Work Header

Inujasan and the Burnt City

Work Text:

She was born the day of the Sunim festival, in a year where spring had come early and the madimak was already in bloom next to the river. There had been much snow that winter in the mountains, and the melt brought the water down into the wide valley, flowing west to where the great city of Ninhursag lay, on the edge of the desert. She was born in a household of potters, of the class whose households grew with the help of the shepherds, but had the privilege of never including them. The first child of the youngest daughter, all of her cousins were already grown, finding their own way in the city, and all she wanted was to find her own place in her turn. She was doted on, almost spoiled, but she was no more special than any of her peers in the pottery quarter of the city. She learned to wedge the clay, pushing and pulling and folding and tearing, making it smooth for the wheel her aunts and mother turned. She watched them spin their wheels, refilling the water bowls as the air dried their work, and learned the rhythm of the clay so that she dreamed it, imagining the feel of the clay pulling up into their shapes like they had always meant to be so. She watched her grandmother with her tools paint and scribe the surfaces of the bowls and plates and goblets, watching to learn what she would do when she was old. She drew the water up from their well, when she was strong enough to carry the water-skins, in so doing pulling at least some of the sandy dust the wind lashed at them all summer long into solid form again. This was why, her aunt explained, theirs was such a noble craft, and why it would be how she would serve the city.

Nevertheless, she found time to play. The potters, naturally enough, were quartered near the river, and it was down there, wind and weather permitting, that she would chase her friends in and out of the shallows. It was also there, five springs into her life, that the accident occurred. The child was in the water that day, helping to bring in the fish traps in exchange for her choice of what was in them. At that time, there was a Guti camp on the other side of the river, and one of their group was bringing their camels to the river’s edge to drink. The flies were bad, it not yet being the time of the Sisu wind, and the camels had no shawls to protect them. One reluctant camel, an ill-timed whip and the damage was done. She was taken up by the fishermen, then passed to the basketweavers, and so on up the escarpment to the potters and then the temple. There, she was anointed with a terebinth unguent, and incantations pronounced, but this did not stop the fever from coming. After two days, her grandmother brought the child’s bull icon to the temple, to offer her to the deity in service, should she be permitted to live. When she placed the small clay bull on the child’s chest, however, the gentle breeze that flowed through the room suddenly whistled sharply, and became a gust fierce enough to nearly knock her grandmother over. In its place, it left a small flame which did not dance but burnt steadily over the child’s head even as the gentle breeze was replaced by something a great deal stronger. On her bed, the child sighed, and the flame danced, then stilled.

“She will live,” pronounced the priestess summoned to interpret this strange development. “But her destiny is not yet with us. When she is well, she will return to live with you until the goddess summons her again.”

And so it was that the child survived her fever, but the wound did not heal perfectly. Instead, a line remained livid across her face even after the care in the temple, and behind the red line on her eyelid, the eye itself withered, drying out like the valley in high summer. The other children had heard of the accident, of course, but had also heard of the goddess’s flame and that made them wary of her. Their wariness in turn made her wary and it was easier to stay close to the family workshop and house and not think about the day the goddess would summon her.

The years passed, and there was no call. She began to learn how to bake the pots they made, feeding the fire hour after hour, sweating at the heat given off by the kilns, even in the winter cold. She still prepared the clay, but now also ground the pigments to make the ink to decorate it, and waited for the time when she would finally be allowed to touch the wheel.

Then, in her eleventh year, on the final day of firing, just as the Sisu wind was rising, the eldest of the aunts came home with a present. It was the tradition among the potters, (who marked it as their own festival, Ninbar, for their particular deity) to use the last firing for making icons for the children born since the last festival. But it was not always such, and the senior aunt had had a dream which directed her clay and her hands to a different shape, a new icon for the favoured niece. By the time of the next festival, the child would likely be of age. This might be the last chance.

The child was idly practicing her grandmother’s potter’s mark onto a damp piece of clay, when into her vision swung a small leather bag, a tease and a promise. The child, taller already than most of her friends, grabbed at it with delight, and the aunt only just managed to hold it out of her reach. The child held her hands open, flat, the way she accepted the clay to wedge, and the aunt relented.

Warm from the sun, the bag hid the smooth coolness of a piece of pottery, rounded on all its edges. It was flat, oval, pierced at the narrow end to allow a thin leather rope through it. It had been glazed smooth on both sides, slipping against her palm. Under the shine of the glaze, an eye looked up at the child. It had been painted to match the child’s surviving eye, the same size and bright white except where it was nearly black around the iris, with black lashes sweeping up into the warm brown of the clay. The child lifted it to her good eye and examined it closely, noting the way the eyelashes were drawn on but also had been scribed into the clay with a thin tool.

Without understanding why, she then turned the new eye round, and held it against her face, a replacement for the lost eye. It felt pleasantly cool, then suddenly body-warm, a part of her.

The painted eyelashes swept down over the painted eye. She felt it; the aunt saw it. A blink. Both gasped.

“Auntie did you know you made me a magic eye?’ She spoke but even as she spoke, she knew that wasn’t quite right. It wasn’t the aunt’s brush that had made the eye magic. Something was coming alive inside her, not in the eye, something that meant she could see through her aunt’s eye to her aunt’s way of seeing. The child saw the house as it had always been for her, but also the way it looked to her aunt. The table was the same table, but also different, with memories that weren’t her own, of meals with no children. The jars on the shelf in the corner, too, were suddenly not just pots, but containers with flour and oil and lentils and wine, like she could lift the lids without using her fingers.

"How did you think to make such a thing?" asked the grandmother later, when the whole family knew of this new eye. "Never mind that the child should not be able to see through clay."

“It was a dream,” the aunt said. “Ninbar visiting my dreams to command my hands.”

“Is this the goddess’s summons?” asked the child’s mother, all of them speaking as if she wasn’t there, listening.

“How could it be, if it was Ninbar’s command?” said another aunt.

“You’d think it would be the flame again,” said a third aunt, remembering the imagined picture described by her mother. “If it was the goddess.”

The eye lay on the table between them, flat and inanimate. She missed it already.

“If it isn’t the goddess, then we will keep this between us for now,” the grandmother decided, slapping her hands flat on the table so the eye jumped, just a little. “No one need yet know of this.”

So the eye was taken away, and the child could not guess where it had been hidden. Try as she might, though, she could not forget the sensation of seeing the world again, and seeing it unlike anyone else.

It was not quite the eve of her idid, her coming of age, that the river and a chance meeting would change her life again. Excused from her usual tasks with the pending ceremony, and restless, the house could not contain her. It was a cool spring, the air not yet too hot to venture out into the streets. The sails that covered them made a pleasant shade and she let her feet carry her through to the sakanka, the busy market she rarely ventured out alone to see. The shouting was enthusiastic and cheerful as each trader tried to call her attention to this or that exotic dye or cloth or stone, and even though she had nothing to trade in return, the anonymous attention of the market was reassuring. No one here knew her as the temple-blessed child, even though the temple palace loomed large over the market. She let the crowd carry her through to the residential quarter on the other side of the trading space, away from the multicoloured umbrellas that covered it. It was quieter here, and though she didn’t know it well, she soon oriented herself as one lane looked out over the cliff face and city wall and she could see the mountains beyond. Soon, there was a gate, and she slipped through with the rest of the traffic, following the road down to the marsh and the river beyond.

Here was where the other clayworkers could be found, she realized suddenly. Here was the great brick manufacture she’d been told about but never seen and here in front of her in a flat-bottomed boat was a child her age, dressed in the brick-brown cloth of those workers, only he wasn’t working. He was holding a long wooden stick and staring over the edge of the boat into the water, arm cocked like he expected to be able to spear a fish. Upriver, down from the gates near her quarter of the city, the fishermen used nets but here—he stabbed the water quickly but when his stick came out of the water it was only wet.

She didn’t laugh but he saw her then anyway and made an awful grimace at her. Surprised, she found herself grimacing back, sticking out her tongue.

“I suppose you could do better.”

“You’re just using the wrong tool.”

“I suppose it might be the wrong tool for you, hulu,” he said, using an insult she hadn’t heard in some time. It still stung, for all that it wasn’t new.

“I might have one eye, but you’re the one that stinks,” she retorted. “Besides, I have two eyes, only one of them is a better eye than you’ll ever have.”

He squinted at her. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

She shrugged. “Just what I said. I have a better eye than you.”

He dropped the pointed stick in the bottom of the boat, and took up the punting pole instead. He shoved hard into the riverbed and the boat sent a wave of water, and him, towards her. She stood her ground, even as he jumped onto the bank. He was only a boy after all.


It was almost her idid, and soon it would be her eye again, they’d promised. It was almost her idid and she could tell him if she wanted, she was almost grown. So she did. She told him about her family, about the eye, about the way that she could see the world as her aunt did, and as she did his eyes got bigger and bigger so she thought they might just pop out of his head. It was thrilling to have this sort of power over one of her peers, even if he was a boy, and she told him to be careful or he’d lose his own eyes, plop plop straight into the river for the fish to eat.

He laughed, but rubbed at his face so it went back to normal, and it wasn’t quite as funny anymore.

“Where is it?” he asked then. “Where is this eye?”

“In a safe place far from here,” she declared.

“You’re just telling stories.”

“No, it’s real!”

“Prove it.”

“I don’t have to prove anything to you. I don’t even know you.” But the truth was, she wanted to be able to share the eye with someone, someone who didn’t have any power to use it for themselves, or take it away from her. Which is why she nearly ran home to ask – no, beg – for permission to have the painted eye back the eve of her idid.

The women deliberated at length, loudly and then quietly, for so long that the child went to bed and it was not until morning that she knew the result. It was evident, in the small leather bag which rested next to her head, dusty but unmistakably the bag.

She wasted no time, rushing through her responsibilities in the house, as she’d promised the boy they would meet again just after the midday sun was at its highest, and there was much yet to do in preparation for the following day.

He was there, down at the bottom of the southern gate just like the last time, but without boat or spear. He fidgeted in his clean clothes and she was suddenly struck that he, too, would pass idid the following day.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” he blurted when she’d skidded to a stop at the edge of the reeds. The mud was slick from the wake of the passing boats and it was only luck that had kept her from falling. It put her off-balance with him too, and she didn’t answer, only pulled out the eye from its bag and dangled it on its cord between them.

“That’s your better eye?”

She glanced around because the river was usually busy here, just down from the city, but it was near enough the midday meal that the few people who were making their way home now weren’t looking in their direction. Still, she turned so that the dock was behind her, and he was forced to step to follow. Only then did she hold the eye up to her face.

Like the first time, it went from cool to blood-warm and she could see again. And right in front of her, the boy was suddenly familiar in a way that she could never have expected. Suddenly she knew he looked like his father, who her aunt had played with as a child, who she had loved. She blinked and he took two steps back right into the water, his feet disappearing in the mud.

“You look like your father,” she said, without quite meaning to.

“How do you know that?”

“He always wanted to complete an apprenticeship, become a real potter, but something happened and he couldn’t, that’s why you’re still brickmakers,” she continued.

“Me too,” the boy breathed. “I do too, I will be, how do you know?”

“My aunt,” she said, a little helplessly. “She knows—knew?—your father.”

“Knew,” the boy said quietly, his gaze falling down to his feet. A second later, he was squelching towards her, hand outstretched. “Let me see!”

“It won’t work for you,” she said sharply, chastising, letting it drop to the end of the cord, to which she held tightly.

“I just want to see how it’s made,” he pleaded, hand on heart and head bowed though he looked up at her through his hair. He seemed suddenly to be like a sad dog and she relented.

“Fine, but I keep hold of the cord.”

He stared at it, turning it over in his hands, tilting it to examine the engraved eyelashes just as she’d done. He held it up to his eye, but of course it remained no more than a painted eye. He stared at it yet more then offered it back to her, palm up.

“I’ll make you more,” he said, urgently and a bit desperate. “When I have my apprenticeship, I’ll make you more. I’ll make them look like everyone and you can tell me what the world looks like to everyone. And my father. You can tell me about him. I’ll make you an eye just for him.”

The idea was vast and almost unfathomable. How could she see the world as his father? How would he ever be able to make such an eye?

“I have to go,” she said, and did.

The day after the idid, there was a knock at the door, an unexpected visitor. Her mother kissed her before going to open it, murmuring a quick prayer for safe travels that made the young woman think it must be the goddess, come to collect me already.

But instead it was a palace guard, standing much taller than the doorway but only slightly taller than the young woman, with a summons. She was to come to the temple-palace to meet with the queen. She was to bring the eye. She was to come alone.

There wasn’t time to explain to the family that the eye was no longer a secret to at least one other person in the city. There wasn’t time to apologize for having failed to keep this important secret. She burned with the shame of it.

She dressed and followed him, the eye in its leather pouch secure around her neck.

She knew from stories her grandmother told, part of her education as she watched each vessel painted, that the queen had a room as big as three of their houses put together where she would receive the subjects of the city. In this room would be many other people, standing or sitting near the queen; should she need anything, she would not have to move to get it herself. But she didn’t get to see the grand throne room, not that time. Instead, the guards took her through a vast courtyard, filled with trees and fountains, birds and bushes, a wonderland that had her tripping over her feet to take it all in. And then she was in a room organized around an enormous divan upon which the queen half-reclined – for it could only be the queen, on something so splendid, dressed in clothes so sumptuous – and she forgot all about the pistachio and pomegranate trees, the fountains and fishes and birds. There was only her, there on the bed, the daughter of the goddess, the mother of the city. She was beautiful because she was divine, and the young woman nearly fell on her face in her hurry to prostrate herself on the cool stone floor.

“Come, young one, come and honour me, and tell me all.”

Her voice was not loud but the young woman could hear nothing else. She raised her head enough to be able to crawl to the side of the divan, pressing the formal kiss to the city’s mother’s breast, then leaned back against her heels, head bowed.

“Tell me about this eye.”

She began with the river and the camel driver, and the time in the temple, which she did not remember but had been told about, and then about the taunts, which she did remember, and finally about the present from her aunt, from Ninbar, before abruptly coming to a stop. The boy on the side of the river was too embarrassing to bring up.

The queen was quiet for a long time, then held out her hand for the leather bag. She spent almost as long turning the eye round and round between her fingers before sitting up so she could hold it to the young woman’s face. It was already warm from the queen’s hands so she didn’t feel the moment it connected, but did feel the sudden gasp and then loss of contact as the eye fell to the divan, staring up at nothing again.

“It blinked.”

She nodded.

“If this eye allows you to see as your aunt sees,” the queen said slowly. “And she made it for you, then perhaps whoever makes you an eye will let you see through theirs.”

The silence fell between them again. Perhaps because she was the goddess’s daughter, perhaps because it was cool and calm here, and she had nothing to do but obey.

“Does it frighten you,” the queen asked, her hand now stroking through the young woman’s hair. “To see the city as they all do, and tell me what you find. This city needs to be understood by her ruler. Does it frighten you to become Inujasan, the queen's eye?”

She tried to imagine - but couldn't - the idea of seeing for the queen. The idea seemed far too vast for her to contain. But then, she would only be the queen's eye, not the queen, not the mother of the city. She was just the queen's to command, to use as she used the eyes she had in her own head.

"No," she answered truthfully, when the queen's hand came down to rest on her head. "I trust my queen and will serve her as she needs."

As the queen smoothed her hair down, the newly christened Inujasan thought of the goddess’s summons, waited for all this time, and wondered if this was it.

It would be some time before it would be clear that it wasn’t. Not yet.