No? Are you still sulking?
Fine. Be sullen. It makes very little odds to me. I get my food either way.
Speaking of which. See how I light this? See how I put the right wood on it? How delicious is that smoke? I could turn my back and throw the embers over my shoulder at you and some people might say you deserve it, but I don’t, do I?
You can see the day. I can feel your golden stare.
You don’t intimidate me, looking at me like that. Keep looking over my shoulder too, through the windows. Don’t you think our hills are beautiful?
I know they aren’t your hills. But look how the sunlight hits the orchard. You can see the paths where Sirath’s been walking. I think that’s his name. I’m not sure. The man as old as me, with hair as grey as my eyes. There aren’t many people around us here. Sometimes I hear a shout though, and he looks up. I think it’s Sirath people call.
Go ahead, eat. I won’t look. But do you see the rocks? By the overhang? Those gouges?
Priests and priestesses and soldiers and slaves came from the city – I told you, it’s on the other side of the tower – a few months ago. They came with picks and took a whole slice out of the hill. The captain told me a new power was going to be born in the city, out of the mountain.
I don’t remember his name. The captain’s or the idol’s, or if the idol was a he.
Those are eagles. And those, there? Buzzards.
A buzzard and an eagle loved each other. They hated each other but they loved each other too, and the eagle mounted the buzzard, and the buzzard laid an egg. And the buzzard didn’t sit on the egg because she was proud. And a dove came and said, ‘I’m such a fool, I must have lost this, my child.’ She sat on the egg. ‘How much bigger my children are than I remember!’ she said. ‘I can see the sea from up here.’
Have you eaten? Will you eat?
Please. Isn’t the smoke delicious? You mustn’t get sick.
The sea’s forty miles east. I’ve never seen it. A trader came up the tower once – I don’t know why the soldiers let him – and he told me what the sea was. His daughter was riding on his back. She was a tiny thing, and I stared at her until she cried, and he bent up and down and said to her that he was a boat.
So. The egg broke under the dove. What it was inside was a bird feathered with things like mountains and iron. It beat its wings and snow came down. It called and a rainbow came out of its mouth, I think.
Maybe you were there. Why won’t you speak? Have I been disrespectful?
Will you do anything? Everything’s just sitting there outside. That’s just the wind in the trees, in and out, up and down, that’s nothing. Sirath won’t pick his fruit today.
It’s a long way down to the courtyard. Do you see the well? That fountain used to run. Water came out of the mouth of that animal.
I could hear it, even up here. It was nice. But then one of the soldiers got drunk – oh, some years ago – and he knocked into it and it didn’t look like anything had changed but he must have bent its innards, because it never worked again.
He wasn’t punished. There was no whipping. Perhaps his comrades covered for him. For a while mosquitoes bred in the last of the water. Now it’s just stones down there.
I don’t mean ‘just’ stones, I beg your pardon. Stones must be yours, back in your home, I think?
You have nothing to say? I know those shifts are the light of the sun behind the clouds.
You’re like a child. I don’t care if you’re finished or not. Look at your bitter face. I’m taking your smoke away. I have things to do. You aren’t the only thing in my day.
Be alone then. Go on. Watch the day go, then.
Don’t look at me like that, it’s just a cloth. It’s dusty up here when the winds come – are they visiting you? Did you call them?
Not my business. I just think your face should be clean.
My hand’s steady even though you’re my enemy. Most people are afraid to do this, you know. They wouldn’t touch you.
It’s nothing. Look at you: you should shine.
I’m sorry about this morning. I’m not saying you didn’t provoke me but I shouldn’t have shouted. That’s all, we don’t need to make a whole story of it.
You’re hardly my first prisoner of your kind. The soldiers of our city – it takes a lot to stop them. Your little place didn’t have a chance, and your people must know that.
Because – I mean no disrespect, but hear me out – your realm’s small.
You’re clean water, yes? Fresh water and full trees? Woods full of game? The streets of your city, yes?
There are five rooms in this old tower. Spiral stairs for the height of a tree, then the mess, then there’s the armoury, then three rooms like this, one on top of the other, swaying in the wind as you go up. All with heavy wooden doors that shake the walls when you slam them.
This is the middle room. Both of the others are empty. The one below I sleep in. The one upstairs only has a bit of rubbish left in it.
There’ve been times when none of them have had prisoners in them, and times when all three have been full. You can see the niches in the walls. Years ago – before those soldiers down there were even born – the city was rushing in all directions and eating up everything it came to, and taking hostages from everywhere. Our troops would sweep through a city, kill its defenders, take its tributes, lay down new laws and then, to make sure the citizens behaved, they’d take the likes of you.
So downstairs there might’ve been the she-god or he-god of a city known for its woodwork, or a god of all babies. There was a lizard-headed fury upstairs once, a god of war. No disrespect but he was better made than you. His wings were lapis and black on the gold. He had a mace in his right hand. He was crushing birds and bones with his left. Very fine, heavy work, lots of inlaid stones.
I looked after him too. Without favour or malice. I deserve to have that noted, that I do my job well. Don’t I light your fires every morning and every evening?
Never mind what happened to him. His people – how could they fight when we had him? When their god of war was gone? So that city’s ours now.
Can you feel your people? Can you feel them worshipping? Are they sad? Are they frantic? Are they afraid for you? Does the worship reach you?
Look, down goes the sun again – someone else has that in hand, you see. Don’t tell any priests I said a word about any of this. Though no one should be angry with an old man for speculating. Down goes the sun again and it’s all shadows left, like giant blocks.
How are you? Are you lonely? Or do you like to be alone?
You don’t have to tell me anything.
The thing is – don’t think me cruel, I’m just too old not to tell the truth – I look at you and I know what I see.
You aren’t embarrassing. Your work isn’t good, though, either.
Some of those we’ve had here, there’s no way I could even carry alone, and I was strong once. They were as tall as I and the metal on them was thick, with too many gems to count.
Now I’m not going to say we’ve had none cruder than you. Our forces took a village – the people who lived there called it a city but I’m sorry – some huts in the marsh by the dead forest. And the soldiers brought back their god here, to keep them quiet.
I felt sorry for it. It was wood and clay about the size of my arm, and I could barely tell what it was, it was so worn. There may have been bronze on it once but that was gone. It looked at me with two little stub eyes of some green stone. I mean pebbles, polished pebbles. It could break your heart.
They loved it, their poor swamp god. They loved it and I can tell you, I could tell, I knew, that they didn’t know what to do. Whether they should surrender and beg their little god back, or whether they should keep on warring for it – because they were still fighting us from the dead trees, even with it gone, they had camps in that forest of useless ghosts.
I fed it smoke as carefully as I do you. They surrendered, of course.
Our priests handed it back. They weren’t disrespectful to it. Ugly thing. I hope it’s ruling its soggy patch, bringing its people fish.
So I’m not going to tell you you’re the weakest I’ve guarded. I’ve tapped you with my nails. There’s thick enough metal over your wood, a decent mix of gold. Those agates in your face are small but well cut. That ivory’s elegant.
But you’re little, from a little place. I mean no disrespect. Are your people worshipping you? They can’t free you. It must be you’re supposed to do things like keep the canals clean. They must be very dirty now. I’m sorry. That worship must be snagging you.
I’m telling you this so that you can tell the people lamenting in your temple.
Send them dreams. Are those dreams you’re sending them, over there, going westward, or are they bats? Tell your people to surrender, to behave, to give tribute. It won’t be so bad. They can come and take you back.