Emshalur’s Hand Stays
By Anaea Lay
I returned to Irishem with three sources of power: a letter from Kelian, a clear memory of why I left, and the space between my hands. The letter proved my right to enter as a citizen at the outer gate. It also got me past the boy keeping Kelian’s door when I arrived, though the house was closed for the evening. “Sealed save for family and Emshalur,” go the ritual words of denial.
Though the boy gave me entrance into the hallway, I had another obstacle to pass before admittance to the hearth room. Before seeing Kelian again. A young woman with Kelian’s narrow eyes and full lips, but a flatter nose and a head of glossy curls, emerged from the depths of the house mere moments after the boy disappeared to fetch a member of the family. “Tyman says you have a letter to admit you. You will show it to me.”
I handed her the narrow slip of paper. It still smelled of smoke and incense, the rusty brown text fading into the tan grain of the thin sheet. Emshalik blight. Come back. Such a short message, yet I could taste great depths of meaning in them. She grew up, she had a family, she loves them, she still doesn’t keep the faith. She’s still angry with me.
“Who are you?” the woman demanded.
Such a tricky question, so soon after meeting. “Kelian’s brother.”
“Kelian has no brother.”
“We shared no blood until after she left the womb but trust me, little niece, I speak the truth. Would she send such news outside the family?”
Kelian’s eyes, distrustful, stared at me from the young woman’s face, but her lips curled with acquiescence. “Welcome to our hearth and home, and may Emshalur stay his hand while you visit, Uncle. I am Kelian Drurr.”
Drurr. I tasted the name, savored the hints of Kelian’s life wrapped in it. I had assumed the woman was Kelian’s daughter, but I’d been gone longer than that; this was her granddaughter. Loved, cherished. No passion, but a quiet contentment. No adventure and romance for my dashing little Kelian, then. Perhaps that was for the best. “I embrace the warmth of your hearth,” I replied, and waited to see if she marked the part of the ritual I ignored. She did not.
Long years had passed since last I walked the hallway of Kelian’s home, and those years had visited like an artist, painting from a pallet of age and dust, filming the walls over with tidy, well-loved decay. Like the rest of Irishem. But the hearth room was still warm and bright. Kelian was there, in the matron’s place before the fire. Her hair, straight and black when last I saw her, was now wispy and gray, her skin covered in age spots. Oh, my poor Kelian, I would have spared you the blight of years if you’d let me.
“Grandmama, Uncle has answered your summons.”
Kelian answered with a short, impatient nod. Only then did I notice it, wrapped in black swaddling that neatly blended into the folds of Kelian’s mourning robes, the infant. “Leave us be, child. Uncle and I have much to discuss.”
“Yes, Grandmama.” Drurr pressed her first two fingers to her lips, raised them to the room – a silent invocation of Emshalur’s blessing—then withdrew.
“She keeps the faith?” I asked, surprised, and strangely gratified.
“The whole of Irishem has turned faithful, these last years. And she has yet more cause.”
“But not you,” I said.
Kelian leaned forward, tilting the infant out so I could see its face, see the purple stain of an angry hand print across its face. The Emshalik blight. “And see how I am punished for it.”
Sit quietly a moment and I’ll tell you a story. My gift is with beats and ballads, not simple tales, but this one I know well enough to share.
In the middle of the river Irish’ur, where it runs widest and deepest, there is an island. Three cities rose on that island, each in turn drowned by the river sheltering them, rotted from beneath by the rage of a wet spring following a long, deep winter. The first was called Aklyne…but no, this is not the story of those cities. This is the story of Irishem.
Irishem, blessed of Emshalur, beautiful beyond expression, practical beyond criticism, fierce, vibrant. You are the fourth city built in the isle of Irish’ur. The first to last.
When the spring floods receded and the ruins of the third city, Talian, rose once more over the water, few of those who’d lived there remained. But those who remained were devoted, possessive, undaunted. They returned to their isle, determined to build again, and this time, to succeed. On the first night of summer, when the ruins had dried and the sun had baked the isle, they rowed out in boats and put the ruins to torch, condemning what had survived the flooding to death in this new disaster. These people would accept no part of what had failed before. They gave their city to the flame, and they ringed the isle, dancing and shouting their joy at the new beginning, their rage at the fury that had threatened them.
Emshalur, god of the relentless beat, heard the drumming of their dance and he came. He watched them, enchanted by the grace of their bodies, and he was intrigued.
Emshalur, god of the clapping hands, saw their fire, the sacrifice they made of their city, and he danced. He felt the pulse of their determination, and he had an idea.
Emshalur, god of implacable time, tasted their dream in the air, and he offered. He took their isle between his hands, sheltering them against all catastrophe that would seek to find them.
But no matter his love, his fascination, his devotion, Emshalur cannot be what he is not. The god of life’s rhythm must tap out his tune, must ferry all things from their beginnings to their ends. He might stay his hand, but it is only temporary, a pause, a rest, a delay. A stolen moment before the final beat.
In the temple of Emshalur they take their tithes of days, offered up by the willing. For every true tithe given, for every day sincerely sacrificed without duress or expectation of reward, Irishem is granted another day within the shelter of Emshalur’s hands. So it has been since the fourth city rose over the waters of the Irish’ur, and never have flood waters touched it.
But now, look up into Irishem’s wide open sky, and you see them: two hands, looming, ready to clap.
Emshalur no longer accepts his tithes, and Irishem’s time is coming due.
“It is not to punish you, Kelian,” I said. I reached for the infant, but she pulled away. At first I though she was afraid of me, but then I saw the tightness in her lips, the way her brow pulled down over her eyes. Not frightened. Angry. Not the old anger, either, though it was certainly still there. Fresh and raw and coated in her grief, this new anger stung me fresh.
“Then whom? Drurr? She was born in this house and yet she remained faithful.”
“No, Kelian.” Kelian, Kelian, Kelian. I let her name roll through me, drumming out the memories that wanted so badly to carry me away. She summoned me there and I was determined to be there for her. I had not realized how old she must be, how close I’d come to missing her entirely. My little sister, my dancing girl, my precious Kelian, nearly passed beyond my grasp forever, and I wouldn’t have seen her again.
Tears glistened in her eyes, her voice cracked with anger and age. “The child, then? He gave offense from the womb?”
“It is not a punishment.”
“Then take it away,” Kelian said.
“My great-grandson. The fourth generation, in the fourth city. I’ve seen the sky. I know what this is.”
I went to her and dropped to my knees, put my hands on hers. “Don’t borrow the language of the faithful now, Kelian. Emshalik blight is their name for it. That’s not what it is. You know that. Have you forgotten? You can’t have forgotten.”
She didn’t answer me. Instead, she seized a bell by her hand and rang it so hard the infant in her arms woke with an angry howl. A moment later the boy who met me at the door came in. “Tyman, show my brother to the rooms we prepared for him.”
I let the boy lead me away. My hands clutched at my robes and I clenched my teeth. I knew before I returned that it would hurt. To see my beloved city in crisis, how could I expect anything else? To feel Kelian’s anger and rejection so close again, of course it would tear me open once more. But though I’d known what it would be, I nearly suffocated when faced with it. I hoped the boy Tyman would linger with me a while, give my grief time to pass before I was left alone with it. But he stayed at the door and then, with a hasty, “Emshalur stay his hand for your sleep,” he fled.
I clenched my fists all the harder. And then, because the house was closed for the night and I would not be permitted out the door, I slipped through the window and dropped down to the street.
Irishem, lovely Irishem. I missed you while I was away. Your blood flows in my veins, just as Kelian’s does. Time has been a meticulous artist, chipping away at your stone blocks, weaving you a cloak of tarnish and dust. But your sky is just as high and wide, the pattern of stars overhead barely shifted. Looking up, my vision is filled with graceful spires and inky black night. And the hands, of course. Irishem, I have loved you, stayed true to you, even while I was away. Why didn’t you do the same?
The steps up to the temple were worn before I left, sagging at the middle where the crowds tread, and in the dark I didn’t see evidence anything had changed in my absence. It was still the most glorious, imposing structure built by mortal hand, the stones polished and shined until the walls reflected even the meager starlight into a soft glow. As I entered the temple my hands relaxed, calm at my sides for the first time since I entered Irishem.
“Emshalur, we implore you, stay your hand against destruction. We offer you our tithes of days, given by the willing, expecting nothing else in return. Let us continue to please you. Let us continue to love you. Love us, Emshalur, and we will dance for you yet more.”
There are always services happening at the temple to Emshalur. The metronome god does not stop, and neither can the worship dedicated to him. I let the chanting wash over me, let it flow through me. I had missed this, the communion, the bonding to mutual purpose. Irishem is a doomed city, constantly thwarting its fate, and nowhere else do they cherish the rhythm of life than in a place chronically confronted by its inevitable termination. And with the hands looming overhead, Irishem was all too aware of what it was.
I passed an hour there before any priest paid me enough mind to recognize me. I pressed my finger to my lips, silencing him, when I caught his expression. Then, with my other hand, I gestured for him to come forward and speak with me.
“You have returned!” he said, his voice quavering with excitement.
“I was summoned by one I could not deny,” I replied.
“Then we are saved. You will stay your hands.”
I shook my head. “That I will not do.”
The priest seemed to crumble into himself, his rounded face going taut and tense in response to my refusal.
“Do you still have a votive altar?” I asked.
The priest nodded, then led me off to the side of the temple, where a series of small rooms dedicated to the different aspects of Emshalur were built from green marble. Past those, we turned a corner and found ourselves in the tithe room. A circle of priests stood before the gong as a line of tithers went up to them. Each tither cut open their palm with a dagger and let the blood spill into a low, wide basin cut from rough soapstone. Then the priests hit the gong. One day offered, one day longer for Irishem. That is, if Emshalur accepted the tithe.
The offered days brushed against me like pebbles. Dusty and soiled and tainted in purpose. I paid them no heed. The answering chime never came. Had not come since just before I left.
Before the altar were rows of low benches. I knelt before one, pulled a votive candle from my pockets, sat it on the bench and lit it. The gong rang out. I could taste fear and desperation in the sound. With as many tithes as the temple collected every day, Irishem should be secure for centuries. Emshalur’s hands loomed over the city and soon, they would clap the final beat of the city’s existence.
“You would make an offering?” the priest asked, confusion twisting his features like a dishrag.
“There are words I would send away from me,” I replied. “In solitude.”
The priest nodded, pressed two fingers against his lips in blessing, and withdrew.
“Emshalik blight. Come back.” Kelian’s note. Delivered to me in a cloud of smoke and incense, summoning me back to the city who broke my heart, who turned tithes into an obligation for citizenship and trapped my Kelian. I set the edge of the paper into the flame of the candle, sending it on, past the reach of Emshalur’s hands, to the place where all things end. It was what proved my right to be there, to enter Kelian’s hearth room, but I could not bear the anger and accusation wrapped up in the words. So I sent them away from me forever.
Two sources of power remained to me.
I broke my fast in the hearth room the next morning, watching with relish as the house was thrown open to accept daylight and strangers. There was no sign of Kelian, either that she’d been there or was likely to come. The boy, Tyman, served me in silence, his eyes barely ever raising to look on me. A small swarm of tiny mosquitoes wended their way in through the open windows. One hovered over my breakfast plate. I watched it a moment, listening to the buzz of its flight through the air, opening myself to its search for blood and nourishment. Then I clapped it between my hands, crushing it.
“You need not fear me,” I said.
“Yes, Uncle,” the boy replied, but he still didn’t look at me.
“Grandmama is up and ready, Tyman,” Drurr said as she breezed into the room, infant in arms. “Go see to her. I’ll tend to Uncle.”
The boy fled the room. I watched him go, reluctant to stare too openly at the babe though I was hungry to see my youngest nephew. I sensed none of Kelian’s anger in Drurr, but the wound of Kelian’s rejection was still fresh from the night before. “May I take the child?” I asked.
She hesitated, then offered him to me. He was still quite young. Three weeks passed between Kelian’s summons and my arrival. She could barely have waited from the discovery of the mark to her summons. It was an impulse, then, not a considered decision. An impulse she seemed to regret now. I pushed the swaddling away from the child’s head, let my fingers trace the purple mark over his face.
“Do you believe yourself punished?” I asked.
“Not personally, no. The blight strikes many. Irishem has failed and we are all punished for it.”
I shook my head. “It should never have taken that name. It is not a blight, child. It is a distinction. He is chosen of Emshalur.”
“He cannot tithe.”
Citizenship in Irishem is offered to all who tithe time from their lives, however little of it, to the city. Citizenship in Irishem is offered only to those who make a tithe.
Those bearing the purple hand of Emshalur will not have their tithes accepted. The god has marked their days as too precious to him to be spent on the preservation of Irishem. Most flee the city before they are sixteen.
“He cannot waste a portion of his life on preserving a cursed city and a corrupt people. All of his days will be his.”
“Irishem is the greatest city of the world and he has the misfortune to be born to it, and denied it as no pilgrim or foreigner ever could be,” Drurr countered.
I looked down into the face of my little nephew. He had his mother’s nose. Kelian’s mouth was gone. Most of his physiognomy must be credited to his father. “What do you call him?”
“Why name the damned? I will raise him for his exile, and I will send him away. He will not be burdened by ties to a home he cannot have.”
Emptiness in the air where his name should be. I let it roll through me, ran the taste of it over my tongue. A pause, a rest, a pregnant moment in the rhythm of his life. And in that space, the boy’s fate matched another’s: Irishem.
I looked up from nephew to niece and saw Kelian’s eyes piercing me, staring me down. Drurr knew what she’d done when she denied her child a name. She knew it, and she sat there daring me to protest. “Grandmama says you could remove the mark, but you refuse.”
“Did she tell you why?” I asked.
“I don’t need a why. I am faithful. His father was faithful.” Her two fingers tapped her collar bone, a blessing for those who’ve passed beyond the reach of Emshalur’s hand. “The city is faithful. I need nothing, Uncle, save the reward owed to faith.”
Irishem, my city of the pause, of the sheltered rest between beats. My precious nephew, child of the pause, city’s avatar. Your mother tied the one to the other and stared me down. Hers was not Kelian’s rage, but I was just as helpless to answer it.
“Emshalur is a slave to the rhythms that drive him, to the inevitable. Obligation is anathema to him. There is no reward that can be demanded in exchange for faith.”
“Then perhaps it is time for Emshalur to reevaluate what is inevitable.”
I don’t mean to be cruel. I don’t look for pity. I would tell you, if I could, the story of Kelian and the dancing god. But to reach for that story, even with time enough to erode Kelian’s youth, brings me too close to my breaking. Kelian was chosen of Emshalur and when she, a girl of eight dancing at the summer bonfire for the first time, caught his eye, their friendship was immediate.
And later, when they shared blood, it was made lasting.
But Kelian could not tithe. Could not become a citizen of Irishem. Not even to rescue her father from bankruptcy and escape service in a Flower House.
I can give you only a moment, from that tale. The one that comes after the god wounds himself to remove the mark from the girl, then stands in his temple. He stands unnoticed on the side as the knife flashes, pierces her skin. He makes himself watch as her blood falls and she offers a day of her life, precious beyond measure, to Irishem. His body vibrates with the sound of the priest’s gong. Always, up to then, the gong was answered by the chime, a call and response that together picked out the tune of Irishem’s protection.
This is how you break a god.
The priest’s gong sounded, and the chime did not answer. One beat. Two. A full measure.
“I’m sorry, child,” the priest says to Kelian. Blood still drips where the knife cut her.
She turns to her friend, her brother, the unnoticed god watching from the wings and shaking with the sound of an offering he cannot take. An offering made not of her own free will, but to protect another. To save herself. Her tithe was an obligation met.
“He did not hear. Sound it again,” Kelian says, turning to the priest.
“You were blighted,” the priest says.
Kelian seizes the knife, makes another cut. Offers a week. A month. A year. And when the priest does not move, she rings the gong herself.
Stop. Kelian, stop.
The chime answers.
I have wondered, in these years since, what the priests and acolytes found in the place where Emshalur stood that day. What flesh and matter remained of a god shattered by turning so far against his nature that he swallowed the poison of a tainted tithe to spare his little sister her grief and pain. Did they have any clue, any sense of his rage at them, for creating the situation? His horror, at discovering the price of his sacrifice?
I have not been coy. I’ve not been deceptive. Emshalur lost himself the day his tithing gong refused to ring. He fled his city in despair because he could do nothing else. Death is beyond him, and the rhythm he’ll allow Irishem is funereal.
I had no answer for Drurr. She knew Kelian was born with a mark she no longer bore. Drurr could not understand why that would never happen again. None could. They looked to the sky and they saw Irishem’s fate looming over it. They didn’t see the cracks, the pain, the exile that lay behind it. Kelian saw only hesitation, reluctance to follow through on my promise, followed by abandonment.
“Do you dance?” I asked Drurr.
She leaned forward, her eyes sharp upon me. “At festivals.”
I pressed the babe close to my chest, tasted the stillness around him. “No other time?”
Kelian’s familiar frown painted itself across her granddaughter’s face. Two fingers to the collar bone. “Nights, my husband and I would dance in the roof garden.”
“Dance is sacred to Emshalur. It gives him strength, guides him.”
I don’t know what I hoped for or what I meant, but it was all I had to offer. It was what Kelian understood the first time she recognized Emshalur. She danced with him, spinning madly, but with purpose. Nudging the rhythms of the summer and their affection until he broke himself apart to save her. And she never understood why it failed. All who now speak of service to Emshalur do so in terms of obligation. They are taught to fail.
I did not leave the house all through that day, but sat instead in the hearth room, waiting, hoping. Kelian did not come. Tyman saw to my needs, Drurr bustled about, seeing to the business of the house and child. I waited, alone, hands pressed to my knees. The heat was stifling but I did not budge. I could feel myself breaking apart anew. I shouldn’t have returned. Now that I had, I shouldn’t have stayed. I could not give them what they wanted, what they needed. I was naught but the broken pieces of a god they’d failed utterly to understand.
Though, they understood some things.
A nameless child trapped in the same moment as the city he could not protect. Blood of my sister’s blood. Avatar.
That night I was drawn to the roof and I followed, hoping to find Kelian. But it was Drurr, her hair falling loose, her child clutched to her breast. She swayed under the moonlight, humming to the babe. I stood in the shadows and watched her. The air prickled my skin, growing tense and electric. Her feet began to move. Her body twisted. My breath caught in my chest. There was no music, no drums, just the pulse of unsheltered night in Irishem and Drurr was falling into it. She whirled, the heavy fabric of her clothes flaring about her, the child cooing, the rhythm pinning me in my place even as I longed to join her. She abandoned herself to the beat and in that moment I was myself again, ecstatic, powerful, a young boy merrily ferrying all that is mortal along their paths with relentless, joyous verve. I came back to myself, trembling and potent, and as she paused for breath, I broke loose of the web just enough to step forward, revealing myself.
And then I tasted it, her hope, her expectation. She’d known I was there. It wasn’t a devotion at all, but a performance. A hope for her son. She reached out, offering him to me. I was trapped, newly returned to myself. But it could not last, for the path Drurr created was a false one. And yet, the boy, my nephew, the only chance for my city…
Kelian’s blood went cold in my veins, stopped flowing, turned sour. She was dead, just then. I sank to my knees, falling all to pieces once more, frightened that now I’d never find my way back.
Drurr had known. These were her grandmother’s last moments, and she’d traded them to come to the rooftop and lure me away from my path. To bring me back to myself so I might break once more upon the gong of an insincere tithe.
“The boy’s mark is as far from my reach as Kelian,” I said. My heart broke for the little sister I hadn’t saved and would never again see. Kelian was gone, and my last moments with her were a fresh rejection. I can’t even press my fingers to my collarbone, for the dead are beyond my reach to bless.
“Then what good are you to us?” Drurr asked.
“I love you.”
“Love comes with obligation, else it is not love.”
She pushed past me and withdrew into the house.
I slumped to the ground, felt the cold, dead presence of Kelian’s blood, tasted the path it took as it left my realm and passed on to the next realm.
My dancing girl.
If there is no love without obligation, then I broke myself the moment I chose to love Irishem and all this time has just been a feint, a false coda.
Or I did not love Irishem, not truly, until the moment I understood its betrayal.
I went to Kelian’s funeral a creature unmade. Drurr had brought me to myself for a moment, and when I fell back to my pieces it was as something different. Kelian’s blood left me, and took with it some of the damage done to me.
They burn the dead in Irishem, and they dance around the fire.
My dancing girl was gone from me, but her leaving gave me pure dance, for at a funeral there is only grief and the escaping of it. The dead have no expectations to fulfill. The mourners circled and stomped and gave themselves to the rhythm. I melted into it, my hands loose at my sides, and then I joined them. I had nothing left. No paper to invite me, no memories to banish me. Just the space between my hands and the knowledge that I was broken and my city’s time had come.
The air was thick with the notes of Kelian’s life, the years I’d never seen and never shared. The mourners dissolved into their grief, and I used them to pave my way to her, to turn the beat of her final departure into an overture to the life she’d had without me.
“Your hands stretch over the city,” her ghost said when I reached it, the last vestige of her as it fled beyond my reach on the smoke of her pyre.
“The time has come. The pause is over,” I told her.
“It was never a fair bargain,” her ghost said. “Only death is free from obligation. Our doom frees us. Our freedom obliges us to it.”
“Yes. I understand that now.” She wavered in the smoke, this last trace of her. She was eight again, as young and fierce as the day I’d met her. I reached out my hand. “Will you dance with me, little sister?”
“I’ve no veins to hold your blood, no blood to fill your veins.”
“True. But you will be my sister so long as any part of you still answers the beat.”
“You will care for him, then?” she asked.
I nodded my assent.
She took my hands, smiled as her hair caught the breeze, and we danced.
Her pyre burned down, the last embers smoking as the sun rose. The other dancers had long since collapsed from exhaustion, and not even her ghost remained to me. But I still had some piece of her, as my feet carried me across the bridge spanning the Irish’ur and through the city gates. I doubt Drurr understood what she did when she handed her son to me, pressing her two fingers to her lips in blessing as she departed to bed. It will not matter for long.
Do you see it there, my little nameless nephew, in the distance? The spires rising gracefully into the sky, the great pyramid temple to Emshalur at the center? That’s Irishem, the fourth city to rise on that isle. I am giving you its name, and now your fates are no longer bound. Look at your namesake. See how it fills the space between my hands?
Now, hear me clap.
About the Author
Anaea Lay lives in Seattle, Washington where she writers, cooks, plays board games, reads too much, and sells real estate under another name. She’s the fiction podcast editor for Strange Horizons where you can hear her read a new short story nearly every week. Her fiction work has appeared in a variety of venues including Lightspeed, Apex, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and PodCastle.
About the Narrator
Cian Mac Mahon is an Irish Software Engineer who in a past life was the world’s youngest professional podcaster, ran a radio station and very nearly ended up being a journalist.
While he hopes to some day revive his show which podfaded many years ago, he now spends most of his free time playing about with cameras and cooking, as old microphones and sound-desks lurk in the shadows, right at the edge of eyesight.