Chapter 5 - The River Festival (cont.)

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I'll get back to the River Festival in just a second, but first let's talk about our great mystery from last week:  the etymology of veins of gold.

I asked my linguistics professor about it, and he said that the phrase actually came from Marinthian mythology rather than Anumite.  I didn't dare ask for any further clarity lest I arouse suspicion that I have an interest in flimflam, but I sure wanted to.  The Marinthians and Anumites both believing their gods had golden blood is a most interesting coincidence.  In my very first entry I mentioned that there were similarities in tales of magic from cultures thousands of miles apart.  Now we can add golden blood to that list.

I'll explore that more later when I have time to delve into the full mytholgy of Marinth, but for now, let's pick up where we left off with the golden bracelets.  Yes, they symbolized Tukamen's golden blood.  But they also had long-lasting consequences for those involved in the festival.

If they were fake...well, that was one of the highest crimes a person could commit.  It simply wasn't done.  But on the few occasions that it was, the perpetrator was promptly branded, castrated, and sent to the mines.

So yes, they definitely had long lasting consequences for those criminals.  But the real ones did too.  To illustrate their importance, allow me to share a passage from the Keshat's One of Ankti's One Hundred:

The festival of Ankti stretched into its third week.  The canal had still not flooded, and with every woman that ascended the temple stairs, the crowd grew more and more restless.  The smell of date mead and the specter of famine hung heavy in the hot summer air.  Over the past few days, the mood around the canal had quickly shifted from revelry to revolt.  The women parading down the street dressed as Ankti had become an afterthought...

...until she entered Alqari's Canal.  The giant scorpion pulling her chariot was twice the size of any I'd ever seen, and the chariot was made of solid gold and adorned with enough gems to buy three armies of slaves.  But the beauty of the chariot was nothing compared to the beauty of the woman riding on it.  Her hair was spun with gold and pulled into a tall mohawk, her ears were adorned with the finest sapphires, and her white linen dress was impossibly thin and delicate.  I heard one woman nearby remark that she would not be surprised if it was Ankti herself.  Indeed, the flawless features of the mask of Ankti had never looked so natural on a mere mortal.

For a moment the entire city went silent at the sight of her.  Then it was chaos.  The drummers beat their drums with a vigor that had been absent since the first week of the festival.  Young men yelled boasts of how they would get past this monstrous scorpion.  Loudest of all though was the bookies.  How many bracelets would she earn?  How many men would succeed?  How many would be Tukamens, and how many would be Nairos?  Would the river rise during her dance?  You name it, there was a bookie there willing to give you odds on it and take your money.

As the woman danced on her golden chariot, gyrating her hips to the drum beat, my pulse quickened.  Was this my moment?

I had been preparing for the festival for years.  I had spent countless hours studying statues of Tukamen and trying to craft my costume in his image.  The mask had been supplied by the temple, of course, but the rest was my own creation.  I had measured and cut the linen for my skirt.  I'd gathered rocks and stuck them to my shoulder with date palm sap to make Tukamen's iconic stone shoulder.  And I had even paid the goldsmith to let me hammer my golden bracelet into a perfect circle.

Practicing to get past the giant scorpion had taken even longer.  I felt like I was ready, but I had only practiced evading normal sized scorpions.  Giant scorpions were an entirely different beast - forgive the pun.  Their claws were the size of a man, and rather than a painful pinch, they'd snap your leg in two.  Or if you were really unlucky, they'd get you with their stinger and send you on an early trip with Katra to the afterlife.

But most important of all - at least, in my young mind - was the strategy of it all.  How do I pick my Ankti?  How do I determine which woman would end up with my bracelet on her arm?

"Let Tukamen guide you," was the advice the priests gave me.  But all that meant was to come up with a strategy, because that was the way of Tukamen.  Hadn't the priests read any of their own stories?  Whether it was business or love or war, Tukamen always had a plan.  Order begets prosperity.

I came up with at least a dozen different plans, but in the end, I settled on the following:

1.  Do not, under any circumstances, go for the first woman.  Whether she happened to be beautiful or not, she always had multiple suitors.  Some men simply couldn't wait.  Others made a tactical decision to go first in case the canal flooded and ended the festival early.  Either way, going for the first woman meant likely sharing her with others, which I did not want to do.

2.  Always face the giant scorpions one man at a time.  This was an unwritten rule of the festival.  Only Nairo would try to sneak by the scorpion while it was distracted by another man.  Going one at a time also decreased the likelihood of sharing the woman, since once a man had passed the scorpion other men generally just waited for the next woman.

3.  Don't pick the most beautiful woman.  The more beautiful the woman, the more likely it was that you'd have to share her.

So far, I'd stuck by those rules perfectly.  I had skipped the first woman...and I'd skipped the rest too.  My golden bracelet was still on my arm, waiting for me to find my perfect Ankti.

And this woman, the one on the golden chariot guarded by the biggest scorpion in all of the Anumite Empire, was my Ankti.  I was sure of it.

I was just about to climb down to face the scorpion when a man across the canal beat me to it.

He was huge.  He must have stood a foot taller than me...until the scorpion snapped both his legs off at the knee.  After the scorpion crawled over him, two priestesses of Ankti took his bracelet and carried him away on a stretcher.

The next man to attempt to join the woman on her chariot got impaled by the scorpion's stinger, and the next was tossed into the wall of the canal with a lazy swing of the scorpion's claw.

What happened next had never been witnessed before and I've never witnessed it again.  First two men went against the scorpion at the same time, then another joined.  And then another.  And then another.  Within seconds, at least a dozen men were all trying to get past the scorpion.

And I was one of them.  Yes, that went against both rule #2 and rule #3, but I didn't care.  Tukamen was guiding me.  I could feel it.

I hung back and watched as the scorpion defended his precious cargo.  He was invincible when attacked one at a time.  And two at a time.  And three at a time.  But he only had three weapons:  his left claw, his right claw, and his tail.  So what if we attacked him four at a time?

I joined the next group of three.  His claws got the first two men, and his tail got the third.  The diversion allowed me to jump onto his head unscathed.  His tail whipped at me.  I dodged.  All my training was paying off.  She would be mine.

But I couldn't get distracted.  I sprinted across the scorpion's carapace and wrapped my arms around its tail in the same spot you'd grab a normal scorpion.  It was the one spot they couldn't reach.

I looked at my prize.  My Ankti.  The most beautiful woman in the empire.  She smiled at me and shook her hips to the beat of the drum.  For just a moment I lost focus and loosened my grip, and that was the end of me.  The scorpion flicked his tail and sent me tumbling to the ground.  All I could do was look up from the flat of my back as my Ankti rode by on her golden chariot.  The priestesses were with me a moment later.  One asked if I was okay while the other slid my bracelet off my arm and added it to a bag of a dozen others.

A hundred men tried to get past that scorpion, and all failed.  Except for one.

Some say he was Tukamen himself.  Others say he was the emperor.  He was of course wearing a mask, so we'll never know for sure.  But what we do know is that his union with my Ankti ended the drought and brought the flood waters.

I didn't become a man that year, but I can always say that my bracelet is one of the hundred on the arm of Empress Anamank.

So how did that mysterious beauty go from riding behind a scorpion to becoming the empress of the entire Anumite Empire?

In short, the bracelets.

In long...well, that's going to take a little bit longer to tell, and I seem to have run out of parchment this evening.

-T.H. Sterling

Chapter 6 Coming in 2019

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