Remember to tread as gently as possible in the Museum of Printing History, for these machines are delicate. They have withstood wars and insurrections, high-level humidity, and long droughts. They have grown tired of surviving and require only a minimum encouragement to expire.
These printing presses have produced epics, and treatises, and several thousand copies of Renduk Milder’s Kishahara Love-Cycle, in embellished typefaces with printed illustration of all one hundred and thirty-six methods of erotic congress, encompassing species, and gender.
The story of our printing presses is in many ways the story of our shared Arrival histories: Yroi, Dvenri, Mirozhi, Archipelagic, Jadhi, and all of the other nations.
The printing presses in Tare were set up long before the Arrivals learned to use the living crystals for the transmission of information. The presses continued after crystal access was denied to anybody on the conjoined continents who were not in the employ of the Yrole Government.
The pamphlets guaranteed autonomy of information.
The pamphlets did not guarantee accuracy. The pamphlets did not guarantee safety. Sometimes, they were the only ways to transmit information.
The only way to let a story be told, to let voices be heard.
These pamphlets did not always tell stories in the expected ways. That too, was to be expected. The pamphleteers were not people who had paid enough or who had been acceptable enough to pass the Master Storyteller Examinations.
Rahshan Milder took out a book bound in rose-colored leather, with elegant gold lettering embossed upon it, and velvet tasseled bookmarks slotted in-between the uneven pages. He then turned the pages with his elegant fingers.
“Read aloud from this page without deviating from what is written there, please.”
Nervous, Erheani did as requested. The story was familiar to her. The style in which it was written was not. He listened with a pensive face as she read from the text, and then he grabbed the book away from her, slapping it shut.
“Now,” he said. “Tell me the story again in your own words. I want you to add the following elements: a goblet of rosewater, a fire-eater, a naked Dvenri slave and a sick princess.”
The text that he had bid Erheani read was a dry parable concerning time and perception. It used as its postulate a race between a tortoise and a sprint-deer. Rahshan perhaps assumed that Erheani would be too much of a peasant to have knowledge of the parable, but the Mirozhi had their own parables which corresponded to the time paradoxes. Erheani’s two years in the printing press had further acclimatized her to the differences and similarities between Yroi and Mirozhi literature. She had read this parable and more as she fitted plate after plate into the press.
As Erheani scanned the lines before Rahshan’s critical regard, multiple scenarios ran through her mind. She decided to turn the goblet of rosewater into something symbolic and mystical. She decided to turn the slave into a hero. She decided to consider the different properties involved in the calculation of time.
She omitted the fire-eater.
Listen! In the name of Neith the Holy Weaver, and the Seven Sentient Moons, I swear that this tale is true.
In the first century of the Yrole Empire’s Age of Gold and Diamonds, there lived an Herbalist who cured his only daughter of the Peasant’s Plague. His name was Haseem al-Jahrani, and he was a Mirozhi.
Herbalists and apothecaries of the known world marvelled at the efficacy of his curative. No one had ever survived the Peasant’s Plague. There were many who demanded he shared the cure so that others could be healed. However, Haseem had cited reasons both religious and esoteric against such a disclosure. He would have been left alone but for the fact that the Emperor also had a daughter. On a night when the Eldest Moon competed with the Courtesan in the sky, the princess broke the harem’s curfew and travelled to the bazaar in disguise, accompanied by her janissaries and hand-maidens. She contracted the Peasant’s Plague, a disease that had never afflicted the Yrole Imperial family before.
In truth, Haseem had forgotten how to make the cure. The elixir he concocted had been finished in the early hours of dawn while near delirious with fatigue and panic. Wroth with the seeming non-compliance of the herbalists, the Emperor issued a death warrant. Every herbalist who resided in the Imperial City of Lith Gurland was to be slain, an herbalist each day, if his daughter was not cured by the Night of the Seven Moons. The Herbalists worked tirelessly to create such a cure. No one had ever come close, but for Haseem. Haseem had no recourse but to present himself before the Emperor of Yrole. The Emperor eyes kindled with cold rage when he admitted to having forgotten how to make the cure.
“Very well,” said the Emperor.
“If you cannot fashion for us a cure of your own making, your punishment is to find a cure known only between the pages of the Royal Apothecary’s Annals. You will seek out the Tower of the Rosewater Goblet.”
This is also a truth—everyone knew the Tower of the Rosewater Goblet did not exist. It was such a truth that it became common for ice-artisans and Master Cooks to construct pink ice towers at state banquets, filling the cavities with rosewater jelly and freshly made rose candy, loaded with pistachios and passion-fruit.
Haseem knew this, the Emperor knew this. The princess languishing on her bed due to a complaint that had previously only afflicted the very poor knew this as well. But it did not stop the Emperor from insisting that Haseem carry out his Imperial orders.
All who heard the imperial edict agreed that the Emperor must be half-mad with grief, for his daughter was dying. It was an exercise in futility.
The Emperor instructed half a dozen janissaries to accompany Haseem on his quest. The jannisaries who had been selected were stoic about it. They were expandable, perhaps even more expandable than the rest. In sets of six, these scions of hostage Dvenri had been trained since childhood to serve without questioning.
Haseem gave all six of them a look of resignation. “Well, let us be off then,” Haseem said, beckoning at them to follow him. The other Herbalists in court whispered to themselves. All knew that the janissaries were to be his captors, but Haseem treated them as Companions.
The Emperor on his throne did not notice. His thoughts were only for his daughter.
Three days into their journey, Haseem and the janissaries made camp within a grove of orange trees. The manuscript that Haseem had consulted said that the tower had last been seen in the Southern Crescent mountain range, and so that was where they were headed, convinced though they were about the futility of their quest.
They soon bore witness to an extraordinary sight.
A naked Dvenri slave walked past them very slowly, talking to the ground. Haseem stood up and called out, “Brother, where do you go?”
The naked slave gave him a distracted look and continued talking to the ground. His feet were painfully shackled and his ankles were rubbed raw. There were sores on his upper and lower limbs, and the tell-tale sign of whip-marks.
Two of the janissaries stood up. “That’s a runaway slave,” said one of them.
“Leave him be, he’s clearly not right in the head,” said another janissary.
Haseem walked towards the naked slave, bringing with him a rolled up Mirozhi rug.
“Here, you must be cold,” he said to the slave, who looked up, startled. He took the rug, wrapped it around his shivering form, and then continued talking to the ground. Curious, Haseem looked down.
He then realized that the slave had been talking to a tortoise.
Haseem convinced the janissaries to follow him and the slave as they travelled with the tortoise. He decided that if they were looking for an improbable wonder, they could do worse than follow yet another improbable wonder. It soon became clear to Haseem that the tortoise really was talking, albeit in a rather ponderous, academic fashion. He was almost convinced that he could hear the words of the tortoise. The words were marvels in themselves, concerned as they were with time, and how everything flowed relative to each other. As the tortoise spoke, Haseem and the janissaries moved closer.
It was not long before everyone in the party could very clearly hear the tortoise’s voice in their head. The slave walked straighter and straighter the further along they moved. A fire lit up in the eyes of the janissaries. It felt as if all of the wisdom of the heavens was being imparted to them, even if perhaps the tortoise would win no prizes for oration. The singular truth, in the end, mattered more.
Just as they reached the entrance to the crystalline tower of the Rosewater Goblet, the sprint-deer caught up with them.
High up on the plateaus of Mirozkh sprawled the province of Lishaz, the sweetest province in our august kingdom. Here, there once lived our most beloved storyteller. Above the village of her birth, the mountain goats grew hardy, and the herbs grew sweet along the most perilous slopes. In the fields just beyond the village, equally hardy mountain sheep grazed.
Beneath them, three trails meandered downwards.
One trail led through the foothills into Dvenre, long colonized by the Yroi. The other led deeper into Mirozkh. The third trail would meet the Grand Highway, wending its way into Lith Gurland, the heart-flower of the Yrole Empire which blossomed only when the colonized lands bled money and sweat.
The stories and poems of the people of Lishaz are our Living Testimony and our gospel. This Testimony shaped our knowledge and the entirety of our identity. Those of us who live in the plateaus are a proud and resilient community, and our most famous daughter was no exception to this rule.
Erheani came from a moderately well-to-do family. Hasheen, Erheani’s father was a carpet-weaver and came from nine generations of carpet-weavers. Erheani grew up learning how to spin thread from wool, how to dye the thread in different, bright colors, and how to weave those colors into patterns out of the stories that had been told by Mirozhi storytellers since our Arrival on Sesen. This is what we have been taught as children: weavers, carpet-makers, and artisans. And thus it was with our storyteller, even when the fire of her craft became her instrument of servitude.
When Erheani was old enough to work alone at the loom, she told herself stories to pass the time. She sang her fairytales, she chanted them. She let the rhythm of the loom inform the cadence of her stories. Soon, it was not just her siblings who gathered by her side. Soon, it was not just the children of her village. The adults listened as well.
Hasheen listened, and the more he listened, the more thoughtful he grew. He understood that he needed to send his daughter away so she could grow as a storyteller—her talents had so far outgrown our hamlet.
With a small money-bag of the carpet-maker’s bronze and silver, and the protection of a burly caravan chief, Erheani found herself bundled up in festive, colorful clothes from the loom of her grand-aunt. Three carpetbags were placed on a mule for her. One had her clothes, a mixture of hand-me-downs and tunics made lovingly by her sisters and aunts. Another had parchment, quills and a small bottle of ink that her bashful Uncle Lateef had given her. The third had dried fruits, cured mutton, hardboiled eggs and cheeses made from sheep’s milk.
She secured the leather-bound book containing the stories, poems and songs that together comprised the Living Testimony of our people to a beautiful chain of bronze and silver links and coins. This chain was attached to a leather strap that she slung across her chest, wearing the book as an adornment in the manner of Mirozhi storytellers. Her forehead was tattooed with ceremonial henna, as were her hands and feet. She left the village with the goodwill, hopes and wishes of her family and neighbors.
Naturally, the caravan was beset by Yroi bandits.
In the sylvan city of Tare, deep within the ornate forest the Yroi called the Svieg, lurked a strange contrivance that was known as a “mechanical moveable type”. Erheani learned to work with the machine, which could produce six dozen pamphlets per day. She learned the ways of setting up different typefaces. She helped cast the clay and bronze tablets that were fitted into the steam-powered printing press machines. Because of a finite supply of water and coal, the machines could not produce more pages, nor could the pamphlets be longer than ten pages apiece. This had always seemed so limited to Erheani. She fantasized about stories that were so long, it would take weeks to finish reading them.
“Are you done with setting the plates yet, Er-hee?”
Erheani looked up from the bronze moveable type plates she was setting with the Dvenri letters, punctuation marks, and illustrations. It was from a series of pamphlets that recounted Dvenri folktales, banned by the Yroi Empire as being seditious.
“Almost done Lee-Lee, I just need to make sure everything is aligned just so,” Erheani said.
Erheani’s family was informed by telegram of the delay. She assured her father that the delay was temporary. She perhaps did not tell him that she had escape from bandits who had captured their wagon-train, carrying the Book of Living Testimony and the precious bags of bronze and silver coins with her. She did not explain the things she had learned in the terrifying forests of the Svieg. She did not explain how they had met. Madame Li-Yan had been gathering sweet-smelling herbs for her medicinal teas and long-boiling soups. Their eyes had met in startled recognition a split second before Madame Li-Yan registered that the Mirozhi girl was in fatigued trauma. She did not explain that it was Madame Li-Yan’s money that was paying for the telegrams, and for her room and board, or the fact that the room she was given was not the one she slept in every night.
She did tell them that she was in an apprenticeship, and that it would augment her future studies in Lith Gurland.
“Almost there is too slow! No need to be so perfect. Just make sure the letters print right. I think you already have got it.”
“Alright! Alright! I am done!”
Erheani allowed Madame Li-Yan to inspect her handiwork. Madame Li-yan nodded in satisfaction.
“You have learned very fast, Er-hee. Are you sure you will not stay with me? Learn to be a Master Printer, and write your stories so we can print them.”
Erheani shook her head.
“I want to be a Master Storyteller, Lee-Lee.”
Madame Li-Yan threw Erheani a skeptical look.
“So you think you will attain this in the grand city of the Yroi who have colonized both our lands? What good do you think will come of it, Er-hee? Your stories are good. No, they are better than good. Almost every night we go to The Bronze Wok, and almost every night we get the Master Chew personally cooking our dinner because of your stories. I have never eaten so well in my life.”
Erheani stopped working, and wiped her ink-stained fingers carefully on a damp cloth. “Lee-Lee, my family saved their money so that I would be able to be a Master Storyteller. It is not just my dream, it is theirs as well. I would love to stay here and be with you, this life is beautiful.”
She took Madame Li-Yan’s hand and squeezed it tight. “I have obligations, Li-Yan. I cannot let my family down.”
Madame Li-Yan looked thoughtful.
“You have made my printing press a lot of money, Er-hee, and I have paid you a generous salary. I can double that amount so you can return all that money to your family.”
Erheani stared at Madame Li-Yan, flushing a little in embarrassment.
“You would do that for me? I am not sure I would be comfortable with that.”
The woman smiled, “I’d be doing that for my business, silly. I have tripled my publishing output since you joined the firm. But this is also because I do not think you will be happy in Lith Gurland. Stay here, prosper, and when we have free time we can visit Lith Gurland together. Perhaps,” and here the woman hesitated, “Perhaps we could rent a small apartment across from the Clockwork Fountain? Wouldn’t that be nice? I would like to collect some supplies so we can try out that new idea of yours as well. Engine-powered moveable types that are able to run for a day sounds intriguing. We would be tourists, not supplicants.”
Erheani frowned, “But, if I don’t try to be a Master Storyteller, I’ll always wonder, Lee-lee.”
“This is Tare, the city of dissidents, artists, and people who work for change. Why would you not stay here where you can do so much good? Why do you want to go all the way to that cruel, glittering city that will wear you down?”
“I’ll always wonder, Lee-lee. That wondering might kill me.”
Madame Li-Yan’s eyes were devastated, but her voice was kind, “Sometimes wondering is better. But if that is your wish, I will not keep you.”
“I’ll write letters, Lee-lee.”
Madame Li-Yan threw her a sad smile.
“You assume you’ll have time, Err-hi. You’ll forget me within a month.”
“I don’t think that would be even remotely possible, Lee-lee. And you know it.”
Madame Li-Yan’s response was a distracted smile as she started preparing the lanterns for their evening walk. The mood in The Bronze Wok was somber that night. No stories were told. The sweet and sour sesame-seed noodles grew cold as they threw morose glances at each other.
Erheani remembered that moment constantly over the years, but never more bitterly than the first time, when she had recited that first version of “Tower of the Rosewater Goblet”, only to be met with the scorn of Renduk Milder’s august descendant.
“Raw. Very raw. Unsophisticated, and heavy-handed. Rather derivative. Could you lose that sheep-girl drawl? Your accent mangles the classical elegance of the Yroi tongue. It’s so underclass. It’s fairly rancid with slurred vowels.”
Rahshan looked at Erheani’s perspiring form with a curl of distaste as he uttered the word “rancid”. Immediately, she felt like an unattractive, plump slab of rustic meat, imagining the widening stains on the under-sleeves of her best tunic, feeling the weight of the bronze and silver coins in the tiny carpet-woven pouch pinned inside the inner pockets of her tunic.
“However, your Uncles do produce the best carpets in Mirozhi. And there’s enough of a charming flow to your story to make you passable. Consider yourself accepted for enrollment. And now, may I see the promised fees?”
Erheani was profoundly humiliated by the entire process. She wanted nothing more than to trek back to Tare and to the comforting, if somewhat abrasive presence of Madam Li-Yan. Instead, she handed over the bag of bronze and silver coins that her family had given her. She observed the calculative gleam in Rahshan’s eyes as he slowly counted the coins.
“Nice. Very nice. I was expecting you to beg a discount, but this will do.”
That night, ensconced in a dorm with uncomfortable beds, Erheani continued the rest of the story in her head. Telling herself stories had always made the pain disappear.
Rahshan Milder grew as famous as his grandfather Renduk. His fable of the rosewater goblet which had transformed a slave into an epic hero who eventually won the heart of an elephant-taming princess captured the hearts and the imagination of Yroi and Dvenri alike.
Erheani slaved at her tasks, which included helping with the housekeeping of the Storyteller’s academy, preparing her tutor’s meals and bathwater, and working on her storytelling. She read piles of books that he left for her. She ate with him at every meal. Rahshan was also rising in stature. Every story that he wove somehow sounded hauntingly familiar. It made him richer, and won him numerous invitations to perform for the Emperor. He would give Erheani summary criticisms and very occasional words of praise. Every year, she would pay him another pouch of bronze and silver coins.
Erheani failed the Storytelling Mastercraft examination three years in a row. The cited reasons had been her lack of sophistication, her thick Mirozhi, the obviousness of her metaphorical elements and her literary devices. She returned to Lishaz, ashamed and defeated. The Master Storytellers, on the other hand, came out with their own Compendium of tales, gleaned from ideas shared by their apprentices.
The Rosewater Goblet Compendium was an instant success. Defeated and humiliated, Erheani returned to Lishaz.
Erheani did not write any tales for the next five years. Instead, she married a prosperous carpet-merchant who had been one of her best friends. She helped the family business, gave birth to triplets, and led a seemingly happy life.
One day, the urge to tell stories became so strong that her voice again filled the confines of the carpet-maker’s establishment. The Storyteller of Lishaz may have failed the exams, but the verisimilitude of her words, the cadence of her storytelling, and the sly humor of her dialogue drew more and more of the people of Lishaz who thronged the carpet-maker’s establishment. Her father grew prosperous. He expanded his shop into a graceful Mirozhi hall.
Erheani began to spot familiar faces in the crowd. Faces who had travelled for miles from Lith Gurland to listen to her. Once again, the stories she told found their way into more sophisticated tellings, bound in ornate Yroi volumes in the elegant script of trained scribes, most of them Dvenri hostages. This was the honor they gave her, the honor of sitting in the shadows and listening to her, or sending proxies all the way through the highways and waterways of Yrole to listen to her speak.
They would return back to the crystal domes and sea-stone palaces and mansions of Tare, Serolar, Mirozkh and the other cities of the Yrole Empire. They would write their plays, their operas and their own sophisticated versions of her tales. They would grow wealthy and bloated on the proceeds of her imagination, which they credited as “various rustic folk sources” from which they had “adapted” their creations.
It had been a bitter lesson to learn, that all of those shiny items of transaction had not been enough to buy her the respectability she needed to be recognized as a storyteller. Not enough to keep her stories taken from her, with other names attached to them. Not enough to keep her heritage from being appropriated by those who had never woken up at dawn to milk goats, nor know what it was like to have Yroi tax-takers divest you of half of everything you earn.
A familiar looking face, one of those apprentices that she had tutored approached her after her final storytelling, on the night when Erheani knew she had no more stories to tell. His face was contrite as he brought her a beautiful, bound book which had The Storyteller of Lishaz, and Other Tales embossed upon it in a bronze script. She ran her palm over the book and hesitantly opened the cover, flipping the pages till she reached the cover page which read, Collected from the Oral Accounts of the Peasant Genius behind the Rosewater Goblet Compendium.
Mirozhi pamphlets all agreed that Erheani started crying at this. Some pamphlets say it was in shock, others claimed that she was deeply emotional at finally getting the acknowledgement she craved.
“They would not allow us to print this in Lith Gurland, so we found a bookbinder in Tare who would. We apprentices could only afford twelve copies, but it is here. Your life story. Your tales that we listened to over the years. Your name.”
Erheani stared at him. “You did this for me?”
The man nodded. “We were too cowardly, but we are storytellers too, and no storyteller deserves to have their name obscured like yours was. We have only twelve books, it may not be enough.”
“It will be enough.”
She offered him a story and a Mirozhi dinner of roast goat, and orange-poppyseed pudding. It would be a dish cooked by Mirozhi families on her day of birth, every year.
The pamphlets also report that the Storyteller of Lishaz finally succumbed to the ailments which had plagued her for most of her adult life. She died as a footnote in history, and her tale was canonized by Mirozhi pamphleteers for generations until Mirozkh finally won independence from first Yrole and later, Dvenre.
Erheani became a national hero when Mirozkh gained independence from first Yrole, and then Dvenre. She was named Mother of the Revolution.
Did you really think this was the actual story of her life?
Did you think the woman who invented the Tower of the Rosewater Goblet, who was tenacious enough to sit through the oral examinations three times, who survived countless revisions and appropriations of her story would just give up, would just allow herself to be silenced, or honored, by others? As though it was an accolade to be received with surprised shock, like restitution for virtuously suffering manifold wrongs?
All famous volumes have their hearsays, and their little folktales. This is why the Museum of Printing History stands here.
This chapbook here was written by her youngest brother. You can take it. It reveals the lie behind the many accounts. I’ve got copies of that chapbook in the hundreds. For some reason no one wanted to buy it.
The Storyteller of Lishaz never returned to her home country. There are many stories about Erheani receiving those apologetic storytellers, inviting them to her fireplace, giving them food. Many of those tales were disseminated through pamphlets of the Tourism Council and were also used by the pamphleteers of the Dvenri Insurgency. That Dvenri Insurgency became a civil war that ended, once and for all, the Age of Gold and Diamonds.
Neither Haseem nor the janissaries had time to wonder about the improbable reality of the Tower. As soon as they reached its doorstep, a roar that shook the ground stayed their tracks. The sprint-deer dashed away in panic. The tortoise, however, continued explaining in great detail the paradoxes of time and of how there were overlapping, possible worlds where the laws of time operated differently.
The first janissary moved forward with a grim face.
“I’ll take care of this,” he said. He drew out his scimitar and entered the tower. A roar, more fearsome than the first caused the second janissary to faint.
The first janissary never returned. Haseem felt fear clutching his heart like a leaden fist. But the tortoise kept talking, and soon his words about how they were mere leaves in the river of time soothed them, even if they never really understood why.
The roar began to sound sonorous, soothing, and rather inconsequential. Bolstered by this, the third janissary offered to enter the tower.
The third janissary did not return.
Finally, there was only Haseem, the slave, and the tortoise. The second janissary had revived only to expire as the loudest roar of all nearly deafened them. Haseem met the slave’s eyes.
“Do you have a name, brother?” he asked of the slave.
“I was known as Gan-Zhang before I was captured in combat,” he answered.
“Well then, Gan-Zhang, if we are to die together, allow me to remove your shackles.”
Haseem took out a small phial from his satchel and poured it over the iron shackles that had clasped Gan-Zhang’s ankles painfully. The shackles melted, although the melting hurt Gan-Zhang so much that he cried out in pain. Haseem took out another phial from his satchel and applied balm to Gan-Zhang’s wounded ankles. The pain abetted, and when Haseem stood up, the man looked at him in gratitude.
“Thank you. You have done me a great kindness,” said Gan-Zhang.
“I have done what any person should have done,” Haseem answered.
In answer, Gan-Zhang drew the scimitar from the corpse of the second janissary with his right hand.
“For that, I will brave the Tower of the Rosewater Goblet for you, my friend.”
He picked up the tortoise in his left hand, and strode towards the Tower, ignoring Haseem’s protestations of concern.
As Gan-Zhang climbed the spiral staircase of rose quartz, he listened to the tortoise grumbling about the manticore that waited at the top of the stairs.
“She is the antithesis of reason and order,” the tortoise complained, before returning to an explanation about how time was connected to space.
“Do you say this because she is so loud, or because she will be bigger than the both of us?” Gan-Zhang asked. Before he had been captured in combat, Gan-Zhang had been infantry in the Dvenri insurgency, but even before that, he had been a scholar of mathematics. This was partially why he had derived so much comfort from the tortoise’s companionship, but also why he needed to quantify everything he encountered.
“No, I say this because creatures like the manticore should not exist!” snapped the tortoise. In order to sooth his companion’s tetchiness, Gan-Zhang persuaded the tortoise to talk about the mathematics involved in the calculating of time. Strangely enough, the manticore at the top of the stairs started making a new, rumbling, almost purring sound as the the tortoise started sharing a set of different time equations. Gan-Zhang looked up, startled. The tortoise grunted in irritation.
“Where shall we go for our vacation this year, Er-hee?” Madam Li-Yan asked as Erheani covered the last printing-machine. “Do you want to return to Lith Gurland?”
Erheani made a face, “That boorish place with those self-inflated windbags thinking they can tell good stories? No thank you, Lee-Lee.”
Madam Li-Yan grinned. “Well then, shall we visit that beautiful little crescent island of Rumai? I hear they have the sweetest fire-fruits in all of the Conjoined Continents. And festivals of love on their beaches while the northern lights are dancing in the winter sky.”
Erheani was skeptical.
“They also have their own printing methods, involving granite.”
“Granite? How is that even possible?”
“They’ve invented their own mechanized printing press using both steam-power and a rigged pulley system.”
“Rigged pulley system?” Erheani’s eyes brightened. Madam Li-Yan gave her a knowing smile.
Erheani shook her head, “Oh Lee-lee. You always know how to reel me in.”
“Only because you let me, Er-hee. Only because you let me.”
They smiled at each other and latched the door shut on the printing press before walking arm in arm towards The Bronze Wok. Above them, the Herbalist’s Moon shone in emerald benediction, filling the night with the resonance of all that was green and mysterious.
There were no novels in the Conjoined Continents until Erheani turned her story into a one-hundred thousand word opus. It was the kind of story scribes would never copy. It was so huge that Madam Li-Yan protested violently against it. It almost ended their relationship. Erheani, however, was so determined to get her story out into the world that she re-designed the printing press. Don’t believe me? Look under The Monster, over there. That’s the first supersized printing press they ever designed together. You should read what is written on the plaque underneath The Monster.
When Gan-Zhang and the tortoise reached the top of the stairs, they saw a hexagon-shaped room with walls of iridescent rose-colored crystal. In the middle of the room, a pedestal of rose quartz sloped upwards, its base looking so fragile that the manticore’s roar should have cracked it aeons ago. Atop this pedestal stood the Rosewater Goblet, made of translucent rose crystal, and containing a red liquid that splashed from one end of the Goblet to another.
The manticore stood between the pedestal and the door. To the sides of the door lay the unconscious bodies of the janissaries. She roared one more time, her distraught face growing longer as her mouth opened.
“Sister, why do you roar so loud?” Gan-Zhang asked the manticore.
The manticore rumbled in reply and made to leap at Gan-Zhang.
But then the tortoise said, “What did I tell you? She is the chaos that seeks to undo the Universe.”
The manticore stopped mid-leap and said in a surprisingly normal voice, “Chaos indeed. You puny half-shell. Are you not done yet with your vacillations about time?”
“Vacillations? Vacillations? I will have you know I am very sure about my possible worlds theory.”
“If you were so sure about your possible worlds theory, why are you still a tortoise? Surely you would have figured out a way to access this manifold you keep jabbering on about.”
“The same reason why you’re still a manticore, my dear. Haven’t you figured out how to resolve those time paradoxes yet?”
“If they could be resolved they wouldn’t be called paradoxes, you silly head!”
Gan-Zhang, being a very logical man, looked at the two and realized that they were both after the same thing.
“Were you trying to drink from the Goblet, sister?” he asked of the manticore.
The manticore stared at him in surprise.
“Goodness! No one has asked me that in all of these three hundred years!” she said.
Gan-Zhang took the Goblet from the pedestal and lifted it to the Manticore’s lips. She lapped the top of the goblet with her long, forked tongue, and then gasped. Gan-Zhang did not wait for the inevitable transformation. He poured a little of the rosewater over the tortoise, and then placed the tortoise gently on the ground. He looked away discreetly, not sure if he should look. Soon, the sounds of rapid argument filled the room.
They had not missed a beat, it seemed.
Undone by curiosity, he sneaked a peek at the two grey-haired, stern-face women dressed in the robes of scholars. They argued vociferously, but their hands were clasped together in a moment he was sure he was not supposed to intrude upon.
Gan-Zhang smiled, and brought the Goblet downstairs.
This is the novel. There are only seven copies of it left in Yrole. It is rich, it is often improbable. It breaks all of the classical rules of storytelling.
Erheani provided generations of pamphleteers, rebels, and insurgencies ways in which they would never be silenced by inventing The Monster.
If you want to continue that legacy, young woman, you print this book, not that bloody Rosewater Goblet Compendium.