A Shadow of a Ship
Suspended inside a transparent bubble of air beneath the surface of the harbor of Khambawe, Jewel City of what was once the Matile Mala Empire, Tiyana was visible only as a slender silhouette. On this, the day that marked the First Calling ceremony, Tiyana would serve as the Vessel of the Jagasti who was the Sea Goddess: Nama-kwah, the Dancer-on-the-Waves. Although Tiyana was the daughter of Jass Gebrem, the Leba, the One to Whom All Gods Spoke, at First Calling her lofty lineage held little meaning compared to the distinction of being the one who would absorb Nama-kwah’s essence and, for only the most fleeting of moments, become the Goddess for those who witnessed the rites.
Even so, however, Tiyana knew she was nothing more than a substitute for the Jagasti she served. Centuries had passed since Nama-kwah herself had last answered First Calling, the ceremony that expressed the Matile people’s gratitude for the long rains that nourished lands parched by a harsh dry season. The rite had become a vestige of a time in the distant past when Nama-kwah and the other Jagasti were strong and the Matile Mala Empire ruled half of the sea-bounded continent of Abengoni, and dominated the remainder.
In those long-gone days, Nama-kwah had guided fleets of Matile ships across the wide sea-ways of the world to trade with lands far to the north and east, and in return brought goods-laden vessels from those lands to Matile Mala. Now, the harbor held only fishing boats and a small number of war galleys. The latter were maintained to guard against raids by marauders from the Shattered Isles, home of the Uloans, whose feud with the Matile mainland dated back to ancient times and was ultimately responsible for the downfall of both peoples, and for the withdrawal of the Jagasti to their unreachable Realms.
Strains of music from the docks that abutted the harbor filtered through the water to Tiyana’s ears. Drumming mimicked the rhythmic roll of the sea; fluting echoed the skirl of sea-birds; sweet singing Called to Nama-kwah without any need for words ... the singing reminded Tiyana of the story of how Etiya’s song had called the Jagasti to save the Matiles’ ancestors from the serpent, Adwe.
As she listened to the water-muffled music, Tiyana breathed slowly and shallowly, to conserve the limited amount of air allotted to her inside the bubble. Like her father, she possessed the power of ashuma, the once-potent sorcery practiced by the Vessels of the Jagasti. Her command of those skills did not match that of the Leba. However, her ashuma was sufficient to conjure the air-bubble and suspend it in the water until the time came for her to perform the final phase of First Calling.
Apprehensive thoughts crept into Tiyana’s mind as she gripped the Mask of Nama-kwah tightly in her hands. This would be only her third performance of the ritual. Even so, her previous Callings had been flawless.
Yet this time, something was wrong.
During her two earlier Callings, she had sensed Nama-kwah’s presence. She had felt the Goddess reaching to her from the beyond farthest depths of the sea, and heard her voice speaking within her mind. And when Tiyana placed the Mask over her head, she had become Nama-kwah, Dancer on the Waves, a transformation that imbued her with unmatched awe and joy for the brief time it lasted.
But this time she felt … nothing. She heard … nothing. And as she gazed through her bubble at the deep water surrounding her, she saw … nothing.
At her other Callings, Nama-kwah’s Children – luminous fish of multifarious shapes, sizes and colors that appeared only during the ceremony – had surrounded her; another blessing from the Goddess. On this day, however, the waters were empty. Even the ordinary fish had vanished. It was as though Nama-kwah and her Children had decided to shun the Calling – and the Matile people as well.
Where are you, High One?
Tiyana asked that question in her thoughts time and again. But she received no reply from the goddess. And the longer the silence lasted, the more uncertain she became. And the uncertainty grew as it fed upon itself.
So ominous was the portent that Tiyana was tempted to lift her bubble to the surface and beg her father to halt the ceremony. But that thought passed as quickly as it came. On this day, Jass Gebrem was far beyond being her father. He was the Leba, the highest religious authority in the land. Tiyana knew that a mere absence of fish in the water, Nama-kwah’s Children or otherwise, would be far from an adequate reason to ask him to end First Calling. But it would probably be sufficient to end her service as a Vessel.
Then the music and singing paused – a cue Tiyana quickly heeded, despite her misgivings. She fitted the Mask carefully over her head, then peered through its eye-slits. And, as she had feared, she felt no answering touch from the Goddess, even though Nama-kwah’s face overlaid her own in a perfect fit. She wore the Mask, but she was still only Tiyana, not the Nama-kwah/Tiyana she had been in the earlier Callings.
Tiyana had practiced ashuma many times without Nama-kwah, but she had never before performed First Calling in the Goddess’s absence. Now she would have to dance alone before the massed populace of the Jewel City, and others who had come from elsewhere to attend the ceremony … alone before her fellow Amiyas … alone before her father.
And she was afraid.
But she had no choice. If she were not to appear during the pause in the music … she did not even want to think about the consequences of such a sacrilege.
Tiyana uncurled her body, stretching the air-bubble to its limit. Slowly, her ashuma lifted her toward the surface. Empty water swirled past her. Fears filled the empty space where the Goddess should have been.
Where are you? she asked a final time, hoping against hope to hear an answer from Nama-kwah, to feel even a slight hint of her presence.
Above the surface, sunlight glinted faintly through waves of vapor that shifted in discernible patterns, like a tapestry fashioned in the air. As the mist moved, the Degen Jassi, the glittering aristocracy of Matile Mala, gazed at the surface of the harbor from the section of the docks set aside for them. Seated on a gallery of stone benches polished smooth by the backsides of countless generations of ancestors, the lords and ladies of the Degen Jassi watched, and waited for Tiyana to begin her performance.
Gossamer wisps of mist swirled and eddied around their sandal-shod feet, and they tightened their brightly-striped mantles, or chammas, against a slight chill soon to be banished by the sun. Color combinations signified rank: only the Emperor, Dardar Alemeyu, could wear the royal black and gold. The chammas draped the men’s tunics and trousers of bleached cotton; and the women’s bodies, for chammas were the only garments Matile women wore, leaving one or both shoulders bare. The men decorated their trousers, called senafil, with strips of shells and beads sewn into the fabric.
The Emperor sat on a stone seat mounted on a dais that lifted him above the rest of the aristocracy. His white beard framed narrow, ascetic features over which dark skin stretched taut and only lightly wrinkled, despite his age. His hooded eyes stared far into the distance, beyond the place where Tiyana would rise from the water. His head tilted at a slight angle, as though the crown of kingship weighed heavily upon him. Yet Alemeyu’s title of Emperor was more symbolic than real; the present borders of Matile Mala encompassed only a fraction of the territory his people once held across the northern half of Abengoni.
Dardar Alemeyu’s Empress, Issa, sat at his side. Beneath her crown, her hair was beaded with gold and silver, and her royal chamma was striped like a sunset in crimson, gold, and orange. Although the jewelry looped around her neck and arms had been handed down through countless generations of Empresses, each piece looked as though it had been crafted only the day before the ceremony.
Decades younger than the Emperor, Issa had only recently taken the place of her barren predecessor, whom Alemeyu had set aside after too many childless years. She, too, had yet to produce an heir to carry on a royal line that counted its years of tenure on the throne in the thousands. Issa was not alone in suspecting the fault lay within the Emperor rather than herself. But she wisely kept that belief to herself.
If Dardar Alemeyu died childless, the throne would pass to his nephew, Jass Eshana, the Dejezmek, or commander of what remained of the Matile armies. Eshana was the son of the Emperor’s sister. Next in the line of succession was ... Gebrem, his first cousin, the son of Alemeyu’s father’s brother, who had been Leba before him.
To have either man follow him on the throne was the last thing Alemeyu wanted – he was determined that the dynasty would be continued through him. And so he continued his fruitless efforts to extend his ancient line efforts with wife after wife, while the Degen Jassi and others shook their heads in pity, and at times contempt, behind his royal back.
At the Emperor’s other side, a tame cheetah sat immobile as a spotted sculpture. The weak sunlight glinted from the jewels on the collar that encircled the great cat’s neck. At times, Alemeyu thought the beast, which he named Makah, was his most loyal courtier. Almost unconsciously, he stroked Makah’s fur as he waited for Gebrem’s daughter to appear above the waves.
Like the rest of the people gathered at the Khambawe docks, the Degen Jassi were dark of hue, with skin shades ranging from ebony to cinnamon. The hair of men and women alike was worked into rows of braids: for some people thick, others tiny; some short; others long; the men’s mostly unadorned, the women’s bedecked with colorful shells and beads and intricately-carved ornaments of ivory and amber, silver and gold. The stripes on their chammas spanned the spectrum of colors; the garments underneath were mostly white cotton. Some of the Degen Jassi were young; others old. Family resemblances stamped by many generations of ruling-class endogamy were clearly discernable.
Behind the benches of the Degen Jassi stood a row of attenuated statues that at first glance resembled a sculptor’s unfinished products. Their arms had no hands; their legs, no feet. The eyes of the statues were little more than indentations gouged into the slate-gray surface of their faces. Noses and mouths were afterthoughts, and their narrow bodies, standing several times the height of a human, were smooth and sexless.
These were the Ishimbi, and legends spoke of a time when the Jagasti themselves had breathed life into the shapes of stone in times of need, and the Ishimbi walked and struck down the Matiles’ enemies. But no one now alive could remember the last time the Ishimbi had moved from their places.
Ranks of soldiers clad in carapace-like cuirasses of hardened leather and armed with huge, curved swords occupied the space between the Degen Jassi and the crowd of commoners who had come to witness First Calling before commencing their daily toils in the city that spread in precincts of flat-roofed houses and towering obelisks behind them.
Jass Eshana, a stalwart man of middle years, stood at their head. His helmet was crested with hair from the mane of a lion he had slain, and he wore a leopard-skin chamma over his armor. The role of the Dejezmek’s soldiers was strictly ceremonial. As the Degen Jassi well knew, the ordinary people of Khambawe were no more likely to rise against their ruling class than were the inanimate Ishimbi. Without the prestige and power of the Degen Jassi, the rest of the Matile would lose the scant standing they had left in the land they once ruled.
Behind the Degen Jassi, two separate groups sat on elaborately carved wooden stools. One of those groups was the Imba Jassi, rulers of the agricultural lands on the fringes of Matile that were once powerful kingdoms in their own right. Their garments were less elaborate than those of their urban cousins: solid-colored lengths of cloth knotted about their waists and shoulder-shawls, called harai, that bared most of their upper bodies. Their hair grew bushy and unbraided, and their weapons were their only ornaments. On their faces, they wore expressions of habitual ferocity, for they were the ones who had to directly face the threats to the frontiers of Matile territory. Their hard eyes showed their disdain for the soft decadence of city life.
The people the Imba Jassi ruled were part of the Empire in name only, in the same way the Mala was an empire in name only. Direct governance from Khambawe was a thing of the distant past. Yet the historical and blood ties that connected them to the Empire remained strong, and they always attended First Calling, even though they no longer arrived laden with items of tribute for the Emperor.
The other guests were neither Matile nor human. They were emissaries from the hidden land of the Tokoloshe – the kingdom of the dwarves. Robes of gray, black and brown swathed the squat bodies of the half-dozen Tokoloshe delegated to attend the ceremony. Their faces were wide, dark, broad-featured slabs of hard flesh surrounded by manes and beards of frizzy black hair. Each of them wore a pendant of polished granite around his neck; the Tokoloshe valued simple stones far more than they did the precious metals and gems humans so avidly craved.
For years beyond counting, the Matile had maintained an alliance with the Tokoloshe kingdom, forged as a matter of necessity against their common enemies. It had continued long after those enemies had been vanquished, and the Tokoloshe were still welcome guests at Matile rites such as First Calling. But no human had ever visited the Tokoloshes’ underground homeland. No one even knew where it was.
As a sign of respect, Matile craftsmen had made the emissaries stools low enough to accommodate their short legs. The six emissaries sat silent and motionless as the rocks they revered.
There were no seats for the rest of the crowd: a brightly-clad throng of merchants, craftsmen, jewelers, dyers, incense-makers, stone-cutters, silversmiths, menial laborers and market-women who had roused their children early to witness First Calling. Still, their vantage point was better than that of the throngs of ragged slum-dwellers who hovered at the periphery of the crowd, hoping to catch a glimpse of Tiyana’s dance.
On a weathered platform carved with sorcerous symbols, one man stood apart from the rest, even the Emperor. This man was black-bearded, of middle years and stature, ordinary in appearance save for the saffron-and-white chamma that swathed his lean body, and the piercing power of his dark-eyed gaze.
This was Jass Gebrem, the One to Whom All Jagasti Spoke; the Leba, or supreme priest, of the Empire. Gebrem stood second in rank only to Dardar Alemeyu, but had influence that in at least one way exceeded that of the Emperor who, for all his royal prerogatives, could not communicate directly with the Jagasti.
Master of the few arcane arts that remained to the Matile people after the devastation wrought by the Storm Wars, Gebrem was the one who controlled the Calling. In his right hand, he held the abi: a long, flattened silver rod upon which the symbols of all the Jagasti were carved. The abi served as a focal point for the ashuma power he wielded.
So far, the ceremony had passed as it should. The drummers, arrayed on a wharf that jutted into the harbor, kept their hands motionless above the cowhide covers of their tall, cylindrical instruments. Behind them, other music-makers held long wooden flutes called imbiltas between their lips.
As well, the wharf held four young women who were so similar in appearance that they all seemed to be duplicates of each other. They wore long, ivory-colored chammas that left their slender brown shoulders bare, and head-cloths of the same hue that trailed down to the backs of their ankles.
These were the Callers of Nama-kwah, whose wordless song had filtered down to Tiyana. They were a four-birth; double-twins, an event so rare among the Matile that scholars and sooth-sayers were still debating its true significance. Among another people, the four sisters might have been put to death soon after they were born. The Matile, however, generally considered their birth as a miracle, a sign that the Jagasti had not totally forgotten them.
Jass Gebrem raised the abi, then lowered it. The time had come for Tiyana – and Nama-kwah – to appear.
The moment Tiyana broke through the surface in a shower of flying spray, the drums, imbiltas and Callers joined a new song – a song of welcome and rejoicing. This song was the true First Calling: the summoning of a new season, a reiteration of hope for the future; and echo of songs sung long ago by Etiya, whom the Jagasti first heard in the Beforetime.
The music of the Calling wafted out to sea and sky, and the mist followed the Callers’ voices, gliding away from the docks and returning to the sea that spawned it. The listeners swayed, eyes closed, captured by the evocative harmonies. Even the taciturn Tokoloshe were impressed by what they heard, though they made no outward demonstration of their reactions.
The drumming muffled the slap of waves against a battered hull. The flutes drowned out the sigh of the breeze through tattered sails. The singing hid the creak of weakened timbers.
And an overwhelming will worked magic that masked the approach of strangers through the mist in the harbor....
Tiyana paused on the water, standing on its surface as though it were solid ground. Mist flowed in translucent streams around her body, which was clad only in threads of silver spun fine as the strands of a spider’s web. Tiny, perfectly cut diamonds decorated the strands. Her frame was slender and long-limbed, and her skin was dark as night.
The silver Mask of Nama-kwah showed features of serene, other-worldly beauty to which mortals might aspire, but could never hope to attain. Layers of lacquered scales hung like beaded braids from the back of the Mask to a point well below its wearer’s shoulders.
Tiyana held her pose a moment longer.
Where are you? she asked for the last time.
There was no reply from Nama-kwah.
Mustering her determination, Tiyana thrust her fears into the background of her mind. And she began to dance on the waves.
Nama-kwah dwelled in her own Realm, an ocean-beyond-the-ocean in the world-beyond-the world. She had withdrawn from her worshippers after the Storm Wars, much of which had been fought in her part of the Beyond World. The after-effects of the war plagued her even now, and she had every reason to retreat completely to her Realm, and leave the mortals in the Beyond World to live out their short lives. Yet once in every tenth or twelfth human generation, a Vessel would be born with whom Nama-kwah could speak from afar. On the time scale of immortality, the Vessels flickered briefly, then died, like candles in a rainstorm. Still, Nama-kwah cherished the contact, even though the Jagasti had long ago vowed to remain apart from a world that the misuse of their power had changed too much.
Yet now the sense of danger she felt was so great, so potent, yet it was a danger she could not define ... and she was going to have to give up even her limited access to her latest Vessel. There was the need for a warning before she finally abandoned the contact.
Nama-kwah moved her silver-scaled limbs through water that shone from within rather than above. And she reached outward from her Realm.
Tiyana moved her body with practiced ease as the music of the Calling embraced her. She spun and whirled as though weightless, and her feet hardly raised a ripple on the harbor’s surface. The soft sunlight of morning turned the filaments of her costume into strands of silver fire and the diamonds into tiny stars.
Beneath the Mask, Tiyana’s brow furrowed in deep and desperate concentration. The Goddess had always guided her movements in the past; now she was alone as she had never been before. One misstep, even the slightest imperfection, and she would have to answer not only to Nama-kwah, but also to her father, whom she loved and feared in equal measure, and to whom she had devoted her life after her mother died several years before. Her parents had borne no other children; all of Gebrem’s hopes for the future rested on her slim shoulders.
For all the attention Tiyana focused on her movements, however, discerning eyes could detect that all was not right with her dance. Her movements were graceful, but there were also slight moments of hesitation, of doubt. And those moments dispelled the illusion that it was Nama-kwah herself dancing on the waves, rather than her vessel.
Issa turned to Dardar Alemeyu.
“What is wrong with her?” she asked. Her concern was genuine; Tiyana was only a few years younger than she, and the two women had long been friends.
The Emperor shrugged, and Issa looked away.
Alemeyu wished Tiyana no harm. But he had despised her father as long as the two had known each other, which was all their lives, and that sentiment was heartily reciprocated. If the deficiencies in Tiyana’s performance continued, Jass Gebrem’s prestige would be sharply diminished. And that would please the Emperor.
At Alemeyu’s side, Makah began to growl ... a low, almost inaudible rumble. The cheetah remained motionless, but her growling continued. No one other than Alemeyu noticed. And Alemeyu saw no significance in the sound.
In the harbor, Tiyana continued her dance, struggling to maintain her focus on staying above the surface. Then Nama-kwah spoke to her in a voice that was not loud; only a whisper that was the barest shade of sound.
That single word cost Tiyana her concentration. The ashuma that held her aloft vanished like smoke. The substance of her air bubble disintegrated with a loud, popping noise. With a cry of consternation and a loud, ignominious splash, she fell into the harbor.
The moment Tiyana sank beneath the surface, the music halted abruptly. The Callers stood open-mouthed; drummers’ hands hung motionless; flutes remained silent. Soldiers shifted their weapons, and a low murmur of dismay ran through the crowd, carrying even to the people who were too far in the back to have seen Tiyana’s fall, but could still understand the alarm they heard.
Only the Ishimbi statues remained unmoved by the unprecedented calamity that had compromised the ceremony.
Jass Gebrem’s face contorted in anger and mortification as he stood on his platform, hand clenched tightly around the abi.
How could she do this to me? he raged silently.
The Leba leaned forward and peered through the mist in search for a sign of his daughter, concern and anger warring inside him. When Tiyana’s masked face broke water, the Leba opened his mouth to berate her – then snapped it shut when he saw the shadow looming in the mist directly behind her. It was the prow of a ship – a ship far larger than any seacraft that was moored in the harbor ....
Nama-kwah never waited to determine whether or not her Vessel had received the warning she sent. Already, she could sense the coming of a menace unlike any she had known since the days of the Storm Wars.
She shook her head, and scaled tresses swirled through the water. What was to come would be a matter for the people of the Beyond World. It could not be controlled by her … not without the other Jagasti, who had no interest in intervention.
Turning away, Nama-kwah swam deeper into the border between the ocean of Khambawe and the Ocean-beyond-the-ocean, with a horde of her Children trailing in a luminous wake. She did not look back.