people, ideas might transmit the other way.
Talyn wasn't confident enough to put anything about leonines (let alone other devils) in the Yaanor-daan, because he hadn't met any Ryganaavlan ones and neither had Sarid. In spite of the cover story he'd used in Egalon, he didn't know much about the way Ryganaav's humans interacted with its leonine population, and so he didn't know which way to tweak it. He settled for a very general admonition that to kill in error was a grave sin but to spare a life by mistake was not.
He peppered everything with reinforcements of the commonsense morality the original Yaanorel espoused - don't steal, don't cheat, don't lie, be responsible with community property - but left out the genocidal justifications.
And then, because it wouldn't properly sound like a Yaanor book without sending anyone to eternal torment, he added that anyone who rejected the gods' legitimate update to the canon of holy commands was going to hell.
He tried a few different chapter orderings, went through making minor edits to the entire thing, paid Sarid for her help, and, on the morning of the twenty-fifth of Pehahel, returned to his glassy transfer point near Pridetaal.
<- into the desert, where the gods may claim them,> Talyn whispered into vi'Yan Rylaatin's mind, slowly so the arthritic old man's hands could copy down the words, adopting the voice of the air god for this segment. <There is no longer cause for our sons to bloody their hands...>
The high priest scribbled as fast as he could. His handwriting was poor, but legible, and the book would be copiable. The man's mind was a froth of excitement. He was the first high priest since the first high priest with the privilege of dispensing a book's worth of godly wisdom to his people. He would be remembered forever.
Talyn began the next paragraph, pacing invisibly and inaudibly behind the vi'Yan.
It took vi'Yan four days to write down the entire book, as his hands were really not up to the task, and then he announced the book to his family and subordinates in a grand meeting he called.
He read the book aloud for them, each literate person at the meeding who had adequate handwriting in the room transcribing a copy as he spoke.
Three days later, there were twenty copies of the Yaanor-daan to be had, and more in progress.
The next week, the first ones were leaving Pridetaal on camelback and raft.
The high priest gave a public sermon, hollering at the top of his lungs from the steps of the Temple of Makas and His Sons, reaffirming his faith in the new book and endorsing its contents.
Talyn spied on the crowd's minds. They weren't without misgivings, but vi'Yan was charismatic, showed no signs of dementia other than the Yaanor-approved hallucinations, and emphasized the parts of the new book that most accorded with what they already believed.
They were buying it.
Talyn went home, and bought his wizarding textbooks early to read ahead because he didn't want to spend several years in low tiers with little kids, and, every evening, celebrated with Leekath.
School started on the first of Rohel. Talyn was enrolled in First Tier Theory, Introductory Intentionality Practicum, Handy First-Tier Spells, and a course on Esmaarlan history. He was also still signed up to tutor kamai students, and expected more of them to take advantage of his availability when he was actually enrolled than when he was an inconveniently-located resource.
Leekath's job went on hiatus when she returned to classes, though she was assured that it would be waiting for her in Sutaahel when Binaaralav went on another break. She was taking more classes than Talyn - there were more available, at her tier level, and she was enrolled in kamai - but all of them put together, plus her assignments outside of classtime, still left them with a lot more angles to spend together.
Rhysel didn't receive a newspaper. Aar Camlenn read one, but didn't tend to leave it lying around. And Leekath only took the politics section out of her roommate's copy, and learned things from letters her aaihhhi's office sent.
So it was halfway through term when Talyn learned that Ryganaav was at war with itself.
"They bought it!" he exclaimed, clutching the newspaper in his fist and storming back and forth across his room. "I was there, I watched the high priest pitch it, they bought it!"
"In Pridetaal," murmured Leekath.
Talyn stopped and rested his head on a wall. "Yeah. When vi'Yan was handing down the book directly. Right."
"So as far as the scriers researching the war for Parliament's factbase have been able to figure out," Leekath said gently, "Pridetaal is behind the new book, at least for the most part, but the towns are divided, and then the high priest died -"
"He's dead? What of?" Talyn said, snapping his head up to look at her.
"Either old age or poison - if it was poison they haven't been able to scry the event yet," Leekath said. "And some people thought the gods killed him -"
"Oh, for the gods' sake - the actual walking-around gods - that's insane -"
"And it started a war," Leekath finished softly. "The World Relief Union would probably have told you about it but you contacted them anonymously."
"I wonder how many kids they got out before everything got ripped to shreds," Talyn said, sinking to the ground and dropping his face to his knees.
"I don't know." Leekath sat next to him and put her arm around his shoulders. "I'm sorry, Talyn."
"What do I do?" he asked the floor.
"Um..." Leekath was wondering if he ought to do anything, not having a very good track record, but she didn't say it.
"You think I should let them kill each other."
"What else would you do?" she asked. "How would you stop them?"
"I don't know, Leekath."
"We're in school," she said. "I want to do things too, but I can't until I'm graduated and I can work in Aaihhhi's office properly, and maybe be in Parliament myself one day. Maybe you should wait."
"How many people did I get killed?" Talyn wondered aloud.
"I don't know."
Talyn sometimes ate in the school cafeteria; Rhysel's housekeeper would feed him whatever she was fixing for her dragonets, even if Rhysel and Aar Camlenn didn't go home for the meal, but he liked the atmosphere of the school's eatery and sometimes they had interesting food.
He was trying, for the sixth time, to convince himself to eat a beetle, when he heard the people at the next table talking about Ryganaav's civil war.
"Is it even a bad thing?" said a human girl. "I mean, this is Ryganaav we're talking about, they'd kill us soon as look at us, isn't it better that they're expending their energy on each other -"
"And maybe leaving my people alone," said a leonine boy. His mane was starting to come in. He didn't look like the usual local leonine; he was leaner and yellower. Maybe he or his family was from Ryganaav.
"I wish someone else would conquer them. Maybe Esmaar should put together an army just to make it finally go away," said an elf girl with them.
"Who'd join it?" the human girl asked. "You?"
"Well, no, but, maybe somebody," said the elf.
"People join armies in other countries," acknowledged the leonine.
"I'm just glad the Ryganaavlanik are at each other's throats instead of, like, Saraan's. We've got wards everywhere but if they went into Saraan they might actually hurt someone," the human said.
Talyn crushed the beetle he was holding.
He left his uneaten lunch where it was and stalked out of the cafeteria, to the lift, to the transfer point, to eat at home in the company of Theedy and her children instead.
At the end of the term, he took his first tier test, passed it, and signed up for second-tier classes to start in Marahel.
Leekath went back to work.
Talyn followed the best news coverage he could find on the war in Ryganaav, which wasn't very detailed. The conflict couldn't progress too fast, at least. Even uninterested war correspondents, observing with telescopic spectacles and long-distance audiophones from scoots high above the action, could get down much of what there was to get.
The same challenges associated with moving around under normal circumstances applied to the impromptu armies, too, and the autumn was making it harder than it would have otherwise been to feed troops sweeping through settlements. Or the noncombatants, women and children and the infirm elderly and those wounded beyond repair, who lived where a war front had swept through.
When he could get his mind off of the war long enough to do anything, he studied wizardry, practicing simple spells to change the colors of his toenails or freeze cups of water or draw glowing lines in the air. He wasn't doing anything spectacularly interesting yet; he hadn't learned to do anything he couldn't already manage with kamai. Leekath assured him that he'd get to do things kamai couldn't manage in third tier, and that the best spells began in sixth or seventh.
Leekath also assured him that it would not do her any harm if she ate every day, so she did, curling up with him and biting and drinking and then trancing under the rhythmic passes of his hand over her hair. He knew she didn't think of it as a particularly romantic thing, but he did, and he was glad he'd managed to obviate her interest in feeding off anyone else.
But she went home to sleep every night, and he was left lying awake in bed, wondering how many had died because of what he'd done.
A couple of weeks into the break, he said, "I think I'm going back again - just to watch what's going on -"
"I doubt you'll stick to that," Leekath said, kissing his cheek.
"Okay, if I see something extremely straightforward I can do, I'll do that, but I'm not touching anything with moral ambiguities," Talyn said. "Except bringing you some extra tastiness."
"I love you," she sighed in his ear.
"But seriously, I only plan to watch -" She kissed him; he continued by mindspeech. <I'm not even going to interfere if I see a fight because I only know how to do it with magic and that would just freak everyone out. But it's killing me reading the news articles - and ugh, everybody writing them hates the people they're talking about so much, like they must deserve every bad thing that could happen to them ->
<Okay. Just don't tangle with any leonine mages. Mages are strong,> she replied.
<Okay,> he answered.
Pridetaal was the center of the war, and it looked it.
The holy sites were mostly unscathed, probably since everyone still agreed on which places those were, but Talyn saw no sign of the high priest's wives and children in the Temple of Makas and His Sons. Everyone he did see ran when they had to go out at all. Large patches of the city seemed to have been burned; some of it was actually on fire when Talyn flew over. The side of the river running away from the edge of town was grey with floating ash. He extinguished the flames. He didn't think that was ambiguous at all.
The sides of the conflict had no uniforms, but it seemed like the opposition to the Yaanor-daan was wearing white scarves to be able to identify each other and avoid killing one another - which identifier was of course easy for the book's supporters to emulate, so people who didn't know each other avoided interacting or confronted each other with swords drawn.
People were still living in and around Pridetaal. There were still people on their farms, working, and not all of them had been hit yet or sucked into the conflict, although he saw a number of women doing work that they normally wouldn't, and younger children than was typical trying to herd goats and pick olives.
And in the streets, on the riverbanks, through the sacked and abandoned farms and orchards -
Mostly small groups, sometimes singlets. Everyone knew who the sides were, but they weren't organized, the leaders people followed were their cousins and friends, no military geniuses had risen to command vast armies yet. Some had aspirations of similar. Growing up believing that your culture was ripening to explode and conquer the world could do that, apparently.
Talyn didn't intervene when he saw fighting, which ranged from snipers with hunting bows picking off enemies from high windows to barefisted brawls in alleyways to groups of ten and twenty after each other's blood with blades. But he didn't watch fights for long when he saw them, either. He touched the dying, took the lifespan they weren't going to use, fought down training and Revenn's memories and his own meddling instincts to refrain from giving them healing they'd shudder to imagine.
(Except once, he found a little boy with his throat half-cut, and he would die if left but he was still gasping, unconscious, and Talyn dredged up a little-used working Revenn had known to heal him partially. To make it look like the depth of the wound had been misjudged, like it had never been fatal.)
The boy would have a nasty scar, but if no one else sliced him open, he'd live.
Maybe he'll live long enough to kill someone else, Talyn thought bitterly, but the kid had been five -
Pridetaal wasn't short on children, Talyn found.