The most curious miracle of all was that of briefly-miraculous events centered around Ashara Komayd, former Prime Minister to Saypur. Curious, because she was dead, and there was no suggestion that she was anything other than slightly touched by the Divine. However, ever since her death rumor had spread through the city of Ghaladesh that if you lit a candle at the darkest part of night and left it and a cup of fresh-brewed tea at a slightly ajar door, a numbered list would appear, consisting of tasks Komayd had left undone in her efforts to lead the known world to a brighter future.
Rumors like these were dangerous after the Last Night of Hope, as the fateful battle of Bulikov between two gods came to be known. While the nature of miracles still remain a mystery, it became known very quickly that if enough people believed something to be true, it became so. The belief in this miracle of Ashara Komayd lived on, despite no one actually receiving such a numbered list, until a scholarship Continental student at the Saypur Institute of Miracles received one while studying for her final exam in Miracles - Transformative. She finished her exam and disappeared before the results were published, resurfacing six months later in Ahanashtan leading the Alchemist Guild to dizzyingly new heights.
Following this, incidents occurred weekly around Saypur and the Continent, each involving a youth no older than twenty who disappeared and re-appeared some time later to lead new innovations and change in the known world. A shepherd would become a map-maker who could create maps of areas yet to be discovered. A mechanic would draw schematics of Divine-designed buildings to be wrought by human hands. A cook would create recipes that allowed a person to cook dishes that would impart ideas and knowledge to those who ate them.
Then, just as quickly as it started, the miracle of Ashara Komayd stopped working.
- “The Nature of Saypuri Miracles”, by Professor Thulighen, Bulikov University
It is early morning, and Minister of Miracles Turyin Mulaghesh is in dire need of either good news, or a shot of whisky in her tea. Neither seem likely to happen in the near future. She glowers over the remains of her breakfast, prepared for her by staff who value her ongoing health over taste — as if a woman her age needed to worry about her health anymore, now that she’s outlived all of her contemporaries — and aggressively slurps her now-cold tea. Her latest aide, a bright-eyed girl of too-fucking-young whose name Mulaghesh pretends to have forgotten so that she is not reminded that grandchildren are serving now, politely ignores Mulaghesh’s foul mood.
The cause of her bad morning is a report, delivered to her that morning by the same aide, who had clasped her hands behind her back as she kept her face pleasantly neutral.
Mulaghesh receives all of her morning reports in her dining room, an austere room holding a table, several chairs, a wine stand and nothing else. Wooden cutlery and stone crockery are used instead of metal or ceramic, and interspersed at regular intervals on the walls are stones that cause an unwary viewer to feel nauseous and disoriented. There are no reflective surfaces, and even the young aide must remove her glasses before entering the room. It is a room designed to resist miracles: all that are known, and a few that are only theoretical at this time. Paranoid, but after the first empowered spy from Jukosthan, necessary.
The report itself is written on fresh white paper, and written with a clean hand that seems untroubled by the news the writer is conveying. Mulaghesh’s agent, Riya Alluri, outlines a series of events over the last six months across the Continent and Saypur, all tied together with a belief in the former Prime Minister Komayd that transcends the usual respect she now commands. She had interviewed all of the youths caught up in the miracles, and all of them had spoken of a frozen moment of time, of light and sound that defied speech, and then a certain knowledge of what they were to do. As if they could not do anything else. As if Ashara Komayd had become a goddess and had visited her followers to guide them.
Mulaghesh knows Alluri and knows that she is not easily disturbed. She also knows that Alluri is young enough to have never known a Saypur that Shara had not shaped. The miracles that Alluri had seen were the small, everyday ones that are commonplace now. She had never seen the terrible, awful beauty of a Divine miracle, and so could be forgiven for being mistaken.
Not the least because the alternative – of a Divine taking the form of Shara Komayd – is revolting.
The only thing of comfort in the report is that there was one person who had encountered the so-called miracle of Ashara Komayd and who had ignored it: Emil Vestergaard, a Continental student studying at the Saypur Institute of Miracles. He had encountered the miracle last night, tentatively verified by the Ministry of Miracles, and had chosen to stay in Saypur rather than follow the miracle’s directions. Curious, but not the first time that Mulaghesh had seen someone defy a god. If indeed it was Divine.
“Bullshit,” Mulaghesh pronounces finally. “Shara is dead.”
“Yes,” agrees her aide as she tucks an errant strand of short dark hair behind one ear. “But that’s what the report says.”
“I know what it says,” Mulaghesh says. “But I also know that Shara is dead. And while she was too damned clever for her own good, she wasn’t Divine.” She had Divine heritage, certainly — and hadn’t that explained a lot about the Komayds when it had been uncovered — but the Shara that Mulaghesh had known was stubbornly human, with a dangerously sharp mind behind those soft brown eyes and thick glasses. Shara always thought several steps ahead, plans within plans, but her operations had always been within the realm of human ability.
Then again, that was before she had died, and then lived somehow for a brief period of time before dying again, and who fucking knows what that might have done.
Mulaghesh sighs, her plans for an easy morning spent finalizing her paperwork before her long-deserved vacation dissipating like fog. “You’ve got me an appointment at the Institute?”
“Yes,” the aide says. “We’ve made arrangements for all students affected by the miracle to be available for questioning.” She pauses, asks delicately, “I don’t suppose you would like to do some of the questioning yourself?”
Mulaghesh snorts, wondering what they are teaching young recruits, that they think that an old soldier like her knows anything about questioning people about the Divine. “Absolutely not. That’s why I hire all of you.”
“I’ll make the arrangements,” the aide says, as she reaches into the pocket of her jacket to extract a small crystal. Its twin is in the Ministry of Miracles’ secure chamber, and vibrations against the surface of this crystal will be transmitted to the other one in a way impossible to intercept. Mulaghesh doesn’t pretend to understand how the security crystal works, but she appreciates that it does, and that it’s the most secure method yet for communications. There is talk of shattering one and placing a fragment inside a portable phone along with other fragments to create a secure portable phone network, but Mulaghesh hopes to be out of her job before that happens.
The aide rattles off a sequence of codewords which, when translated, require that the Minister be supervised by several discreet staff members, made more so by their own miraculous abilities, and that questioning of the students is to begin immediately.
“We’ll go after breakfast,” Mulaghesh interrupts. “I’m an old woman, you can’t rush me.”
“Of course,” the aide says. Mulaghesh studies her for any suggestion she’s indulging her, but her aide is too good for that. That’s the problem with hiring staff from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mulaghesh muses as she swallows her stone-cold tea. You can’t tell anything of what they’re thinking. Even Shara, who Mulaghesh suspects she knew better than most, had been an inscrutable cipher when she had chosen to be, which was often. After all, isn’t it Shara’s fault that Mulaghesh is now investigating an impossible miracle, despite Shara being dead five years?
Bah, Mulaghesh thinks. That’s the problem with outliving everyone. Eventually all of their plans come to roost with you. She puts down her wooden knife and fork and says, “Well? Aren’t we going?”
If she hopes to surprise her aide, she is unsuccessful as her aide already has her cane ready to hand. Mulaghesh takes the cane, pushing herself up and gritting her teeth at the grinding pain in her hip. She waves off the aide’s help and plunges her cane to the ground like a sword thrust into flesh.
If there is something that Mulaghesh has learned about public service it is that people generally approve of ideals such as research and innovation, but would much rather it take place not near them. The Saypur Institute of Miracles is something that all Saypuri agree should exist (after all, who knows what threats miracles can pose if not Saypur), but all Saypuri also agree that it absolutely should not be located anywhere near them. After a year of wrangling, the Ministry for Miracles finally built its institute on an artificial island located off the coast of Saypur, accessible only by aerotram, and a two hour ride at that.
Take, for example, the building itself. At the moment it is a tower of gleaming metal, the sun transforming it to a burnished gold that looks like nothing more than a beacon. The last time that Mulaghesh visited the institute, it was a wide sprawling campus with tents in lieu of buildings. The time before that it was a set of buildings with stairs spiraling into the heavens. The time before that it was a crater, though she was told that that happens only very rarely.
The problem with the Institute, so Mulaghesh is given to understand, is that it brings so many ambitious dreamers to one place, all yearning to change the world, and so reality gets a little thin. Apparently final exams are particularly bad.
On arrival, Mulaghesh and her aide are taken up to the top of the tower, which is where the facility offices are located. Mulaghesh herself is ensconced inside the Miracles - Transformative professor’s office, a cluttered office dominated by a battered bookshelf stuffed with books. She wonders how anyone can own so many books that they are shoved haphazardly into all gaps in the bookcase. If it weren’t for her hip playing up, she’d go over and have a look to see what they are all about.
Instead, now that she has successfully delegated most of the questioning to her subordinates she’s reviewing the notes of the Ministry employees who have already conducted their interviews. It doesn’t take long; no one really knows anything of what happened when Emil Vestergaard triggered the Divine alarm at the Institute. The maid saw the tea at the door, the dormitory warden knew that he was out of bed after curfew, the boyfriend swore up and down he wasn’t with him.
She is reading through the painful handwriting of the agent who conducted the interview of the maid when the door opens with a creak.
“Excuse me,” a peevish voice says. “But might I be allowed to go soon? I was told you were the person to ask.”
Mulaghesh looks up slowly from her reading to see Vestergaard, the subject of the investigation. He’s a tall Continental man with red-blond hair and a sour expression that curdles to sick horror as he recognizes who she is. “You go when I say you can,” she says and he swallows, going pale.
“Yes, ma’am,” he says quickly.
“I have some questions for you.” She nods at the seat across the desk from her. “Take a seat.”
He does so gingerly, sitting on the edge of his seat and watching her like cornered prey. It’s not surprising. He’s already been questioned, and thoroughly at that, and Mulaghesh has already read the report. He’d performed the miracle due to a dare from his boyfriend, had felt the presence of a Divine Shara who told him to return to Bulikov and take up stock trading, and then he had refused to go.
It is the last part that intrigues Mulaghesh so. The one thing that unites all these young people is that they admire Shara. Venerate her. Having one refuse is damned strange. Which is why she wanted to speak to him herself.
“Is there something more you need from me?” he asks. He’s gripping the chair with one hand, knuckles going white with strain.
“I’ll keep this short,” Mulaghesh says. “Why didn’t you go when everyone else did?”
“I didn’t want to.”
“Because I didn’t travel all the way here to go right back home again,” Vestergaard says irritably. “Especially not for some imposter.”
That is also likely the truth. It’s a condition for all Continentals traveling to Saypur to declare their miraculous abilities on entry. It doesn’t always work, especially now with trade being freer than it was, but it seems that Vestergaard is the conscientious sort. He had identified himself on application to study at the Institute as someone who can tell if someone is lying to him. Undoubtedly not a useful ability, which might explain why his relationship with his boyfriend is reported to be tempestuous.
“You said that earlier,” she says. “What did you mean?”
“It’s like I told those other guys,” he says. “I don’t know who she was, but she wasn’t Ashara Komayd.”
“Who was it?”
“I don’t know,” Vestergaard says irritably. “She didn’t exactly introduce herself with her real name when I told her ’no’.”
Mulaghesh says nothing, and he squirms. “Sorry,” he mutters. “It’s been a long day.”
“What did she do when you said no?”
“Nothing. She just looked annoyed and left.”
“She just looked annoyed and left,” Mulaghesh echoes.
“I know! It sounds stupid, but that’s what happened.”
“Could it have been another student playing a prank?”.
Vestergaard shakes his head. “No. It was like … everything stopped except for me and her. Not frozen, but … between moments in time.” He sighs. “I don’t know any other way to describe it.”
It’s not his words that persuade Mulaghesh that he’s telling the truth, but how he says it: like he has lost something, and, he can’t quite describe what it is. Mulaghesh didn’t feel that way after Voortya, but she didn’t think she had ever been an awkward adolescent with dreams of changing the world. It’s a gentler world, now, than the one she had grown up in.
“All right. You’re done. Get out of here.”
He sags in visible relief before pushing himself to his feet. “Thanks. I’m always happy to help the Ministry, you know that.” His words are belied by his sickly smile and the tight grip he has on the back of the wooden chair, as if afraid he will fall over if he lets go. He exhales heavily and heads towards the door, only to pause as he reaches it.
“Minister Mulaghesh,” he says, sounding troubled. “I think I’m supposed to ask you something.”
“What do you think a miracle is?”
Mulaghesh considers the question. “Damned annoying,” she settles on at last.
This startles a laugh out of him as he leaves.
Mulaghesh stares at the closed door. She needs a drink now more than ever.
Mulaghesh likes to think that she’s become more sensible as she becomes older. More cautious, more deliberate, less likely to run off and do dumbass reckless things. This does not align with her sitting on the floor in front of an ajar door, a candle and a cup of brewed tea sitting in front of her. She has one match in her possession. There are undoubtedly more scattered through this house, but Mulaghesh is reluctant to involve anyone else in her foolhardy idea. If it doesn’t work then no one saw the Minister for Miracles attempt to perform a faddish miracle on the floor of her private bedchamber. If it does work then she wants as few people in here as possible.
The match lights, and to her relief the candle wick catches fire. In the candle light, the barrel of her gun gleams a burnished gold. The tea is dark and fragrant in the cup, and Mulaghesh keeps very still as she keeps an eye on the time. As it nears midnight, she aims the rifling over the tea and candle, into the empty space of the slightly-opened door. Now that the moment is upon her, she is terribly afraid. Her rifling will do little if it is actually a Divinity, rather than some adolescent with the miraculous ability of mimicry and a bad sense of humor.
At midnight the candle goes out. Mulaghesh doesn’t need it, because there’s someone glowing in the doorway. A small, slight woman, apparently made of light, carrying a lantern. She looks around, a serene smile on her face, and then freezes at the sight of Mulaghesh, the rifling. Her eyes widen. “W-what?”
It’s this reaction that makes Mulaghesh think it’s not a Divinity but instead someone else being forced into the role. She remembers the Battle of Bulikov. She also remembers shooting at Thinadeshi through Voortya’s armor. Divinities are untroubled by conventional weaponry, but humans know how good a gun is at killing people. Whoever this imposter is, staring at her with wide, frightened eyes from behind Shara’s glasses, she is human.
“Who are you?” Mulaghesh asks.
Not-Shara looks at her incredulously. “You need to ask me that?”
Mulaghesh snorts but doesn’t lower the rifling. “Unlike tthe kids you’ve been fooling, I knew Shara Komayd. You’re not her. She had ice-water in her veins, and you’re a child playing dress up.”
The woman who is not Shara smiles wryly, amused by a private joke. “That’s more true than you know.” Her tone goes wistful and sad. “I never knew that side of her. I’ll have to remember that.”
Mulaghesh blinks and in that moment Not-Shara’s skin goes Continental-pale, her eyes lightening, her nose tilting upwards at the end. She is Tatyana Komayd, and she is not. As she sheds her disguise she becomes more: wearing moments of time like jewelry, draped in the past and the future reflected in the pins that are tangled in her curly dark hair. And yet, though she doesn’t look like Shara now, the resemblance in the way that she stands, the way she holds her head, is so much like Shara that it aches to look at her.
“Well, shit,” Mulaghesh says. “I was hoping it wasn’t a fucking Divinity.”
“I’m not one anymore,” Tatyana says. “I gave as much as I could away.”
“Yeah, and then you appeared in my living room after I performed a damned miracle.” Mulaghesh looks down at the tea, cooling in its cup, and shakes her head. “I’ve seen real miracles. This isn’t one.”
“What is a miracle?” Tatyana asks, and Mulaghesh looks up sharply.
“Why did you tell Vestergaard to ask me that?”
“I needed you to think about that, after he said no. I needed to talk to you.”
“Good. I have questions for you.” Mulaghesh considers. “Or just one: why are you pretending to be Shara?”
Tatyana doesn’t look surprised by her line of questioning. “You know how people see Mother now.”
“A visionary?” Mulaghesh offers when Tatyana doesn’t continue. It seems to be the response she was looking for, as she nods.
“People keep praying to her, hoping she’ll guide them. So I do what she would have done.”
This Mulaghesh already knows. It’s the motivation behind it that confuses her. “Why?”
“If enough people believe in something it becomes true. The more people who believe that Mother is Divine, the more people who’ll listen when I tell them what they need to do to help fix things.”
Mulaghesh stares at Tatyana in horror.
“By the seas,” she breathes. “You’re making them believe in Shara as a Divinity.”
“They don’t need much help,” Tatyana says. “They’re already halfway there.”
The children of Divinities can bleed, if you know where to aim, Shara told her once, when Mulaghesh went to visit her at her family’s estate. She had insisted that Tatyana be put to bed before they spoke. At the time Mulaghesh had thought it a parent’s desire to protect her child from the harshness of the world, though it was strange to see it in Shara. Now, as Tatyana looked at her with those strange, colorless eyes that seemed to see everything, Mulaghesh sees that it is a warning. Protect my child from the world. Protect the world from my child. It’s hard to work out which one Shara meant.
“Why are you making them believe in a Divinity like Shara?”
“Because,” Tatyana says. “They want it, and I can do it.”
Tatyana is easier to read than Shara. For all that Tatyana is far older than anyone now living, she is still so very young, and Mulaghesh has dealt with many young people in her time. Many desperate young people, scrabbling to find something to cling to, a cause to die for. And this young woman learned from Shara’s shadow how to manipulate people to get what she wants, while being too damned young to understand the narrowness of her perspective.
“Don’t pretend this is altruism,” Mulaghesh says harshly. “Face what you’re doing, Tatyana Komayd. You’re using people to get what you want.”
Tatyana flinches, her mouth set in a mulish line. Her chin jerks up defiantly, and she demands, “So what? They want it too.”
“People want lots of things,” Mulaghesh says quietly. “That doesn’t mean they should have them. They might want Shara back, but that’s just a means to an end for you. This is about you getting Shara back. You want her back. Don’t you?”
Tatyana goes red, jaw bunching with repressed emotion. “You don’t understand!” she snaps. “All of my mothers are dead, so why can’t I have one back?”
“Because it won’t be Shara!” Mulaghesh retorts. She takes a breath and says, more quietly, “Sure it might look like Shara, might even sound and act like Shara, but that Divinity won’t be Shara.”
“It could be.” Tatyana says it like a plea. It could be, if you let me. Please let me.
Mulaghesh knows better than to let her.
“No,” Mulaghesh says firmly. “It couldn’t.”
“But … I want her back. Sigrud’s dead and Auntie Ivanya died and … would it really be such a bad thing for Mother to still be here? There’s so much she could do now.”
Tatyana’s not angry now, just mournful. Mulaghesh had known that Sigrud died, as she and Hild remain in contact. The last though, that was news to her. Restroyka had left her residence several years ago, after the second Battle of Bulikov, but she was also notoriously reclusive. Mulaghesh remembered her as a bright young thing in Bulikov, and it is startling to think that even the young people she had known had grown old and died. Usually the young died in battle, their dreams cut short with the sword that kills them. Then again, the Battle of Bulikov was in its way a sword thrust into the heart of Bulikov itself, and there was a generation of Continental citizens whose hopes and dreams bore the mortal wounds from that battle.
“Restroyka’s dead?” she asks when Tatyana says nothing more.
Tatyana nods. “About six months ago. She broke her hip a month earlier and then … just declined.”
“So about when this ‘miracle’ started.” Mulaghesh sees the confirmation in Tatyana’s face. “Oh, shit,” she says fervently. “You know all this is a bad idea, don’t you?”
“Yeah.” Tatyana’s shoulders slump, expression naked and raw. Mulaghesh lowers her own weapon. “What do I do now?”
“Let it go. Go back to the Dreyling Shores. Play with Sigrud’s grandchildren. Live the life that Shara wanted you to have.” She shakes her head in rueful amusement. “And leave these poor stupid kids alone. They’ll find their own fucking stupid cause to live and die for without you. Kids usually do.”
Tatyana shakes her head slightly, eyes downcast, before stiffening her resolve with a sharp intake of breath. “All right,” she says. Her face is wet with tears. “I’ll stop. Mother wouldn’t have wanted this, would she?”
“Not a chance in all the hells,” Mulaghesh says. She tries to rise to her feet but her hip has stiffened up from sitting on the ground and she can’t get up. “Now help an old woman to her feet.”
Tatyana kneels down and helps Mulaghesh rise to her feet. It’s after Mulaghesh is upright that she realizes that Tatyana could have performed some minor miracle to get her back up on her feet. Instead she helped Mulaghesh like the young woman she appears to be. Like the young woman she, perhaps, is. For all that Tatyana pre-dates the Saypur Empire, she is still so very young.
“Why did you come up with a ritual that meant I had to sit on the floor?”
“Sorry,” Tatyana says, abashed. “I forgot about your hip. I should have remembered.”
“Just don’t let it happen again.”
“I won’t.” Between that moment and the next, Tatyana disappeared.
Mulaghesh stares at where Tatyana had been. Her memory of the last ten minutes is beginning to go soft and hazy, like a dream, and she swears under her breath. She limps to her bed and writes what she remembers in quick, hurried strokes before her memory is lost forever. “Damned Divine brats,” she mutters, knowing that the more she tries to cling to the memory of Tatyana, the harder it will be for time to erase it, and knowing that Tatyana would have planned it that way.
Six months later, and it seems that Tatyana had kept her word. The sixth anniversary of Shara’s death — the first one, that is — had passed with the usual ceremonies. The Saypuri National Memorial Ground had been full of mourners, inundating the Komayd section. The monument to Shara is starting to show the wear of thousands of hands pressing against it.
And yet, even with all this faith in Shara that transcended the woman she was, to make of her something miraculous, there are no more appearances of a Divinity wearing Shara’s face. There are no more rumors of Shara’s list which send children off to ‘fix the world’, whatever that meant.
There are rumors of a Continental girl attending the ceremonies for Shara, wearing hairpins that reflect terrible, lovely events. The rumors are that the girl quietly recites the address of an estranged friend or loved one who is ready to reconcile, which is all the more mysterious given that she simultaneously provides such an address for every single attendee at the memorial service.
She doesn’t speak to Mulaghesh at the service, despite Mulaghesh standing on the podium at the time of Tatyana’s miracle. Mulaghesh doesn’t expect her to. She doesn’t need it.