Feneng 4

The world had lost all shape and meaning. It was a seamless blur of green, and red Feneng lay crumpled at its centre. Here at the southern extreme of Kvei-tzu Mu, the pines sweated sugary resin, and the moss of the sea drank it greedily, turning the tree trunks into columns of jade. Their highest branches filigreed the sky with viridian. Evil gasses of the swamp tinted the mist of daybreak with the colour of bile.

It was here, in this country that broke painters with despair, that the monastery at Red Cliff was wont to celebrate Hararo Páisí, the Flowers Have An Opinion rite.

Feneng liked to chew on things while she was thinking; now she chewed on a branch of wild coriander as she discussed her plans with a sympathetic wisteria. "This is ridiculous. How am I to find a flower in this forsaken place? Nothing blooms here; what god is there to awaken the buds, to tend them as their petals unfurl? None with that subtlety would venture into these wilds." She glared at her favorite dagger, forged of fine Zuqùntsìn damask bronze. "Someone must have made a law." It was filmed with a mocking layer of verdigris. "Verdigris."

The wisteria rustled and dropped a wilted leaf onto Feneng's shoulder, comfortingly.

"This is ridiculous," Feneng snapped. "Here I am, talking to a vine, crazy as a second son riding South to subjugate the Shchang and cover himself in glory..." She paused. "...cover myself... in glory. I'm going to make Dagger very sorry we became friends. Wisteria, bear witness!" Then she clapped her hands and leapt to the top of the tallest tree she could see.

"VILE! ACCURSED! EXILED! SPAWN OF KVEI-TZU MU! UNFIT TO OFFEND A CAMEL!" A pause for breath. "I am Seeks-Refuge-in-Beauty, Feneng (so they tell me)! I am (if my sources are correct) the Heir Embraced by Fire! The Flowing Serpent coils on my brow and I carry the sword of Veamándhi! I DEFY YOU! I MOCK YOU! I—" A decided rustling below. Feneng took a deep, steadying breath, tightened her sash, and dropped back to ground.

There was a some deer there. That was the only reasonable way to describe it. It was not so much several deer as it was a mass of deer-ness. Liquid brown eyes stared in every direction, under a thicket of antlers. It moved almost silently on many hooves.

The some deer was not very good at acting like some deer, Feneng thought. Deer do not have so many teeth, probably, and even if they do, it's impossible that they would be so imposing. They were sufficiently long and adequately sharp.

It seemed to agree, because it rippled and changed, making a loud groan much like the sound of a butcher sawing through a particularly thick bone. It began to put Feneng in mind of the exotic deep-sea fish the naturalists were so fond of displaying, all gaping eyes and gaping jaws full of tangled, translucent teeth. It was then that she attacked it. When it began to react, it was too late; its many-jointed limbs were already entangled in trailing sleeves of crimson, and before it could bite at her its mouths began to fill with gelatinous gore, as Feneng's dagger bespattered the two with the liquor of the monster's eyes. It was a short and ugly fight. Mercifully, the monster's blood smelled of foxgloves and wine.

Feneng found long grass, and began the long process of making a trophy of the monster's teeth. When her tooth crown was complete, there were more teeth, so she made bracelets. There were more teeth, so she made anklets. There were more teeth, so she made armbands. There were more teeth, and now she swore and vowed vengeance and curses upon Red Cliff, her ancestors, the god responsible for devising the first teeth, and so on, until she had strung all the remaining teeth on a line, and this she slung over her shoulder twice as a sash.

This figure, barefoot, every limb encircled by fangs, robes stiff as armor with unholy blood, with a monster's heart in one hand and a gory dagger in the other, walked for three days and nights without pause, until she arrived at the gates of Red Cliff.

"I have arrived!" said she. "Summon Immaculate-Dagger-of-Brotherhood, Hospitable Spear, and Tangled-Root-of-Heroism." The gatekeeper was not accustomed to this rite. He fled without pausing to discover who this apparition was, and shortly the three chiefest warrior-priests appeared, hands upturned and sleeves untied as if for battle.

"Lovely Refuge, you have returned to us!" was Master Dagger's response. He ran to embrace her, stopped short, and gestured vaguely. "You look like you have been cleaning the tombs. Meet us at the water, below the Endless Stair."

Feneng nodded, although inwardly she groaned. The Tedious Stair was not known for being an enjoyable or brief walk.

As he walked down the hall, Dagger mused. Foxglove, the heart-stopping herb?

By the time she arrived, the warrior trinity had changed their battle robes for white practice robes, which minimal garments consisted of little other than kilts and long sleeves that began at the elbow. They were arrayed around the ablution font, and each held an urn. Without pausing for pleasantries, they began the purification rite which concluded all major ordeals. The youngest, Hospitable Spear, intoned, "You who are dead to the world of goodness, be revived, by degree of earth—" he brought the smallest urn to Feneng's lips and she tasted rich, dark wine—

"—and sky—" continued Immaculate-Dagger-of-Brotherhood, and Feneng tasted honey made from jasmine.

"—and sea," concluded Tangled-Root-of-Heroism, giving Feneng a drink of salt water.

"Life repays the suffering of birth!" they shouted in unison, and three sleeves lashed out. Feneng found herself sinking to the bottom of the ablution font. It was rather cold.

She thrashed back up to the surface and heaved out of the water, gasping. "Oh for Ban's sake are you going to do that every time?" She coughed and shivered.

Spear was considered to be somewhat tactless. This popular opinion was not without its roots in truth! The young priest had risen in the ranks so quickly for his martial force, not his talents in diplomacy. At the moment he was diplomatically concealing a loud snicker with his hand.

"Actually, it's supposed to be a surprise," Tangled explained, distractedly. "Next time, one of us will have to interrupt another during some earlier bit of the ritual." He had already begun climbing the stair—not the Endless Stair—that led to the temple gardens. He stopped when Dagger threw a pebble at him. "What?"

"Look… pái chweng."

Feneng looked around in confusion. "What?"

"Congratulations, little queen." Tangled acted like this kind of thing happened every day. "That is a good omen indeed; now no one can question your prowess, mettle, or vision."

"Master Tangled, please, what are you talking about?"

"Look at your crown, Feneng."

She lifted the wreath from her hair, and gasped. The needlelike teeth had grown into graceful stems; at the tip of each bloomed a little flower, with tiny black petals and long, elegant stamens. It was a wreath of red saffron, the most sacred of spices, a prophetic drug, and the finest red dye known to living man. She looked down at her hands, her sash. Every tooth had blossomed thus.


Post a Comment

<< Home