EXCERPT: Balancer, Pt. II

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Soooo hey, you guys. The Antidote comes out tomorrow, and I am, of course, losing my shit trying to get stuff ready. As a result, I’m here telling you to fricking buy it if you liked Aurian and Jin. I’d say something more entertaining, but I’m a little tired. So: buy my book.

Also, to distract you from how tired and boring I am today, here’s more Balancer. Poor Habbi. It’s tough when the High Mother of the village is actually your mother. You get held to a higher standard.

Here’s the first part of Habbi’s story, if you didn’t catch it. The Balancer, Pt I.

*****

Habbi spent as many days as he could in his wada on the foremost peak of Mount Farsight, fiddling with the arrangement of his dreamstones and trimming the goat. The goat proved rather resistant to the concept of trimming: every time Habbi got near him with the shears he would bleat piteously, lower his horns, and threaten a last-stand charge. Habbi was not a herder–was, in fact, one of only four boys in the village whom the Mother had decreed unfit for a future with livestock.

Chasing Stew from one end of the yard to the other with the shears and a horsehair brush, Habbi reflected that the Mother, as in all things, had been entirely correct.

But try as he might, he couldn’t bring himself to kill the goat. Yes, it would mean stew for weeks–and, at the end of those weeks, another trip to the ur-village, another sight of Mikki and her clever red beads. But he rather liked the goat, cursed though it was. He’d been destined for a life of Balancing from his tenth birthday, cut off from the day-to-day activities of the Stone Nation. This goat was the only goat he’d ever really gotten to know. He liked its ugly chipped horns and its monotone bleat.

He liked its company.

The life of a Balancer, he reflected, was a life of loneliness. It was the life of the fulcrum point, lived in this little stone shack on a mountain peak not so different in appearance from a fulcrum point itself. But there were different types of loneliness, and just because this path had been chosen for him did not mean he had to live its most extreme manifestation.

He could keep a goat. Even Ostil, the Balancer Before, had kept his hawks.

He just couldn’t keep a woman.

He couldn’t keep Mikki.

“No,” Habbi told himself, scowling. “Stop that.”

The goat, who had been watching him trim up his cooking herbs from the pen, baaaed at him.

Habbit made a new path through the herbs, laying smooth stones from the village stream in between their rows. He scrubbed the soot from his wada walls and hung bunches of herb trimmings from the rafters to sweeten the place’s smell. He rearranged his dream stones around the shallow hole by the campfire in which he slept, wrapped some of them up in the curly yak skin under which he slept at night. He consulted the stars at night, Balanced his mind and listened to their singing. He placed the dreamstones around himself, chose locations analagous to those stars that spoke to him most sweetly in the sky. It did not increase his harvest particularly, and most mornings he woke with only one stone filled, two if he was lucky. He weighed each one, decanted it carefully into a crystal storage vial of proper warding strength.

His was an important job, he reminded himself. If it were not for the Balancer–if it were not for The One Whose Dreams Are Communal, whose nightly wanderings were the best currency in the Nations–the stones would not hold the dreams of his people. The dreams would wander the world and cause mischief, as they had in the beginning of things. And the Stone Nations would have nothing of value to trade with at the Great Gathering–only tough mountain goats and yak’s milk, shards of obsidian found deep in the mountain caves. Like they had, indeed, before the First Balancer. Before the dreams had been captured, and the world had been righted.

Habbi had not forgotten the anger dream, its mewling and its distended little belly. And there were worse things. There were much, much worse.

Unfortunately, he had also not forgotten Mikki.

Habbi lasted, in the contemplative solitude prescribed for him, for precisely three days. After three days, he was out of corn–and that, he told himself, was a perfectly logical reason to go to the ur-village. Without corn, he couldn’t make his morning mush. And it was coincidental–entirely coincidental–that Algar Farmer’s booth at market was only three booths away from Wolef Herdsman’s.

He wouldn’t even look to see if she was there.

That was the proper way of things.

Yes.

Habbi had, with the force of will that came only to the truly Balanced, managed to entirely forget about the half-sack of corn he kept in the loft.

On the third day, he took up his staff and his traveling sack, tied on his warm fur boots and the cloak of skins his mother had sewed him before his going-away. He selected three crystal vials, full of the green glow of harmless laughing-dreams. He told the goat he was going away for the day: the goat, being a goat and therefore unconcerned, threw up its cud and ate some of it.

Habbi took the sloping twisted path down the mountainside to the ur-village. He nodded, with proper ceremonial sternness, to the guards at the wooden gate.

He wound his way through the market, which was small but lively. He basked in the sound of other human voices, the sight of maidens almost as pretty as Mikki on stone benches in the Great School for Women, dutifully repeating the lessons of their teachers. He waved hello to the folk who waved at him.

He was displeased, but not entirely surprised, to find the Mother standing in front of the Farmer’s booth, arms crossed, face severe under the tattoos of leadership that covered it. She was carrying her carved ivory staff, which she only carried when she was out to teach someone a lesson. Habbi had the rather unfortunate idea this lesson might be taught to him.

“Hello, High Mother,” he said, covering his eyes and bowing in the traditional greeting for a High Mother of the Nations.

“Hello yourself,” the Mother said, scowling most untraditionally. “Habbi. You and I need to talk.”

Habbi had thought of this situation, back in his wada while he decanted the dreams. He had debated what he would say, what he would do, if caught by the Mother.

Of course, he reflected wryly. The very fact that he considered it being caught said something about his state of mind. The phrase he had prepared: “hello, High Mother, I was just picking up some corn for my morning mush”–died on his lips as he looked at her.

It made a child out of you, being caught with your hand in the honey-pot by the Mother. It was even worse when Habbi’s particular set of circumstances applied: when you were the Balancer of your ur-village, responsible for the flow of its dreams. Longing was an imbalance, lust and love more specific than a warm detached glow were imbalances. It led you to do things like leave dreams in dreamstones.

And, of course, it didn’t help when the High Mother was your mother.

“Habbi,” Mother said. “I’ve let this go on long enough. I’ve let you cast eyes on Mikki for long enough. I’ve let Mikki cast eyes on you for long enough. It ends now.”

“I was, um,” said the Balancer. “Corn.”

“You’ve half a sack left in your wada,” Mother said, scowling. “You think I don’t keep track of what you buy? Onegod, it’s not like you’ve been eating anything but goat stew lately anyways.”

“Erm,” said the Balancer. The Mother whacked her ivory staff against poor Algar Farmer’s  booth in a manner that suggested, very plainly, that she would rather be whacking Habbi.

“This is difficult for me,” the Mother said. “I hope you know that, Habbi. The Rule of the Nations says I should treat you one way, my heart as your mother says something entirely different. You’re lucky: nothing’s come of it so far. The Balance hasn’t been upset, no laws have been broken. But should there be one sign–one single physical sign–that all is not right with you, and your little fastness up on Mount Farsight is less than perfectly Balanced, I’ll be forced to take measures. And that’ll hurt me, Habbi. That’ll hurt me very much.”

And Habbi, who never had known when enough was enough, said: “hurt you? Imagine how I’ll feel about it.”

And his reward for this statement was a single admonitory whack from the ivory staff. Which wasn’t too bad–the punishment for his crime was, by strictest interpretation of the painted caves, ten whacks and one night in the wilderness. And a man of Habbi’s slight build and poor wilderness skills would last precisely thirty minutes in the wilderness after ten whacks from that staff.

So it was a kindness the Mother did him. He tried very hard to remind himself of this as the stinging of his cheek turned into a steady burn. As he explored the bruised flesh with his fingers, touched the impressions the staff carvings had made on his face, he told himself: you had this coming. You are lucky it wasn’t anything more.

“I blame myself, really,” the Mother said. She sighed. “It was foolish, maybe, to put you up on the mountain so young. Onegod knows, I’ve coddled you and let you get away with far too much for far too long. But what were we to do? Ostil died so quickly, and you were the only one in the village who showed proper talent for Balancing. Great talent, shining in the depths of your mind like a white lamp. And please believe me, my son. I felt sorry for you. Few Balancers ascend Farsight before their fiftieth year is out–they have lived among people, had women and sired children. They have been prepared for the contemplative life for years.” She touched his cheek, tears brimming in her kohl-painted eyes.

“Don’t cry, Mama,” Habbi said uncomfortably. For a moment, tattoos and war paint and ivory staff and all, she was just his mother again, just the squat plump woman who had herded goats and hunted yaks and cooked stew for her brood in the family wada before Onegod had called her to the position of leadership she now inhabited.

Mother was young, too, he realized suddenly. Young, for the High Mother position. He was her eldest, and he was only nineteen–though it was forbidden for a male to know his mother’s precise age, she couldn’t have been more than forty. There was no white in her hair, and only recently had he begun to notice wrinkles under the circular tattoos that covered her face.

They would have to help each other. Their positions, after all, were related–a young Balancer balanced by a young Mother. Habbi kissed his mother’s cheek, surprised, as he always was when he saw her these days, by how far down he had to bend to do so.

“I’m sorry, Mother,” he said. “You’re right, of course. You always are. I’ll stay away from Mikki–I’ll try and come to market when the women are all at the Great School. I’ll try not to come so often.”

He pressed one of his crystal vials into his mother’s palm. “For you,” he said. “I was going to spend them on corn, but I suppose that’s immaterial now. Laughing dreams. Good ones. May they help you find a little laughter.”

His mother smiled, tucked the vial into her kirtle. “A balanced gift,” she said. “Perhaps all isn’t lost with you yet, my son. I’ll use them tonight. I’ll think of you laughing.”

As he climbed the twisting path back to his own wada, he tried not to think about the fact that, from here on out, there would be very little laughter left in the world for him.

It was not so bad. He enjoyed the Balancing, didn’t he? Enjoyed the sense of floating it gave him, the sense of suspension. He enjoyed looking up to the pinprick quilt of the stars, enjoyed mining them for answers.

He just wished he could experience his own dreams, sometimes. Even that–even the turnings of his subconscious mind–would be company of a sort. Better company than a stupid goat. Better company than the dreams he had to destroy, their twisting shapes making a sickness in his heart.

He knew what the Mother would say he could almost hear it: you are young, Habbi. Your training was incomplete. These longings will pass.

But it was not the High Mother’s face he saw when he imagined this, that visage made impersonal and mythical with tattoos and paint, but his own mother’s, her eyes worried and her lips turned down at the corners.

This train of thought was why, upon returning to his quiet wada on top of Mount Farsight, he did not immediately notice the cloaked figure hunched by the goat pen, petting the goat. He only became aware, in fact, because Stew let out a particularly pleased bleat–the cloaked figure had apparently found the spot behind his left ear which, Habbi had found through trial and error, it liked to have scratched best.

“I’m glad to see you’ve kept at least one of them,” the cloaked figure said, straightening. “I mean, I suppose even you would get tired of stewed goat after a while. You and I need to talk, Habbi. It’s urgent.”

The figure pushed back its hood.

“Stones and nightmares,” Habbi swore. “Black dreams and a turned knife, I can’t catch a break today, can I?”

It was Mikki.

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