Instead of bathing pools, the Kirengari had communal hot and cold baths that were a chaos of people bathing, grooming, dressing, and exchanging gossip.
After breakfast, Lorekeeper Jianya escorted us to a council chamber and a circular table with a notch cut out of it where Chancellor Niran sat. Accompanying him were a handful of Ministers, all of whom were dressed similarly; their clothing was obviously some type of uniform.
Chancellor Niran explained that Fire Pearls can be found in several places, but are most common in the Yankong Sea. He openly admitted that we could definitely get the Fire Pearls without the help of the Chingfa, but that it would take more time.
I spent the entire morning working with Chancellor Niran and his Ministers to draft a treaty. I agreed that Pern will send one or more diplomats to negotiate with them for information next Autumn. During the interim, Chancellor Niran and his Ministers will have books of lore prepared in our language.
Once the treaty had been reviewed and signed, Chancellor Niran clapped me on the shoulder and invited me to share lunch with him and his Ministers. Lorekeeper Jianya quietly whispered that I must have impressed him because Satakam did not require him to share a meal with me. I must have earned his respect.
While walking back across the courtyard after lunch, we saw a mixed group of about three dozen men and women, 15 to 25 years, old practicing in unison with what looked like strange, long spears. Lorekeeper Jianya explained that these were halberds, polearms mostly used in dragon-to-dragon combat. Most of the people had long hair held back by a suede band, long brown tunics, dark brown pants, wide leather belts, and leather wrist wraps. Jianya explained that they were petitioning to become dragonriders, and would train for between one and three years before being selected to Impress a green or blue dragon. Brown and bronze candidates are chosen by nominations and family connections. Few petitioners were over 20, and none were accepted after the age of 25. Petitioners who aren’t chosen sometimes choose to commit suicide, instead of returning home in shame.
I finally found a quiet moment and asked Lorekeeper Jianya why we saw almost no squares anywhere in Kirengar. She explained that this is because of Satakam. Satakam is very central to all of their traditions, and it teaches that certain colors, numbers, shapes, and animals have special meanings. Squares are very unlucky.
Lorekeeper Jianya smiled when I asked what it means to be a Lorekeeper in Kirengar. She pondered her answer for a moment, and then said that it means learning things even if they are normally forbidden or distasteful. Lorekeepers are trusted to hold forbidden and controversial knowledge but not disseminate it, and to use it responsibly when it is asked for. She became an Oracle because she does not have “dark feelings” toward the other Dominions, and thinks maintaining communication between them is important.
When I asked her about Satakam, Lorekeeper Jianya escorted us to the domed circular building in the center of the valley. Its roof extended well past its walls, supported by thick wooden columns. She led us through one of the five sets of large double-doors leading inside, and down stairs through tiered stadium-style seating to a white circular platform at the middle of the building. Flanking the sides of each of the five sets of stairs were larger-than-life bronze statues of dragonriders. White candles burned in hundreds of small niches carved into the rear walls, and the entire building – called a temple because of its special purpose – smelled strongly of fragrant wood. High overhead was a large skylight that could be opened on sunny days.
When asked, Jianya explained that each of the bronze statues was of a dragonrider famous for their valor in combat or during natural disasters. Terrible storms and earth shakes are not uncommon in Kirengar.
Eleven dragonriders in uniform kneeled before three young women – priestesses called Shian – in layered white robes on the central platform. The men chanted quietly in unison as the women waved golden cones in the air trailing sparks and fragrant smoke over them. When the ritual was over, the priestesses had a few kind words for them, and the dragonriders were all smiles as they patted each other on the back and left using one of the stairways.
One of the priestesses fetched Shian Yunsoon, who graciously agreed to speak with us. When asked, she explained that this had been a Rededication ceremony.
Rededication ceremonies are performed so that Kirengari dragonriders may honorably switch loyalties between masters and military units. During these ceremonies, they swear loyalty to Satakam, Shia, and their lords. Such ceremonies are quite common.
The Kirengari believe that true power is strength tempered by wisdom, collected through study and experience.
Shian are priestesses, responsible for maintaining the temples, performing rituals, and – most importantly – interpreting Shia’s will. The Sung-Shian is the high priestess over all Shian in Kirengar. All gold rider candidates in Kirengar are selected from among the Shian.
When asked, Shian Yunsoon explained that Shia is one of the ten daughters of the Great Emperor Chijun. They believe that the sun goddess Shia created dragons and gave them fire with which to defend their lands. When Shia retreats below the horizon each night, she leaves her dragonriders to defend the land until she returns.
- Dragonriders who die in honorable combat are buried with respect and offerings, and they go – with their dragons – to serve Shia after death.
- Shia is honored through rituals and sacrifice. Rituals usually involve purification or rededication to a specific purpose.
- Purification commonly takes the form of temporarily or permanently giving up a vice or the donation of a valuable resource – food, money, or similar – to a worthy cause. Purification rituals are performed before any major or dangerous life event, such as: being a Candidate at a hatching, joining a combat unit, going on a dangerous mission, participating in a Gold mating flight, and dying.
- Temples are circular to represent the continuity of history, life and death.
- Squares are most unlike the holy circle, and are therefore considered unlucky. 4 is unlucky because it is the number of the square.
- Fish represent prosperity.
In Satakam, everything has a meaning – especially clothing (including jewelry) and the architecture and arrangement of buildings (including gardens).
The Kirengari do not believe it is worth negotiating with, or even talking to, strangers and foreigners. Strangers don’t believe in Satakam and therefore are not honorable enough to be trusted. For whatever reason, the Sung-Shian believes that we are not like other foreigners. Instead, they choose to think of the Pernese as lost colonists, wayward children of their own culture – different and lacking in Satakam, but still capable of honor.
Shian Yunsoon was happy to spend a couple of hours patiently tutoring me in the basics of Satakam. I was fascinated, but my riders quickly grew bored and had Lorekeeper Jianya politely excuse them so they could tend to their dragons.
When Shian Yunsoon complimented me on my diligent attention to Satakam, T’ria bragged that I had always been deeply curious about such things. T’ria also tried to casually work in that our own Queen said I was what you got when a gold rider was born male. Shian Yunsoon listened impassively and did not comment, but T’ria’s words had not been ignored. They would come back later.
We spent a quiet evening in our quarters, all of us diligently working on our notes.
Commander Garaam visited after breakfast the next morning and said that he and his men were ready for travel. He bluntly asked if we would still be traveling back to Thusdo with him, to meet my bloodline. He looked relieved when I agreed.
I met briefly with Chancellor Niran, who provided me with an ornate scroll tube obviously designed to withstand the cold of between. Inside were two beautifully calligraphied copies of our treaty, one in their language and one in ours. He seemed distinctly pleased when I returned his flowery goodbye, and said he would share it with the Queen and Warlord. I made it by shamelessly borrowing turns of phrase from songs, some of which I hadn’t performed since Harper Hall.
Commander Garaam assigned one of his wing to each of mine, with them flying slightly ahead of and above our dragons. Each of us had someone responsible for keeping us safe.
We arrived at Fortress Thusdo a few hours later. It was a sheer volcanic valley, with the tops of several peaks flattened to make room for a huge castle and sprawling compound. Far below, at about only 800 feet above ground level, was a wide plateau with cattle fields, woods, and a deep lake. Barns and pastures stood near steaming hot springs, probably to keep cold-sensitive animals like runnerbeasts near the warmth.
Remembering Gil’s teachings, I spotted several recent rockfalls – indicating that this area must still suffer minor earthquakes on occasion. I guessed that Thusdo itself was in a safe area, but strongly suspected that other areas were much less stable.
The castle was circular and built on the largest plateau, surrounded by rectangular buildings. It was ringed by a colonnade of white stone pillars shot through with orange stripes, so they resembled feline stripes.
While the Zai housed their dragons in huge stone towers, the Chingfa dug their weyrs into the surrounding cliff faces. They were connected to the castle by a series of watch towers, curtain walls, and I suspected underground tunnels. The watch towers were ornately carved. The weyr entrances were also carved to denote rank and station.
There was only one other round building at Thusdo, shaped like the fat end of an egg with its domed roof tiled in flame colors. A ring of huge, panoramic windows encircled the entire building just beneath the edge of the dome.
Surrounding everything were elaborate gardens, some formal and others informal, with three large pavilions to provide shade.
We passed several patrols on our way into Thusdo. About a mile out, two watch riders launched from one of the towers. They exchanged signals with Commander Garaam when they got close and escorted us in.
We landed on a flat stone plateau with a giant tiger carved into it, and were immediately greeted by ground crews who jogged out to begin tending our dragons. Commander Garaam smiled broadly, gestured toward the huge stone buildings in the distance, and announced, “Welcome to the Fortress Thusdo!”. He led us across a narrow, ornate bridge – an obviously defensible chokepoint – to reach the main plateau.
Servants scurried to light lamps as we approached; obviously Fortress Thusdo had more of a nightlife than the Zai’s Fortress Modaisa did. As we walked, we were approached by a small group, one woman and four men. Commander Garaam spoke with one of them briefly and then explained that they were to be our translators and servants while we were guests of the Chingfa Dynasty. When asked, the woman nervously gave her name – but the men refused to. It was clear from their body language and tone that they couldn’t understand why I would want to know the names of commoners.
We were still working out the details of our stay when we were hit by a powerful wave of unmitigated lust. A young, vibrant, pale gold dragon flew overhead a few moments later, heralding a mating flight, pursued by several bronzes and a couple of browns.
Without asking, Valenth launched into the air. I was instantly overwhelmed the moment I touched his mind. He was driven by a combination of mating instinct and absolute disgust at the bronze ‘animals’. I was vaguely aware of B’dir trying to talk me out of it, urging me to rein Valenth back in, but it was much too late for that.
The foreign bronzes tried to knock us out of the air, fighting more viciously than we were accustomed to. This wasn’t our first gold mating flight, though, so we didn’t let ourselves get caught up in fighting with other males. As they turned to target us, the last brown in the mating flight, mighty Borheth joined the fray. I could sense that he wasn’t interested in the Queen at all; B’dir was forcing him to fly cover. Borheth grappled with one of the bronzes who had been attacking us, and spun him hard enough that he barely recovered before crashing into the ground.
When another two bronzes tried to pin us between them, Valenth did something I’d never seen done in a mating flight before – he skipped between. When we emerged from the cold a few heartbeats later, we were right on top of the unsuspecting Queen and grabbed her.
I was vaguely aware of my wing arguing with some richly-clad functionaries, and then grudgingly entrusting me into their care so they could lead me to the junior Queen’s quarters. She was waiting for me there, a heartbreakingly beautiful young woman with a heart-shaped face, long hair piled onto her head with numerous pearls interwoven into it, and beautiful proportions. She wore a simple but elegant silk dress… until she didn’t.