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Story Excerpt

The Fifteenth Saint
by Ursula Whitcher

Sannali Emenev did two things with his life: he read a book with one page, and he ran a city.

Neither of these was his official role. There were eight judges in Junpalto. Every one of the eight of them got up in the morning, pulled a stretchy cap over their braided hair, placed a flowing wig over the cap, and sat in state to hear the problems of the city. But the first judge was brand new, the second was exhausted, the third was busy looking after his aging father, and the fourth was distracted by bickering among the Companies. So it ran through the list, and the conclusion was that if you needed someone to rearrange a department or reform a school, you spoke to Judge Emenev.

The book was private. Emenev rarely spoke of it, even to his clerk: it was the sort of thing hermits in the canyons or starfarers who had listened to voices in the deep cared about, not rational and responsible city folk. But Emenev had seen too many lives twist from oath to debt to quiet desperation to sneer at luck, whatever form it came in. So every morning, after he pulled the soft cap over his head but before he took his wig from its stand, Emenev removed the book’s silk wrapper, spun the old-fashioned multi-dial lock till it revealed the initials of the prophets, opened the cover, and said, “Good morning.”

The book responded with a line of praise for the sun that was or the sun that is or the stars scattered through the deep. From there, it jumped directly to advice. The book held the wisdom of fourteen saints. In the chilled silicon and indium alloys pressed between its enamel covers there was a further, coordinating wisdom, to predict the fable each reader would need before they thought to require it. Interpreting the results was a different problem. Emenev kept a hand-written notebook on real paper with questions in the top half of each page. Sometimes he even went back and filled in a column of answers.

On that particular early autumn morning, Emenev had lain in bed longer than usual, pondering a question of contracts and watching the shadows on his ceiling turn from patches of lighter and darker gray to squares to sharp-edged latticework. He finally tore himself out of bed when he heard, or hoped he heard, a sound below. Thus, his greeting to the book was perfunctory. The book responded with two lines of verse:

*   *   *

The planet tide draws the mountains higher than the sky.

Beloved, is that moon-dust, or a wave breaking?

*   *   *

Emenev preferred the adventures of saints and livestock to the book’s more poetic excursions. He scribbled “mountains—dust—wave” in his notebook, then hastened down broad steps to the breakfast room.

The courtyard doors were closed, but the glass had turned transparent, letting light pour in. Emenev poured tea from the urn on the sideboard into a flared cup, rolling the word “beloved” round his mouth, then pushing it back with “moon-dust.” When he turned back toward the windows, a man was waiting.

The man, whom Emenev knew as Kiza, had a compact build, and that morning he was clean-shaven, which made him seem younger than his thirty-odd years. His smile for Emenev was merry. But Emenev stood still for a moment, caught not so much by Kiza’s expression as by the light. It shone through Kiza’s unbound hair like the banked glow of polished garnet.

That free fall of waist-length hair meant possibility. Kiza was what people called a tongue for hire. He could be anyone or no one, a soldier or failed poet or Company man, as each mission required. Emenev, whose hair beneath his cap was twisted up with ribbon for his brother’s daughter and his youngest sister’s child and four distinct professional societies, shivered at the flaunted freedom. Instead of reaching out, he bowed and asked, “Will you have tea?”

Kiza laughed at him and gripped his shoulder. “Sani, I can find my own tea in your house.”

Kiza’s fingers were strong. Emenev, who moved with the habitual care of someone who had grown too tall too fast, longed to fling his arms wide and crush the man against him. But there was an order to even this most unheralded of duties. Emenev filled a tray with luxurious and unlaborious foods: cubes of melon fresh from the mountains, pâté of duck marbled with berries, crackers with sesame and black cumin. Kiza did pour his own tea, taking the opportunity to add an extra spoonful of jam.

They demolished the stacks of food together, brushing fingers against fingers in competition for the ripest chunks of fruit. Emenev tried to talk about velo-polo like an ordinary person. Kiza, who knew perfectly well how to play, asked sillier and sillier questions: There were always four riders to a team? Never five, or a threesome? These mallets, they were of a standard size? Did the judge not prefer an extra-long polo stick?

But when at last Emenev toppled into helpless laughter, Kiza said sternly, “Sani. Tell me what you need,” and despite Emenev’s many desires, they were instantly in the realm of business.

“I need you to go to Tengiz-Ushiyet.”

“Ah, a holiday by the sea. With the entire Western Army.” Kiza spun his hair out of his face in a temporary twist, leaving his stern gaze unimpeded. “Why now? Why not ten days ago?”

Ten days ago, the army had moved into Ushiyet. The news bulletins made cheerful noises about the importance of practicing urban maneuvers and extra discounts on military wheat. It wasn’t unusual for a group of officers to grow bored and decide they wanted more parades and less supervisory farming. A brief incursion wasn’t cause for alarm.

But Emenev could not be calm. He offered his first uneasy piece of evidence: “The judges there aren’t talking. Last week, I sent their second judge white tea. She hasn’t answered.” You didn’t hold a meeting without food or drink, not even a virtual one; you didn’t accept tea without a meeting. The etiquette breach rang like a siren.

Once Emenev had started noticing the strangeness, other facts piled up. Half of the news bulletins were recycled from another year, though the scenes of cheering crowds seemed current. The price of emmer was rising. The Pellona Company had moved its base of operations to the southeast.

“All the nodes in the Ushiyet lattice are stuffed with bonfire footage,” Kiza told him.

“You watch that stuff?”

“You don’t?”

“It’s animated rumor. Stories without roots.”

Kiza stilled his hands. “There’s a brand new story about setting bus tires on fire, Sani. What were you going to do? Wait for the warranty complaint?”

“I was going to send you!” Emenev spoke in haste, and then repeated, with more care, “I am sending you.”

Emenev was not a stranger to arranging people’s lives. But usually the key term was arrangement. He took scores on the proficiency exams or arrays of past performance metrics and combined them, bringing people together or apart the way his windows brightened or darkened against the flow of sunlight. He was sending Kiza to a city overrun by soldiers. There was no projection he could run, to evaluate this choice. Emenev saw moss-gray uniforms in his mind’s eye, rows of rifles. He watched the loose shirt fall away from Kiza’s wrists, and thought of those hands holding a pistol steady. Emenev was responsible. If Kiza died, or if Kiza shot someone—a situation could change that quickly, a wall of glass crumbling into razor-sparkling dust.

“Keep an eye on the nodes, Sani. I’ll go fishing on the pier.” Kiza pressed a charm into Emenev’s hand: a cheap thing, mass-produced for a mass-venerated saint, a bead and tassel stamped with curving thorns. It felt too light; Emenev had to focus, not to drop it. When he pried the bead apart, there would be a code inside.

Meanwhile, Kiza had produced a long, light scarf. He held one end in his mouth as he wrapped the turban round his head, rapidly and neatly. You would never know his hair was unbraided underneath. He shrugged into a jacket sewn with many pockets, ducked his head, and seemed, for a moment, ordinary and unremarkable.

“Be careful,” Emenev told him. That was easier than asking, “Is the wave about to break?”

Kiza left, laughing.

*   *   *

At the end of the week, Emenev took the bus to visit his mother. There was a stop a block from the judicial chambers, and no transfers. The bus chose its routes based on demand; Emenev wondered whether he had made this trip often enough to shift the route all by himself.

Emenev’s mother still lived in the same two-room flat that he had grown up in. He had offered to find her a house: diffidently, when he was first enrolled as an advocate, then more strenuously, when he became a judge and she began to complain that her knees crackled on the stairs. But she insisted that she was too old to change her ways, that the noodle-shop on the corner and the grocer round the block would be lost without her patronage, and no number of forceful representations would shift her. Instead, the family clustered around her. There were no longer five of them packed into the apartment—it had been six, while the contract for his youngest sister’s parentage lasted—but Emenev’s brother took the flat above, and his middle sister found a flat next door. The youngest sister had made it all the way to a block with a different noodle-shop and a different bus line. Emenev was the only one who had left the neighborhood, and the only one without children. He bought ice cream and raspberry-whiteplum sauce at the grocer as a distraction.

Emenev needn’t have worried. He opened the door and walked straight into an argument. His niece was shouting and his brother was holding a glass of vodka and pontificating right in the middle of the arch between Emenev and the kitchenette. He waded gingerly through the fray, managing not to swing the bags into a lamp or a child, glared his brother out of the archway, kissed his mother, and embarked on making space in the cold storage with the dedication of a man who could have been an architect.

The fight raged on. Emenev’s sister-in-law offered to find spoons for the fruit sauce. In the main room, his niece shouted, “The grader isn’t even alive!”

Emenev and his sister-in-law despaired of finding metal spoons that matched, and settled on the compostable sorghum kind. As she passed him the box, his sister-in-law told him quietly, “Simet failed the literature practical.”

“But she’s a good writer.”

Emenev had misjudged the ambient roar, or else grown too used to projecting through a courtroom, because his niece spun toward the kitchenette, child’s braid swinging. “I am an incredible writer! That’s the problem. I had an original idea!”

Emenev sighed, grabbed a piece of flatbread with extra onions, and committed himself to the investigation.

Simet had taken a classic poem of two centuries past, where an incarnation of the Divine was seen feeding pigeons in a park, and reinterpreted it as political allegory. As the Divine flickered between old and young and middle-aged, between wrinkled cheeks and springing black beard, she (and he, and they) represented three enduring power groups: the judges, the army, and the Companies. “The judge is the old woman, Uncle Nalek, because she remembers everything.”

“Thank you,” Emenev said, dryly. “Who are the ordinary people, in your analysis?”

“That’s the best part. They’re the student who watches the transformation. Because a student can become anything!”

Simet actually believed it. She thought that if she studied hard and chose the right advanced exams, she could win an officer’s commission or a Company apprenticeship or become a judge. The proof of the third option’s validity stood beside her, balancing a piece of flatbread on a napkin.

But Emenev had never trusted that preparedness would be enough. It must be a marvelous thing, he mused, to reach adolescence with two parents in a permanent contract and a bedroom to yourself. You could reduce an entire incarnation to a metaphor, rather than begging the Divine for luck. He asked, “What was your counterthesis?”

“I didn’t have one.”

“Every essay has a counterthesis,” Emenev’s brother intoned, surely not for the first time.

“Not in the same essay! If I was an advocate in Uncle Nalek’s courtroom, someone else would give the counterthesis and then he would synthesize. I kept writing my thesis because it was good!”

“The grader didn’t think so,” snapped her father.

“The grader is a machine.”

“It’s a machine intelligence, guided by the practice of an expert teacher,” Emenev interposed. “It has to be that way, for consistent grading. Every fourteen-year-old on this continent takes the literature exam.”

“Every fourteen-year-old everywhere has been taking a literature exam since before I was born. For all I know, the teacher is dead. They’re a ghost. I was marked unsatisfactory by a ghost.”

A “Fair” mark was a graceful failure. This was worse: one unsatisfactory exam could wreck a lyceum admission. “In some cases, exams can be retaken,” Emenev suggested.

“But it’s not my fault! It’s the ghost’s fault, for not seeing a good essay.”

“How would the new exam be arranged?” Simet’s father asked.

Emenev’s instinct was to fold his hands and project thoughtfulness, but the flatbread was in the way. “The most usual justification is illness. I don’t know all the contingencies. I might chat with the head of the lyceum.”

“What about the others?” Simet demanded. She swayed with the intensity of her emphasis like a birch tree by the river. She had the family height.

“What others?”

“Every fourteen-year-old on this continent takes the exam, Uncle Nalek.” Simet matched his intonation precisely. “How many failed because the ghost hates a good thesis?”

“Machine intelligences are not supernatural.” Emenev was letting her set the terms of the discussion. The whole situation felt like a tea glass about to slide over the edge of the tray.

He should not have been glad when the comm folded into the brim of his hat started buzzing. Only a few people could force the physical alert.

Emenev took the phone call on the balcony, wedging himself between a swaddled umbrella and a planter full of bedraggled stewfruit vines. The caller was his clerk, Notary-General Umirvayet. Her voice was rougher than usual, her apologies perfunctory.

“What has the fourth judge done?” Emenev asked.

“Judge Rustamov is calling on the second judge for a curfew. You’ve seen the news?”

“A Fourthday evening curfew? What resin have they smoked?” Half of the city would be visiting family; the rest were in the tea-shops, or resting up for Fifthday.

“We need visuals, Judge.”

Emenev pulled his tablet from his pocket and unfolded it, balancing the screen on the balcony railing. He felt like a teenager sneaking outside to read radical newspapers.

Umirvayet was still in her office. The light cast cold blue shadows, hollowing her cheeks and sharpening her chin. She flicked her fingers, and the view changed to a railway station somewhere in the mountains: ticket kiosks with conical roofs, an empty platform, the rails, a stretch of gravel filmed with early snow, and then the cliffs beyond. “It’s Yashmu Pass,” Umirvayet told him.

The film had the silver border and second-by-second timestamp of judicial footage. Emenev watched the platform, waiting for a suspect, trying to ignore the black bird pecking at something on the tracks. He overlooked the first slipping in the cliff face, the shift that could have been the camera swerving, if it hadn’t been set into the station roof. A few moments later the entire cliff was moving, sliding down like overheated butter. Dust and smoke foamed up. The camera did shake now, along with the building holding it.

The view resolved to a mess of boulders and flashing lights—amber, red, and one insistent white pulse at the peak of the remaining kiosk that Emenev recognized as Approaching train. “Luck?” he asked.

“The Gentian freight was running three minutes late.”

The footage couldn’t show the frantic whistle of a train trying to slow. At least gravity was on its side. Emenev realized he was breathing in time with the flashing light, and forced his chest out, then in. The snub-nosed engine pushed into sight at last, coasting, coasting, but with thousands of tons behind it. There was a big round eye painted on its side, the hallmark of an expert system, with a gentian flower in the center.

The train finally paused, perhaps a meter from the closest scattered boulder. Emenev imagined its eye closing in relief. But a figure in mud-and-pine camouflage was approaching. Here the footage ended.

The figure had been wearing a uniform designed for the side of the mountains where rain fell steadily, so Emenev’s first question was, “Has the Western Army made a statement?”

“They recommend civilians and Company employees avoid Yashmu Pass for the next two weeks, due to ongoing operations.”

It was a plain statement of a huge fact. Society was an awning supported by four poles: the law-courts, the armies, the Companies, and the people. But the Western Army was challenging the Companies and the cities simultaneously. A collapsing tent; dust like sea-foam; mountains breaking like waves. Emenev ran his thumb along the edge of his tablet, as if he could draw up a message from Kiza. Inside the flat, his brother was declaiming.

Umirvayet was silent. “Go home,” Emenev told her. “Before the second judge approves this curfew. I’ll call her next.”

The call ended. Emenev let the screen of his tablet darken and stood for a moment, watching the reflected lights: white dots from the apartment across the way, where they knew nothing, and golden oblongs from his mother’s lamps. He should warn his mother he would need a bed, before he called the judge. He folded his screen and dove into the noise.

*   *   *

The eight judges of Junpalto met the next morning. They sat at an octagonal table in their accustomed places, their wigs freshly combed, with their clerks behind them to provide necessary documents, and sipped espresso from tiny cups. There should have been breakfast, but none of the kitchen staff worked on Fifthday. Emenev had acquired a box of fried pastries on the way from his mother’s flat to the meeting. The sixth judge took a small one, which showered her napkin with powdered sugar. At least the wigs were already white.

They began by discussing the city’s reaction to the news. Grumbling; fear; as yet no outright panic. The second judge, Nurlanevet, suggested an extension of the curfew as a precautionary measure. The sixth judge set aside her pastry and concurred.

“Out of an excess of caution,” Judge Rustamov proposed, “shall we shift the curfew’s beginning up to seven?”

“It’s still light outside at that hour,” Emenev protested.

“All the more reason to discourage gatherings.” Rustamov, the fourth judge, was classically handsome: brow high like an icy moon, lips full beneath a neatly curled mustache. He pressed his fingers together as if posing for his municipal portrait.

Emenev set his espresso cup down with a click. “What does my esteemed colleague imagine people will eat?”

“Healthful food, that they prepare themselves, in the kitchens of their homes?”

Emenev could not jump down the fourth judge’s throat. He wiped his mouth with his napkin instead, envying his colleague’s deftness, his economy of motion. “The average citizen of Junpalto has eight square meters of living space. They have no room for a pantry and cold storage. They barely have room for a double bed.”

“I delight in my colleague’s command of demographic statistics.”

Emenev nodded, projecting false collegial amusement. In truth, he knew the number because he had reveled in exceeding it, when as a newly minted advocate he rented an apartment by himself.

“But surely,” Rustamov continued, “our citizens can purchase bread and salad, as they wend home from work? Assembly of a meal is not beyond their skills?”

Emenev had been to formal dinners at the fourth judge’s house. They all had. The man had a live-in cook.

“I believe Seventh Judge Emenev is concerned for the grocers?” the sixth judge interposed. “We cannot ask them to live in their places of business! We will also wish to make provisions for restaurateurs, and to consider the impact on tourism more broadly.”

They were back in the realm of reasonable plans and contingencies: rules to make, policies to apply, and strategies to redirect supply chains, now that freight from the western coast was unavailable. It was a frustrating task for a Fifthday morning, and Emenev could have used some of his book’s wisdom, but they managed it.

They managed with all the more vigor because they were avoiding a bigger question, one Judge Nurlanevet finally raised several hours into the meeting, after they had broken for tea and an odd collection of crisps: “How will we respond when the Western Army arrives on our doorstep?”

In this group, Emenev was the brash one, the one who spoke difficult truths out loud, so he squared his shoulders and said, “We must summon the Lake Army first.”

Rustamov smiled. Perhaps he thought summoning an army was like hiring an expert in unclogging drains. The eighth judge laughed in shock, then tried to squash it, shaking their head till their long earrings vibrated like springs.

Nurlanevet was square and sure. All of her leisure activities had solidity: splitting wood for the fire at lakefront cottages, or crafting earthenware vases. She looked now as if she had been awake all night, guarding some small and precious creature through a desperate illness. “Will the Lake Army protect our citizens? Will they seek justice?”

“Second Judge, I apologize for making a statement of consummate baldness,” said the third judge, who never did anything of the sort. “But I must attempt a response to your cogent question. It seems, from my perspective, after considering the multitude of factors, that it is imperative we contemplate whether, in the alternative, we are prepared, ourselves, to fight a war.”

“We don’t know how,” said Emenev.

All of the other judges had to have their say, but that, in the end, was that.

The afternoon was consumed by crafting the text of the invitation and adorning it with flourishes. Emenev signed with his gaudiest stylus, the one whose cap was starred with artificial diamond. Umirvayet contacted the florist outside the Lake Army base and ordered a massive arrangement, full of sword lilies and tulips opening like suns. The first judge’s clerk, who was as experienced as that judge was new, set up a meeting with a general.

They channeled the general’s image into a globe at the center of the table. She stood in a well-lit room, the sword lilies behind her. Her uniform was the color of dried grass. Her graying hair was pulled back from her face and braided with ribbons of sky blue, for officers swore a single oath and a single devotion, and hers was to the army of the lakes.

The judges read their invitation, the clauses rolling off their tongues. Even the third judge’s voice was firm and sonorous. It fell to Emenev to ask, “Will you, having considered all these factors, come to the aid of the city of Junpalto?”

It took skill for the general to look him in the eye, with a full globe of faces stretched across her screen, but she managed it. She smiled the smile one makes at a cat boldly capturing a beetle, and answered, “We will come.”

*   *   *

The sun was sinking behind the Company financiers’ towers by the time Emenev approached his house. He was the only person on his street; lights brightened and darkened at the top of the compound walls, tracing his movements. He passed through his wooden gates with their linked octagonal carvings, changed his sharp-toed shoes for slippers, and was at last in his own home. He stretched, feeling the welcoming emptiness: no extra chairs to trip on, no nicked tables swathed in machine-embroidered tablecloths, and for that matter no subordinates juggling styluses or shelves filled with unread legal tomes. He patted his couch like an old friend, drawing his fingertips along the linen grain, then went upstairs to find the book.

The book gave him a fable about a widow, a goat, a mountain lion, a box of eggs packed in tissue, and a river crossing. The moral was that the ferryman was the only one to profit.

“Friend,” Emenev told it, “I am doing my best.”

The columns of text shivered like rain, then re-formed. The new text began with a litany: an electron’s internal spin, the electron dancing around a nucleus, the shiver of atoms within a rock, all the way up to the slow rotation of the galaxy’s arms and the slide of entire galaxies. Twisted behind and within and around all of these things was the deep, that other space where starships cut between stars. At every shift in scale, the book said, we experience a loss. But at every shift in scale there is the deep; thus at every shift in scale we find eternity; at every shift in scale there is the beloved, who has always been beloved.

Emenev felt both too large and too small. He shook himself all over, thanked the book, and allowed himself to open his everyday tablet and run through the sequence that would check for messages from Kiza, on some anonymous node. A message was there, wrapped tight, with the sparkling and obvious encryption used for letters to lovers. Emenev fed in the code from Kiza’s bead.

The recording opened on Kiza, balancing on a railing by the harbor. He had found a tourist’s windbreaker somewhere, the kind with too many zippers. Sunlight made the fabric into mirrors and shadows, like the water behind him. “You won’t believe it here!” he told the hovering camera, his smile as sharp as fresh-cut sheets of paper.

Kiza cupped the camera in both hands and drew it toward him; it buzzed against his fingers like a fortunate bee. “It’s not just the army. It’s the army and the citizens together. They’ve found philosophy. Humans as shepherds. Every one of us, the Divine Guide in miniature. No machine intelligence without human direction.”

Kiza released the camera and it spun upward in a lazy spiral. “No more saints! Nothing between us and the Divine!” Behind him there were yachts, pedal-boats, and a stacked three-level water-bus. It had eyes on its prow for the navigation system, but someone had sprayed them with a shining X, too bright for blood.

“I think you should stop working. I’m serious. Go on a long vacation.” Just a flicker, there, of the bone-deep emptiness of a city lost. Then Kiza laughed and told the camera, “When I see you again, I’m going to hug you so hard, you’ll think the ocean hit you.”

The message broke into soap-bubble fragments. Emenev was too wise to have saved it anyway; or so he told himself.

He did not consider heeding his friend’s warning. He did not know where he could go, beyond Junpalto. Emenev swallowed his worry like a string of tourmaline beads, suppressing all the questions about Kiza’s stylized lies, and occupied himself in crafting a reply. He drew a rotating model of a sky-blue ribbon, the Lake Army’s color, woven and knotted with the translucent gold of his own personal contracts.

Kiza had been a Lake Army soldier, before he set allegiances aside. Twelve years and out. But Kiza did not make promises, so he had no ribbon color.

Read the exciting conclusion in this month’s issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2023. The Fifteenth Saint by Ursula Whitcher

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