Sweeter than Lead
by Benjamin C. Kinney
I stood atop the wall and stared at the shifting black towers of the Nameless City, as if this time I might spot the shadows of its bygone masters. I flexed my toes against the rampart’s top, the basalt as cold and solid as ever. Only the wall and my vigilance held the City in check, but one of those would not last. Two months remained until my mandated retirement: the end of my prophecies, the end of my power.
My successor Taline stood beside me, well-trained yet all too ignorant. She tipped her white-veiled head, as if eager to hear my thoughts. She managed a better guise of subservience than I had in the final weeks before my investiture, but my predecessor Anahit had given me far less reason for courtesy.
Taline deserved to know about the City’s long-dead masters. Some unknown race had built the Nameless City and flourished in its char-black edifices and knotted timelines, until their inheritors built the wall and transformed metropolis into prison and tomb. That much, Taline knew; but for all the City’s empty halls and silent streets, its creators still held the power to threaten and tempt. I had considered a hundred possible lessons, a hundred tales I might tell her, but every explanation would conjure the same danger I wanted to forestall. Helplessness curdled in my stomach like sour milk. I would have to grow accustomed to futility.
Not yet. I still had two months until the autumn equinox. Two months on our little island of outpost, wall, and City. Two months to taste and wield the future.
I parted my veil, rocked forward, and drank deep of the City’s poison-sweet air, like wine rich with sugar-of-lead.
The woman wears a jeweled dress, an arkhaluk of purple and cobalt. She sprawls unmoving on a floor of mahogany and rust-stained rugs, beneath tower windows rattling in a leaf-strewn wind. The knife in her chest bears a ribbon embroidered with golden stars.
I rocked back behind the boundary, and mortal air filled my lungs like cold ash. The vision’s immediacy lingered in my mind: simple, less violent than many, easily interpreted and forestalled. Purple and cobalt for our Empress, and the golden-starred banner of Kilhima province, conquered twelve years past.
I lowered my veil. “Order the soldiers to round up anyone in our outpost who hails from Kilhima. I will have questions for them. Then write to the Empress. Ask her to reassign any Sovereign Guard members who have ties to Kilhima, and to keep any ambassadors outside the capital.”
“Of course, High Seer Yeva.” She turned away with a rustle of cotton robes, but I gestured for her to wait. She halted. The Empress would follow my advice with equal obedience. Seers ordered, advised, and suggested, but we could never explain, not without transforming the possible into the irrevocable. To describe one of our visions would pull that future out of the shifting timelines of the Nameless City, into our fixed and causal world.
I had spent thirty years without explaining my choices, and never in all that time had I so ached to share a revelation. “Do you think the Nameless City wants something?”
A seagull’s caw rose from the narrow strip of shore between wall and ocean. Taline said, “Death, perhaps. But the city’s been empty for ages, High Seer. Hasn’t it?”
The Nameless City shrugged off names like oil on glass, but I understood its nature better than anyone else alive. Perhaps, in one of the City’s infinite timelines, its masters still lived, pressing alien faces against the prison wall erected by their successors, and watched us sip from their legacy like aphids greedy for sap.
A familiar shiver ran along my spine. All I had was perhaps, but among an infinite snarl of futures, one remote possibility would serve them well enough. If they could make that timeline ours, through their own machinations or a seer’s incautious word, they would live again. They would have never died.
I said, “You will need to discover the answer for yourself. Remember the question in the years to come, Low Seer. If the City has desires, then it might have the means to achieve them.”
“Of course, High Seer.” Beneath her patient voice, shoe-leather scuffed against basalt. I clenched my jaw. Taline was far too eager to leave the wall, for all the wrong reasons. Down in our outpost, in the soldiers’ barracks, waited her beloved Vartan. Her secret lover, or so she thought. Unlike my predecessor, I turned a blind eye to my student’s broken oath.
How could I not? When I was her age, I had my Garen and the gentleness he could never show his fellow soldiers. I still carried my memories of our too-short days together, a fond and faded treasure. A meager keepsake perhaps, but I was High Seer, my lungs and soul permeated by visions of ruin. My life held no space for such ordinary happiness.
I scowled. Taline would wrestle with that burden soon enough. If love made her hurry from her duties, I had grown too permissive. I could indulge romance, but I would not indulge distraction.
I said, “No more delays. You will take today’s vision now—and it’s time you took one without any aid. Prove to me that you will not fall.”
Taline’s shoulders tensed. “Of course, High Seer. I’m ready.” She took off her shoes, inched toward the wall’s edge, and lifted her veil from a fine-boned face etched with dread.
Fear might save her someday, to maintain her vigilance against the temptation of so much power and knowledge one step beyond the basalt’s edge. The City’s call could manifest in a hundred forms: carelessness, curiosity, ambition, desperation. Every mind invented its own excuses and rationalizations around the subconscious gravity of that dead and infinite world.
No seer had succumbed for five generations, but the Empire still forced our retirement after thirty years. A rule too rigid, but not without its reasons. Once, when the Nameless City’s glassy black streets and shifting towers arranged themselves just so, Taline and I had glimpsed the first High Seer’s corpse lying on black stone eighty feet below, as if she had thrown herself from the wall only yesterday.
I would do no such thing, and neither would the apprentice I trained. I crossed my arms and stifled the urge to grasp her belt or whisper a worldly voice in her ears.
She bent her knees, rocked forward, and then leaned back with her precious lungful of the Nameless City’s air.
She shuddered, her face twisting in disgust, but her reaction drew her back from the ledge as I had taught her. She lowered her veil.
“In a province where the natives wear checkered wool, the Imperial Governor should not interfere with the conflicts between their clans. Let—” She knit her hands together. “Let the unrest run its course.”
“Very good. Scribe a letter to the Empress with the advice from both of us. We will sign it together. She should see that you’re ready.” True though the compliment was, it rolled off my tongue with the bitter taste of uncured olives. As if she deserved the blame for my tenure’s end.
Taline bowed, more deeply this time. She slipped her shoes back on, trying to hide her shaky hands. Poor girl. Her nervousness would fade, once a thousand more visions inured her to strife and doom. She strolled to the scaffolding, her pace slow and fixed with the illusion of calm. I lingered alone on the ramparts as she descended toward the outpost far below. Wood clunked against basalt, telling me of footsteps like a frightened heart, fast and then fading.
A new tower, fluted and askew, leaned against the inside of the wall like a prisoner’s broken crowbar. It failed to scratch the basalt, just as thousands of structures had failed before. The architecture rearranged itself every time mortal eyes turned away, but could never pierce that grey stone barrier. Humankind owed everything to those unknown wall-builders. When they rebelled against their predecessors, their foundation stones defined the beginning of cause and effect, the beginning of what we called time.
We seers risked so much, when we tapped into the reality on the other side. Sap can nourish or kill with the same ease: the richness of maple, or the prison of amber. In the last five years, I had begun to yearn to take another step, to fall into the Nameless City and braid myself into the infinite threads of its possibilities. I could show the world one thread, with my broken body upon the stone, while I lived on in countless others, weaving my own futures as a true mistress of the Nameless City.
I flexed my toes against the stone, cold and real beneath my feet. A true mistress of the City, indeed. After eleven thousand visions, I knew those temptations for what they were: lures and enticements, from dead monsters who hungered for the possibility of existence. Blandishments and sops, like the noble title and comfortable home awaiting me in the Imperial capital.
Fifty-nine days, fifty-nine visions, until all my mastery would go to waste. Taline was ready to take over as High Seer, no less than I had been at her age. Surely she would come to understand the City before its whispers hooked into her soul. But even if the City’s prison endured, what would become of me? I would be honored, served, and fêted; but no one would ever listen to me again. If I could not slow my retirement, I could suck every sweet drop from my remaining days.
Why still ration myself to one vision per day, when I had strength enough for hundreds more? I parted my veil, and rocked forward.
Dawn. A sloop, helmed by a soldier uniformed in Imperial cobalt. Behind him, smoke rises in the shadow of a basalt wall, dimming a summer-bright sky. The guard holds the tiller with an unerring hand, and his eyes are poison and amber, a color that rejects any name.
I stumbled back from the edge. I recognized the soldier, handsome and rough-shaven. The same face that met Taline’s glance every time they thought my attention elsewhere, his face alight with love. No adoration in the future I glimpsed, only the blank resolve of a puppet on a string. I had never seen or foreseen any fate like Vartan’s; I had thought the City could only entice us to jump. Perhaps he had jumped, and in one unlikely timeline, caught himself on the inner edge: unfallen, but within the City’s grasp. I could only guess how he became the City’s puppet, but there was no mistaking the power behind his eyes.
If the Nameless City could touch our world, it could draw us into any future it chose. It would choose its freedom, and it would choose vengeance. The City’s timeless masters would not look kindly on humankind, on we thirsty insects who manned their prison walls.
The vision’s late-summer sun could have been next year, next week, or tomorrow. I leapt down the scaffolding two steps at a time, trusting the iron bolts painstakingly drilled into ancient stone. I halted twenty feet from the bottom to catch my breath and dignity.
The rest gave me a moment to think. Why now, after eleven thousand days? I had never before taken two visions in succession. Could I have provoked it? Impossible. If Vartan was the vessel, the fault must lay at Taline’s feet alone. My only mistake was tolerating her forbidden love. No romance was worth letting the Nameless City reach beyond its ancient cage.
I strode down the outpost’s lone street with the poise befitting a High Seer. Carpenters and sailors pressed knuckles to foreheads as I passed. Most days, I could draw comfort from the stubborn banality of our houses and piers, the two hundred ordinary men and women who kept us alive and safe and linked to the Empire. Today, every body seemed to shiver despite the summer sun, every face turned away from the wall and city they could not comprehend.
The barracks was built from loose basalt, mortared by mere human craft, all its strength a meager echo of the stone face above. I threw open the door. Taline knit her fingers while two ranks of soldiers struggled through surprise and awe. Taline’s head moved behind her veil. “High Seer?”
I set my jaw. The only sure way to forestall my vision would be through Vartan’s execution. Even if I banished him from our outpost today, some slim chance might bring him back on another summer morning to fulfill our doom. I would gain nothing in exchange for that risk. Taline would despise me either way for tearing away the lodestone of her heart.
A lump rose in my throat. A fate all too familiar, but perhaps every Low Seer clutched for love before her ascension. I could not hesitate. What price one life, and the hatred of my apprentice, to protect the Empire and world from the creeping poison of the City’s power?
I said, “Low Seer Taline. Decanus Vartan. Your affection has not escaped my notice.”
Vartan dropped to a knee and pressed his knuckle to his forehead. Taline held out her hand and said, “Don’t you dare try to take responsibility, Vartan.” He clamped his mouth shut, and she turned her veiled face toward me. “High Seer Yeva. I wish we could have had this conversation in private.” She crossed her arms. “I know the words I swore. But I also know what you think of those oaths. Mere tools to enhance our mystery, heighten our respect. Who chose the text of our vows? Your predecessor? Hers?” She flicked a hand. “We can choose our oaths anew. Let the next five High Seers live with a measure of love.”
A soldier gripped the hilt of his sword, but I raised my hand before he could draw. Twenty soldiers waited on my word, nineteen of them ready to obey my commands and defend my dignity. Taline was not High Seer yet.
She, at least, could surely sense the hesitation on my hidden face. Anahit had never explained why our oaths demanded veils and celibacy. No High Seer ever explained her reasons. Could Anahit’s cruelties have come from the same prophetic motive? I had thought her so heartless, but perhaps she too had foreseen some terrible fate, with my gentle Garen in Vartan’s stead.
Could I break Taline’s heart, as Anahit did mine? Yes. Let the past repeat if it must. City and future demanded a sacrifice, and I would call it sweet.
The orders caught in my throat. Let the past repeat, indeed. The masters of the Nameless City had inspired a hatred so fierce, their successors locked them away behind basalt and causality. The trap of amber closed around me: not immobilization, but repetition. If Taline looked behind my veil, would she be able to name the color of my eyes?
The City offered infinite possibilities, every one drenched in ruin and blood. If I would call myself the City’s mistress, I needed a power greater than its own: the freedom to see a future without strife.
I said, “I didn’t come here to punish you, Taline. I came to congratulate you on your betrothal.” Vartan blinked, and his fellows cheered and clapped him on the back, their voices loud with relief. Taline tilted her head, uncertain, and I mirrored her gesture as if she had bowed in gratitude. “If you leave within the hour, you can deliver our letters to the Empress yourself.”
I sat atop the wall, barefoot and unveiled, awaiting the future I had chosen. My student would never return, not once I advised the Empress to keep the newlyweds in the capital for the rest of their lives. She might doubt, but she would never disobey. Perhaps Taline and Vartan would live on the estate set aside for me.
I curled my toes against the basalt’s sharp edge. No mortal could hold back the future forever. I would have to train a new Low Seer, but even the cleverest novice would need a year before she could take my place. Months of training, months of visions. My tongue tingled with anticipation for the lead-sugar sweetness ahead.
About the Author
Benjamin C. Kinney is a neuroscientist by day, speculative fiction writer by night. He has left the business of creating cyborg monkeys, and contents himself with scanning and stimulating mere human brains. He lives in St. Louis with two cats, while waiting for his wife to return from Mars. 2016 marks his first year of professional fiction sales, and his stories have already appeared twice in Strange Horizons, forthcoming in Flash Fiction Online, and now here in Podcastle. He’s a member of the Codex writers’ group, a graduate of the Viable Paradise workshop, and assistant editor for PodCastle’s evil twin, Escape Pod.
About the Narrator
Jen Albert is an editor, writer, and former entomologist. She works full-time as an editor at ECW Press, an independent publishing house based in Toronto, where she enjoys working on books of all kinds, including speculative fiction, popular science, and LGBTQ fiction and non-fiction. She became co-editor of her favorite fantasy fiction podcast in 2016; she now wonders if she still allowed to call it her favorite. Along with her co-editors, Jen has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and the British Fantasy Award for her work on PodCastle.