The City of Tears
The phoenix was dying.
Silence drifted among the pillars of the marketplace, the sandstone arches where no voice rose. Silk-muffled women hung tongueless bells on their doors and hushed children in whispers. At the east gate, guards inspected packtrains bearing myrrh and cinnamon, ruby and lapis, cedarwood and dye crushed from the snails of distant seas. Camels sighed under riches beyond number, their harnesses rag-swathed against careless clink or rattle.
In the temple, silent heart of a silent city, priests gazed into bowls of virgins' tears and sought the future.
In the Third Pinion district, a shrine-painter knelt at his elder daughter's bedside.
"She's not getting better." His second daughter watched him, hands folded tight in her lap.
"I know, Davi." He looked away from her wide brown eyes, the child's gaze that begged him to make all well. He'd tried, days ago, woken before the first women rose to draw water, and walked the night-cold streets to the temple's first gate.
"I am sorry," said the amber-robed priestess there. Exhaustion shadowed her eyes dark as kohl. "The phoenix is dying."
He'd shaken his head, reached to clutch her hand, reached for words to change the truth. "Please, my daughter is so sick, anything, please--"
"I am sorry," said the priestess, as she had answered every other petitioner--my husband fell ill, my mother slipped and struck her head, I am six moons along and the pains won't stop, please, please, anything--"The phoenix is dying. We have no resin to give." Tears traced down her lined face, tears upon tears. "I am sorry."
He bowed his head, throat choked against even a whisper.
"Sun's blessings." The priestess wiped her cheeks and pressed a wet palm to his forehead. "Upon you and your child."
She turned away, attention already shifting to the next petitioner, the next tale to hear and bear. The shrine-painter had watched in silence, eyes burning.
Now he wrung a cloth over his daughter's drawn-back lips, dripping water onto her clenched teeth. Tremors shook her thin limbs. He dropped the cloth in its bowl, gilt-rimmed alabaster that had once held a droplet of phoenix resin. The drop was long gone, the tea brewed from it drunk a lifetime ago, but perhaps a trace of power remained, even the faintest help. Anything. Please.
"Go see if your mother needs you in the kitchen, Davi." He kept his voice soft, calm.
Davi studied him, teeth biting into her lower lip, but rose obediently. She limped to the other room, clubfoot gait slow and patient. Ulami was the quick one, bright and laughing, hands swift to mix a paint or trim a brush. Perhaps if she had been less lively, more placid--if she hadn't climbed that wall and leaped, hadn't sliced her heel on stray metal--
Ulami whimpered and arched, back spasming. Her eyelids shivered in a frozen face.
Slow, heavy knocks thumped the door.
He stared at his hands, the nail beds stained scarlet and saffron, a knuckle smudged green with verdigris. The knocking halted. Silence settled like deep-desert sand, collecting in treacherous drifts.
His fingers shook on the door latch. The midday breeze swirled in, hot and careless. He could hardly look at the priests in the courtyard, their shaved scalps glistening with oil and gold dust.
"I am sorry," said the first, a young man. His grip tightened on an oracle's carnelian staff. "You are Koru the shrine-painter?"
He nodded, mute as a donkey. The oracle-priest's gaze brushed over Ulami arched in agony, his wife frozen in the kitchen doorway, Davi clinging wide-eyed to her skirt. A tale easily read, by these of all eyes. Shame lumped in Koru's throat.
He braced himself for accusation, for pity, but the oracle's face held only the pain of knowledge.
"Sun's honor upon this house." The young priest bowed his head, his lashes malachite-powdered and trembling. "Davi nya Koru, we come to bear you to the temple."
Koru halted in the kitchen doorway, his stare fixed on the crimson-tiled floor. Crimson for fire, and luck. The priests' chanting drifted from the courtyard, blown like incense-smoke from the braziers ringing Davi.
"I'm sorry," he said.
His wife bent her head, shoulder blades sharp beneath white linen. She lifted a fig from a heaped bowl and slit it open, movements precise. The bronze knife flashed.
"Please," he said. "Look at me. Say something. Anything. Please."
She paused, cords standing out in her raised wrist. Then she looked at him, and he wished she had not.
Someone must be willing, he wanted to say. For us, and for all the city. But his protests withered beneath her flat brown stare, her eyes the shade of Davi's.
"I'm sorry," he whispered.
She turned her shoulder, a dismissal sharp as a blow. In silence, each motion slow and controlled, she grasped the fig and began chopping it.
He shut his eyes, listening to the blade's soft snick, snick-snick, until the priests came to collect him.
"Why am I going to the temple, Father?" Davi whispered. Her black hair shimmered with gold dust and ground rubies.
"You'll be the new phoenix's handmaiden." He squeezed her hand. "It's a great honor. Only one child a generation is chosen."
"Oh." Her brows crimped. "But what about you and Mother and Ulami? Will you..."
"We'll be fine, little feather." He crouched and straightened her mourning-white robe. "The new phoenix will be strong and young and healthy. Its resin will cure Ulami, and she'll be climbing walls again just like before. Maybe she'll climb the temple walls and come visit you."
Davi giggled, then cast a guilty look at the waiting priests. He smiled, the expression brittle as old paint, and led her to the silk-hung litter.
Four acolytes, their eyesockets set with garnets, lifted the poles and hoisted her to shoulder height. Koru fell in behind them, his jaw tense against the hidden stares from windows, rooftops, alleys. The city watched in silence.
In silence, in reverence, and--Koru suspected--in no small amount of relief. Someone else had been chosen; the watchers could rest safe that they would not be called to the same place, to the same unwanted truth of themselves.
Why? he wanted to howl. Why must it be her? Why must it be me?
The procession wound through empty streets, across pomegranate-shaded avenues and jade-paved courts, to the temple gate where he had once pleaded for aid. Now it was flung wide, the Gate of Feathers, its wrought-gold pinions ablaze in the sun. He bit his cheek to bleeding as the procession passed beneath.
A wail poured from the temple's heights, a voice so beautiful that the quiet afterward burned the air. Koru shuddered.
Priestesses flung handfuls of crushed pearl and eggshell across the path. The litter-bearers carried Davi smoothly up the temple steps and through the gem-laced Gate of Flames. Koru balked at its threshold.
A pair of priests flanked him. "The phoenix dies," said one, his breath sharp with frankincense. "There is no time."
Koru glared into the temple's shadowed interior. Davi stepped from the litter, her small hand clutching the oracle-priest's. Another liquid wail seared the air. Davi's gait would be too slow, he saw, and turned his glare on the priests.
"I will carry my daughter from here."
They bowed. He crossed the temple floor, a queen's dowry in sapphires inlaid beneath his sandals, and scooped up Davi's slight body. She wrapped both arms around his neck, eyes pale-rimmed. What child would not tremble at the assembled majesty of priesthood and temple?
"Come," said the oracle-priest.
He climbed, and climbed, and climbed again. Stained-glass windows lined the curving stairs; their colors slid across Davi's face, violet, emerald, azure.
"The Gate of Tears," the oracle-priest said.
Koru looked up, blinking. Davi's bony arms tightened. Two garnet-eyed acolytes hauled open the gate--no brazen glory of gold, as the Gate of Feathers, or lace of light and jewels, as the Gate of Flames, but a barrier of heavy, twisted bronze. Chains rattled as it rose.
A cry keened ahead, higher and higher. Air rushed past, sucked down the narrow passage before them, and the cry shattered to silence.
Drafts of heat swept back, chokingly dry. Davi coughed on the scent of burnt amber.
"The phoenix is dead," said a rasp-voiced priestess. "She must walk alone from here."
He nodded, throat closed, and lowered Davi feather-gentle. She cast him a single, frantic glance, then squared her shoulders and limped down the marble-walled passage, chin high. She turned the corner out of sight.
"Shrine-painter." The priestess caught his gaze, copper inlay and scars gleaming at her throat. "Go now."
She pressed an obsidian dagger into his hand. His fingers closed on the cool glass, feeling as if they belonged to someone else, but they did not, could not. For every gift there must be one willing to give, and the oracle had divined Koru as capable of it.
His feet carried him along the passage.
The heat sharpened. He turned the corner and halted, squinting against the glare of white marble. Turquoise shadows marred his vision; through them he watched Davi stump resolutely across an open courtyard. Before her sprawled the new phoenix.
It recoiled at her approach, long wings dragging. It was the size of a jackal, its feathers clear gold, though with each moment it pulsed brighter and grew. Its topaz-blue eyes fixed on Davi.
She knelt and bowed, forehead touching her knees.
The phoenix crouched, now large as a pony, and tilted its head. Deeper hues flushed its pinions, gold darkening to orange, scarlet, vermilion.
Davi sat up, her face in profile, and Koru could see delight part her lips. She leaned her head back and laughed. His grip tightened sweat-cold on the knife. The phoenix crooned, a hum like a tapped bell.
Now. He started forward, obsidian blade held close to his side. Davi laughed again.
The phoenix noticed him and hissed, the sizzle of water puffing to steam. A wary creature, and the wiser for it. Fly, he wanted to shout; let it take flight, and take all choice from him.
Davi twisted to follow the phoenix's attention. Her smile found Koru, and widened. Only welcome filled her face, welcome and joy; no shard of mistrust for him lurked in her eyes, nothing to provoke a skittish phoenix into springing for the sky. It was why she had been chosen.
"Do you hear it, Father?" she cried. "It says--"
"It's beautiful, featherling." He almost dropped the knife, fled in cowardice, until memory flared--Ulami whimpering, the line of petitioners pleading at the Gate of Feathers, so many lives, so many, and so much need. The oracles always found the one able to offer the sacrifice. It was, after all, why he had been chosen.
He looked into his daughter's bright-dark eyes and sliced the black glass across her throat.
The phoenix screamed.
He stumbled back, vision tear-blurred. Heat crackled through the courtyard, burning his lungs, and the phoenix spread molten wings. His shoulders struck a wall.
The phoenix screamed again, and lunged.
Koru lurched sideways, falling through the passage mouth, and scrambled back. The phoenix beat shrieking at the small opening. Hands seized his arms and dragged him away from its kiln-fire fury.
He couldn't see, couldn't breathe, and thrashed against the hands. Their owners carried him at a sprint; something slammed down behind them, a thunder of metal, and he blinked his eyes clear enough to see the Gate of Tears. Beads of moonstone and onyx clattered against its bars, audible in the abrupt silence.
They stood motionless, priests and acolytes and shrine-painter. Not a pant of breath stirred the quiet.
Weeping rose from the courtyard, high and sweet.
A sigh swept those gathered, the sway of breeze-touched leaves. A phoenix who would kill could not fly.
Koru slumped to the floor and sobbed.
The phoenix's grief drifted through the streets.
The sound echoed past stone fountains, slipped under shuttered windows, even washed into the crowded depths of the Traveler's Quarter. Emissaries from far lands sipped date wine, listening, and exchanged glances of satisfaction that their journeys would not be wasted.
In the temple, a shrine-painter knelt before a wall of sandalwood. Tears slid down his face, tears upon tears, as he waited; the phoenix's tears must descend along cool marble channels, filter past layers of doves' bones and rue, before they seeped at last through the polished sandalwood.
A droplet welled from a sculpted curve, slow as old honey. He lifted a hammered-gold bowl, hands trembling, and caught the first resin from the new phoenix. Its sharp scent bit the air.
He rose and turned. The fanned ranks of priests bowed, silent. He walked between them, bowl heavy in his hands, and passed through the Gate of Flames. Sunlight kindled the resin to glowing amber.
Behind him, high in its prison, the phoenix wept and wept.