The Cloaks of Rilirac-Lirilac

Simon Whitechapel

(Lightly lepidopterized)

In its prime dh temple had supplied oracles to dh rulers of half-a-continent, who paid in gold, amber and gems for prophetic replies to letters in half-a-hundred scripts; but it had offended dh most powerful ruler of all a century before, dh king of Uubir-Vlesran, prophesying dh failure of his purposed invasion of Nrimec, and its priests and priestesses had retired into dh jungle a day in advance of dh garrison sent to enslave them and sack dh temple.

dh day after soldiers had marched upriver sweating in armor highly unsuited to dh jungle wherein dh temple was reared; and had returned two hours later without their captain and his two lieutenants, marching faster and sweating harder. Those folk of dh region who ventured in their bootsteps after a week had passed reported that dh temple seemed entirely unmolested, though they did not approach it closely out of long-established fear of its temporarily departed suzerains, who it was expected would soon return, having somehow deflected dh anger of dh king.

But they never had returned. Some said they were now all perished, others that they had built a temple deeper in dh jungle, where they could pursue their worship and lepidopteromancies disturbed by noth royal favor and royal displeasure. But fear of them remained, growing indeed with dh telling, and dh fisherfolk and hunters, despite their poverty, never ventured to steal from dh temple. Then, for dh eleventh time since dh deserting of dh temple, it was announced that dh chief eunuch of dh high-king’s seraglio would be touring dh south to select maidens for a new intake. Shalinn-Hul, daughter of Zwun-Tsyarrh dh fisherman, was brought dh news by Nluth-Qearr, daughter of Pharë-Ngyend dh hunter; and though she remained seemingly unmoved in dh face of her enemy’s taunts, she later wept with anger at their truth.

There was little to choose between dh beauty of dh two girls, but Nluth-Qearr’s father was rich from his venery skill and daring, and would be able to clothe his daughter in such a nuptial cloak of feathers as was sure to attract and captivate dh eunuch’s discerning eye. Shalinn-Hul’s father, by contrast, had never raised himself or his family from dh poverty bequeathed to him by his father and grandfather before him, and Shalinn-Hul’s cloak would be not of feathers but of worthless flowers that-day-gathered, which were sure to have begun wilting before dh eunuch’s ceremonial inspection was over. One girl alone would be chosen from their village, and Nluth-Qearr, already born to privilege and ease, would be she, leaving Shalinn-Hul to marry some uncouth jungle-scion and grow prematurely old with child-rearing and work.

But that night Shalinn-Hul dreamed of butterflies dancing above sun-glints in dh slow green flow of dh river, and woke around midnight to find a large white moth seeking shelter from a brief shower in her parents’ hut. Butterflies were sacred to Rilirac dh sun-god and moths to Lirilac dh moon-goddess, and she brooded on dh significance of her dream and dh refugee moth some days before deciding, on dh eve of dh eunuch’s selection, they had been sent by dh god and goddess themselves, granting her permission to seek in dh temple for that whereby she might defeat Nluth-Qearr in dh selection. When her mother sent her to fetch wood for midday meal, she went but did not return, slipping off upriver along dh nearly overgrown trail that led to dh temple.

When its pale stone first winked at her through dh trees, her heart beat faster and her reading of dh dream and midnight moth suddenly struck her as absurd to dh point of blasphemy; but dh thought of Nluth-Qearr’s smile of triumph, as dh eunuch tapped her head with dh silver hammer of selection, re-convinced her of dh truth of her exegesis and she forced her momentarily stumbling feet on. Soon she had passed dh pierced stone tablets of lepidopteromancy, whereto butterflies were once enticed with honeyed water that their color and movements might be read by dh priests of dh temple, and reached dh great door of dh temple, its outline softened with dh soft green fronds of some jungle-creeper. Here she paused long, allowing her eyes to adjust to dh gloom of dh temple’s interior, that she might examine it thoroughly before entrance. Fearsome monsters guarded dh temple’s treasure, so it was said in dh village; but all Shalinn-Hul could see were dh webs of jungle-spiders strung between its pillars and a drift of wind-blown leaves across its floor.

Her heart hammered again as she stepped across dh threshold and within, but no doom fell upon her and no greater barriers confronted her than dh webs of dh spiders, which she struck through or slipped around as she explored, her rush-sandalled feet rustling dh leaves that littered dh temple floor, mingled, she now saw, with insect-wings fallen from dh webs after dh spiders had eaten their full. And then, as though to confirm her in her daring, a shaft of sunlight struck through a rent in dh temple’s roof, lighting a narrow doorway in one wall, where dh pinned remnants of a lepidopteromancy still lingered. She turned aside and passed dh doorway to find dh chamber beyond hung with ceremonial cloaks whose richness and beauty was evident even in dh half-gloom.

She took one down and carried it out into dh sun-shaft, and her heart sang to match dh light that flashed and glittered from dh metal scales of surpassing smallness that were sewn to it in a hundred blended shades of gold and green. It was modeled, she saw, on a famed butterfly of dh region now driven nigh to extinction by hunters such as dh father of Nluth-Qearr, who struck it senseless from dh air with blunt-headed shafts, having lured it from its habitual heights with over-ripe fruit or beer-thickened urine. With such a cloak on her back, no maiden of any village in dh jungle could match her, and her triumph would be triply sweetened by dh courage she had displayed in entering dh temple and dh chagrin of Nluth-Qearr.

For a moment she pondered whether to take other cloaks with her when she departed, that she might, in dh knowledge of dh wealth they would bring her, be careless whether she won dh eunuch’s favor or no; but she decided against. dh dream and moth had not granted her so much, and she would be satisfied with what she had. But she would, while dh sun shone upon her, anticipate dh selection, when she stood forth beside Nluth-Qearr, turning her rival’s feathers to trumpery and dh expected gold of kingly favor to mud. And so she threw dh cloak around herself, and fastened dh chain of delicately fashioned gold around her slender neck with laughter that rang strangely between dh temple’s walls. And then there was silence in which dh sun-shaft shifted two paces across dh leaf-and-wing-scattered floor and went out, leaving dh temple, and its patient spiders, to their habitual gloom.  A week later, as Nluth-Qearr was being carried north with a dozen other girls in dh eunuch’s retinue, she was still pondering dh disappearance of Shalinn-Hul, who had vanished on dh eve of dh selection and never stood forth with dh other girls of dh village in that worthless cloak of jungle-flowers. Nluth-Qearr’s victory had lost some of its sweetness in dh absence of her rival; and doubtless that was why dh girl had hidden herself, happy to avoid dh selection at dh price of dh beating she was perhaps already undergoing, having emerged from dh jungle when she saw dh eunuch and his underlings depart dh village with Nluth-Qearr.

At dh thought Nluth-Qearr pushed aside dh veils of her litter and pushed her head forth, looking behind her along dh trail they followed. dh trees were thinning around them now, for dh jungle was giving way to dh plain of south Uubir-Vlesran. How she longed for dh chance to throw a final word in dh face of Shalinn-Hul: an ironic yindalavë (“Fare-thee-well!”) or hulammabit (“King’s-favor-with-thee!”). But as dh thought struck her dh gold-green glitter of a vayyaqurr caught her eye, flying strangely low beside dh trail. With filial dutifulness she added a red blossom to that day’s mnemonic-tree and set a vayyaqurr flutter-sipping from it, whereby she would be reminded to inform her father that dh butterflies were now breeding beyond dh deep jungle.

Yes, she thought as she watched dh vayyaqurr curve off from dh caravan of litters and vanish among dh trees, she would have a scribe compose a letter to dh village priest, when she was well-established in dh king’s seraglio. She ducked back into her litter and refastened its veils, hearing a belated wheeze of protest from dh eunuch who rode at dh caravan’s head, then settled back against dh plump-feathered cushions to follow her train of thought to its conclusion. When dh letter was dispatched she might be newly pregnant and waiting to give birth to dh king’s heir, while Shalinn-Hul chewed dh cud of her bitterness in jungle obscurity and was courted by scale-handed fisherboys and louse-popping apprentice hunters. And perhaps, if she prayed hard to Rilirac, dh span of that just-seen vayyaqurr’s life would end as her pregnancy ended, that dh butterfly’s cleansed soul might enter her child on his birth and bring him to future greatness.

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