Read part 1 here
A monk was standing at the door to the White Lily end of the court. Above, the noise of the crowd following the play, and from the court the thwack of the ball hitting the walls, the occasional grunt of a ballplayer. “What do you want, brother?” asked the White Lily monk.
“I have to talk to Sister.”
“You don’t understand. I have to talk to her.”
The play ended in a foul; Her-Breath-Contains heard the call. The White Lily monk sighed, took a step back and made a sign. A moment later Her-Breath-Contains heard the timeout call, and Ultimately-Justice-Shall-Prevail came to the door.
Her-Breath-Contains routinely looked on the nearly naked She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey without embarrassment, but she was just a statue. Sister Ultimately-Justice was a real woman. Her arms and legs were well-muscled and streaked with grime, from diving for the ball. Her-Breath-Contains looked up towards her face quickly, because the close sight of her bare breasts was disturbing him, but so was the smell of her sweat, her very solid presence. She said nothing, only stood and waited, face expressionless.
She frightened him. He swallowed. “There’s a merchant from out-system,” he said, willing his voice not to shake, feeling slightly unreal. “He’s been giving the tetrarch presents. He wants contracts.” A pause to swallow again. “He’s wearing this weird bracelet-thing. It goes all over his hand and up his arm and. . . .”
It was as though he wasn’t speaking. Her expression didn’t change at all, there was no acknowledgment of his presence. “And your middle court man was wearing one just like it before the game. Except it was a different color. I’ve never seen anything like it before.”
She didn’t ask him what he meant, or if he was sure, or what he thought he was doing. She just turned and walked back out to the ballcourt without saying a word.
Her-Breath-Contains turned as calmly as he could and walked away, into the middle of the Hundred, reluctant this time to look squarely at She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey. He closed his eyes, took three deep breaths, wishing there weren’t so many flowers, opened his eyes, and climbed the steps to the top of the wall, where the Blue Lily monks sat. As he took his seat, Seven-Brilliant-Truths served, and Ultimately-Justice was poised to return it—until her middle court man, running for the ball, tripped and fell into her, and knocked the ball backwards, straight towards his own goal. Her back court knocked it away at the very last moment, sending it up into the stands.
The spectators on the Harime side groaned in unison, engaged in the game’s outcome as they had not been at the start. The Harime governor seemed not to react at all. “What was that?” asked the novice beside Her-Breath-Contains. White Lily’s back court strode towards the mid court player, seemed about to speak angrily, but then must have remembered that what he said would be audible both here and to people watching in their homes, because he stopped abruptly and returned to his position. The Blue Lily players laughed outright.
Ultimately-Justice gestured for a timeout. All three White Lily players walked behind the goal line, where they could speak without everyone on the station hearing. Ultimately-Justice spoke calmly, briefly. Her middle court replied, emphatically, gesturing negatively three and four times, no, no, no, no. Back court tried to speak but Ultimately-Justice raised her hand and spoke again, still calm. Middle court gestured again, no, spoke at length, presumably explaining.
They returned to the court. Ultimately-Justice seemed unfazed. As she walked past her middle court man, she suddenly spun around and slammed her armguard hard against his knee. The crack of bone breaking was audible over the whole ballcourt, and the scream of the injured ballplayer echoed in the momentary shocked silence of the spectators.
The noise rose. Qefahl Brend seemed paralyzed in his seat. The novice next to Her-Breath-Contains said, “She can’t do that! Can she do that?” Meanwhile, Ultimately-Justice strolled unconcerned to the center line, looked at Seven-Brilliant-Truths, and gently, sweetly, smiled.
She stood there for ten minutes, quietly humming the ninth hour’s devotional chant (Her-Breath-Contains had been right, she did not have a singer’s voice), while monks and the governors’ assistants searched centuries of precedent. But there was, it appeared, no rule forbidding one to cripple one’s own teammate.
The fourth White Lily player, who probably had not expected to play at all, took middle court, and the game resumed. Ultimately-Justice moved with astonishing precision and speed, sending the ball crashing from wall to wall. Her own team barely kept pace with her—though there were no more comic mishaps, no more inexplicable ineptness.
It wasn’t until the score reached four to four that the people sitting on the Harime wall realized that Sister Ultimately-Justice might actually win. The sound coming from across the court shifted subtly and it set the hair on Her-Breath-Contains’ arms standing. He didn’t know if anyone else could hear the change, or if he was imagining it.
White Lily scored their fifth point—Ultimately-Justice leaping a meter off the ground to slam the ball straight past Seven-Brilliant-Truths and his bewildered middle and back courts—and suddenly the Harime were on their feet and screaming. The Harime governor sat calmly, as though nothing had happened. He knew from the start, thought Her-Breath-Contains. She came and said she could win it and that’s how she got the position. He wouldn’t have had anything to lose, all the risk would have been Ultimately-Justice’s. Everyone had been so sure, but now Qefahl Brend might lose the seat on the Council of Four, and . . .
Suddenly Her-Breath-Contains saw what he had done. On the court, Seven-Brilliant-Truths grimaced, moissanite teeth flashing briefly.
Her-Breath-Contains didn’t want anyone to win. He wanted the game to stop, and now. He’d known from the beginning that someone would die, that at the end of the game he would watch an actual human being killed on the ballcourt, but it had been so abstract. “Six!” said the novice next to Her-Breath-Contains, in an anguished voice. Six against four. White Lily only needed four points more to win. “If we can score next . . .” This was another moment when the game could be reset. If Blue Lily could score next, both would start all over at zero. Ultimately-Justice hefted the ball, ready for the serve.
She hit it straight and hard. Seven-Brilliant-Truths, apparently unnerved, brought his arm up an instant too late. The ball slammed into his mouth—a foul. Play stopped. Seven-Brilliant-Truths put his hands on his knees, breathed. Spat blood on the court. Straightened. Ultimately-Justice watched him impassively. She took the ball when it was given to her, served again.
Something had gone out of Seven-Brilliant-Truths, out of Blue Lily. White scored three more times in quick succession—nine to four, another precarious moment. If Blue Lily could score, both sides would return to zero. If White scored, the game would be over. The noise from both sides of the court was louder than Her-Breath-Contains-The-Universe had ever imagined any sound could be. Everyone, it seemed, was standing, shouting, screaming. Except for the out-system merchant, who might well be preparing to direct his bribes elsewhere. Except the abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death. Except Tetrarch Qefahl Brend, and the governor of Harime Station. They sat silent and still in their seats.
For two more serves, the score stayed where it was. The sound, impossibly, increased. Then White Lily’s new middle court knocked the ball up and over. It arced long and high the length of the court. The three Blue Lily players stopped, arms at their sides, and stared at the ball as it landed just behind their goal line. The sound of the spectators—Noage Itray crying out in dismay, Harime in triumph—was like a solid object filling the air.
Sister Ultimately-Justice walked up to Seven-Brilliant-Truths and spoke. It should have been audible, but the sound in the court was so loud that Her-Breath-Contains could only see her mouth move. Her-Breath-Contains looked across to the Harime wall—the Harime governor’s seat was empty.
The monk who had been guarding the doorway to the White Lily end of the court came before the abbot and the tetrarch. He bowed and spoke. The noise was still too loud for Her-Breath-Contains to hear anything, but he saw the monk’s lips move. Messages, he saw, and the monk held his hands out, one to the abbot and one to Qefahl Brend.
Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death brushed his fingers across the monk’s hand and then his own ear, leaving a gauzy, barely visible membrane. Qefahl Brend waited a moment before following suit.
After a few moments Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death raised his hand and wiped the device away, and turned to look at Her-Breath-Contains, eyebrow raised. He made a beckoning gesture and Her-Breath-Contains leaned forward. “Accompany me,” said the abbot, and rose and strode away.
Her-Breath-Contains followed. The White Lily monk raised his hand casually, as though he were doing something entirely thoughtless, and touched Her-Breath-Contains’ ear as he passed. Suddenly Her-Breath-Contains heard the careful, rough voice of Ultimately-Justice. “I would not have done this, but you chose to involve yourself.” He started to raise his hand to touch the device, but stopped himself. The recording continued, her voice in his ear intimate in a way that made him shiver. “You are in great danger from this moment forward, no matter what you choose. The abbot will only protect you so long as you display no independence.”
Under the stands the noise was muted somewhat and Her-Breath-Contains heard a step behind him. He turned, saw his brother Qefahl Brend. His Breath Contains looked forward again, quickly. “I will help you where I can,” said Ultimately-Justice’s voice. “But favors come with a price.” The message-end tone sounded.
He followed the abbot to a room behind the White Lily goal line, where Seven-Brilliant-Truths and Sister Ultimately-Justice stood, and beside them the governor of Harime, who bowed to Tetrarch Qefahl Brend, but not deeply. Seven-Brilliant-Truths stared at Her-Breath-Contains as he came in behind the abbot.
The governor of Harime spoke. “At this moment Brother Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns is more valuable than you, Governor of Noage Itray. Tetrarch for the moment. Your seat on the Council of Four is lost. You can’t regain it without a good ball team. Or copious bribes, which, as you are no longer tetrarch, you may no longer find so easy to afford.” Her-Breath-Contains expected an outburst from Qefahl Brend, but there was nothing. The governor of Harime continued. “Noage Itray, and Blue Lily Monastery, needs Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns if they are to have any hope of regaining what they have lost. But they don’t need you in particular, Tetrarch.”
“Your point?” asked Qefahl Brend, voice smooth and dangerous.
“I have no interest in seeing anyone die,” said the governor of Harime. “Least of all Brother Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns. I have been troubled for some time over what seems to be to be our taking the Game’s conclusion for granted. I speak not just of the populace but also ourselves, the governors. It was meant to ensure that anyone seeking office truly desired the will of She-Who-Sprang-From-The-Lily, but what does it mean, now we aren’t risking ourselves? I suggest a return to something approaching the original terms of the Game. Not your death, Tetrarch, but your retirement to a life of prayer and asceticism. Surely that will satisfy She-Who-Sprang-From-The-Lily. What could be sweeter to Her than lifelong devotion?”
Qefahl Brend gave a bark of laughter. “Do as you like, I have no reason to retire.” Silence for just a moment, Ultimately-Justice standing quiet and solid, Seven-Brilliant-Truths still looking fixedly at Her-Breath-Contains.
The abbot bowed towards the governor of Harime. “If I didn’t know better, I’d think you actually imagined that Qefahl Brend might sacrifice his ambition for the good of Noage Itray. But we both know him too well. No more games, Governor, make your serve in earnest.”
Unfazed, the governor of Harime said, “There is also the matter of the tetrarch’s bribing White Lily’s middle court to throw the game.”
“We have proof,” added Sister Ultimately-Justice. A dizzying wave of anxiety passed through Her-Breath-Contains. Did she expect him to admit what he’d done?
Abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death shook his head in dismay. “Tampering with election results! That’s a serious charge. You have proof, you say?”
“The player confessed,” said Ultimately-Justice. Her-Breath-Contains thought of the sound of the man’s leg breaking, and swallowed back a small, distressed sound.
“Governor,” said the governor of Harime, “if I make my accusation—and my evidence—public you will almost certainly lose most of your support. The matter will come before the Council of Four and you will ultimately be forced out of office in favor of someone else. Depending on who that is—and who your enemies are—you may end up imprisoned, or even executed.” He paused, and then said, “You may avoid this by retiring to a hermitage, and appointing your brother Qefahl Aresh governor in your place.”
Qefahl Aresh. Her-Breath-Contains barely remembered going by that name, it felt foreign to him.
“Qefahl Aresh is only a child,” said Qefahl Brend contemptuously. “And besides, he’s on retreat and cannot be found.”
“It will be as She wills,” said the Harime governor. “If you do not agree, or if you cannot find Qefahl Aresh, then I will bring my accusation and my evidence to the Council of Four.”
Silence. Seven-Brilliant-Truths seemed not to have heard anything, was still looking at Her-Breath-Contains.
After a few heavy moments of silence Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death said, “Oh, if only Qefahl Aresh were here now.”
“You have conspired against me!” Qefahl Brend accused.
“No,” said the abbot, smiling. “But I know an opportunity when I see one.” He put a hand on Her-Breath-Contains’ shoulder.
Every favor comes with a price. Ultimately-Justice hadn’t had to tell Her-Breath-Contains that, he’d already known it. But the balance wasn’t so lopsided as she seemed to imply. He had already done her a favor. That would have a price that he could collect someday. He wasn’t a child, wasn’t stupid. In fact, everyone here would owe him—the governor of Harime, soon to be the tetrarch, Seven-Brilliant-Truths, the abbot. “I’m Qefahl Aresh,” he said, and then, lightheaded and anxious, wished immediately that he hadn’t spoken.
The governor of Harime did not so much as twitch an eyebrow. He was nearly as impassive as Sister Ultimately-Justice.
“Well, well,” said abbot Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death. “Imagine that.”
“Congratulations, abbot,” said Qefahl Brend bitterly. “You have the governorship.”
“No,” said Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death, voice gentle. “Qefahl Aresh does.” Her-Breath-Contains suppressed a shiver.
“You agree, then?” asked the governor of Harime.
“Not to a hermitage! Surely, abbot . . .”
“Tampering with election results,” the abbot said sadly, “is a very serious charge.”
“Damn you!” said Qefahl Brend. “Very well, let Aresh be governor, for whatever good it will do any of you.”
“Governor,” said Ultimately-Justice then, and with a start Her-Breath-Contains realized she was talking to him. “I wish to reiterate the proposal regarding Brother Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns.”
Her-Breath-Contains quickly gestured assent. “Yes. I agree to it.”
“Excellent!” said Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death. “I’m sure we can come up with a suitable ceremony, and Seven-Brilliant-Truths will live to play more games.”
Seven-Brilliant-Truths, silent all this while, turned to Ultimately-Justice. “Sister!” he said. “You have more faith than I do, and I’ve mocked you for it. Will you forgive me?”
“I forgive you,” said Ultimately-Justice, solid, even. Impassive.
“I was so sure it would be you who would die. So sure. I forgot . . .” he stopped, blinked. “I forgot it’s Her will we do and not ours. Even though She showed me Herself, so often. I’ve spent my whole life, since I was a boy, telling myself I was devoted to Her, but I wasn’t, I was devoted to myself. And now She makes my deception plain, even to myself.” Seven-Brilliant-Truths stepped to where Her-Breath-Contains stood, with the abbot’s hand still on his shoulder, and knelt. “Returned one!” he cried. “I should have paid attention, I should have listened to you and the abbot! Please forgive me!”
Both Qefahl Brend and the Harime governor looked nonplussed. “Brother Seven-Brilliant-Truths,” explained the abbot, “believes that Her-Br . . . that Qefahl Aresh is the saint Hold-Her-Commands-As-A-Mirror-To-Your-Heart, returned.”
Qefahl Brend scoffed.
“I should have asked your blessing before the game,” Seven-Brilliant-Truths said. “I should have asked the blessing of She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey.” He took Her-Breath-Contains’ hands in his and kissed them. Her-Breath-Contains was appalled.
“I swore I would surrender to Her will, even to the point of losing my life,” said Seven-Brilliant-Truths. “And if I walk away from this, I’ll know that my faith is a lie. Plan your new ceremony for next time.”
“What?” Her-Breath-Contains was having trouble understanding what it was Seven-Brilliant-Truths was saying, though suspicion had started a horrible feeling in his empty stomach.
“Are you sure, Brother?” asked the governor of Harime. “No one here would blame you.”
“That’s right,” said Her-Breath-Contains hastily.
“And understanding the Goddess’ will isn’t easy,” said the abbot. “We can all of us only do our best.”
“She commands me,” said Seven-Brilliant-Truths. “And I obey. Sister understands.”
“Yes,” said Sister Ultimately-Justice, not even blinking.
Seven-Brilliant-Truths’ death was like everything Sister Ultimately-Justice did—sure and precise.
Afterwards Her-Breath-Contains and the abbot walked towards the Blue Lily goal line, followed by Blue Lily’s middle court and back court carrying Seven-Brilliant-Truths’ body. Her-Breath-Contains couldn’t afford to make a sound until he was past the line. Seven-Brilliant-Truths’ blood was still fresh on his clothes. He wanted to strip them off, wanted to erase from his mind the sight of Seven-Brilliant-Truths slumping forward, his head in Ultimately-Justice’s hands.
He stepped over the goal line. Qefahl Brend, waiting there, said bitterly to Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death, “It doesn’t matter what happens as long as you have what you want.”
It took Her-Breath-Contains a sick moment to realize Qefahl Brend was talking about himself, not Seven-Brilliant-Truths.
“We’re alike that way,” said the abbot, with equanimity. How calm the abbot was! But Shall-I-Alone-Escape-Death had won three election games, done three times what Sister Ultimately-Justice had just done. “In other ways, not. I’ll send you icons for your hermitage. Of the saint Seven-Brilliant-Truths-Shine-Like-Suns and one of She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey.” He looked at Her-Breath-Contains. “I don’t have to urge you learn from She-Commands-Me-And-I-Obey, do I, Governor.”
Her-Breath-Contains thought of overheard conversations, of the saint Hold-Her-Commands-As-A-Mirror-To-Your-Heart, drowned before he could tell his successor that the most secure room in the monastery was, in fact, bugged. Of the abbot telling him there was power in knowing something others didn’t know. Thought of Sister Ultimately-Justice, her strong arms, the smell of her skin, the knife in her hand, Seven-Brilliant-Truths . . . no, not that, not that . . . her voice in his ear, warning him to be careful of the abbot. I’ll help you if I can.
“No, abbot,” he said. “You don’t.”