(This takes place a century or more before the main action in the novel. I ended up omitting it to simplify, but it does provide interesting backstory.)
Gorumim snuffed his torch, allowing umber shadow to swallow the sandstone. While he blinked to adjust his eyes, the throb of drums subsided, further sapping energy from desert air that had already lost daylight’s broil. By morning the temperature would be well below osipi tolerance—it was one reason they met so soon after sundown.
He stepped forward, saw starlight glittering in a dozen pairs of eyes.
“State your business,” hissed a shadow not much taller than his elbow. “You trespass.”
“I am Gorumim en-Evonlihavia,” he said. “I wish to talk.”
“No human comes here for talk.”
Gorumim snickered. “But you bring a few to donate blood, I suppose?”
Blades scraped from scabbards; whispered epithets raised the hairs on his neck. But Gorumim kept his voice steady. “Let us not mince words. No matter what I have to say, you will not hear it as long as you believe me a contemptible human.” He leaned over and spat in the sand at the feet of the leader.
“You challenge our cacique?” jeered one of the shadows. “You have no right.”
Gorumim rubbed a sweating palm against his hip. “I am no common wanderer. Perhaps you know me by my old name. I was once Moruvish, son of Kavek sa-Riga.”
A shocked silence followed.
“Moruvish is dead,” the osipi leader finally said. “He took a spear through the throat when the castle fell.”
“It suits me to have Fodende think so,” Gorumim said. He pulled down the ruff of his tunic to expose a scar halfway between collarbone and voice box. “Shall I re-light the torch so you can see it better?”
The other man stepped forward for a closer look, then rocked back on his heels. “Royal blood doesn’t matter,” he finally said. But the tone was less abrupt.
“I seek no favors as a prince. Kavek was also clan chief; it is on our clan’s behalf that I would parley.”
“What do you want?”
“We would join you. For clan merging, it is custom to salute your honor with such a challenge, is it not?”
“You had your chance to join the people on the day of naming. You chose otherwise.”
“I walked the portion of the triple-forked path that my father set before me.”
“The Five offer no unchoosing.”
“Clans have spanned races in the past,” Gorumim said. He could address the unchoosing later, when these half-lives were in a more receptive mood. “Will you accept my challenge or not?”
The leader slowly drew his dagger. “I‘ll forgive your insolence, but I’ll not blunt the blade.”
As the circle expanded to give them room, Gorumim licked lips split by sunburn, seeking a flavor beyond his own blood. Two days ago he’d brought down one of the yolk suckers with an arrow as it frolicked nakedly in the dust out of sight of its companions. A pup, by good fortune, born osipi and still growing in bursts. He’d harvested the life blood carefully, baking it dry and then burning the flaked remains to ash. And he’d rubbed the essence on his lips just before he came.
He let the flavor swell as his lips began to burn. They were waiting for him to draw; the leader was already in a crouch. When the duel began, human reflexes would be woefully inadequate, even against a mediocre osipi. Against an ahu—well, suicide was an understatement. But they were in for a surprise.
When the flaring made his teeth ache, he swallowed his bloody spittle and whispered words to complete the magic. Fire spread across his belly, his arms. The darkness faded into a noon-like brilliance that revealed ants skittering across the sand, day-old whiskers on his opponent’s cheeks, the tracks a scorpion had left as it burrowed under a boulder a few paces away.
He smelled cloves from the mulled wine one of the osipi elders had been drinking, the urine stains on the juniper down the trail, and a bitter, cloying odor from himself that he recognized as fear. These men had smelled right through his bluster, then; they couldn’t mistake his true frame of mind.
Gorumim drew his knife.
As cacique, his opponent was undoubtedly nearing his final years, but he still moved liked lightning. And he was crafty—he hadn’t fought his way to a ceremonial title by happenstance.
But Gorumim was a veteran as well; years of intrigue at the palace had demanded a martial education, and he’d been the weapon master’s star pupil. His body could not twist as quickly as the smaller man’s—sheer size slowed some movements—but he had the sensual acuity and reaction speed of a young, born osipi, plus superior mass and strength. And he had his opponent’s shock, which showed plainly when Gorumim drew first blood with a nick across the forearm.
“Perhaps I misjudged you,” said the cacique, flicking his dagger from one hand to the other in a motion that ordinary human eyes could not have followed. “You don’t fight like a Sata.”
“That is what I want to talk about,” said Gorumim, gasping as he rolled away from a jab.
The duel lasted long enough to leave both combatants weary, and when it was over, they were both covered with sweat and blood. Gorumim was bruised in a score of places, and he was breathing hard, but he couldn’t suppress a smile of triumph.
He’d lost, of course. That was the plan. But he’d fought their best almost to a draw, and the point of the cacique’s knife between his shoulder blades was gentle, respectful. It was an honorable surrender.
“May we talk now?” Gorumim said, with what he hoped was a humble smile. “After I catch my breath, that is?”
The cacique chuckled. “I have not many days-faced your better, stranger. Let me rest as well, and then you’ll tell us all how a white-hair just ahu-danced and lived.”
“I will tell you,” Gorumim said gravely. But first, I believe I owe you something.” He drew a grape-sized sphere from a pocket and presented it to the cacique, cupped in both palms as custom demanded. “I wear no ivona,” he said, “but this pearl is from the waters of my home, and it represents our clan. You have bested us in fair battle. You carry our honor.”
The cacique fingered the braided leather at his neck, then picked up the pearl and held it to starlight. “I carry your honor,” he responded formally. “You may any-time-redeem it.”
Gorumim sighed with satisfaction. An invitation to repeat the duel meant he had permanent, official standing among the osipi. It was half his goal. He nodded a meek acceptance of the compliment.
“Now tell us why you interrupted the elder council,” the cacique said.
Gorumim began to recite in the formal bard-like cadences that he’d memorized as a child. He told the story of his grandfather, Riga, bred and grown to manhood in a dungeon so the usurping Jakaz could gloat and humiliate. He told of the valiant troops from Risa Salam who had stormed the castle and restored the throne to its rightful owner. He recounted the long and glorious reign of his own father, Kavek, and the coup that had returned the realm to chaos and darkness.
As he spoke he worked the words, drawing out the syllables a little longer here, biting them off a little sooner there, emphasizing and de-emphasizing with the skill of an artisan. The texture added an extra layer to his speech, one that only a lip could appreciate. It was like giving two speeches at once—one with the normal ebb and flow of the voice, the other with a more subtle prosody. The obvious content was history that everyone in the realm knew; the subtext was designed to recast it all with heightened emotion. Gorumim wanted his new allies to resent his family’s suffering like he did, to taste the bitterness of injustice and thirst for revenge.
He felt the magic swirl almost immediately. It would have enthralled a normal human audience, let alone the exquisitely attuned waifs that circled him now. By the time he stopped, several of them were actually near a trance.
“And now my father is dead,” Gorumim wound down. “And I am alone.” He let the statement echo off the rocks and dissipate; the emptiness of the night enhanced the effect he was striving for. “Alone but reborn, a human become one of the people.”
The cacique started as the import came clear. “You claim to be the one who will lead us?” The mildness of his tone was testimony to the power of Gorumim’s magic. Before, such a statement would have invited contempt, at least.
“What does the prophecy say? One scorned and cast out will come from the north. No family, alone, a long-life. Tutored by your greatest warrior, he will offer you a lasting peace and the truest heart-desire.”
“The prophecy says other things as well.” The cacique seemed unmoved by the implied flattery behind the “greatest warrior” phrase Gorumim had been careful to insert.
Gorumim nodded. “Not all will welcome the dawn.”
“I have no war thirst,” said the cacique. But several of the others muttered under their breath. Already, they were prepared to right the wrongs done to a potential clan brother.
“No. Like my father, your first concern is the peace and prosperity of your people. It is the mark of a true leader.”
Again, the flattery seemed to fall on deaf ears. The cacique was peering at him with hawk-like intensity. “I’d like to know where you would lead us, white-hair. Kavek lost the crown nine years ago. I regret the ensuing troubles, but I’ve all my adulthood known it. The people are Zufa-loyal, not house-loyal. We pacted clan neutrality to avoid entanglements.”
Gorumim shrugged. Maybe these half-lives were capable of greater insight than he’d credited.
No matter. He was planting a seed here, not harvesting. The worry would fade over a few generations, but the temptation would fester.
“At present, I have no army, and I seek none. Fodende is strong, and I, too, have had my fill of long sieges and the misery of war. But some day, perhaps, the raja may grow careless, and a nudge will put the crown where it belongs.”
“You speak treason.”
“That’s a strong word,” said Gorumim, “coming from a neutral pragmatist. I don’t suggest that you disavow your loyalty to the crown.”
“But you’d have us take a position on who wears it.”
“No. I’d have you take a position on who does not wear it. When the time is right, and such an action is clearly in the people’s best interests. I’ll worry about picking up the crown all by myself.”
“You split hairs. Wisdom says stay out.”
“Today, that is true. Someday I may offer you a future you’d be wise to accept.”
The cacique sniffed.
Gorumim felt a cool breeze and noticed that several of the circle were rubbing their arms. Good. It would make his little demonstration more effective.
“Let me tell you what the people could gain by an alliance,” Gorumim said. And he began to recite again. This time he went back to the beginnings of the triple-forked path, and how Gitám had decreed a choice about magic for all mankind. Embrace it and become osipi, forsake it and become Sata, or follow the middle road and stay human.
Again he layered the speech with rich emotional textures, straining his abilities to the utmost. He made the way of the osipi seem at once noble in its embrace of Gitám’s beauty, and tragic in the brief lifespan that resulted. How many osipi women had mourned the loss of a husband since the dawn of time? How many osipi children had shed tears at their parents’ graves, while less faithful races lived on and on in a parody of the experience that only the people could appreciate? How often had the people bid adieu to the verdant North because they could not endure the cold that winter ocean currents brought, returning in spring like interlopers with emptiness below their ribs?
But what if the triple-forked path were not irrevocable? What if the people could live as long as humans, or even white-hairs, without giving up any of life’s richness? What if they no longer needed to shun the cold? What if their wise men and prophets were the oldest in the realm, not children spurned by their elders?
Now the thrall was deep. Even the cacique’s eyes were glazing, despite violent shivers. Gorumim was exhausted, partly from the strain of his own transformation, and partly from kindling so steadily. He’d been speaking for a third of the night, but he could not afford to rest with his purpose so near fruition.
Without breaking tempo, he untied the pouch at his waist and knelt to start a fire. Fuel was stacked nearby; apparently the elders had anticipated the need for warmth. He pretended to strike a flint, but a few muted syllables actually lit the tinder; as soon as the flames rose, he cast a different powdered blood and gulped the burnt citrus aroma that billowed.
The osipi also inhaled; they were too mesmerized to do otherwise. Immediately the golden hue to their skin paled. Their breathing slowed; their shivering subsided even as the fire sputtered out.
“You will say it is a fool’s dream,” Gorumim continued smoothly. “But it is not. Tonight you will see.” And now he shifted to the third and final part of his oration—a rapturous foretelling of the osipi destiny as they tamed the life power under his leadership. His tempo slowed; his diction adapted to the more Sata-like sensibilities now overpowering his audience.
The people would be masters of all land, north and south; who could stand against them when they had the best strengths of all the races? They would help him govern in justice. Osipi musicians, with centuries rather than a few years of experience, would make music such as the world had never known. Osipi builders would master the subtlety of Sata structures, but add such color and passion that the beholder would weep.
As the other races came to know the beauty of the people, fewer and fewer would choose the misguided ways of their ancestors on naming day. The triple-forked path would become a single broad thoroughfare, with alternative choices fading into historical curiosity. The osipi of years to come would look back to the elders who first clan-bonded Gorumim en-Evonlihavia and call them blessed.
Gorumim embellished until his voice was hoarse and the eastern horizon grew bright. Only the Sata-like endurance he’d gained from the smoke sustained him at the end.
When his words faded, the osipi blinked and stirred as if awaking from hibernation. The cacique was the first to regain his voice.
“What is the price of this glorious future?” he croaked.
Gorumim exhaled, letting breath condense in the morning sunshine so all could see it clearly. He saw eyes widen as the import of the temperature and the time of day sank in. “Of course there is a price. Only those who follow me can taste such power.”
“What magic have you worked on us, white-hair?” asked one of the elders. He ran a trembling finger across the frost on the front of his tunic. “A Sata cannot do such things.”
“I used one technique to make my hands and feet fast enough to survive a duel with one of the people,” Gorumim said, “and another to carry you through cold with the endurance of the white hairs. But it is all one magic, and its use is not so impossible as we’ve been taught.”
“I don’t believe in easy power,” growled the cacique.
“Indeed. There is no shortcut to the top of a mountain. It costs to work such magic. It takes time.”
“How is it done, exactly?”
Gorumim hesitated. By living continually in a state of magical arousal, osipi lost the ability to consciously direct its flow. There was no question of them stealing his secret; they probably couldn’t even understand it completely. But even half-lives knew the principles of kindling. They would not like what he told them.
Unfortunately, he doubted that they would cooperate without some kind of answer, and he had conceived no plausible explanation for his power that did not have enough truth to make it unsavory. He would delay where possible, lie as much as he could, and hope his demonstration was inspiring enough to help them ignore or forget what they didn’t want to hear. And he had to make them believe he’d disclosed all.
“It is a great magic from the dawn of time, learned after much searching and at a terrible price. I will only share it if you promise to keep its nature secret.”
“We won’t take such an oath,” said the old cacique flatly.
Gorumim eyed the rest of the circle. How much ambition and selfishness hid behind their eyes? Every seed needed soil and moisture in which to grow…
“Perhaps I should approach another clan, then.” He let the suggestion hang there, unelaborated, in stark contrast to the future he’d just painted.
The cacique didn’t bat an eye, but men on either side of him squirmed. “Is there nothing you can tell us without the oath?” asked one.
“I’ll offer this,” Gorumim said. “It took me a decade to gather the strength that I gave you this night, and I will not be able to command its like again for a long, long time. In a week you will need your coats again in the cold, and your skin will be as gold as ever. Nevertheless, I’ve added years to each of your lives.”
The prediction was exaggerated, though not by much; every member of the circle had the potential to threaten osipi longevity records, after the dose of Sata blood he’d squandered. Taking credit in advance was helpful; they’d confide the reason for their lifespans, and the seed he planted would be nourished by endless rounds of clan gossip and lore.
“And one thing more,” Gorumim added. “Though this magic is not free, it is I that must pay the majority of its cost.”
The cacique’s lips thinned. “Again, I mistrust easy harvest.”
“The sower invests a tiny kernel, but it is the seed itself that works throughout the summer to make harvest possible. That is Gitám’s pattern, not mine.”
“What exactly do you ask, and what do we get in return?” said one of the elders who had not spoken before. He spoke like he was trying to facilitate Gorumim’s pitch.
“My request is that you adopt my clan into your own. I am its only remaining member; the rest were butchered or imprisoned by the tyrant Fodende. Some day I must regain the crown for the good of all. Not with war, but with a well-timed coup. Then I will lead the people who claim me into the future I described.”
“You want soldiers to buy this…” asked another elder.
“I do not ask for blind commitment to a bloody, drawn-out campaign,” Gorumim cut in. “If our clans are one, then I have the right to propose actions to this council. That is all. You judge my suggestions as you see fit.”
Of course it was more than that, but he was counting on the corrosive combination of rumor, utopic promise, and impatience to work its own kind of magic. How long would hot-headed youngsters with unextended lifespans support elders who wanted to postpone glory? He could afford to wait a few generations…
“Where will you live?” asked the youngest-looking member of the circle.
Gorumim knit his brow. “I will remain in the north. A coup requires careful work at the seat of power. Why?”
“Having clan-brother-eyes where other osipi are blind might be valuable.”
This observation sparked murmurs of approval. All osipi clans hungered for greater prestige.
“I still want to know the nature of your magic,” said the cacique.
“Do I have your oath?”
“Our clan will keep your secret if it is not evil. Is that acceptable?”
“Very well,” said Gorumim. “Listen and judge.”