The Scholast in the Low Waters Kingdom

By Max Gladstone

A stranger claiming knowledge of realms beyond the known world attempts to stop a war.

Stories about the Scholast proliferate among the uneducated. They say she was a god, or not. She seduced the Princess Martial, or was saved by her. She has been credited with miracles. But history owes its pride of place to the truth of its tales, and since many of the war’s principles will soon pass beyond reference, your humble scholars have prepared this meticulously sourced account to endure for future generations.

The Scholast fell to earth one brilliant everspring morning, at the height of our Ceremony of Passing Through.

We of the Low Waters Kingdom gathered in Crimson Square for three days while players acted out the titans’ rise and fall, and the splitting of the sky. We wept when Sujiang, called eight-jointed, danced the Gatherer’s part. We beat dry ground with our palms until dust clouds rose to make the dancers seem gods that trod on air. We ate dates and grape leaves stuffed with pine nuts and rice. Children turned somersaults around the patterned circle of colored sand. And on the third day, as girls and boys of oracular gift or technic family stepped naked and silver-inked through the green metal arch at the center of the Square—in truth, there is some confusion about what happened next.

Angelic choirs sang, some say. Others, that a goddess belched. The chosen youths beneath the arch, who would know best, insist there was no sound. Light changed, claims Bel Mei, the girl who led them. The world reddened, then blued, and for a heartbeat down was no longer down.

Then the Scholast came.

On this, the reports converge: seven sun-baked children strode through the arch, and, in a space brief as the blindness doctors say seizes a fast-moving eye, an eighth figure stood among them.

She was not a child. Those who knew her best doubt she ever was. Her appearance, in those first breaths after she stepped onto our sand, is another subject on which we must record disagreement. We list the most outlandish claims first, if only to show the nonsense against which we contend in assembling this chronicle: that she possessed more than the common number of limbs, that a third eye burned in the center of her forehead, that horns sprouted from her skull or wings from her back. Most foolish of all, some claim she sported sex organs of unfamiliar type—most foolish, for the Scholast was clothed when she arrived.

Bel Mei stood closest, so her report may be believed: “She was black, at first—not like my skin, but deeper, like the sky on a Spikeless night, or a prayer mirror when no god is watching. Her face was cloudy. She wore a rough canvas robe, and leaned on a staff. I held out my hand to her. When she looked at me, I saw she was alone—but I saw more, too, so much more that my head hurt. I trembled and could not move. She took my wrist, and I was afraid. But her hand was a human hand, and then her skin was the color of skin, and the cloud passed from her face. All the more I saw faded away, and she became herself.”

So she was: a tall woman with a sharp chin and a broad nose, arms muscled and marked with pale scars, her hair shorn close to her scalp. She did not look like us, but the ways she did not are too slight to list. Slight, indeed, as her smile at the sight of our Square, our sky, the shocked crowds around her, and the pikemen striding forth with lowered spears as all the children but Bel Mei scuttled back.

The Scholast released Bel Mei’s hand, and raised her own—both of them. Spear-tips pressed into the fabric of her robe. The first time she spoke we did not understand her. The second, we did. “You are all in danger,” she said. “I have come to help.” And her smile widened. “Take me to your leader.”

“You may call me Jane,” the Scholast told the King and the Princess Martial and the General of the Land. “Members of my order travel in search of knowledge. An army marches toward the Low Waters Kingdom now. I came by secret ways to warn you.”

She stood surrounded by a ring of spears in court, on the path between the Ministers of Left and Right, before the diviners’ well and the high seats. She ignored spears and ministers and well, though any of them would have been more receptive than the General, who gripped his beard in thought. He had been awake late, or else early, drinking with Merchant Bergam, and had been summoned to this council in spite of his strict orders not to be roused before sunset. “Our scouts have sent no word of armies on the march. Our neighbors are busy with their own skirmishes.”

“These invaders,” the Scholast said, “are strangers from a distant land. They have found new paths, which let them cross a great distance in little time.”

The General scoffed, but the notion intrigued our Princess Martial. “Why travel so far to make war? They could not supply their troops over such distance.”

“They can. These new paths are like the road I followed to your city: subtle and swift. The paths may not remain open long, so rather than establishing trade, the invaders will seize what they can from your lands, and retreat to theirs.” She knelt, and the ring of spear points followed her down. “All praise the Low Waters Kingdom for its justice, strength, and scholarship. I offer you my service. I am an expert in defensive warfare. I know this foe, and his weapons.”

“Many come to court spinning stories,” the Princess said. “If you had not arrived in such a dramatic fashion, you would have been given a madwoman’s meal already, and sent away. Why should we believe you?”

“It is said your diviners can answer any question. Let them descend into the well and ask.”

“Why should we trouble the gods to verify your claims?”

“What have you lost, if you ask them and find my claims false?”

Jane and the Princess regarded one another for many beats of the ko drum that keeps the rhythm of the high hall. Some call the length of their regard indecent, though all save Bel Mei who knew the Scholast claim she lacked technic marks of any sort; stare at her as long as you liked, and you saw no halo, no glyphs of interest or availability or badges of affiliation, nothing but raiment and flesh. As such, there could have been no failing in modesty on the Princess’s part. What Jane saw when she examined the Princess Martial, no one knows.

“Let me prove myself,” Jane said. “If your spear men will retreat two steps?”

The General grumbled, but the Princess raised her hand, and they did retreat.

“Does your court host merchants who have come to celebrate the festival?” We do, of course. “Where do they stand?” They were indicated. “The army in question sends out spies and advance scouts, like crows before a storm.” She pointed. “Search that man.”

Merchant Bergam turned left and right, shocked at the space his fellow tradesmen suddenly allowed him.

“Bergam is a bonded merchant of the northern straits,” the General said. “He is no spy.”

“Prod his limbs, and you will feel protrusions of metal from his bones. He will have weapons and tools about his person, made of resin and a substance that looks like glass. His clothes contain rigid wires, connected to a generator box at his belt.”

If Bergam spoke, his words are not recorded.

“Ravings,” the General said.

“But easily tested,” said the Princess, and motioned for soldiers to search the man.

The merchants closest to Bergam say he shook, and sweated, and kept his hands raised, until the soldiers were about to seize him. Then, “as if by magic” (their words), he grew still and cold, and moved quickly. There was a weapon in, or around, his hand, formed of glimmering outlines in space, and he pointed first toward the Princess Martial—then toward Jane.

That hesitation may have saved the Princess. At any rate before the hand completed its arc, Jane raised her staff and threw it like a javelin. It struck Bergam’s hand, and the airy weapon tumbled from his grip. Jane reached him before he fell. The soldiers guarding her say she moved through them like a ghost. Perhaps they are being metaphorical. Perhaps not.

She reached Bergam as he drew another weapon. She struck his wrist, and then rammed her forehead into his nose. Soldiers seized him then, and rushed him against the wall.

Bergam’s eyes caught fire. Jane ordered the soldiers to let him go, and fall back. Most did. One unfortunate moved too slowly and was caught at the edge of the ensuing blast. Blood covered the soldier, and flying pieces of metal which had been hidden within Bergam’s flesh pierced his body. Ever since, that soldier has complained of a high ringing in his left ear.

“You see,” the Princess Martial said. “There was no need to trouble the gods after all.”

“I did not wish to press the issue so early,” Jane said. She breathed hard, and her skin radiated heat like a stone courtyard after a long day’s sun. “We could have used him. Fed him wrong information. Cornered like that, he might have killed us both.”

“But he did not. Now, tell us what else you know.”

The Scholast knew many things, and used her knowledge in strange ways.

The enemy would arrive, she claimed, in eight days. She asked smiths for every scrap and sliver of metal they could sweep from the corners of their workshops, the smaller and sharper the better. The smiths grumbled and complained as they complied—if not for her they would have melted these scraps down and recast them as is our custom, save for the deepmetal, which they might have set in jewelry. But they gave over the scraps, which were stored as ammunition for the siege engines carpenters built under the Scholast’s direction, to measurements based on markings upon her staff.

She argued that those who lived within the outer walls should be relocated into the keep, so the wide open spaces might be rebuilt into a killing field once the walls were breached. Diviners protested: allowing so many commoners near the well would pollute their omens. Jane asked if this was the gods’ opinion, or theirs, but the diviners refused to answer. The Princess Martial ordered our people to move. Jane suggested the creation of a murder channel, by erecting new walls around a weak side gate, and the Princess found the notion to her taste.

But the same diviners at which the Scholast scoffed, she later cornered to interview about number theory and the Heavenly Tongue. She returned to them day after day, armed with new questions based on the precise wording they had used the night before.

She scorned art. When the court gathered at night to hear sacred musicians play qin and bass guitar, she retreated to the tower room the Princess Martial had assigned her, and (servants testify) remained bent over maps and geometric diagrams until stars and Spike set, and dawn threatened. On the seventh night, the Princess Martial found Jane in the tower, took her arm, and guided her down to Court, to watch Sujiang dance.

“Straining your eyes and mind is no way to spend the eve of an invasion,” the Princess said. “Take joy while joy lasts, for we do not know the limits of our time.”

“Time,” Jane replied, “any time, is best spent reclaiming what’s been lost, developing universal love, and constructing new knowledge. Art is particular, and, though interesting, is not to be preferred above universal principles.”

“Just watch her.”

The Scholast did, and she was watched in turn, by the Princess Martial and by others who knew Jane’s habits and opinions well enough by this point to be shocked by her attendance at an artistic event. Jane offered no applause, but sat riveted at attention from the moment Sujiang dawned upon the stage, until her final disappearance behind the curtain.

The next night, the army came.

The Princess Martial joined Jane on the outer wall, and leaned over the parapet. The bands of her armor scraped against stone. The Princess’s guard reports the following conversation.

“They do not look like any army I have ever fought,” the Princess Martial said, “or seen, or heard tell of outside legend.”

“Yes.”

“The white star on the black field, is that their standard? Strange to make war under a symbol of peace.”

“How so?”

“On Spikeless nights the sky goes black, and since there is little light, there can be no war.”

“In their homeland, there is no Spike such as you have here. Stars always look like that.”

“The Spike burns over every city in the world.” The Scholast did not answer. “This army comes from a long way off, then,” our Princess said.

“A very long way.”

“And so do you.”

Beneath, by torchlight, ground crews serviced slick machines that looked like crouching insects. Cavalrymen sharpened lances against the scales of fanged mounts.

“You cannot hide the truth,” the Princess Martial said. “Everyone in this world proclaims herself to the eye with technic marks—one glance at a woman reveals her name and the sort of companionship that interests her, and perhaps her mood, if she is quite unguarded. I look at you and see nothing. So I must guess.”

“In many places, such marks are private, shown only to those we trust.”

“Do you trust me?”

The Scholast was seldom the first to break eye contact. “Old paths, from the titan days, are open again. No one knows why, or how long they will remain. We have a brief window to recover all we’ve lost in the ages they’ve been closed. Some would use this opportunity to seize wealth, make slaves, and gather ancient weapons.” Scorn dripped from her voice.

“War is but one path of many down which a kingdom may seek advantage.”

“War,” the Scholast said, “is a crime, born of partiality.”

“Which we call loyalty.”

“Call it what you like. It is a disease which makes you forget—or convince yourself—that other human beings are less deserving of love than the ones you know.”

The soldier who reports this conversation claims the Princess Martial seemed amused by this statement. “But you are a warrior.“

“No.”

“You help us make war.”

“You make war,” Jane said. “They make war. I make war difficult.”

Read more https://www.tor.com/2017/03/29/the-scholast-in-the-low-waters-kingdom/

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