THE DREAM ... hallucination ... the whatever-it-was felt real. Totally and completely real.
Standing in the overgrown garden of his family's house in the Old Country, beneath a brilliant full moon, Phury reached up to the face of the third-stage statue and pulled the ivy vines free of the eyes and nose and mouth of the male who so proudly bore his own young in his arms.
By now, Phury was an old pro at the cutting, and after he'd worked the shears' magic, he tossed another green tangle to the tarp that lay on the ground at his feet.
"There he is," he whispered. "There... he is..."
The statue had long hair just like him, and deep-set eyes just like him, but the radiant happiness on its face was not his. Nor was the young cradled in his arms. Still, there was liberation to be had as Phury continued to strip off the ivy's messy layers of overgrowth.
When he was finished, the marble underneath was streaked with the green tears of the weeds' demise, but the majesty of the form was undeniable.
A male in his prime with his young in his arms.
Phury looked over his shoulder. "What do you think?"
Cormia's voice was all around him, in stereo, even though she stood right next to him. "I think he is beautiful."
Phury smiled at her, seeing in her face all the love he had for her in his heart. "One more."
She swept her hand around. "But look, the last one's already done."
And so the final statue was; its weeds gone, along with any stains of neglect. The male was old now, seated with a staff in his hands. His face was still handsome, though it was wisdom, not the bloom of youth, that made it so. Standing behind him, tall and strong, was the young he had once cradled in his arms.
The cycle was complete.
And the weeds were no more.
Phury glanced back at the third stage. It too was magically clean, and so were the youth and the infant statues as well.
In fact, the entire garden had been righted and now rested beneath the warm, dulcet night in full, healthy bloom. The fruit trees beside the statues were heavy with pears and apples, and the walkways were bordered with neat boxwood hedges. Inside the beds, the flowers thrived in graceful disorder, as all fine English gardens did.
He turned to the house. The shutters that had hung cockeyed from their hinges were righted, and the holes in the tile roof were no more. The stucco was smooth, its cracks having disappeared, and every glass pane was intact. The terrace was free of leaf debris, and the sinking spots that had gathered rain were level again. Potted arrangements of thriving geraniums and petunias sprinkled white and red among woven wicker chairs and tables.
Through the living room window, he saw something move¡ªcould it be? Yes, it was.
His mother. His father.
The pair came into view, and they were as the statues had become: resurrected. His mother with her yellow eyes and her blond hair and her perfect face... His father with his dark hair and his clear stare and his kind smile.
They were... impossibly beautiful to him, his holy grail.
"Go to them," Cormia said.
Phury walked up onto the terrace, his white robing clean in spite of all the work he had done. He approached his parents slowly, afraid of displacing the vision.
"Mahmen?" he murmured.
His mother put her fingertips to her side of the glass.
Phury reached out and mirrored the exact position of her hand. As his palm hit the pane, he felt the warmth of her radiating through the window.
His father smiled and mouthed something.
"What?" Phury asked.
We are so proud of you... son.
Phury squeezed his eyes shut. It was the first time he'd ever been called that by either of them.
His father's voice continued. You can go now. We're fine here now. You've fixed... everything.
Phury looked at them. "Are you sure?"
Both of them nodded. And then his mother's voice came through the clean glass.
Go and live now, son. Go... live your life, not ours. We are well here.
Phury stopped breathing and just stared at them both, drinking in what they looked like. Then he placed his hand over his heart and bent at the waist.
It was a farewell. Not a good-bye, but a fare... well. And he had the sense they would.
Phury's eyes flipped open. Looming over him was a dense cloud cover... no, wait, that was a lofty ceiling made of white marble.
He turned his head. Cormia was seated beside him and holding his hand, her face as warm as the feeling in his chest.
"Would you like something to drink?" she said.
"Wh. . . at?"
She reached over and lifted a glass off the table. "Would you like a drink?"
"Lift your head up for me."
He took a test sip and found the water all but ephemeral. It tasted like nothing and was the exact temperature of his mouth, but swallowing it felt good, and before he knew it he'd polished off the glass.
"Would you like more?"
"Yes, please." Evidently that was the extent of his vocabulary.
Cormia refilled the glass from a pitcher, and the chiming sound was nice, he thought.
"Here," she murmured. This time she held his head up for him, and as he drank, he stared into her lovely green eyes.
When she went to take the glass from his lips, he clasped her wrist in a gentle hold. In the Old Language he said, "I would wake like this always, bathing in your stare and your scent."
He expected her to pull away. Get flustered. Shut him down. Instead she murmured, "We cleaned up your garden."
There was a knock upon the temple's double doors.
"Wait before you answer that," she said, looking around.
Cormia put the glass down and padded across the marble. After she took cover in some yards of white velvet draping across the way, he cleared his throat.
"Yeah?" he called out.
The Directrix's voice was kind and respectful. "May I enter, your grace?"
He pulled a sheet over himself even though he had his pants on, then double-checked that Cormia wasn't visible.
The Directrix pulled back the vestibule's curtain and bowed low. There was a covered tray in her hands. "I have brought you an offering from the Chosen."
As she straightened, the glow in her face told him that Layla had lied, and lied well.
He didn't trust himself to sit up, so he beckoned her with his hand.
The Directrix approached the bedding platform and knelt before him. As she lifted the gold top, she said, "From your mates."
Lying on the tray, folded as precisely as a map, was an embroidered neck scarf. Made of satin, and inlaid with jewels, it was a spectacular work of art.
"For our male," the Directrix said, bowing her head.
"Thank you." Shit.
He took the scarf and splayed it out in his palms. Citrines and diamonds spelled out in the Old Language Strength of the Race.
As the gems sparkled, he thought they were like the females here in the Sanctuary, held so tightly in their platinum settings.
"You have made us very happy," Amalya said with a tremor in her voice. She got up and bowed again. "Is there anything we may get you to repay this joy of ours?"
"No, thank you. I'm just going to rest."
She bowed once more, and then was gone like a gentle breeze, departing in a silence that was tragically full of anticipation.
Now he sat up, but only with help from his arms. On the vertical, his head was a balloon, light and full of nothing, bobbing on his spine. "Cormia?"
She stepped out from behind the drapery. Her eyes went down to the scarving, then returned to him. "Do you need Doc Jane?"
"No. I'm not sick. It was the DTs."
"So you said. I'm not clear on what that is, though."
"Withdrawal." He rubbed at his arms, thinking it wasn't over yet. His skin was itching and his lungs were burning as if they needed air, even though they had it.
What they wanted, he knew, was red smoke.
"Is there a bathroom through there?" he said.
"Will you wait for me? I won't be long. I'm just going to wash."
It will be longer than her lifetime before you return cleansed, the wizard said.
Phury closed his eyes, abruptly losing the strength to move.
"What is it?"
Tell her your old mate is back.
Tell her your old mate is never leaving.
And then let's get over to the real world and get what will take care of that tight feeling in your lungs and that itching all over your skin.
"What is it?" Cormia asked again.
Phury took a deep breath. He didn't know much at the moment, barely his own name, and certainly not who the president of the United States was. But he was sure about one thing: If he listened to the wizard anymore, he was going to be dead.
Phury focused on the female before him. "It's nothing."
That didn't go down well in wasteland. The wizard's robes blew up as a wind came barreling in over the field of bones.
You lie to her! I am everything! I am everything! The wizard 's voice was high-pitched and getting higher. I am¡ª
"Nothing," Phury said weakly, hefting himself to his feet. "You are nothing."
As he shook his head, Cormia reached out to him, and he steadied himself with her help. Together, they walked into the bath, which was kitted out like any other save for the fact that there wasn't a logo on the toilet. Well, that and there was a stream running right through the back of the room¡ªwhich he presumed served as the bath.
"I'll be right outside," Cormia said, leaving him to it.
After using the loo, he waded into the stream with the help of a set of marble stairs. The water rushing by was as it had been in the glass, a current precisely the temperature of his skin. Over in a dish in the corner, there was a bar of what he assumed was soap, and he picked it up. It was soft, shaped in the form of a crescent; he cradled the bar in his palms and submersed his hands in the water. The suds that formed were tight and small, a froth that smelled of evergreens. He used it on his hair and his face and his body, breathing in so the scent went down into his lungs¡ª and hopefully could cleanse them of the centuries of self-medication he'd been sucking in deep.
When he was done, he just let the water run past his itching skin and his aching muscles. Closing his eyes, he shut the wizard off as best he could, but it was tough because the guy was throwing a tantrum of nuclear proportions. In his old life, he would have put opera on, but now he couldn't¡ªand not just because Bose didn't exist on this side. That particular kind of music reminded him too much of his twin... who wasn't singing anymore.
Still, the sound of the stream was lovely, its soft, musical chiming echoing up from the smooth stones as if the noise were skipping from one to another.
Not wanting to keep Cormia waiting, he planted his soles on the riverbed and lifted his upper body out of the rush. The water sluiced off his chest and down his stomach, like soothing hands, and, lifting his arms up, he felt it drop from his fingers and his elbows.
Running down... pouring down... easing down...
The wizard's voice tried to rise up and take over. Phury heard it in his head, fighting for airtime, fighting to find purchase in his inner ear.
But the chiming of water was louder.
Phury drew in a great breath, smelling the evergreen and feeling a freedom that had nothing to do with where his body was, and everything to do with where his head was at.
For the first time, the wizard was not bigger than he was.
Cormia paced around the Primale temple. Not ill. In withdrawal.
She stopped at the foot of the bedding platform.
She remembered being strapped down and hearing a male enter and being utterly terrified. Unable to see, unable to move, and not permitted to say no, she'd lain there at the mercy of tradition.
Each virgin female, after she went through her transition, was presented to the Primale like that.
Surely others must have felt the fear she had. And more would, in the future.
God... this place was dirty, she thought, looking around at the white walls. Dirty with lies both spoken and left to lie intrinsic in the hearts of the females who breathed the still air.
There was an old saying among the Chosen, the sort of ancient stanza that one never knew when one had first heard it. Rightful is the cause of our faith, serene be our countenance of duty, nothing shall harm we the believers, for purity is our strength and our virtue, the parent to guide our child.
There was a wild roar from the bath.
Cormia wheeled around and raced into the other room.
She found him naked in the stream, rearing back, his fists clenched, his chest craning upward, his spine straining. Except he wasn't screaming. He was laughing.
His head came around, and when he saw her he dropped his arms, but didn't stop his laughter. "Sorry..." As more of the wild joy bubbled up out of him, he tried to keep it in, but he couldn't. "You must think I'm crazy."
"No..." She thought he was beautiful, his golden skin slick from the water, his hair falling in thick ringlets down his back. "What's funny?"
"Pass me a towel?"
She handed him a bolt of cloth, and didn't look away as he emerged from the stream.
"You ever hear of The Wizard of Oz?" he said.
"Is it a story?"
"Guess not." He secured the wrap by tucking it into itself. "Maybe someday I'll show you the movie. But that's what I was laughing at. I got it wrong. It wasn't an all-powerful Ring-wraith in my head. It was the Wizard from Oz, nothing but a frail old man. I only thought he was terrifying and stronger than I am."
He tapped his temple. "Voice in my head. Bad one. The one I smoked to get away from. I thought he was this huge, overwhelming Ring-wraith. He wasn't. He isn't."
It was impossible not to join in Phury's happiness, and as she smiled at him, a sudden warmth suffused her from heart to soul.
"Yeah, it was a big, loud voice that is nothing special." His palm went to his upper arm, and he rubbed at his skin as if it had a rash¡ªexcept there was nothing that she could see marring its smooth perfection. "Big... loud..."
Phury's stare abruptly changed as he looked at her. And she knew the cause. Heat flared in his eyes as his sex thickened at his hips.
"Sorry," he said, reaching down for another long cloth and holding it in front of himself.
"Did you lay with her?" Cormia blurted.
"Layla? No. I got as far as the vestibule when I decided I couldn't go through with it." He shook his head. "It's just not going to happen. I can't be with anyone but you. The question is what to do now¡ªand for better or worse I think I know the answer. I believe that all this"¡ªhe motioned his hand around, as if encompassing everything in and about the Sanctuary¡ª"this can't go on any longer. This system, this way of life, it's not working. You're right, it's not just about us, it's about everyone. It's not working for anyone."
As his words sank in, she thought of the place in the race she had been born into. Thought of the white rolling lawns and the white buildings and the white robes.
Phury shook his head. "There used to be two hundred Chosen, right? Back when there were thirty or forty Brothers, right?" When she nodded, he stared down into the rushing water of the stream. "And now how many are left? You know, it's not just the Lessening Society that's killing us. It's these damn rules we live under. I mean, come on. The Chosen aren't protected here, they're imprisoned. And they're mistreated. If you hadn't been attracted to me, it wouldn't have mattered. You still would have had to have sex with me, and that's cruel. You and the sisters are trapped here, serving a tradition I wonder how many of you actually believe in. Life as a Chosen... it's not about choice. None of you have any. Take your own case¡ªyou don't want to be here. You came back because you had no options, didn't you?"
Three words came out of her mouth, three impossible words that changed everything: "Yes, I did."
Cormia lifted up her robing and let it fall back into place, thinking of that scroll that was on the floor back at the Temple of the Sequestered Scribes, the one with her sketches of buildings on it, the one she had nowhere to go with.
Now she was the one shaking her head. "I never knew how much I didn't know about myself until I went over to the far side. And I have to believe the others are the same. They must be... it can't just be me who has talents undiscovered or interests unrevealed." She paced around the bath. "And I don't think any one of us doesn't feel like a failure¡ªif only because the pressures are so great that everything elevates to a level of supreme and total importance. One small error, either in a word written incorrectly or a note off-pitch in a chant or a stitch done wrong in a bolt of cloth, and you feel like the whole of the race is disappointed in you."
Suddenly, she couldn't stop the words falling from her lips. "You are so right. This is not working. The purpose of us is to serve the Scribe Virgin, but there's got to be a way of doing that while honoring ourselves." Cormia looked across at Phury. "If we are her Chosen children, doesn't that mean that she wants the best for us? Isn't that what parents want for their young? How is this..." She looked around at the all-pervasive, stifling white of the bath. "How is this the best? For most of us, it's more like a deep freeze than a life. We're in suspended animation even though we move. How... is this best for us?"
Phury's brows went down. "It's not. It's fucking not."
He wadded up the long cloth in his hands and slammed it to the marble floor. Then he grabbed the Primale medallion and tore it off his neck.
He was going to step down, she thought, both elated and disappointed for the future. He was going to step down¡ª
Phury lifted up the heavy weight of gold, the medallion swinging on its length of leather, and she lost her breath completely. The expression on his face was one of purpose and power, not of irresponsibility. The light in his eyes was about ownership and leadership, not ducking or shirking. Standing before her, he was the whole landscape of the Sanctuary, all the buildings and the land and the air and the water: He was not of this world, but the world here itself.
After a lifetime of watching history unfold in a bowl of water, Cormia realized as she measured the medallion being held aloft that for the first time she was seeing history made right in front of her, in live time.
Nothing was ever going to be the same after this.
With that emblem of his exalted station waving back and forth under his fisted grip, Phury proclaimed in a hard, deep voice, "I am the strength of the race. I am the Primale. And so shall I rule!"