I've just finished making minor textual corrections to my Fantasy story, "The Inevitable Corpse Season". If you haven't gotten around to reading it yet, here's your golden opportunity to experience this Literary Masterpiece of Sword and Sorcery fiction. Set in a Fantasy equivalent to an African kingdom, it features lots of Astronomy and Swordplay. And it has a very likeable protagonist, Syndeeka of the Ushe. https://www.booksie.com/664462-the-inevitable-corpse-season
Here's the first part of the story if you'd just like to get a taste before you jump in. It's actually a 47 page novella. Trust me-- it gets a LOT more violent as it progresses.
From the memoirs of Syndeeka, warrior-astronomer. For a young prostitute living in a tropical city-state, the prospect of becoming the court astronomer's new apprentice seems like a blessing, but an ancient prophecy threatens to destroy everyone and everything she's ever known. The first in a series of Sword and Sorcery Fantasy stories about the adventures of Syndeeka of the Ushe.
Mother Spider drops from the sky.
She rides a shaft of silk.
She scoops up mud from the waters.
She molds a disc of earth.
Mother Spider climbs the shaft of the sky.
Her children are all the Amu.
Her children are men with beasts’ heads.
Mother Spider pulls the waters of the world.
Her children seed all the earth.
Her children climb the shaft of the sky.
Mother Spider walks the strands of her web.
Men look up to her at night.
Men fear she will turn her head.
--From “Songs of the Ushe”
I’d been sharing the palm wine with the other girls when Madam Oyoku pushed through the zebra skin curtains, an old man in her wake. She raised her arms up and spread her fingers, a smile pulling across the cracked clay mask of her face. “Young ladies,” she said, “this is the royal court astronomer, Keeshofa.” The old man (short, balding, with skin like bronzed leather) smiled humbly. “He has requested of Lord Betahz an assistant to aid in his endeavor of creating a calendar for the kingdom.”
Few of us seemed impressed. I resumed sipping palm wine from a calabash shell.
She brought her arms down. "He humbly requests one from the streets to be his apprentice. (Does he think one of us would know of a boy with a sharp mind, some runaway or purse-snatch perhaps? I thought). “Someone who knows how to follow orders and pay close attention for the littlest details. One of you fine young women shall become his student!”
I instantly gulped down the wine I’d been savoring in my mouth, and it burned my throat.
The old man Keeshofa stepped forward with the grace of youth. He wore the blue and white robes of the scholar class, and a beaten brass sash, inlaid with hieroglyphs, snaked from his hip to his shoulder. “It is my firm belief that those who are born of the streets have a greater sense for details than those tutored from infancy. To survive, one must be aware, and the field of astronomy was born of such necessities. For when men first started planting seeds in the soil, it was of prime importance that…”
My mind started wandering. I didn’t wish to find his words boring, but they were. Old men always have a bad habit of saying too little with too many words. All the older men who’d ever been with me seemed that way. They would lecture me as if I were a daughter, and the thought that a daughter and a sexual plaything could be the same in their eyes always filled me with fear. Since my mother had shared my profession, I sometimes wondered if one of those older men might be my father. It is best not to consider such things. Let them mount you and use you, or suck them off so they pay you the stated price--
I took another sip of my palm wine.
“You,” repeated the astronomer, weaving through the other girls and touching my shoulder.
I looked at him. Wide, blood-shot eyes regarded me from a wizened face. “Me?”
“Yes, young lady. You don’t seem to hail from these parts.”
I regarded my soot-black fingers holding the calabash shell. “My father…he may have been a traveling merchant from lands to the east, where the zebra pelts come from. Those are supposed to be the blackest of the Black Nations.”
“So it would appear. Do you ever look up at the stars at night?”
“Most nights, I only look up at the thatch of the ceiling. I don’t see too much of the stars.”
“Have you noticed that your bleeding cycles correspond with the phases of the moon?”
I took a sip of my wine. “No…Why do you ask me these questions? I could never be a watcher of the sky like you. I’m just a whore.”
He patted me on the shoulder. “Nonsense! You have great potential as a student of the heavens. I have a feeling.”
“You only see that I stand out with my darker skin.”
“If it can give you a better life than this, will you trust my judgment?”
“How is it you judge me as you do?”
“Because your differences make you less of people’s society.”
“It’s silly in a way. The white sailors and the rulers think we all look the same, but everyone else notices me.”
“That gives you an outsider’s perspective.”
“We are all outsiders here.”
“But you more than the others. That must make you more observant. You can see subtle differences with how others regard you.”
“You probably notice things they don’t.”
I downed the remaining palm wine in my shell. “Yes…I do notice things they don’t!”
He clapped his hands together and laughed heartily. Looking to Madame Oyoku, he grinned and nodded.
She returned his gesture and crossed the room. She placed a red-veiled arm around my shoulder and put her lips to my ear. “Congratulations, Syndeeka. You have a future.”
I had few possessions so packing didn’t take me long. Master Keeshofa led me to a rickshaw on the street outside the brothel. It was inlaid with iron and silver and its top was rimmed with elephant ivory. A tall, muscular runner with arms tattooed in the ritual style of the southern bush tribes stood at the handled poles before the vehicle. We sat in the seat behind him as he ran in a rapid trot through the streets of Aki Gbijume. As our journey progressed, I noticed that the potholes in the streets thinned out and that the people milling about looked more elegantly dressed. Their robes were more colorful, and some even wore the leggings of the eastern merchants (“trousers,” they were called). Soon we reached a part of the city where the houses were not made of mud but finer materials. We began ascending a hill, and it was then that I noticed ahead and above us a great structure many times the size of these houses. It had a great outer wall made of clay bricks and a double-doored gate of some dark brown wood I had never seen before. Upon our approach the doors, seemingly of their own mind, fell back and opened inward, and we passed through the space made in the wall.
Here was a miniature city in itself, with many buildings, some small and some large, placed in an orderly fashion. Many had elevated wooden causeways connecting each other, and young men and women scurried across these while pulling rickshaws carrying finely dressed people. All these buildings were dwarfed by a massive structure at the center of the complex. The building was about three stories high and had an arched wooden ceiling. Guarding the steps leading to its massive doors were two brass leopards. At either door stood a sentry with a spear. I knew upon seeing this structure that it must be the Great Hall of Kings, the center of the Warlord’s palace.
We passed it and then disembarked from the rickshaw in front of a smaller but still impressive building. Keeshofa pushed the doors in and we entered a large hall with red hexagons tiling the floor and two rows of iroko-wood columns running its length. At the end of the hall was an onyx table with a small, thin man sitting behind in a high-backed chair made of ebony. He was writing on a parchment sheet with a parrot quill as we approached. Seeing us, he set the quill onto a block of wood between the parchment and his ink bowl, gave me a quizzical stare, and said:
“This is the girl you want for an assistant?”
Keeshofa patted me on the shoulder. “Yes. This bright young girl shall be my apprentice.”
“Bright? She’s as black as night. We’re do you hail from, girl?”
“I am from this city, sir.” I found my fingers fidgeting with one of my cornbraids and immediately stopped.
“Are you a half-breed?”
I swallowed at the question. Why did people always call me that? Weren’t we all the same race? I could see that the barbarians who ruled our kingdom were of some other race, with their sallow complexions and far more slanted eyes, but why did people always question my race? “I am the daughter of an eastern merchant, sir.”
“What country is he from?”
“I don’t know, sir. I’ve never met him.”
“You are a bastard?”
Another name people used against me. “My mother had been with many eastern merchants when she was alive.”
“Your mother was a whore too?”
I swallowed again. “She was an outcast from her father’s house and had no other skills. She had to eat.”
The thin, small man sighed heavily. “Second generation whore. I don’t know if I like that. You probably would have had diseases regardless, but you may also have been born with a few to start. You don’t have any problems with your eyesight, do you?”
“Why would I? I am not a crone.”
“Well, that is good. One couldn’t perform the astronomical arts with sickened eyes. Keeshofa, are you sure you want a whore under your wing? Some of them are quite violent, you know.” He pulled up his purple sleeve and revealed a jagged pink line of puckered flesh.
Keeshofa smiled, apparently holding back a chuckle. “She is not a whore. She once was a prostitute, but then our great lord was once a nomadic barbarian from the far realms. Do you object to his past life?”
“I make it a policy not to object to those who give us employment, particularly when they have a penchant for running swords across the throats of people who displease them.” The small man looked around suddenly. “But you think she can be trusted. Her madam had no complaints about this young…uh, person stealing from her?”
“No. I received no complaints from her. She said this was one of her finest employees.”
“Girl, I assume you do not have much education. Am I correct?”
“I can read, sir,” I said with a faint smile. “I can also do some math. Madam Oyoku taught me how to figure the brothel’s finances.”
“And she taught you how to read?”
“No. That was a regular customer. He was a tutor. He insisted I learn hieroglyphs. There was a game he would play with me that required I know how to write them on a dirt floor--”
“Yes, yes! I’m familiar with the game. My only concern is that you are lettered. The calendar must be completed in a little over a year, so it is more convenient for Keeshofa if he has that much less to teach you.”
When the sun had sunk beneath the horizon and the servants had lit the oil lamps throughout the buildings of the palace, Keeshofa took me up a spiral staircase that wound its way inside the Astronomer’s Tower. The roof of the tower was expansive and round like the moon that hovered in the starry night sky. Great brick columns, placed periodically along the rim of the roof, cut dark silhouettes against the jeweled backdrop of the inky heavens.
In the roof’s center was a round pedestal of hardened clay with an iron shaft jutting up from its base. Affixed to the shaft’s top was a flat brass ring, twice as wide as a man’s torso, with numbered markings all across its circumference. Running through the ring’s middle was a vertical bar of brass.
Keeshofa extended his arms and slowly spun around, his eyes taking in the constellations above us. “This, my dear student, is the observatory,” he said, smiling. “Here is where astronomers such as myself have followed the motions of the sun, the moon, the stars, and the planets for generations. Here is where we come face the order of the gods. Not the false gods you were taught to worship, but the true intelligence behind cosmic creation.”
I didn’t know if I should tell him that I had little real schooling in the gods and their ways. Mine was a life of the streets when I was a child, and I didn’t see as those gods I’d heard mentioned in blasphemous epitaphs and old sayings would really care to answer the prayers of a starving, dirty, unhappy little girl. Yet Keeshofa didn’t speak of those beings.“Who are these gods you talk of, Master?”
Keeshofa let his outstretched arms slowly settle to his sides. "There is something many of my brethren know that most other people, including the priests of the various world religions, don't. You see, those of my profession have been carefuly watching the sky since before the first foundation brick was laid in this kingdom.We've learned a great many things about the machinery of the universe. It has a precision that the priests misconstrue. They see it as the plan of any number of pantheons of gods, gods inclined to petty warfare and acts of all-too-human jealousy. We astronmers know that this order is something that had been set in motion long before the first man or woman gazed skyward. All the religions have tried to explain the motions of the planets and the phases of the moon with stories of their gods in perpetual conflict. But we know better." He returned his stare to the all-expansive ceiling of night. "We see no conflict, but harmony." He looked at me again. "And I will show you how to see this harmony yourself and to use your knowledge of it to understand the tales of the gods for what they really are."
“What is there to know of this harmony?”
“Look up at that constellation to your right.” He pointed to a pattern of stars. “What do you see?”
I looked carefully. It was something, but it was not distinct to me. Like jewels outlining a thing draped in darkness. “I don’t know, Master.”
He laughed good-naturedly and said, “Do you know none of the constellations of the night sky?”
“No. Should I?”
“You shall know soon enough. That constellation is the Cane Rat. It marks in some men fear for those born under its sign. But this is just the superstition of the old astrologers from the time before my kind separated the myths from the truth.” He walked to the device and pointed to a marking on the ring. “If you set your gaze next to one of these coordinates, you will see that the Rat slowly scurries its way across the sky. In fact, you can follow its path around all the markings on this disc as it makes a complete circuit about the heavens-- it and all the other constellations. And unlike the more brightly lit planets, the stars forming the constellations move together as if they were affixed to the firmament. And”-- he pointed to a star immediately over the iron shaft-- “if you look there you can see the great pole upon which the whole sky spins, the way a canopy spins on the shaft of a parasol resting on someone’s shoulder. We call that the polestar. It is the shaft that holds up the heavens.”
“I see no shaft.”
“It isn’t really a shaft; just a myth that helps us to ground our thinking about the stars over our heads. We imagine that this shaft tilts with the changing seasons, causing some constellations to rise above the horizon while others sink below it out of sight. What remains is the star from which the pillar of the universe depends.”
“I see,” I said, bewildered.
“And we can know when the constellations will shift above or below the horizon by counting the months.”
“Well, of course. One knows when anything will happen by knowing what month it is.”
“Yes, but do you know how to tell when one month ends and another begins?”
“By counting the days of the week.”
Keeshofa laughed. “By paying attention to the phases of the moon! I’ve asked you this before, and I’ll ask again: haven’t you noticed that your monthly bleeding corresponds to the phases of the moon?”
“I’m afraid I’ve seldom seen the moon many nights in a row. Not since Madam Oyoku took me in. I’d only just begun to bleed back then.”
Keeshofa approached me and gently touched my cheek with gnarled fingers. “Oh, my child. You have been deprived of so much. Sweet child.”
Sweet child. A sailor once burned my arm with a flint, but soon learned his mistake when I slashed his face with a knife-- I’d felt guilty for weeks afterwards.
Keeshofa pointed to the moon. “I will teach you how to follow the phases of the moon to tell the beginning and end of any month. And I will teach you about the longest day of the year (the summer solstice) and the shortest day (the winter solstice), and I will teach you how to tell the coming of the rainy season by the positions of certain constellations in the zodiac. Yes, there is much for me to teach you and much for you to learn. You shall become a great astronomer. Never again will good men call you a whore.”
“And the bad men?”
“If they will not see reason, they cannot be helped.”
It was the morning of the second day at the palace that we met the Great Warlord. Keeshofa woke me up when the sun was just rising over the horizon. I shifted tiredly in the cot he had given me and tried to pull the blanket over my head, but he tugged it out of my fingers.
“Wake up already!” he said.
“It’s much to early to get up.” With my old job, I usually didn’t get out of bed till well into the day.
“It’s never too early for an astronomer. What if you should wish to measure the morning star?”
“I don’t think I would ever want to do that.” I yawned and closed my eyes. At first I thought I was drifting back to sleep for the cot seemed to be sinking beneath my weight. Then my face hit clay floor tiles. I jumped up surprised and looked around. Keeshofa held one end of the cot, which was now at an angle.
“You need to do your exercises before you meet his Lordship.”
Exercises? His Lordship?
“I will meet the Warlord?” I pulled myself off of the floor and carefully stood.
“Yes. He is very interested in what we astronomers do; this is why he was so enthusiastic when I suggested making a more updated calendar. If there’s one thing a barbarian relies on, it’s timing.”
Keeshofa forced me to jump up and down, repeatedly push my body off the floor with only my arms, and do many other grueling, painful things that even my most twisted customers would never have demanded of me. We ate roasted yams and kola nuts and drank fresh milk, and then Keeshofa went to a trunk in the corner of his chamber and took out a robe like his own. “Here, this is your uniform. It designates your noble profession.” I held the garment in my hands and regarded it. “You’ll want to try it on soon. It may not fit now, but I can get the court tailors to adjust it to your dimensions within a day.”
The hem made me an amputee from the ankles down, but Keeshofa loaned me several pins to hold the folded cloth in place after I’d rolled it up. Then we headed for the Great Hall of Kings.
At its far end was an alcove with a dais. Upon the dais sat a throne of iron, brass, and ivory, and upon the throne sat an old man with a strong, solid frame. His hair was long and white and flowed around an oval face set with wrinkles and scars. Draping his muscular shoulders was the hide of what I suspected could only have been an orange zebra. He wore little else but a leather kilt and sandals.
A tall, very thin attendant in a shiny red rob led us to the Great Warlord. We all knelt before the old man and the attendant introduced us. “Most gracious Lord Betahz, as you suggested, here is the royal astronomer and his new apprentice.”
“Very good, then,” said the old man, waving the attendant away. “You may leave us.”
The attendant stood, bowed formally, and left the hall.
“So,” said Lord Betahz, “this is your student, then, Keeshofa.”
“Why a girl? Are you that lonely, you old scoundrel?” Lord Betahz cracked his knee with his hand and laughed.
“No, Milord. It is nothing like that.”
Lord Betahz groaned. “Oh, she isn’t another one of your charity causes, is she? Why else would you request some youth from the streets?”
“But I can see greatness in her, Milord. Are my perceptions ever wrong?”
“Occasionally, although never in matters of your science.” He stared at me with bright jade eyes. “Girl, what do you know of the heavens?”
I trembled before the Great Warlord. I’d heard many stories about how he’d lost his temper and smashed in the skulls of impudent courtiers. Even his age did nothing to lessen my fear of him.
I cleared my throat. “I know my bleeding corresponds to the phases of the moon.”
Lord Betahz burst into hearty laughter. He went on for quite a spell and tears began rolling down his scared cheeks. “Oh…oh, but you are precious! Keeshofa, I’ll grant you that she at least knows one useful thing.” He sat forward and put his hand out to me. “Good to have you, girl!”
I took his hand. My elation was undercut by a sudden realization: his index finger did not extend beyond the knuckle.