Temos Atritian knows many things about Tihluhan. It is a secret language, a language of the shadows, best for plots and secrecy and things half-known and half-understood; it fell into disuse five centuries ago; and its last living fluent speaker was dying in a bed three hundred miles from her university. She hears more around campus from fellow students and even professors: Don’t you know it has sixteen cases and twenty tenses? Aren’t you worried about the moods? Isn’t it painfully hard to learn? And most of all she hears: Why bother? Its poetry is incomprehensible, the history untrustworthy, letters full of lies deliberate and unintentional.
To all of this she shrugs. She lets people think that she is in love with her own brilliance, or that she is obsessed with minutiae, or that she’s wasting her time. She can’t fully articulate her reasons. Sometimes, late at night, she tries, speaking in halting Tihluhan, minding her moods and cases, or else writing them down in hesitant script in her own language, on sheets of paper that are always burned by morning.
To the wizards she explains it like this: There is no language that gives the true name of everything. A thing’s true name is the weight of everything that it has ever been called. It is why, she tells them, magic has been getting weaker—if you can say “happiness” and not remember the words that came before you have lost the power of the word; you can no longer create it, since you do not know it.
To the biologists she says: You do not forget the animals that no longer exist. You see the effects that the dead species have on the living. And I see the hand of Tihluhans on our language—we would have no word for “the suspicion that someone we trust will betray us” if not for them; we would not have the shifting moods our language takes on when we speak of love.
To the physicists she says: If there are invisible forces in the world that act on objects, why not on language? The universe takes note of the movement of a planet a million million miles away; the universe we make with our words feels the death of every word in every dying language.
To the theologists she says: You speak of gods with mercy beyond human comprehension, gods who weep for the death of an ant, gods who hold the souls of the dying in gentle hands. If there are infinite gods, surely there is a god who sees the death of Tihluhan and mourns it.
Time governs her. Time, and money, and the disdain of her peers. But she feels time most of all: she is a spectator in the race between the University Council’s decision to fund her journey to Terios, and the life of that last speaker, which could wink out at any moment.
On a bright winter day, she is called to testify before the Committee again.
“Why should we fund this fool’s errand, in the middle of the worst winter we’ve seen in years?”
She winces. Until now, she’d thought the Head of the Modern Languages department to be her best ally.
“I don’t believe it to be a fool’s errand,” she says, aware that she sounds childish.
“Go on,” says Modern Languages.
This is the place, she knows, for an impassioned defence of her project, for eloquence, for the kind of speech that would leave them all dumbfounded. She looks deep within her heart for the words she needs, all those words she’d thrown away, the ones her trash bin has overflowed with morning after morning. But she discarded them for a reason: none of them ever felt strong enough.
“Well?” says the Alchemist. His voice is kinder than she expected.
“I—” she starts, faltering, and then decides to make her stand. “It is true, masters, that this language is no one’s first language, and never was. It is a shadow language, an éminence grise, the kind of language that hides in the darkness and darts out at you. But it was once the language of monarchs and of merchants, a tongue for lies and for treaties—a lingua infranca, if you would. It is at once more precise and more vague than other languages: because it was made for lying, it is made also for telling the truth. You can be evasive; but you can also speak with terrifying accuracy. Things are truer and realer in Tihluhan. It would be a sorrow to the world if such a language should vanish from it.”
The Biologist claps for her slowly and ironically. “Well said, Miss Atritian, well said. Go on, and tell us what you hope to gain from speaking to a dying woman in Terios.”
She spreads her hands wide. “I don’t know, exactly,” she says. “But it seems to me to be the case that there is something to be gained from hearing Tihluhan spoken aloud, to have it move the air once more.”
“So,” says the Theologian, “you want us to pay to send you three hundred miles to hear what may be the last words of a woman of no special importance, just so you can hear your pet language?”
Spelled out like that, it seems ridiculous. But she stands her ground—she stares straight up at him, at the whole panel, looking each one of them in the eye one by one.
“Yes,” she says.
The Physicist laughs. It’s the first sound she’s made during the whole meeting. They all turn to look at her, but she says nothing else.
“Have you anything else to bolster your case with, Miss Atritian?” Modern Languages says kindly.
She shakes her head.
“You may go, then.”
She leaves, feeling as though she’d been pummelled for the last hour, her heart in her boots, her mouth dry. This is it, then—she has to use the texts she’d found, not a living speaker’s living words. It is not—should not be—different. And yet she knows it is.
She receives the notice, the next day, that her request for funding has been approved.
Tihluhan belongs to her and yet keeps her out. Her tongue stumbles over the syllables; she sounds out every word before trying to produce it and still sounds weak and unconvincing. But she goes around the campus like a girl with a new lover. She holds the language to her heart, folded into the breast pocket of her dress. Sometimes she is glad that no one cares: it allows her to possess Tihluhan entirely, without having to share.
But she has to share her language, if she is to preserve it.
The funding they’ve given her is not extensive. She makes her own travel arrangements, hiring the cheapest horse she can find; she is not sure if it will arrive in Terios alive, but she must eat, and so she cuts all the corners she can. The horse is tired. Its coat is dull and splotchy and its eyes are half-closed. Her heart sinks when she sees it first—but she’d spent much of her money contacting the woman in Terios. The wizards could have done the working to speak with her for free, as a gesture to a fellow scholar, but wizards never work for free.
She does not try to speak in Tihluhan. It is not the right time. It is an intimate language, a tongue made for face-to-face meetings, and not for the impersonal, crackling waves of the wizard’s working. The woman does not sound enthusiastic about Atritian’s visit. She sounds old, and tired, and sick. But she agrees, and for Atritian that’s all that matters. She will have her interview.
Riding down the muddy road leading from the university town, she tries to let her passion overwhelm her present misery. She doesn’t know what to do with the days ahead of her: it is three hundred miles to Terios and she figures on forty miles a day. Seven and a half days, with only the tired horse for company. She sighs. The horse speaks as much Tihluhan as anyone at the University.
In Terios she almost forgets her purpose. She stands in the street, gawking, and lets the crowds flow around her. She has never seen so many people in one place before. Terios is built on an heroic scale: its buildings reach to the sky and its temples look as though they were built by giants; even the remnants of the ancient walls are huge, their ragged edges black against the grey sky.
Terios points to the sky. Everything rises, the noise of the crowds, the smell of the streets, the songs of the priests. And her eyes follow it all, up to the low grey sky, and she feels her spirits rise. For a long time she wanders the cobbled streets, aware of the city around her. People move around her, going about their everyday lives, unaware that their city is a miracle. In one storefront there is fruit from across the Sea; dresses, untouched by their journey from Gherian, hang in another; a third displays books in several languages.
The miles she’s ridden fall away from her, and she is barely conscious of the weight of her pack. And then she hears words she does not know, a liquid song of a language, descending from a window, and remembers what she has come for. She hurries on to the woman’s home, near the centre of the city.
The woman must have had time to leave Ilhuial before it fell. Her home is richly decorated. The walls are covered with tapestries; the floors are inlaid wood, or mosaic; the furnishings are graceful and outdated.
Atritian runs her hand along the wall. The tapestry yields beneath her fingers. The ceilings are high, and as the wood creaks under her feet, her steps echo.
When she reaches the room where her host lies dying, she is shocked. Not because the room is bare, a sharp contrast to the opulence of the rest of the building, but because the woman herself looks so healthy. Atritian would never have thought the other was dying if she did not know already.
“Is that Temos Atritian?” says the woman in the bed, in Tihluhan.
“It is,” she replies in the same language, and bows as gracefully as she can.
“You are welcome to my home, Temos. I am glad to have you.”
Atritian doesn’t know if the woman is speaking the truth or not, but she makes small talk in Tihluhan for several minutes. The words are awkward on both of their tongues. Atritian has never spoken with anyone else, and it is different than letting the language float out into empty air. The old woman’s tongue is rusted with disuse. Both of them mangle the words and stumble on them. And yet—this is what she has wanted and worked for, this awkward conversation about nothing. And so she is glad.
They fall into patterns of false intimacy. The woman calls Atritian only sometimes, when she is not tired. But when they do speak, Atritian tells her everything, because this doesn’t feel real. Not the city, not the bare room in the luxurious house, not the conversations in a language she barely knows. And the woman smiles, and listens, and speaks with her.
Atritian is unmoored. She is still happy to be speaking her language at last, but she no longer has the surety that it matters. Without knowing it, she lets this great secret slip. The woman is silent for a little while.
“You have built around your heart,” she says. “You have built walls around it, like the walls of Terios, and you fear that they surround nothing. I do not say ‘demolish your walls’—but make sure you build gardens as well as walls.”
“What was it like, living in the court of Ilhuial? Was it like the novels they write? As glamorous, as treacherous, as beautiful? Is it true that Queen Otariel had a horse for every day of the year? Were there assassins behind every column? Were there towers reaching higher than the ones here in Terios?”
“Child, child. You’ve studied Tihluhan, and you still believe everything you hear?”
“I don’t believe—I want to believe—”
“Shh. Everything is and is not true. It is true that Otariel was fabulously rich; it is true that the court was dangerous; it is true that we built high and beautiful and too fast. But the foundations of the towers were weak; and there was always trust to be found somewhere; and Otariel was as generous as she was rich. There are a thousand sides to any act of humankind, and we in Ilhuial before it fell were no different. Our language, this language we are speaking now, was made for subtlety. That is why it is the best for love, for poetry, and for history.”
“For history? Isn’t it true that, if a language can be made for subtlety, it can be made for clarity? And if that is true, then shouldn’t we use that clear language for history?”
“You are charming! You think there is a truth of history. Whatever language we write in, lies will creep in. There is no truth in action. There is only seeming and wanting to seem.”
“But what happened is true—”
“Let me tell you a story. It is true that Otariel loved her horses. Once a man whom she hated praised her favourite, singing to the heavens of the fire in its eyes, the cadence of its gait, the colour of its coat. Upon hearing these praises, Otariel immediately had the horse killed. Tell me why.”
“Because she hated the man and did not want to keep anything that he liked?”
“Perhaps. She never told anyone why. We can speculate, but we can never know the reasons; we know only the action. But history would be dull indeed if we recorded only actions. History is the reasons, the secrets behind the actions. Now leave me—I am tired, Temos, I must sleep.”
She has been in Terios for almost a month. The woman has changed; she speaks less gently now. Atritian wonders, and does not dare to ask, if she has transgressed in any way. They are growing apart. But she feels that she has done nothing wrong. The change is only that the woman sees Death more clearly than Life now.
Now that her Tihluhan is more fluent, she fears to express herself. It has all become real. It does not matter to her that the woman will die soon, and her secrets will die too. Now that the words are out there in the world, she fears they will escape Terios and return to the University—that they will come out and make everything she’s fought for worthless.
Something in her wants to go—anywhere but here, anywhere but the University. She thinks of the steppes, somewhere to the north, and the Sea, and the mountains. She thinks of everywhere that is open and broad and unchartered. And then she returns to the world she knows she belongs in, a world where everything is known and weighed and measured.
Going outside is hard. The woman does not call for her often, and Atritian never wants to miss her summons. But when she is outside, Terios calls to her. She turns corners to find hidden fountains and the ruins of ancient temples. She crosses the river for the sake of crossing it, and looks for meaning in the eddying of its calm green water. And, always, always, always the little voice runs under and around and over her thoughts: This is where life is. You don’t have to go back to the University. Stay.
This is the last conversation they have.
“You’re using me. You’ve never learned my Tihluhan name, only the name I use here—you don’t care. You’re using me as—as a textbook.”
Atritian bows her head. The woman is right, of course. “I’m sorry,” she says. She’d thought that she was being polite—that the woman would offer her birth name as a gift if she’d wanted it known.
The woman says nothing. Silence deepens between them, a long, grey silence, dusty as the room.
“Why are you dying?” Atritian blurts out.
“Temos, Temos, Temos. You are so young. I am dying because I am old. I am tired. I have reached the time allotted for me, and I die willingly. There is nothing more for me to do.”
“I will not say that I don’t fear death. But it must come to us all, and I’ve lived for a hundred years. But promise me this, Temos—I want to be burned, not buried. In Ilhuial we burn our dead.”
“I promise.” And, standing, she turns so that the woman will not see her tears.
“She lived among us,” says the Speaker, “and we did not know her; for how can we know a woman from whom we are separated by time and language? But the world, surely, is poorer for her loss, as it is poorer for every loss.”
The rain falls, a few cold drops spitting from the sky.
“Now is the time when I would say that she becomes part of the earth that bore us; that she lives on in memory; that the fields she tilled or the words she wrote or the nails she forged will carry her forward with us into the future; that she is not truly dead, for no one dies completely. But this is not true. We are gathered here to mourn her because a part of our days is dead—we will no longer greet her as she looks from her balcony onto a city that moves around her and past her. But she leaves no mark on the world. She is not one of us. She kept her distance.
“She keeps her distance still in death. She has asked to be burned, and we will honour that. I do not know what a Speaker of her people would say to ease the hearts of her family as they lit the pyre. So let me speak of her burning as I would speak of our burial: ‘I give you now to the air above. You belong to the world now; the spark of your life glows in the sky. May the winds carry you where you will.’”
Smoothly, as though he’d done it before, the Speaker lights the torch and brings it down to the oil-soaked pyre.
After the woman’s death she stays in Terios for less than a day. The sky is grey and the rain is intermittent and the city is empty of all the wonder it once held. She cries a few times. And then she goes home.
She rides the tired horse (less tired after a month of feeding in a Terios stable) to the University, taking the journey slow. She is in no hurry to return home. Terios has been a holiday, even with the sorrow of the woman’s death. She has used the words she worked so hard to earn, speaking them with a real speaker of Tihluhan. And she has been away from the University. She has not realized, until then, that she does not love the University.
In the nameless farm town where she was born, she pined and struggled to be accepted into the University, and she thought she was happy there. It is true that she was as isolated there as she had been at home, and it is true that her studies were mocked, and it is truer that those studies were cold comfort for a lonely bed in a tiny room.
But she keeps riding west, toward the University. She feels that it is wrong, that she should be going east, to the Sea and beyond, but she does not know how to, where to go or what to be if she does not have the language she worked so hard to revive to give her meaning.
There is no happy ending. The dying woman dies, and the language dies. And Temos Atritian goes home, freighted with memory. Does the world look different now she has conversed in Tihluhan? Does she see the truth of shadows, the half-lies hidden behind the arches of the University? She can’t say. She hopes that it is true that the journey was worth it.
The Head of Modern Languages visits her to offer condolences as though a relative died. She welcomes him into her little room as graciously as she can. It is not the first time he’s seen student lodging, of course, but she still stands awkwardly in front of the unmade bed, trying to hide it. She sinks one hand into her pocket, letting the other dangle.
“I am sorry to hear of the woman’s death,” he says. “I won’t pretend to understand your quest, still, but—” He shrugs, and takes a bunch of slightly crushed flowers from his satchel.
“I don’t know what to say,” she says. “Thank you.” Should this have been said in Tihluhan? It is, after all, not true, or not wholly true: an utterance made for that language that no longer has speakers. In her ears the wind rushes, and she feels as though she will fall. She puts a hand on the solid wood of her desk. For a second, time does not exist, and the world is tinged at the edges with blue. She shuts her eyes hard, struggling against the displacement that overwhelms her.
Modern Languages coughs, and she realizes he is still holding out the flowers. She takes them gently and smells them, taking in the green of the stems and the softer scents of the blooms. Her awareness encompasses everything and she hates it.
“I don’t have a vase,” she says. The silence grows between them, spiralling up from the floor. “But I can put them in a glass.” Her words do nothing to bridge the abyss between them. Is this what her journey has won her? Alienation even more intense, more unbearable than before?
Even now, with the joy of speaking her language burning under her heart like a candle, she is unable to speak of it.
Modern Languages smiles nervously. “A glass should be fine. I just thought I should—well, I should go. I am glad you went.”
He leaves. She puts the flowers in a glass, with no water, and places them on the desk. Finally she allows herself to collapse on the bed. What good is it? What good is any of it? The flowers, in funereal red, blaze accusingly at her from across the room.
It is not, she thinks, that she saw falsehood in him; on the contrary, if a month of speaking Tihluhan has taught her to distinguish truth from lies, he spoke nothing but truth. But that truth, displayed to her bare and pinned to his words like one of the biologists’ specimens pinned to a table, only widened the distance between her and the world.
They’d made a special degree program for her. She sits alone, next to the students of the languages that matter, the dead and the living, and waits for them to call her name.
It takes too long for her time to come. She walks as quickly as she dares, ready to get it over with. The Head of the University shakes her hand and gives her the rolled diploma. Before she can walk off the stage, the Head stops her.
“Let me say a few words,” she says, low, before raising her voice. “This is Temos Atritian. She has dedicated her years here to learning Tihluhan—” The hard glare she sweeps the audience with stops the incipient laughter. “Miss Atritian is the best of us. She has given herself to Knowledge in its purest form; she has dedicated herself to a language whose only value to the world is its existence. She is the kind of student the University is meant to nurture—the kind who loves knowledge for knowledge’s sake, not for gain or for glory.”
Atritian has been looking down throughout this speech. She is blushing from shame and pride and anger. Dumbly she looks at the Head of the University, pleading to be released.
“I am proud of her,” says the Head of the University, and lets her go.
The rest of the ceremony is long but bearable. She sits, horribly self-conscious, ready to be gone. Her hands turn against each other; her fingers clench and unclench.
It’s not until she gets back to her chambers that she looks at the diploma. She unrolls it and laughs bitterly. They wrote it in grammatically incorrect Tihluhan, mixing their tenses and verb forms, misusing cases.
She waits until evening. And then she climbs the tower of the students’ dormitory, clutching the rolled diploma. She looks out over the world, a world that is now missing one of its languages, a world that is poorer than it was a week before, though it does not know it, from the height of the top of the tower.
Tomorrow, she thinks, tomorrow I will be better. Tomorrow I will leave. I will go to Terios and beyond. I will leave here and I will never return.
The world is wide. It contains Terios and the University and that tiny town where she was born and a thousand thousand cities whose names she does not know. To the east there is the Sea, and on the western horizon she can see the outlines of the mountains, rising darker against a dark sky. The world is waiting for her.
With chilled fingers, she unrolls the diploma, and tears it into tiny pieces, meeting resistance from the heavy parchment. She holds the pieces sealed in her hands for a little while, cradling them. Then she opens her hands and lets the west wind take them.
Story copyright © 2020 by A. J. Hammer
Artwork copyright © 2020 by Kat Weaver
A.J. Hammer has a B.A. in Classics from Princeton University and has worked in the field of education policy. She used to be a short-track speed skater, but now writes fantasy. Her work can be found in the Gothics edition of Lackington’s, Issue 5 of Anathema: Spec from the Margins, the Scifi and Religion edition of Big Echo Magazine, and The New Decameron Project. She lives and gardens in Texas.
Kat Weaver is an artist who sometimes writes and a writer who sometimes makes art. She has previously published written work in Luna Station Quarterly, Timeworn Literary Journal, Lackington’s, and elsewhere. In addition to previous issues of Lackington’s, her illustrations can be found in Metaphorosis, the World Fantasy Award-winning She Walks in Shadows anthology, and Crossed Genres: Hidden Youth. She lives in Minneapolis with her wife and their two birds.