Now he is floating over their heads, the suspensors on his throne set very high so that they must crane their necks to see him: this is how he is, Levana thinks, afraid to be seen touching the ground. And he's smiling that secret smile and he's got that twinkle in his eye, and he radiates that boyish innocence that never quite becomes childishness. On either side stand Hanna and Shira. In the middle, directly before him, stands Levana, the youngest, shifting her weight now and then, the toes of her left foot accommodating the comforting feel of the small, smooth secret in her left shoe.
"Love," he is saying, "is beyond any price. Love is a fair country with no borders, no boundaries. Love is what binds us together, and love is what has made this kingdom great."
Hanna and Shira are looking inscrutably at Levana. The afternoon light finds its way in through the cantilevered skylights of the great, round central hall of the Palace. Levana gazes at the ancient mosaics that circle the single unbroken wall, then looks up at Avishai, silhouetted against the graceful, shallow dome that rises above the skylights.
Rising before her, between her and Avishai, a colored projection of the map of Dungard appears, like a glowing stained-glass window. In the north is the Mountain Country, and the region called the New Land. In the middle, dividing the kingdom, are the cold and arid steppes, with their uninhabited regions of sand and stone. There also lies the maze of volcanic craters and canyons surrounding the Great Fissure, which dominates the central region of Dungard like a spider in her web. This is the land where so many soldiers fell, the land the old generals and sergeants-major still tell stories of in the halls of the palace. And to the south, stretching to the coast, is the Plains Country, the farmland, and the seat of the ancient capital, where the Palace still sits on a mountainside overlooking the city and the sea.
The map is divided vertically into three sections of different colors. Two, of roughly equal sizes, are labeled with her older sisters' names; the third, the central strip running from north to south and distinctly larger than the others, is left unmarked. The land of Gallia, vast and vague, looms off the eastern shore.
Confronted with this manifestation of their father's will, Shira and Hanna fidget and toy with the ceremonial tablets on which their shares of the kingdom are inscribed. Avishai's voice is soothing.
"Hanna found the favor of Lord Tir, and she will be the co-ruler of his province under the new order. Shira has acquired her share of Lord Roncor's province through her merits as well. You, Levana, have it much easier. You don't have to please anybody. Just stay here in Dungard, and the Central Province is yours alone. I have no quarrel with the King of Gallia, but you are needed here. You must give up the foreigner if you love me.
"You do love me, don't you, Leva?" His gaze is steady and solicitous. The throne lowers imperceptibly. She has only to say what he wants to hear, and her name will appear on the third region, and the tablet -- drawn up weeks before -- will be brought out and handed to her by gracious servants.
"It's Gallius I love," she says. "You can't keep me forever."
Gallius is not good looking or a particularly powerful king. In fact, he is unambitious and indifferent to geopolitical influence. His interest in Levana seems to be for herself alone. Sometimes Levana worries guiltily if it is not she, drawn by his holographic maps of the lush landscapes of his land, whose motives are impure. But in the long and empty weeks that fill her life, it is not the land she dreams of, but the man.
"Watch what you say, little girl."
And it is at this moment that she knows she cannot please him.
"Daddy, I'm not your little girl anymore."
There's a moment of explosive silence; then the map goes dark and the throne plummets to its resting place on the low carpeted dais. He peers into her eyes. His lower lip quivers, as thoughts seem to compete for his attention. His voice is low and breathy, like wind and far-off thunder.
"How dare you tell me that! Take that back at once."
But she is silent.
"Have you nothing to say?"
Still she is silent.
"Do you know what comes from nothing? Nothing -- and by the Merciful and Mysterious, that's what you'll get! Servants, annul those papers -- computer, redraw the map! And you -- go to your new home in Gallia and never let me see your face again. Pack tonight. I'll have Gallius send his men to meet you on the beach tomorrow."
Levana is too stunned to cry at first. Then she does.
Then, much later, she walks slowly to her room and takes off her shoes.
It is always there. Never out of reach, in her shoe, under a pillow, or in the airspace under one of the useless ceramic pieces that decorate her room. Sometimes she puts it in the pocket of her tunic, but usually that does not feel safe enough to her. But it is always there, and with it, a memory and a hope.
Now, at nineteen, her last memory of her mother is as fresh as it was on that day, when she was eleven years old. The room looked then much as it does now: walls of pink stone, floor of marble, covered with old rugs from her mother's family. An ornate chandelier in the ceiling sprinkles cool, harsh light from one floating light globe. Sitting on the soft, purple-covered bed, she can see her mother once again standing beside her.
Elnura is holding something small wrapped in purple velvet. She is tall and strong, like most of the women of the Mountain Tribe. Traditionally Mountain women are metalworkers, since prehistoric times of living and working in caves, while the menfolk hunted game and wild food. Years ago, Levana has been told, Elnura was a Seer, and a scholar of ancient lore. When Avishai is not around, which is seldom, Elnura spends time teaching Levana from her ancient books, with titles like The Way of Power and The Book of Creation.
"Do you know the legend of the Rings of Power?" she asks Levana.
"There were nine of them. They were all destroyed." She says the last word with feeling.
Avishai is watching from the door of the bedroom. "There were ten rings," Elnura is saying, "ten and not nine. They were numbered. The Nine Ring was the first to be destroyed, and the One Ring was the last."
"But you said there were ten."
"Before one, what do you count?" Levana does not answer and she continues: "This is the Zero Ring. It is called the Ring of Dreams, and it is the mother of the other nine. It shows you things in the world as they really are -- how things are conceived and born, how they develop, and how they end. It shows you the beginnings and the endings of things. And then it shows you the emptiness at the heart of Creation. It shows you the Void.
"This ring has been the secret of the women of the Mountain Tribe since ancient times. Only women have the power to channel its energy -- men are destroyed by it. Sometimes right away, sometimes slowly. Once a shepherd got hold of the Ring. He put it on. They found him the next day, going on all fours, eating grass and bleating back at the sheep. To wear this Ring is to look into the Void, and men are afraid of empty spaces."
Avishai grunts contemptuously. "Zero," he says. "Unnecessary number." He turns to go, still looking at the Ring out of the corner of his eye. It is because the Ring is forbidden to him that he finds it irresistible.
The Ring is a very simple, plain gold ring on the outside. Its surface is shiny and without scratches. It is like a curved mirror. The inside, the flat surface that fits against the finger, is inscribed with the thirty-two characters of the Classic Script. Each character appears exactly once, but their order changes from one moment to the next. Sometimes they form words; sometimes the words seem to fit together into ideas -- but, like the shapes you can see in the clouds, the meaning soon vanishes. Because you cannot see through the ring, you can never see all the characters at once. (Levana imagines that if she had a small, cone-shaped mirror, she might.)
"Thirty-two signs dance around the rim," Elnura says, "but it is the space in the middle that makes it useful."
"Will it ever run out of ways to arrange the letters?" Levana asks.
"It will take eight thousand trillion trillion years."
"Mama, did you ever wear this ring?"
It is the question Elnura has been waiting for. "Yes," she says, "in the old days, that is. Among my people. Before you -- before we became acquainted with the people of the Plains Tribe, and your Kingdom. I was known as a seer, one who knew how to use the ring, how to see dreams and look into the Void. I used the Ring often in those days." Here she pauses again. "I used it again last night."
"What did you see?"
Elnura stands up and does not answer at first. "Some things," she says finally. "I saw some things." She takes the ring back gently and puts it in her pocket. "I love you," she says to Levana, and leaves, telling the servants that she's taking a little walk.
The next day they learn that Elnura has traveled to the Great Fissure and thrown herself in.
The following night a servant whom Levana does not recognize, and will not see again, gives her a parcel wrapped in purple velvet. It is the Ring.
From then on, she keeps it in her shoe; she knows he will never look there. Sometimes she carries it in her pocket, rubbing it between her thumb and forefinger. Occasionally her fingertips will slip into the open space. When this happens she feels a pleasant tingling shoot up her arm and into her head. There is a sense of weightlessness. She finds the experience delicious but avoids this violation as much as possible; she feels it is unfair to the Ring to tease it in this way.
Mostly she just looks at it, watching the letters. Sometimes they form words, or almost form words. During the tedious shows and entertainments that are supposed to make her evenings lively, she looks at the Ring, keeping it cupped in her hands. In the tiny hours of the heavy mornings, she reads it in the moonlight.
Once a few of the characters arrange themselves to form FREDOMS, which is almost freedom but the letters are wrong. The next moment it becomes SERFDOM, and then the letters return to chaos.
It is after midnight. She snaps the brass latch on her goatskin satchel, and looks around at the rejected items of clothing strewn about. Picking up a delicate hair ribbon, she almost yields to the urge to tidy up, then thinks better of it. The ribbon falls to the floor.
She has heard from Hanna and Shira.
Hanna, the eldest: "I guess you know what you're doing to us. After you left, Shira and I got the Middle Province divided up between us, and with it the care of the Palace Compound. You know he wouldn't keep anything for himself -- that means we're going to have to look after him the rest of his life. I guess you got even."
And Shira: "Well I hope you're proud of yourself. Our father is devastated. Do you have any idea what you've done to him? If you have any decency you'll promise you'll forget about that foreigner and stay home where you belong. Then maybe, maybe he'll take you back."
Her life is ending and beginning. She feels like a long-festering sore that has been gashed and is at last beginning to bleed. It does no good to try to re-think her words of the day gone by. She thinks of begging Avishai to take her back, she thinks if she offers to forget Gallius perhaps he will.
Now she stares at the ring, which seems for the first time to have turned a frosty silver. She needs more than endless recombinations of the same signs. Only the transcendent vision of the wise women of the Mountain Tribe will do now. She imagines herself in the coarse, splendid, traditional woolen robes she has sometimes seen her mother wear. She decides that this is a time for seeing deeply into things. And as the warm glow surges from finger to arm to brain and suffuses her body, she understands why night, with its emptiness, is the mother of dreams.
Clouds obscure the starlight, and the plain is lit only by occasional flashes of gunfire. Two great armies are poised to clash, but her business is not with them. She is leading a Gallian commando unit in some sort of search-and-capture mission. She sees an outline in the night: it is the enemy leader, pathetic and helpless, and he will not be killed, but captured, as in a chess game, it is more satisfying that way.... The scene fades into a parade, it must be a victory celebration, she is marching with soldiers all around her...and now she is speaking with a great sage, discussing the mystery of things in the cell of some kind of monastery.... And finally she sees herself with an old man at her feet, raised up high as if on a throne, suspended in the air.
And then comes the kiss of the Void.
It could swallow you. It could tear you apart from the inside. She feels the weight of a vacuum in her body, and then the vacuum explodes and she feels she is both giving birth and being born, being crushed and turned inside out. For a moment, she sees her body lying on the bed, thinks how trivial and ugly it looks, like a rag doll that a child has dragged through the mud. Then everything dissolves into a flaming circle, and she passes through the center and finds peace.
After vision comes memory. Levana lies on the bed, rumpled now and damp with sweat, feels the ring icy on her finger, its power spent for now. Having seen the future, she feels she has already stepped outside of the Palace compound. Looking back, she sees things she has always overlooked, or things to which she has closed her eyes.
Memories come with a vengeance.
-- Her mother is speaking to Avishai, perhaps Levana is eight or nine. Elnura is saying, "Why don't you ever let the girls out of the compound? They need to see things, they need to travel." Avishai: "They have all they need. I provide them with everything." Elnura: "The same way you provide for your people! Yes, I've seen the way you treat your people. I've seen the slaves in the factories, chained to the machines, with electrodes in their heads to keep them from thinking evil thoughts...." Avishai raises a single finger in denial: "Those are not slaves! They are contract laborers. Slavery is against the law -- I signed the order myself!"
-- Hanna and Shira and the cruel games they played on her. And the way they looked when they did not know she was looking, haunted and scared.
-- Washing his feet. Of all the tasks that she has been given since her mother's death, this is the worst. She must kneel before him with the basin. Once, only once, she dares to ask, "Couldn't you get a maidservant to do this for you?" He is not angry; he simply looks wounded. "I thought you loved me, Leva," he says.
-- At thirteen she is too old to put flowers in her hair but she still does. She thinks she is alone in the garden. A voice from behind startles her: "You look so beautiful with flowers," he says, and starts caressing her shoulders. "You should wear them more often. Why are you so tense, little girl?" She never wears flowers again.
Now everything is clear, and freedom is a lighthouse on the horizon, a beacon over the Great Sea, and it shines on the filthy stones of the Palace Compound and calls to her. And to hell with the rest of them.
Seen from the outside, the Palace looks small, a grey mass nesting in the walled Compound on the mountainside like a pigeon. A road runs down the mountain to the city, but the road is hard to see, as if the mountain covers it. A small path, much steeper and shorter, leads from the Palace to the seashore. Levana looks back up at this path for the last time, and smiles at what she sees.
As he walks down the path to meet her, she can see he's carrying something, he's got his arms behind his back and he's picking his way carefully among the rocks with his feet. As he walks toward her she sees he is trying to recreate the mischievous grin that she used to love in spite of herself, but now he only manages to look desperate. So he is going to give her a gift. Very nice. She has something for him too.
"Something to remember me by," he says as he produces the bouquet of flowers. His taste for melodrama has not abandoned him. Politely, if a bit stiffly, she puts one hand out to take them.
She locks eyes with him and reaches inside her tunic, pausing just for a moment. "Put out your hand."
She gives him the gift, presses it into his trembling palm. She closes her eyes and forms one word in her mind: slowly. It is the only time she has ever prayed.
The path to the Palace rises and winds through the rocks, twisting like a plume of smoke. Levana turns to look back at it, and at her father. He holds the ring, incredulous, staring into her eyes and past them.
"Keep it," she tells him as gently as she can. "Mother would have wanted you to have it. It shows you the beginnings and the endings of things."
"How will I know which is which?"
"'Their end is embedded in their beginning, and their beginning in their end,'" she says, quoting the Book of Creation.
She sees he has seen something in the distance. She looks over her shoulder. It is the flyer from Gallia, now gliding over the water, now coming to rest and hovering over the sand. Two or three armed men in berets and black shirts get out and wait beside the vehicle. Its sleek, foreign design reminds her of a seashell.
The flowers. Their smell rises to her nose, nauseating her. She thinks: Even now he wants me to be his girlfriend. The old pervert. Their colors are lurid, obscene, like all the secret vices of the earth.
He's watching her. He's studying me, she thinks, trying to memorize the way I look. Let him. He will soon have enough on his mind. Yes, he is fingering the Ring already, stroking it. She turns away from him, looks down at the flowers.
"Leva," he calls plaintively. "You're going away."
She doesn't turn to answer him, doesn't even care if the wind carries her words back to him, or where it takes the flowers she throws into the sky. "Everything goes away."
She walks a few paces, and looks back for the last time, and he's motionless, just watching her go. He's not looking at her anymore, but at his idea of her. Now he can no longer see even that. In his mind's eye, she is already gone across the big water.
Now he sees nothing.