copyright 2016 A.M. Kirkby
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Ibn Roza, nom de guerre of Jash Astvili, b.2948 (disputed: poss. 2944) d.3010. Civil servant under Mek Safivi (qv) before the civil wars between Safivi, Badmash-supported syndics, and a number of revivalist and refusenik militias such as the Troublers. Using his expertise and selective patronage, Ibn Roza became a major supplier to various militias, employing his previous department staff to provide security for a safe trading corridor through the Southern Frontiers. It has been alleged that he effectively turned his government department into a criminal gang, though his actions have been defended by both militia sympathisers and Badmash revisionists.
His compound at Jamshid Gate attracted refugee artists from more lawless and puritanical areas of the country. It was a byword for decadence as well as elegance (“while other warlords restricted themselves to the occasional rape or forced marriage of captives, Ibn Roza kept a pack of favourites both female and, scandalously, male; even more scandalously, recreational drugs were freely available at his court, including marijuana, opium, and even alcohol”: Stamford, p392).
It is not easy to make things beautiful. It is not easy to create space for them to flourish, to train the roses to grow elegantly on the wires, to coax them to bud and flower. It is a perennial struggle against blight, against the worm and the fly, a precarious balance between drought and drowning. Each year he tries. Each year he fails often, succeeds sometimes; each year, but for one, he has been rewarded, at last, by the soft and heady perfume of the roses in the gentle dawn.
It is not easy to rule a domain, either.
You can’t make a rose grow the way you want. You have to encourage it gently. He spent a long time building the framework of withies and wires that tempts the tendrils to cling, the green branches to twist and push upwards. He feeds his roses well, manure from the stables and ash from the kitchens, and soot, mixed up with what a scholar passing his court once suggested, rotting fish, applied just when the first leaves appear. The balance between the ingredients has to be right, and the timing; not too early, and not after the last rose has blossomed and begins to disintegrate, slowly and elegantly, the separate petals uncurling, loosening and falling away from the stem.
Over the years, he has learned. He has got quite good at it.
And then, sometimes you have to prune.
Today will be pruning, he’s decided. Or rather, it has been decided for him. When the roses get too leggy, when the flowers are few and small and the thorny branches scramble over the trellis like briars, it’s time to prune. With these new roses, the genetically altered roses that bloom five times a year, it seems always to be time to prune.
“They’ve got a point, you know.”
Ibn Roza turned. His court poet, Shahrastani, was there, beautifully dressed in mint green silk, his elegance, as always, spoilt only by a smear of ink on the first and second fingers of his left hand.
“I know that,” he said. “That’s not the issue.”
“I never thought I’d hear you say that. They’re killing Badmash in Khusrau, you know that? And suspected Badmash. Anyone they think might have a gene splice, for any reason. Anyone with access to or knowledge of genetic technology. They’re killing doctors, for God’s sake. Is it any wonder the Badmash are hitting back?”
“These aren’t Badmash. They’re rebels.”
“They’re Badmash sympathisers.”
Ibn Roza felt his temper rising hot within him. With difficulty he controlled it, made his voice calm and low.
“This is not Badmash country. You may have noticed. This is the Valley of Roza. Neither Badmash nor Safivi. We do not allow their quarrels here. I do not allow it.”
“For one. For one only.”
“It won’t be popular.”
“Taxes are not popular. But still I exact them.”
“Ha,” said Shahrastani sourly. “Death and taxes. You’ll be making a martyr, you know.”
“I’ll risk it. Anything to keep the peace. At least we have peace here.”
“That would be too much to ask for. But at least I let you write about it.”
Snip. A leaf fell from the twig. Snip. A dead rose, velvety and limp like a dead bird, hit the dust.
Shahrastani began to recite, his voice far away and dreamy:
I dreamed of flying
like the swallow
never to touch earth again
and you smiled
and my heart flew
away with the swallows.
“Nice. Your latest?”
“I wish,” Shahrastani said, and smiled ruefully. “It’s an old one.”
Love, roses, wine, peace, freedom. Ibn Roza knew the price each one demanded. He found a stray branch, brought down by the wind, and disentangled it gently from the other leaves; he pricked his finger, saw the blood start to the surface and bead on his skin. It had to be twisted round the wire twice before it would stay, and he could look for the twine to bind it fast.
And here came Rali Half-a-hand, in his faded black. Shahrastani had been diplomatic, resigned; Rali was more blunt; more persistent, too.
“You’re doing the wrong thing,” he said; just using those words would have cost him his head in many courts, though not here.
“It’s not my war.”
“It should be.”
Ibn Roza shook his head, and gnawed on the quick of his finger where he’d pricked it on the rose bush.
“I work within my limits,” he said.
“A rose garden. When people are dying.”
“At least my roses grow. And there’s no war here.”
“The war will come to you, you know that.”
Ibn Roza smiled. Half-a-hand was always grumbling. He turned again to the roses. One, an early white rose shot through with blood red, was already disintegrating, its petals flabby and flopping and beginning to brown at the very edges.
Snip. This time he misjudged it; a whole sprig fell, hit the wire, teetered a moment before falling. He looked at the bush; the pattern of elegantly curved branches had been broken. There was empty space where leaves should have been. He felt it like a wound.
“And anyway,” Half-a-hand was saying, “they’re not like the rest, corrupt, or hypocritical. They do at least believe in the virtues they preach.”
“I don’t like public virtue,” Shahrastani said. “When I see a man who’s conspicuously virtuous, I always wonder what he does once he’s home, and the door locked.”
“You know they’re killing the philosophers”, Half-a-hand said.
“What can I do? I give them refuge here.”
“So the philosophers hate you for not taking the war to the enemy, and the enemy hate you for harbouring the philosophers.”
“Let them hate me. This is the best I can do.”
“A rose garden”, Half-a-hand said. How he hated the roses.
“A refuge”, countered Sharastani.
“Built on bullshit.”
“All the best rose gardens are”, said Ibn Roza. “Don’t wrinkle your nose at it.”
They passed into the chamber of audience. The throne was already set up in the middle, or what passed for a throne: a hard little wooden platform with a thin purple silk cushion placed on it.
“You should put your throne at the end,” Halfhand said, “it would be more imposing. And you’d have a wall at your back.”
“I sit with my people”, Ibn Roza said. “I show them I have nothing to fear.”
Many came to the House of Wine and Roses now, some for refuge, some for justice, some simply for the bread and drink that Ibn Roza gave out; Roza the open-handed, some called him, another cause for Half-a-hand to grumble.
“I gave the buggers two of my fingers,” he said sourly, “and they hate me, you give them stale bread and they love you”; though in truth he’d not been half as heroic as he liked to imply, since he’d caught his fingers in the breach of a gun he’d been loading. As for ‘giving’, he hadn’t had much choice about it.
There were revisionists in their grey robes, undyed and never washed, mixed among the gentle pastels of the poets and courtiers; room for both in Ibn Roza’s hall of audience, though the poets wrinkled their noses and twitched their silks away from the revisionists. There were country people in drab or gaudy, and a few members of the refusenik bands in their dirty camouflage colours, desert browns or the slaty grey of the mountain detachments, and one or two in third or fourth hand combat greens, ineffective in this arid climate but all they could afford.
Ibn Roza wasn’t given to pride, but he felt the satisfaction of a job well done as he looked across the throne room to where Half-a-hand stood leaning, as if casually, against the wall of the entrance passage. His garden flourished, flowers of all colours blooming; here, he’d made a safe place, a little paradise.
He knew the price. The price was a perpetual, perilous balance between allegiances. The price was never being able to feel clean; there was always someone to pay off, always some principle that had to be betrayed or watered down or gently set aside for the moment. Sometimes he looked at the revisionists with envy; they were so sure of what their gods called them to do; and the refuseniks, so certain that there were no gods to call them to account.
Where was Shahrastani? He’d sent him to fetch some paperwork – a poet could always be spared, a bodyguard couldn’t – but he wanted his smooth mind more than he wanted the papers. He could see plenty of pinks, and turquoise, and even lilac and a faded dust violet – though those, conventionally, were colours for later in the year; but where was that mint green? Today more than ever he wanted his poet’s support; he wanted words as a disguise, words as a cover, words as a sweetener for the bitter medicine.
He wasn’t at all sure he didn’t agree with the Badmash, when it came to it. But he couldn’t have Badmash sympathisers opening up a new war in his territory. Half-a-hand was half right; war would indeed come for him, if he let it. He didn’t even approve of death sentences, had a certain distaste for the act of killing; but he would have to pass sentence, and having passed it, would see it was carried out. He’d trimmed the bill as much as he could, he’d pardoned five of the youngsters, sent a couple of others to work out the next few years in the lapis mines, but the leaders would have to be shot, there was no way round it.
He’d get through the morning’s other business first, he thought, and hope Shahrastani would turn up. He looked through the list Half-a-hand had given him; the usual businessmen interested in contracts legal or half-legal, a couple of alleged swindles, wives of men killed on service asking for support, a man whose goat had been run over (it was still alive, but apparently “a three-legged goat was worse than no goat at all,” to which Shahrastani had replied wryly that it obviously depended on what you were trying to use the goat for), a poppy farmer from the far reaches of the valley who had lost three fields to the flames after a revivalist incursion,a disagreement between theologians who seemed to think it was Ibn Roza’s job to resolve it, two neighbourhood disputes, a boundary definition, three building permits, a trading licence, and a poet looking for patronage. (“Give him a job with a good title, and no money,” Half-a-hand had said, and Shahrastani, after looking at one of the verses, had agreed, “and don’t make the job title too attractive, either”).
Where the hell was Shahrastani?
Ibn Roza looked down at the rose he’d picked that morning, a striking red. He’d looked, but couldn’t find a perfect white one.
Sometimes reality seemed to model itself to his thought; it was uncanny, as if the world had been thinking what he thought, or worse, as if the world had been thinking him. He’d just thought of that one, perfect, unachievable white rose, and a flash of white caught his eye; a young man, dressed in the austere white of a Troubler, coming through the great double doors just before Half-a-hand pulled them shut and the morning audience began, as always, with the same five words he’d read so long ago, when books were still common:
“Let us cultivate our garden.”
So this was the great Demon, he thought, this little man with a walnut face and twinkly eyes. He’d expected someone more decadent looking, a plump, oily man, running to fat. At least the court didn’t disappoint him; the heavy odour of nearly blown roses, the pastel coloured silks that everyone wore here, the kohl-ringed eyes that seemed to beckon him to illicit pleasures. He looked with suspicion at the tulip patterned carpets whose soft silk seemed to tempt his feet into sensual diversion; the way the patterns swayed and seemed to move confused his eyes, and he felt giddy for a second. That was the way temptation came at you, dazzling and befuddling, tempting you away from the blunt realities. He gripped the butt of the pistol under his casually wrapped shawl and thought of hard things; whitewashed walls, stone pavement, cold nights on guard.
He found a space on the floor and sat, tucking his feet neatly behind him, pulling his shawl round him as if against the morning chill.
This was how they did justice here, then. A woman approached Ibn Roza, and told her business, some swindler who had taken her money for a trading voyage, and spent it all, and lied when he was asked what had happened; that was a year ago, and now she’d found out from a friend of her husband’s that the voyage never happened at all, and she wanted restitution. And instead of doing anything, Ibn Roza simply ordered that the swindler should appear in three days’ time, and smiled at the woman in an encouraging way, and told her to wait, and not to worry, and that was that.
There was a dispute between two neighbours over a vine that grew on the wall between their gardens, and who should have the fruit. One said he should, because the roots were on his side, the other that he should, since it was only on his southern side of the wall that the grapes ripened.
“You’re aware that grapes make wine, that wine makes drunkenness, that drunkenness is a sin?” Ibn Roza asked them, and they bowed their heads and looked ashamed.
“So I should, really, confiscate the grape harvest from you, in order to keep you away from the occasions of sin.”
Ah, that was how the Demon operated. He financed his own sins by pretending to be upright; he’d confiscate a poor man’s grapes so he could drink the wine, the hypocrite.
“You’re both wasting my time. I’ll give you a choice. Either you agree to share the bloody grapes between you, half and half, or by my father’s beard I’ll take the grapes and give you both a kick up the arse.”
By the time Ibn Roza had finished people were already smiling and beginning to laugh guardedly at his judgment, except for the two disputants, who looked even more shamefaced now than when they’d heard the harvest would be confiscated.
“Get out!” Ibn Roza shouted at them, and they pulled the hems of their robes up and ran, followed by a wave of laughter from the audience.
“That’s the way to do it,” rumbled a voice from the back, the cripple who’d nearly shut the door on him.
Then there was another trivial case, and Tammis thought; have I come too late? Is it all done, already? If this had been a Troubled Council, the men would be dead already, bleeding out into dust, not carpets. But they’d told him the audience only began when the doors were shut, and he’d only just been in time.
Trivial, trivial, trivial. The world stood on the brink; there was trouble everywhere. The revisionists were winning, and with them, hopes of progress were dying. They wanted a return to the purity of the old days, and it wasn’t only about whether you accepted gene splicing or not: it was about women, it was about gods, it was about replacing a rational society planned for the greater happiness of the majority with a theocratically driven feudalism.
He was fighting for progress. He’d seen children die here in the Frontiers from diseases the Badmash vaccinated against, poxes and plagues; seen whole families wasting, each generation eaten away by its genetic inheritance. And here, if what they said was true, the devil Ibn Roza kept the gene splice from his people, but used it for the incredible, the self-indulgent, the truly wicked luxury of growing flowers.
Ibn Roza who played games. Ibn Roza who was sometimes happy to let their convoys through, if they paid him off well enough. Ibn Roza who hadn’t been paid enough, last week. Ibn Roza who had decided, this time, it wasn’t a convoy but a rebellion, and Tammis’ brother Kammes wasn’t a driver but a revolutionary, one who deserved to die. Tammis wondered whether, in fact, the revisionists had simply paid Ibn Roza more than Kammes had; when it came down to it, was it just an auction, in which the winner got to drive away, and the loser got a rope around his neck?
Ibn Roza right now was calling more laughter out of the mob, with some crack about “I don’t know what you want that goat for, but I can’t think of any reason I would care how many legs it’s got”. Justice here was bought and sold and laughed at; if it was justice at all.
Tammis could see too many wearers of the grey among the audience. He hadn’t noticed them before, dazzled by the pastel peacocks; but now he saw them, sitting alone, each man surrounded by a little empty space, so that he was a monochrome island in a sea of rose petals. It wasn’t obvious, unless you looked through half closed eyes, to see the spaces, not the crowd; and then you saw how completely everyone avoided touching the grey-clad revisionists, how they placed themselves just a little further away, without the ease of the courtiers (hand in hand, or leaning against each other, a hand on a shoulder or laid languidly on a knee) or the hugger-mugger solidarity of the countrymen in their little knots of muscle and rag.
So he was letting the revisionists in. They were all over the place. This wasn’t “keeping a safe corridor,” or “protecting the peace,” or “impartiality,” or any of the other phrases Ibn Roza’s road police and taxmongers used; it was treachery, it was sleeping with the enemy.
His eye was caught by a flash of mint green, so sharp it almost made his mouth water. A thin, elegant man who bent to whisper to Ibn Roza, who passed him a single piece of paper. A sentence. Perhaps a pardon, but he knew it wouldn’t be. A sentence.
This was it, then. Time. He reached for his gun.
Like all the other times, when trouble came, it was sudden, it came from nowhere. The laughter had died down, the goat farmer had taken it with bad grace but he’d accepted the decision, and if Ibn Roza remembered, there’d be a little compensation for him, next week, a small subsidy of some kind; the next case had been called forward, and suddenly, a man wearing white had stood up, and rushed forwards, struggling with his robes, trying to pull something from under the shawl that had got caught around him.
A knife? A gun? There were supposed to be no weapons here; there were checks at the entrance to the compound, checks at the doors, checks in the queue for audience. If no one else had stopped him, Rali Half-a-hand should have done. But Rali was running forward, shouting, grabbing, too late, too late.
A shot. Ibn Roza’s eardrums rang with pain. Too close. Too close, but obviously it had missed him, and the man’s hand still wasn’t free of his shawl; Ibn Roza’s thoughts raced, he realised he had time to reach for that hand, to push it back, to disable his opponent, and at the same time he saw a flash of green between them.
Another shot, so loud it was like a migraine, and he saw Shahrastani stagger. A dark stain spread on the light green. Around them people were moving, turning, running, and here in the still centre of the turning world he saw Shahrastani’s arm rise and fall, rise and fall, rise and fall, before the poet’s body started to collapse.
He shouldered the poet aside, grabbed for the Troubler’s wrist, twisting hard, the way his training had taught him. It broke the Troubler’s hold; the gun fell to the ground, where Ibn Roza put his foot on it, and it must have clattered, but he couldn’t hear it, he could hear nothing but the pain in his eardrums hissing and ringing. Then Half-a-hand was there, saying something, or shouting, more likely, but he couldn’t make it out, and the adrenalin was dying away now, and as had happened before, now the danger was passed he was almost numb, almost drowsy, slow moving and slow thinking.
He looked down and saw in the gap between the carpets a glimpse of white marble, and a curl of blood, or it might have been a red rose petal.
He fell to his knees beside Shahrastani, and tried to pull him up by the shoulders, but the body was limp, and he realised at once that the poet was gone; and realised, a moment later, that in the hand which had risen and fallen three times, he’d been holding a pen, a fine ivory pen. A fine ivory pen with a vicious steel nib; and the ivory smeared all over with blood.
“O…i…. ai….” Rali seemed to be saying, only when he listened, the third time, he understood it; “Got’im … in the …. eye”.
He grinned dourly. He’d been congratulating himself on swift thinking, fast movement; and he’d taken the gun off a dead man, a dead man with only one eye left to stare sightlessly at the ceiling.
And then Rali was pushing something at him, and he took it; a single sheet of paper, with four lines written on it.
I dreamt of roses
in your hair
and rose petals floating
down from heaven
Ibn Roza survived a number of assassination attempts thanks to the intervention of trusted associates such as Rali ‘Half-a-hand’ (q.v.) and Salachakra ‘the Pigeon-fancier’, as well as to the inefficiency of most such attempts. In 3001, 3006, and again in 3010, several members of his court were killed at his audience, but Ibn Roza escaped unwounded.
However, an attempt on his life later in 3010 proved successful. At this distance it is difficult to disentangle the truth from the various contradictory accounts, but it appears that a local goat farmer who had suffered not only injury as a result of Ibn Roza’s military operations, but insult on attempting to recover damages from Ibn Roza in audience, had determined to assist the Revisionists in their attempt to secure the Valley as a strategic point controlling the main trade routes. Ironically, the improvised explosives used in the suicide attack were made using fertiliser ordered by Ibn Roza for his gardens.
In a country fast falling into civil war, Ibn Roza tries to maintain a small island of peace and poetry. He balances factions to make civilisation possible. But has he made a precious paradise, or an irrelevant backwater? and more importantly, can he survive? In this short story there are roses and there's blood; there's poetry and there's violence. There may be a few surprises, too.