The language of the originators defines reality, every word warping the world to fit its meaning. Its study transforms the mind and body, and is closely guarded by stodgy, paranoid academics. These hidebound men don’t trust many students with their secrets, especially not women, and more especially not “madwomen.” Polymede and her lover Erishti believe they’ve made a discovery that could blow open the field’s unexamined assumptions, and they’re ready to face expulsion to make their mark. Of course, if they’re wrong, the language will make its mark on them instead.
They say studying the tongue of the originators warps judgment as well as flesh. I’m not doing much tonight to disprove that belief: instead I’m kneeling outside my advisor’s office with a purseful of stolen keys, straining my ears for the echo of footsteps in the dim linoleum hallway. If I’m caught, I’ll be kicked out of the program. If I succeed, I’ll be kicked out anyway—but hopefully with a publication in hand and a nasty footnote for my legacy. Polymede Anagnos, who broke every scholarly law to produce a deprecated translation of the Lloala ‘chaio.
Make that Polymede Anagnos and Erishti Musaru, who together produced the deprecated translation. Rish, waiting anxiously in our illicit off-campus apartment, deserves that footnote every bit as much as I do.
The keys are ordinary metal, old-fashioned, filched from the administrative office as I flirted with the secretary. The ring is rusted. The minuscule handwritten labels are blurred beyond comprehension, or else lost entirely, their history attested only by remnant scraps of Scotch tape. There were newer, shinier rings in the drawer. They seemed more likely to be missed. More likely to hold complete sets as well, of course, but I’m betting on a Lloala scholar’s longstanding resistance to change. What would it take to make Dr. Rallis accede to a lock upgrade? Aside from what I’m doing now, of course.
Key after key slides into the lock and refuses to twist. The code-iron knobs in the CompSci building would’ve frozen by now, sent out their silent alarms and refused to turn. But Rallis has the simpler, if unintentional, security of an ancient door whose key must be pulled back a half-step, jiggled twice, and whispered to in the secret language of metal, a process that will push the rusty mechanism into motion once out of three tries. So each attempt lengthens as I try the key not quite in its exact seat, and try again, hoping to find the right combination of brass and steel and space. There is, so far as I’m aware, no real secret language of metal, but I mutter the Blacksmith’s Curse under my breath. If my advisor could hear me, maybe he’d admit that I belong in the department after all: a true student of Lloala, so much of my thought transmuted that even mundane frustration emerges in ancient and hazardous form. I risk myself with every breath.
But my pronunciation is good. Better than it’s ever been before—listening for the whisper of shoe against floor, hyper-awareness spills over into my own speech. I hear something new in the words. Not an artisan’s casual anger at a forge too cold or a blade cracked by hidden flaw, but fury at her own imperfection. A curse that reflects back on the one who speaks it, demanding more.
When I look down at the keys, I can’t believe they ever seemed interchangeable. Every corrugation stands clear, a dozen landscapes dangling from a ring whose rust is itself a treasury of texture.
It’s a long, dangerous minute before I can drag my eyes from metal made suddenly gorgeous. Then I pull out my smartphone. Grateful and disappointed to find the amalgamation of plastic and glass and rare earth as ordinary as it’s ever been, I fumble open the flashlight app. Within the lock, another landscape reveals itself, sky to match the mountains and crevasses of the keys. But only one key matches perfectly. Trembling with adrenaline, I join the two halves. Tumblers click. When I can bear the thought of separating key from lock, I open the door. The inner wards, twining and barbed against Rallis’s acknowledged rivals, part like mist for his once-trusted student.
Wan lamplight from the courtyard stripes the office. In the corner, a reluctant computer pays tribute to the demands of university administrators. When not being used to appease bureaucracy, it lies dormant; the bulk of the room is reserved for long paper-stacked tables and shelves of messily labeled artifacts. Herd counts and broken stone receipts, pottery decorated with images of figures making pottery, a night-black stone tablet whose inlaid text reflects moon-like luminance.
It’s the tablet I’m after. On loan from the Institut des Arts Éclairé de Paris, it’s a fragment of the Lloala ‘chaio that no one in the U.S. has seen before this week. Dr. Rallis’s reputation won that access, but there are limits to what I can do under his cautious eye. And in six days, Rish and I are scheduled to bring our article before the board of reviewers for the Journal of Primal Language. Once they discover that I forged Rallis’s sponsorship letter, we won’t get a second chance. Our translation has to take account of every fragment we have available. It has to be perfect.
There are so many rules for studying the tongue. No technological aids—any tool unavailable to the originators can only distort meaning. No readers whose minds distort the world—the language can only lead to enlightenment for those already on their way. Not that anyone has ever made it. My phone’s still in my hand, but I check the window first. Around the courtyard, the other offices lie dark. I dither: turn on the overheads and risk someone asking Dr. Rallis whether his late night bore fruit, or stick with the flashlight app, less obvious from outside but more obviously illicit if someone spots it.
I twist the rod on the blinds to mask my work. Bright stripes wane and vanish. The Lloala ‘chaio fades, then reappears, penumbral in the phone’s harsh beam. A dozen clicks of the camera and I e-mail the images to myself, violating the oath I swore to my advisor in the tongue itself.
Tiny fingers on the back of my hand, like a shark’s second row of teeth, testify that obedience has gotten me no further than anyone else. The first knuckles appeared during my second semester like daffodil buds pushing through snow, fully blossomed by the year’s end. There have been other changes since—those that I can see, like the fingers and my tongue, and probably others that I can’t. My insurance won’t cover an MRI without serious symptoms, but there are foods I can no longer eat. Odd sensations plague me on the edge of sleep, vanishing before I’m awake enough to articulate them. The fingers strain until their knuckles ache whenever I reach for something, though they’re too weak and poorly placed to help grasp. My body shows every sign of intense and inadequate study.
Phone doused, I crack the door. The hall remains silent. No echoes but my own, when I accidentally step on a loose tile. Out of the building, into the parking lot, starting the car, and all still quiet. I’m off-campus and halfway home before my ruminations bring up a phone-perfect picture of the darkened office, just as I left it. Dark, sure—the courtyard’s radiance blocked by the blinds I wound against prying eyes.
“Fuck!” This time, at least, I manage to swear in English. I repeat myself several times while I think. I could go back, fix the shade, and hope my luck in avoiding observers holds. That was luck, a die that won’t love me for repeated rolling. Alternatively, I could leave my mistake where I made it, and hope that Dr. Rallis is either distracted tomorrow or just blames the janitorial staff. The dependence of this latter plan on one professor’s absent-minded obsession, rather than on the random behavior of everyone else who might haunt the Language Arts building after hours, decides me. That, plus my eagerness to share my newly captured text with Rish. Between replaying the night’s tedious dangers, and reporting those dangers to a warm girlfriend, there’s no serious contest.
As I squeeze in the front door, I stumble over letters. Rish has spread them across the living room: the kindergarten-style plush-covered Lloala alphabet that someone gave me as a gag gift when I started the program. Hazardous, my advisor informed me, and in poor taste besides. But Rish loves the feel of them, the physicality. Depending on her mood, she sorts them by shape or by intricately differentiated phonemic characteristics. Tonight’s logic isn’t immediately obvious, but it isn’t flat versus curved. Once I get it, I suspect we’ll add another paragraph or three to the article.
Rish looks up, green hair swinging in her eyes. “Did you take pictures, yes or no?”
I let the grin come out. “Yes. I took pictures.”
“Show me. But don’t disarrange the letters.”
I grab the laptop and kneel beside her. “Hug, please?” She leans against me, warm and comfortable, while the computer wends its fitful way to our wi-fi network.
Some of the images are blurred or just too dark. Letters that shone lunar-bright to the naked eye hide their corners in shadow. Is that a thal or a tli? But they’re clear enough to read. And the words are here, freed from Doctor Rallis’s vigilant restrictions. Rish hums tunelessly as we read. Or it sounds tuneless to me. The songs have words, she tells me—but whether in English or Lloala or some language never translated, her interior lyrics are as private as a diary.
Around us, between her letters, I spread our article notes. Index card distillations of support for our claim: that the narrative traditionally inferred from the Lloala ‘chaio’s available scraps is too simple, that Eloar the high priest attains perfection only with the aid of ‘Rochaol, a character who appears at the edges of those well-known shards. Her role is frequently described as “mysterious,” and she’s often supposed to be allegorical—a prototype to the Greek chorus rather than an actual participant in Eloar’s life.
“Dr. Rallis and I only got through the first two sentences,” I say, filling the space left by Rish’s silent concentration. “But I picked out ‘Rochaol’s name later in the segment—this has to tell us something new.”
“Mmmm.” She repeats the name’s initial click a few times. Her pronunciation’s better than mine. Perhaps much better. A year and a half into my program, and her less official study alongside, her only physical change is a dusting of orange fur along the back of her neck where clothing tags used to irritate her skin. She’s dyed it to match her hair. “Where does this go in the sequence?”
“I don’t know yet. What we’ve got for those two sentences—”
“Don’t tell me what Rallis said.” Meaning, don’t bring up something we suspect is wrong, and get myself tangled in it. Rish may sometimes miss when I’m being sarcastic, but Rallis’s biases have a lot less influence on her. I let her rework the opening while I pour myself into the rest of the text. I should go to sleep—if I’m bleary tomorrow I’ll only exacerbate my advisor’s suspicion about the blinds. But then, it’s not weird for a grad student to be exhausted and sleep deprived. And I’m not exhausted now—I’m awake, wired, the poetry of the words dancing through my mind like it never does at school. Paie Eloar tlaeoye Feielro ebraedor…There’s a song in my head now, too. Orthodox Lloala studies forbid computerized analysis, or any other tool they’re confident the originators couldn’t have used. The risk of distortion is too great, they say. But the Lloala ‘chaio is an epic, even if a short one; at some point, it must have been sung. And we never sing, either.
“Paie Eloar Tlaeoye,” I sing, and Rish grins and hums along. I scribble glosses, guess wildly at sentences, try to get an overall sense of the story’s shape. Rish notes alternate translations in tiny print, a cloud of specificity hovering around my words like dragonflies.
At 5 a.m., I sit back on my heels. I’ve been wrestling with a single sentence for the past forty-five minutes, and have switched to a separate sheet of paper in case I need to tear it up in frustration. “Rish, how do you interpret theiaroneie?”
She ignores me for a long minute. We used to fight about this, but I’ve learned to wait, letting her come to the end of whatever mental rosary she’s working through before she takes up my question.
“Theiaroneie,” she says at last. “On is started but not complete. Eie is action taken by someone who isn’t human. Theiar is marked. Stained. Blemished. Cursed, poetically.”
“Look, how do you read this line?”
She hums over the troublesome piece. “Ummmmm. Right now? Then Eloar brought—no. Then Eloar raised ‘Rochaol into the temple—or the congregation, maybe—because she was being marked by the…the power. That’s weird. Thaodon is incredibly generic. It could mean anything from their highest god to the demons that spoil food to test endurance.”
“Do you think they picked it just to be poetic? Theiaroneie thaodon—it’s alliterative, but it’s such a weird word choice. You never see theiar used to describe people in the temple hierarchy.” I spread my hand, palm down. The extra fingers curl like fronds. “Learn the language right, and nothing will theiar you. It’s a mark of failing at enlightenment. So why would he raise her?”
“Maybe we’re right that she’s important, but wrong about the role she plays,” Rish says. “She could be a bad example, or a scapegoat, or a temptation. ‘Raising’ is good in our culture; maybe it wasn’t for the originators.”
“‘You raise me in the night, early light in the temple of my eyes.’” It’s from a love poem, the first piece we translated together.
“‘Your body writes the word of flesh and soul.’” She offers the next line automatically, reassuring ritual before returning to the academic argument. “Or it isn’t always good. There could be contextual factors.”
“Maybe. What other assumptions are we making?”
Rish licks her lips and turns from the image on the screen. She gathers letters from the arrangement on the floor, starts to lay out the troublesome word. She rocks when she gets to the second eil—the alphabet set has only one. I draw the oblong loop on a spare sheet of paper, making sure it’s the same size as the others, and after a moment she slots it in place and finishes with the et. She touches each letter in turn, and I join her. I try to feel the word: not just the velveteen shapes on my floor, but how they’d have sat in the minds of the speakers. Someone carved those bright letters in dark stone, almost four thousand years ago. Someone struggled over their sentences, just as I do when I strive to say what I mean, and nothing else, explanations chipped out word by word. Did they always succeed, or like me did they sometimes choose Twain’s lightning bug in place of the lightning? A native speaker of Lloala, raised in the tongue, shaped by its perfection, should have transcended such errors.
Speaking of assumptions.
The history of Lloala scholarship is blood and bodies. There have been whole centuries and continents where you could burn for possessing a text outside a monastery or a warding circle, others where you’d bleed on an altar with the letters carved into your wrists. One cult forced sacrifices to spend a year learning the language, twisting their training to produce a fatal sequence of grammatical errors long since lost. Aristotle claimed that one word of the tongue cleaved the heart in two and made the liver vanish entirely; the first modern autopsies delved scholarly corpses side by side with illiterate ones. Brains float in formaldehyde in biomedical archives, fungoid organelles green with the dye that demarcates the effects of study.
From the originators’ desiccated glacial cities, no one has ever retrieved a body. All claims about how their speech sculpted their souls are secondhand: later scholars, or their own myth-steeped stories.
“What if we’re wrong?”
That sets Rish rocking. “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”
“Sorry, I’ll be more precise. What if the field as a whole is wrong about how the originators conceptualized marking?” Rish slows as she considers this more manageable inaccuracy, and I go on: “Torvald Johannsen, Sthenalus Roda, most of the founders of modern scholarship—they were linguists, but they were also alchemists, obsessed with perfection and purity. We have fragments from the originators that suggest similar obsessions, and we’ve assumed they represented the society as a whole.” I’m bouncing now myself, stimming neurotypical-style to pace the flow of my ideas. “But they spoke Lloala for 1500 years, in a place where landslides could change the geography overnight. At least two sets of accounting records mention trade routes broken when a pass got cut off. Anywhere else, that would lead to isolated pockets of development, different sects on every plateau—they made it work, they kept their empire connected, but there must have been different schools of worship and philosophy, constantly meeting and arguing and losing track of each other. We do talk about that sometimes, but we don’t make the obvious inferences.”
Rish is still now. “Johannsen’s fragments all came from three settlements around the same peak. You think they weren’t representative.”
“That’s my guess. Or that Eloar and ‘Rochaol’s temple were a bunch of heretics. Or that attitudes changed in the seven hundred years separating the two. Eloar’s epic is the earliest thing we have that tells a story. Everything before that is how many goats were born this spring and how much they cost at market. And if Eloar is first, he might be closer to the truth of the language than anything Johannsen studied.”
Rish takes my hand. She strokes the logogenic digits, soothing mercurial nerves. “So more changes are a sign of more enlightenment?”
I touch the back of her neck. “That doesn’t seem right either.” I’m thrilled by the thought of overturning centuries of placid assumption, of tossing our handful of thorns into every scholarly conference and acidic journal exchange. They won’t be able to escape us. They won’t be able to ignore us, or pretend that women and madmen—the basket into which Lloala scholars lump Rish’s autism, even as the Psychology department draws complex taxonomies with Rish down one distinct branch of cognitive style and Lloala fluency far along another—have nothing to add to their understanding.
But I hate the idea that Professor Rallis, with his insectile eyes and slicked-back ears and propensity for screaming at undergraduates, is closer to perfection than Rish. “That can’t be right.”
“It could,” says Rish. “But we need to know the truth. Let’s keep translating.”
Anticipation and trepidation and exhaustion are a heady mix, but overwhelming. Letters and meanings blur in my mind, and dawn finds us curled together on the couch, trying to nap. Time feels unreal, a distant fantasy of some natural order for sleeping and rising and eating and working. My back pulses with ache: too long bent awkwardly over Eloar’s story, or an oncoming change spurred by exposure to the epic, or both. I should be at school in two hours, but suspect I won’t be.
Eyes closed, head tucked against Rish’s belly, I ask: “Why sneak around studying Lloala, when you could get into any grad program in a normal language like Ancient Greek?”
“I fell in love with you, not some more convenient lover. And I fell in love with Lloala, too. Even though the originators supposedly didn’t have people like me. Maybe I fell in love with you because you didn’t believe that.”
“I love the language too, but the idea that these glorious powerful words—that if you speak them just right, you get a bunch of boringly identical people who think like old men with tenure—that’s never made sense to me. What we figured out today, I feel like I should have figured out a long time ago.”
“They’ll expel you over this. If we get published at all, it’ll be because the journal wants a controversy.”
“They’ll expel me.” And whatever happens after that, I won’t risk turning into another Rallis, the first woman in the endless army of tenured old men. “People will cite Anagnos and Musaru a thousand times, just to argue with us.”
“Musaru and Anagnos,” she murmurs, and twines her fingers through all of mine.
Professor Rallis has warned me about reviews. In any other field, I’d have mailed out a dozen manuscripts by now for safely anonymized consideration. But Lloala Studies still follow the old way. How could a reviewer judge our paper without seeing the scars from its preparation? So three years into my doctoral studies, I’m still without publications. I may be ready for the dangers of interpreting the originator’s tongue, even speaking it aloud, but Rallis doubts my ability to stand strong before a board of editors.
I fear for myself, planning my first submission without my advisor to protect me. I fear more for Rish, who can be daunted by the crowd at a party. But she wants to do it. And rejecting Rallis’s example, I trust her judgment of her own courage.
Head pillowed against my girlfriend, I dream of shadowed figures scolding me in calm voices, of willing my spine straight before them while my head swims with vertigo. The phone rings; I flail against the dream’s sticky strands, wracking my brain for how to answer. Rish silences the ringer and hands it over.
“Hello?” I strain to sound alert.
Rallis’s sibilant voice winds through the static of a bad connection. “Polymede, where are you? I need you in my office at once!”
“I’m so sorry, Professor. I overslept—just give me a few minutes to pull myself together. What’s going on?”
“Just get over here.” He cuts off.
I swear, in Lloala this time, and scramble for clean clothes. Rish hands me a comb. “Did he figure out that you were there? Polymede, tell me you didn’t leave anything in the office.”
Confession sucks. “I didn’t. But I closed the shades so no one would see my light, and I think I left them that way.”
“I’m sorry—I didn’t realize until I’d left. It would have been a bigger risk to go back.”
“Polymede! You can’t get kicked out before our review. We need your ID to get in.” She wraps her arms around her knees. “You can’t tell him about me.”
“Maybe it’s not that bad. Maybe he just wants me because he’s made a breakthrough translating the third sentence.”
That makes her smile. “He usually calls about that sort of thing much earlier in the morning.”
“True, but still. Look, you focus on figuring out what ‘Rochaol is up to, and I’ll handle Rallis.” I kiss her as briefly as I can bear. “I won’t be too long, I promise.”
But my belly is cold, and the ache quickens in my back. I can fake confidence for Rish, but my terror is the same as hers: that Rallis knows, and I’m about to be kicked out of the program before we can submit the article.
The office is bright with daylight, shades pulled wide. The papers and artifacts seem more accessible this way, but less themselves. I could read for hours, if he let me, without a shiver of discovery.
Rallis sits behind the paper-stacked desk, examining the stone tablet. His eyelids flicker, swift blinks over faceted corneas. His eyes are onyx-black from edge to edge, impossible to read. He refuses to take grad students who can’t meet his gaze in interviews. If advisees act too nervous, he foists them onto professors of Romance Languages: Lloala is for the bold.
“Professor.” I set my coffee on the edge of the desk, maybe a bit too pointedly. In Romance Languages, at least people get to call advisors by their given names. “What do you need?”
He stands. He ought to unfold, batlike, but the effect is entirely psychological. Sandy hair falls into his stony eyes, and he pushes it back impatiently. “It has to be you,” he says. His voice is low, a whisper to match his sharp-toothed hiss, more frightening than the unambiguous anger of screaming condemnation. “Lascaris would be worse. Or Alexandros.” Rivals, neither friendly.
He waves his hand impatiently at the window. I swallow, and make a decision. Yet another gamble. “All right, yes. I came in last night. I’m sorry. I couldn’t stop thinking about the new fragment. I had to try again.” Leaving out my methods, leaving out my partner. I can only hope my story is too simple to show the holes.
I shouldn’t be able to tell whether he’s even looking at me, but I feel the intensity of his glare. “And how exactly did you get in?”
I smirk—why not? “I figured out the Blacksmith’s Oath.” I wonder if he knows what I’m talking about; I wonder if there are other oaths, unknown to me, that make human motivations as starkly clear as the key’s landscape of molded metal. He’s dropped only hints of what full scholars can do.
He comes closer, stalks around me. “No new marks—that I can see.”
“I haven’t noticed any either.” My spine echoes the lie in sparks of pain.
“Perhaps it’s only your judgment that’s been damaged.” He hisses again, considering. “Well. Did you learn anything to justify your break-in?”
Perhaps it’s the ease of tension that comes with realizing that he’s not going to kick me out summarily. The hopeful implications of that word, “justify.” Or maybe it’s just the fact that I need to answer his question, if I’m not going to lose everything today after all, that makes me take a second gamble. “In this section, ‘Rochaol is definitely a real person—she interacts more directly with Eloar than in any previous fragment. Look at this sentence.” My finger tracks the text that gave us so much trouble. “Then Eloar raised ‘Rochaol into the temple because she was being marked by the power. The implications of this piece alone, for everything we’ve assumed about originator religion—”
But he’s shaking his head, an expression of vehement denial that shifts to disappointment before I can be sure of what I saw. “No, you’re being far too literal. See the alliteration—this line is meant to be taken metaphorically.”
“A metaphor for what?” I demand. Anger slips past my wisp of control. It’s one thing to ignore my aching spine, another to let Rallis smooth our night’s progress away into the camouflage of squirming definitions.
“For placing his own flaws where he can meditate on them and reject them. Or she might be a scapegoat figure.” He sucks a whispering breath through feline incisors. “This is why you shouldn’t work alone. Late-night epiphanies rarely stand up to scrutiny.”
I miss our first few months working together, when he would have at least considered my suggestions. “But there’s alliteration scattered throughout the epic. If we take this as metaphor, we could do the same for any part.”
“You can take inferences from other clues. For example, if your interpretation makes you question a century of scholarship about originator spirituality, you might want to look for possible alternatives that fit with what we already know. Creativity is important to linguistic study, but it’s not sufficient. Your body of work—if you’re lucky—will add a very small stone to a very large edifice.”
I can see the expression on his face, imagine the way it would reach his eyes: his doubt that I’m suited for this work, his suspicion that I epitomize everything that’s made women unsuitable from ‘Rochaol on down. And I know that if I bring up, now, the flimsy foundation of “everything we know,” I’ll stand at the Journal’s gates without a university ID.
“He didn’t kick me out,” I tell Rish. “Yet.” I grab a couple of naproxen tablets from the bottle on the bookshelf, and soda to swallow them with. Two kinds of caffeine before breakfast feels like a good idea right now.
“And cramps, too?” she asks. My period’s been irregular with the stress of study and sleep deprivation; I think that happens in every department.
“Not this week. Can you look at my back?” I tug off my shirt, wincing. Nothing, I want her to tell me. When’s the last time you saw your chiropractor?
“Ooh, these are nice.” Rish strokes cool fingers down my spine. “I don’t know how to describe them. They’re sort of wavy? Aoriivoi.” A poet’s word for ripples on water. The originators, far from any ocean, were fascinated by the way rain and stone disturbed placid mountain lakes. It’s a nice way of thinking about it.
“Theiaroneie,” I counter. Rish has always been fascinated by Lloala’s alterations, and the new-dyed fur on her neck made her smile for days. I’ve been able to cope with most of my own, but having one where I can’t see it wigs me out. “Can you take a picture?”
My phone is nearest; Rish inscribes my pain-curved flesh into its memory alongside the moonshadow words that marked it. I take the device by the edges like some brittle artifact. The screen shows the almost abstract sculpture of skin stretched over spine. Across my ribcage, watermark-pale lines waver like moiré. It makes my eyes ache.
“Does it hurt you to look at that?” I ask.
“It feels strange. Not bad, though, just weird.” She traces the lines, and I lean into her touch. It feels so comfortable, and so very far from the sacrifices demanded by our study. We consent to that sacrifice knowingly, when we begin, and yet it comes as a shock every time.
“Is love enough reason for this?” I ask. “The language can’t love us back. Why do we let it break us?”
“If anyone’s trying to break you, it’s Rallis. And you aren’t broken.”
“Him, too. He still thinks ‘Rochaol is allegorical, by the way. A ‘scapegoat figure.’ Maybe he’s right. All these scars the language leaves on us, maybe that’s where the originators put their imperfections. That would be a trick, wouldn’t it? Achieve enlightenment by passing all your flaws, all your impurities, to everyone who tries to follow you to the top.”
“You’ve barely slept,” Rish points out. “Rallis must have said something horrible—what was it?”
I sigh. “He figured out that I’d been in the office—so I told him I got obsessive and came in to look at the stone again. I dropped a hint about what we figured out—what we thought we figured out—and he basically said that any time I believe I’m right and my elders are wrong, I’m being an idiot.”
“If we’re only right when we’re just like everyone else, what’s the point of training more people?”
I curl into her lap and close my eyes. I feel exhausted. “To carry on the originator’s legacy, and to approach their greatness. Or maybe just Professor Rallis’s greatness. He wants people to hold his views in the department after he retires, doesn’t he?”
Rish begins humming again. I’m halfway to sleep before she speaks. “Who do you study to become?”
I peer up at her through the fog of my lashes. The question worms through my brain, seeking somewhere to settle. “What do you mean?”
“Supposedly we study Lloala to become like originators ourselves. To make our minds as much like theirs as possible. But no one ever succeeds—and they keep studying, so they must want something else too. Rallis wanted to be like his advisor, and for his students to want to be like him.”
Brain still fuzzy, I say, “You must be used to that, huh? People trying to get you to think like them.”
“People do that to each other all the time. I just know it’s impossible.”
“Aren’t you afraid that the language makes it possible? That if we keep studying, it’ll make us like them?” And that, beyond my frustrations with Rallis and the scars he leaves on my confidence, feels like a truth. It’s why I’ve decided to make this last grand gesture, knowing that afterwards I’ll lose the access that makes most of our study possible—to get out while I’m still me.
She sighs. “This doesn’t go in the article because there’s no evidence, but I think that at some level, we collaborate with the words to shape ourselves. Or I do.” She rubs the back of her neck. “This feels like something I was waiting for. It makes my body more mine. If that’s not what the originators got from their language, it doesn’t bother me, because it’s what I want. It shouldn’t have to be the same thing.”
“I’m glad it makes you happy. I wish I would—I don’t know. To me they feel like scars, and my back is killing me, and I didn’t want that. Maybe I want what you have. To collaborate with the language, without an advisor in the way.” Even if I have to do it with the pitiful scraps of Lloala that have been deemed safe enough to make accessible to the public.
“Suppose the originators were just a bunch of East African plains apes who didn’t know how to keep words from having power? It was our species’ first try at language. Maybe they summoned something they couldn’t banish without going silent forever, and they were just as desperate to understand it as we are. Would it still be worth it?”
The idea terrifies me, and yet it has a certain appeal. Maybe I’m just like the originators after all. “I don’t think I could look away.”
None of that answers Rish’s question, of course. And after we submit this article, however it turns out, I’m not likely to get another chance to find an answer.
The remaining days pass in a blur of sleepless anticipation. Rallis demands long hours in his office, quizzes me on classic studies, requires detailed interpretation of the new fragment in their light. Faceted eyes wait impatiently for me to fail again. I stumble home late, hide in Rish’s arms until I can regather the threads of our own theories and the confidence to half-believe them. We spend our short nights working on the manuscript, mustering arguments for uncertainty.
When I first started graduate school, I tasted this type of collaboration with Rallis. I wasn’t forced on him; he wanted to prove his teaching abilities on an unlikely candidate—and was at least provisionally impressed by the work I’d done on my own. But I lacked the habits of obedience worn into male students by their undergraduate training, and my insights didn’t mesh comfortably with his. If I were a man, he’d have packed me off to study Aramaic years ago. He isn’t ready to admit failure to his colleagues, but I suspect it’s only a matter of time. Or would be, if I weren’t about to break first.
The morning of our review Rallis calls five times, leaving increasingly agitated voicemails as I fail to appear in his office. In the Journal’s waiting room, I proffer the requisite seven copies of the manuscript. I try not to fidget as the clean-cut secretary runs my school ID and scans my sponsorship letter. He doesn’t ask questions, doesn’t seem interested in anything other than our paperwork. Their acceptance rate is low; I wonder how many of these appointments they go through every day. For now, there’s no one but us in the chrome-and-carpet chairs.
Rish starts to hum, but silences herself. We wait impatiently, heads drooping, for the hours it takes the reviewers to read the article. At last the door opens. Beyond it lies darkness. I shiver as the wards taste my sweat.
Vision clears slowly. The room is old, shadowed. The walls bear carven words: some from sources I recognize, others unknown. The floor is a parquet of dark wood, finely etched with more of the originators’ history. And the crescent dais on which the review board sits in their heavy chairs—that too is word-worn.
I don’t want to look directly at the three reviewers. The wards, I realize, haven’t yet fully released my sight. Rish is a shining point of familiarity amid intimidation. Her own gaze, of course, tracks the panoply of words surrounding us, sliding easily away from the board. Perhaps this is easier for someone whose eyes don’t insist on the precedence of faces. I try to do the same, then consider that like Rallis, these scholars might be testing our determination. That would be my job, then.
It’s hard to look up. But I think about our manuscript, about the truths and uncertainties that we need these people to understand, and slowly I force myself. I wish I had something like the Blacksmith’s Oath, to make the board and its demands snap into clarity. Of course, if anyone knows words to give insight into minds, as the Oath gives insight into metal, it’s the people here. What do they see when they look at us?
That kind of clarity is beyond my grasp right now; looking at surfaces is difficult enough. But under the focus of my exhausted persistence the fog clears, revealing men before me instead of terrors. Terrifying men, but I’m used to those. Their robes and suits hide much—but I see faces scaled by study, skin flecked by obscure symbols, flickers of tentacle and tail. The man in the center appears almost unmarked, save for the medusan writhing beneath the folds of his cowl.
He nods, and says in Lloala: “Good. Proceed.”
This is one of the few places on Earth where Lloala is the sole language spoken. In offices and classrooms and in post-coital conversation, new tongues intermix with the old, hedging against the risk of each word released.
“We are grateful for your willingness to consider our efforts,” I say. “We will strive to make them worthy of your time.” My undiluted words slip around me like eels, like winds, like living things, and suddenly this is what I want: to live immersed in the power of the tongue, to throw myself on its altar without reservation or return or the constant compromise of living with my scars in the world that makes no place for them. Part of me wants to sink to the ground, to speak all the poetry I know and let it shape me utterly, or sit in silence and listen to the language until it drowns me.
The reviewers, though, are used to it. It’s us they find strange. One, cheeks pocked by patches of snakeskin, frowns down. “You’re not our usual sort of supplicants. Who let you study the tongue?”
“And what about you?” The reviewer to my left points at Rish with a too-long finger. “You have no affiliation. What are you doing here? The sponsorship letter is extremely vague.”
This is the end of deception. We don’t know how much we can hide from the reviewers, even if we try. So we take our final gamble. Rish doesn’t look up from the floor as she speaks, but she doesn’t look intimidated either. “We’re here because we love Lloala, and we’ve seen things in it that Mistress Anagnos’s mentor doesn’t want to admit. We’re both women, and I’m mad, and you can judge that or you can judge the article.”
The central reviewer taps a sheet of paper. The sponsorship letter. “Gregor Rallis didn’t write this.”
“No,” I admit. “He disagrees with our conclusions. Vehemently. Are you interested in hearing them anyway?”
“This is ridiculous,” says the long-fingered reviewer. “These girls make a mockery of our review. What do you mean by telling us you’re mad?”
Rish rocks a little. If there’s a word in Lloala for autism, no one’s recognized it. “My mind works differently. I’m good with details. I like patterns. I think most people are very strange.”
I wish they’d bother with introductions. I know the names on the journal’s masthead but can guess nothing other than that the central reviewer is probably Shamas Adini, their editor-in-chief. He glares at her; the thing beneath his cowl stills, poised to strike. “That could describe anyone.”
She stares at the words winding the floor. “Yes. The distinction for which I’m excluded from Lloala Studies can’t be described in Lloala.”
The man with scaled cheeks sighs in exasperation. “Then what bearing does it have on our deliberations here? Did someone send you to provoke us? Did Rallis put you up to this after all?”
The others murmur at this; Adini leans over to whisper to his neighbor. We’ve stumbled into one of Rallis’s rivalries, treacherous as a misspoken word. Rish ignores it. “He’d never speak to someone he thinks is already broken. He’d rather leave his own marks.” Do they hear the anger in her scarcely modulated voice? “Your students come through their studies with anxiety, depression, trauma. The academy is a crucible for wisdom and madness.”
A moment ago I wanted to stay in this room forever, immersed in its transformative force. Now I wish we were back in our apartment, where I could bask in her words without worrying about how anyone else would take them. But someone needs to address the social side of the equation. “Rallis would never send us to say these things. We came to provoke you on our own behalf, and on behalf of our discoveries.”
Dr. Adini laughs—not a pleasant sound, even if better than the glare. “Very well. Present your work. And yourselves.”
My relief is tainted; I know what he means by that command. If any of these old men seemed to see anything in our bodies beyond scholarly aberration, I don’t know if I could go through with it. But there are no leers, only curiosity and clinical distaste.
Chill wafts from the walls. I pull off my cheap student’s robe and drop it on the floor in a puddle of polyester. The tiny buttons on my blouse dig painfully into my fingerpads as I force them loose. Pants, underwear; I’m suddenly terrified that I’ll get my period now, naked and under judgment. But I doubt they’d care—it’s my hand they want to see, my newly-scarred spine, the tiny welts on my tongue that ooze ink when I’m nervous. I taste it now, wet and green as swamp moss.
Rish’s hands freeze over her own buttons. Her eyes widen. “Help,” she whispers. She repeats the demand, louder. Normally she wears long, loose dresses, soft inside and frilly outside, perfectly matched to her own taste. I shouldn’t have pushed her into ordinary professional clothing.
Knowing it will displease the board, I pull her close and unfasten the buttons myself. “It’s okay, focus. Deep breaths, shhh.”
She squirms and whimpers, worse as she clumsily yanks her socks off. But oddly, once she’s all the way undressed, she seems calmer. “I told you I was mad. You didn’t believe me.”
“Marks from illicit study,” suggests Dr. Adini. He steps down from his pedestal—I muffle a shriek—and slinks over to examine her more closely. I still can’t see what’s under his cowl.
She backs up. “I told you. I’m always like this.”
I get between them. “She’s a brilliant researcher. She just doesn’t like fasteners. Or being crowded.” No word for “buttons” in Lloala, either. But he cocks his head as if she’s a graven tablet from which he wants to brush the obscuring dust, and she’s shivering under the force of it. I need to give her space to recover. “I’m the only one marked by our work. Look at my back.”
I turn, baring moiré scars to the board. If I closed my eyes, I could reconstruct this room’s every chiseled letter from the draft echoing against my skin. Once again, I feel myself on an altar. But it’s an altar of eyes, my sacrifice not blood but visibility. And this one I make not for Lloala’s sake, but for Rish.
Behind me I feel eddies of warmth from the shift of Dr. Adini’s cloak. I resist the urge to look. Something whispers against the cloth, emitting nearly inaudible clicks and whistles.
“Unusual.” He lifts my hand to examine the superfluous fingers. I try not to twitch—let him think of my marks as isolated phenomena, not attached to a real person. His own hands are ordinary, a little calloused, unpleasantly dry. “These are the sort of thing I’d expect—they were your first?” He prods my back, and this time I do flinch. He doesn’t seem to notice. “This is more interesting. From the new fragment you describe in your article?”
I nod. I want my clothes back. But that’s raw civilized reflex and the deeper, instinctive desire for the illusion of armor. More than those shallow urges, I want to pass through the ordeal of the board’s judgment. I want these men to find our sacrifice worthy, and listen to what we’ve learned, and accept it, and hate it. I straighten my shoulders and lift my eyes. I imagine them naked with all their shameful, pride-earned marks, and myself clothed in words of moonlight.
The wards shimmer. Vision flickers and returns. Behind me, a familiar voice rasps, “Miss Anagnos, this is not where you’re supposed to be this morning.”
Rish jumps and squeaks. I manage to avoid anything quite so dramatic. I turn slowly, knowing that if I move too fast my mask will slip.
“Professor.” My voice is nowhere near as steady as I’d like. “I didn’t expect to see you here.” Stupid thing to say, but I can’t think of anything smart. Shallow desire or no, I scoop my robes from the floor. No one’s given me leave to put them back on, but I hug the pitiful shield to my chest.
“Gregor.” Adini sounds amused. “So glad you could make your student’s review.”
“I nearly didn’t.” Insectile eyes scan the room, unawed. “Miss Anagnos. I’m afraid I don’t know your…co-author.”
I take a deep breath. If I were only defending myself I could be frightened, overwhelmed, intimidated. Not for Rish. “Professor Rallis, may I present my colleague, Miss Erishti Musaru. She’s an independent student of the tongue, and responsible for many of the insights in our translation. I believe we were just about to present, if you’d care to watch.”
“Don’t be absurd,” says Dr. Rallis. “Shamas, you can’t mean to let my student present without my approval. Or this amateur, who hasn’t even a mentor to sneak out on.”
Rish’s eyes flicker across the carven wall. “You could judge the article on its merits. Professor Rallis can’t, though—he hasn’t read it.”
“Why, Gregor,” says the man with the snakeskin cheeks. “Losing track of your student’s work? How unlike you. You were always so…meticulous.” He’s the one who accused Rallis of sending us to waste their time. An ally—maybe? If we can convince him that his time isn’t being wasted.
Rallis hisses. “Your arguments are as intellectually coherent as ever, Basil.” Which makes his adversary Basil Lascaris, one of the journal’s senior editors.
“There are protocols,” says the man who called us “ridiculous” earlier. “We’ve violated them a dozen times this morning. Enough. Send these girls away and let Gregor bring his back when she’s ready—if he still wants to.”
“Thank you, Cyrus. I knew I could count on you to be sensible.” And that one must be Cyrus Matraxia. He has a reputation, scholarly and otherwise.
Adini, who could put a stop to this in either direction, watches the exchange with shaded eyes. But I can see, in Lascaris’s thin-lipped smile, in the cordial nod that Matraxia exchanges with Rallis, that this won’t be decided by the merit of our work.
Rish’s eyes widen. Ignoring the board, she paces around their grand thrones, all her attention focused on the wall behind them.
“What in the Cave?” Lascaris demands.
“Rish, what are you doing?” I ask. Of course, I know the answer. Words are always words to her, context be damned, not toys or heraldry. Professor Rallis turns his directionless glare on me—clearly I’m responsible for this disruption to the board’s ritual judgment.
“Is this from the Lloala ‘chaio?” Rish demands. “I’ve never seen it.”
Adini leaves me to examine her find. He doesn’t have it memorized, of course. The board works in this room every day—but reading articles, discussing the latest findings, building old rivalries and friendships with the researchers who’ve been here a dozen times. Easy to let your eyes pass over the familiar. I discard protocol to join them, back aching under Rallis’s glare.
It’s colder in the back of the room, as if the carved stone gilds a glacier. Guiltily, I pull my robe over my shoulders.
The section that caught Rish’s eye is high in a corner, drenched in shadows from the bas-relief beside it. The letters are worn shallow. The stone is pockmarked and the left edge shorn away, jagged from some cataclysm. But, primed by a week of sleepless hyperfocus, I spot the same thing Rish did. One of the broken words is almost certainly “‘Rochaol.”
I point the half-name out to Adini. “It’s her.”
He squints, craning closer, curiosity overcoming dignity. “There are other names with that ending. And I don’t see any other references to the characters of the ‘chaio. But—” He tracks the lines with a long finger. “—the descriptions here would fit with the Institut des Arts fragment.” He pauses. “And with your thesis, I think. ‘Along the temple’s windward wall, clerics study transformation through masks of wings and scales. Against the slope, unmarked clerics—’ And there the piece cuts off. The original interpretation—I believe it’s in our January, no, our February 1938 issue—suggests that this shard describes the imagined practices of some rival culture. But there’s no evidence to support that claim.”
My hand hovers near the worn fragment. Hidden here because it fit neatly into an awkward angle, all its worth dismissed, for decades. Along with the piece we’ve been working on, though, it suggests a world that offered more than one path to wisdom. More than one permissible way of thinking.
I’ve been thinking of this whole effort as a swan song. Force them to pay attention, get one perfect publication to horrify all the field’s authorities, and go out in a blaze of glory rather than buckling under the misery of Rallis’s constant criticism. I could bear to give up Lloala’s unattainable enlightenment. But the Lloala hinted at here—that, I want to keep. I could put up with the judgmental old men, the glares and the petty politics, for the sake of the texts to which they guard the locks—if the texts themselves reveal something better.
Rish’s lips part in delight. “But now we need to revise the article!”
“Not with my student!” Rallis’s voice fills with an anger usually reserved for recalcitrant undergraduates. “Shamas, this is ridiculous. It’s one fragment, we’ve no evidence that it’s part of the epic—it doesn’t match anything else we know about the originators! Miss Anagnos, you’re coming with me now. We can discuss your future—or lack of future— with the university back at my office.”
“Hard to have your theories undermined, Gregor?” asks Lascaris.
Adini swings back into his seat, waves us to our place in front of the dais. “Get dressed. Miss Musaru, even when we accept an article, we always ask for revisions. Present your work as it stands now.” Rish comes reluctantly, my hand on her elbow.
We talk them through our translation and the accompanying explanations: ‘Rochaol’s role in the epic, her relationship with Eloar, the proposed connection between her marks and her place in the temple. Rish, utterly beyond the inhibitions of formality, interjects suggestions about how we might now transform these interpretations. Rallis and Matraxia glare at her; Lascaris looks amused. Adini, at least, seems genuinely intrigued. All the while I’m aware that, without Rallis’s access and sponsorship, this is the last time we’ll be able to stand here.
We finish, and silence stretches through the chilly room. At last Adini nods formally. “Miss Anagnos, Miss Musaru, Dr. Rallis. Please return to the foyer while we confer.”
The waiting room is unreal, the catalog-standard furniture like something from another time.
“You’re expelled,” Rallis tells me, voice deathly calm.
“I know,” I say. Rish squeezes my hand. I close my eyes tightly, but tears threaten to push through the cracks. I won’t let him see how much this still matters to me.
Long minutes later, the secretary sends us back in. The wards are still discomfiting, but my vision clears almost immediately.
“Miss Anagnos, Miss Musaru, your manuscript is accepted with a request for revisions.” Adini smiles at us. In spite of everything, I release a breath that I’ve been holding for weeks. If nothing else, I will have my swan song. “Dr. Rallis, of course you’ll have authorship as well, by courtesy. Miss Anagnos is your student, after all.”
“She is not. I refuse. I will not put my name to this nonsense.” He stuffs hands into his pockets, satisfied. “Are you really going to associate your journal with wild claims by two independent researchers without degrees? The university won’t put its name to this either, I promise you.”
“I’ll sponsor it,” says Lascaris. He turns his bemusement on me. “And Miss Anagnos. I admire your creativity; the field needs more of it. I would be very pleased to have you as my student.”
Another breath, one I didn’t know I was holding. I’d prefer Adini, whose swiftly drawn connections and apolitical curiosity remind me of Rish. But he makes no move toward an offer of his own. It’s Lascaris, who thinks me a clever way to show up an old rival, or nothing.
“Take Rish, too,” I say.
“Really?” He turns to her. “Girl, do you have any formal study? Or are you just a savant?”
She stiffens at the dismissal. “I have a BA in the study of how languages work. I qualify for everything, except that I’m against the rules.”
“Because you’re mad.”
“By your rules.”
Lascaris hesitates. I force a smile at my former advisor. I can say whatever I want about him, now. “I didn’t even dare tell Dr. Rallis that I was working with her. He’s said often enough what he thinks about people whose minds distort reality. His own perceptions being perfectly accurate, of course.”
It’s the right approach. I can see Lascaris turn his attention from judging Rish to judging his rival. “But you won’t accept the same arrangement with me?”
Adini snorts. “You can afford two students. And Miss Musaru is the one who spotted the fragment.”
Lascaris rolls his eyes. “Very well. I’ll take them both. Gregor, good luck filling your empty line.”
I could still say no. When I started at the university, I didn’t know what I was getting into. I didn’t know how much the study would demand of me, either out of Lloala’s own necessities or the ancient grudges and traditions crusted around that core of knowledge. I almost let them drive me away, and keep it all for themselves—I’m not willing to do that anymore. These old men are never going to give my work the respect it’s due; the tongue will never stop demanding sacrifice. But I’ll decide on my own this time, knowing what I want to learn and who I’m studying to become.
No, not on my own. I take Rish’s hand. “You raise me,” I tell her quietly, and I feel the answer in the strength of her grip.
“You raise me,” she agrees.
“We accept,” I tell Lascaris. And together, I tell myself silently, we’re going to find every crack in that wall behind him.
Text copyright © 2018 by Ruthanna Emrys
Art copyright © 2018 by Rovina Cai