The Power of the Word

The suns were low in the sky as I approached the eastern gate.

I’d spent many of the daylight hours riding in circles. It was crucial to my plan that I and my horse both looked exhausted; that we were covered in dust, as if from a long journey. The papers I carried had been forged by the finest scribes we had been able to recruit. The other trappings had been stolen from a waylaid messenger that we hoped, without certainty, had not yet been noticed missing.

From the very moment I had set off from the City of Many Names early this morning, I had been better prepared than all of those previous martyrs of ours who had attempted to reach the Prescriptor, and failed. But as unpleasant as my current state of fatigue was, I would not risk my future⁠—and the future of our cause⁠—upon a single detail left out of place.

As expected, a contingent of armed guards flanked the gate on either side. “Halt!” they shouted as I drew near. “State your purpose at once!” One of the guards continued: “Breathe a single word not in the safe cant, and your life is forfeit!”

That was common sense, but I found her phrasing odd.

Only two tongues were spoken these days: the safe cant and the witches’ cant. The Prescriptor, through the aid of those cities with rulers of like mind and the destruction of those cities with rulers who resisted, had erased the others that had come before. Still, I had heard tales of the propaganda in the more affluent districts which claimed that all manner of frightening tongues still lurked beyond the city walls, foul transmuters using them to lay waste to the wretched world outside. I supposed that those who joined the militia were never disabused of the notion.

“I bring an important message from the City of the Second Dawn,” I shouted in reply. “I seek an audience with your Prescriptor.”

There was a brief pause. “You may approach,” the loquacious soldier shouted back. The assembled guards relaxed slightly, but several guns remained leveled at me, prepared to fire if an unfamiliar sound left my mouth.

I rode up to the gate and dismounted, where I was rapidly surrounded by the guards, who lead my dusty horse away. I was searched, top to bottom. My papers and belongings were carefully inspected. I was interrogated, in excruciating detail, about my purpose in coming to the City of Many Names.

The solid wooden gate remained firmly shut, but soldiers moved up and down ladders like ants, relaying messages to those stationed atop the walls, who in turn relayed them to those within the city—where I had no doubt experts were going over my every word for some hint that I was not the messenger I claimed to be. With the assistance of my comrades, I had spent months practicing and rehearsing my answers to every imaginable question. I was prepared for everything they could ask me.

This was the easy part.

No sunlight shined through the window of the guardhouse by the time the questioning finally ended, and the soldiers looked almost as tired as I was. “Very well,” said the loquacious one, who seemed to be the officer in charge. “You will have to take the test.”

“Of course,” I replied.

It took some time longer before everything was ready. Even though they had need of it whenever a stranger like me arrived and was not executed on the spot, gate guards were not allowed to keep truth serum on site. It was precious, and dangerous in the wrong hands.

I heard the hooting of a distant owl as the door opened, and another guard entered, bearing a small vial and a large scroll.

It was time.

Transmutation, especially of one’s own self, was always a frightening prospect; one never knew exactly what the outcome would be. If it went differently from what I had intended, I might die here, tied to a wooden chair and shot through the head. Or my fate could be less dramatic, but equally dire. I might never come back to myself. I might live out the rest of my days not knowing what I had once been. Not knowing of the risks I had taken for the sake of this cause. A martyr of a different sort; my own psyche sacrificed, changed irrevocably, in pursuit of a dream that I would never be able to see realized.

Hesitation was no longer an option. From the moment I had entered the sight of the gate guards, I had committed myself to this path. I would do this, or die trying in one way or another.

I breathed the words, little more than a faint tickle in my throat, barely audible even to myself. “Nakhengk,” I said. That was the true name of the witches’ cant; a collection of strange sounds that might have meant something long ago, but now was no more than a source of existential dread.

If anyone had noticed me speak, I would be dead within moments, but the guards did not react. “Means forgotten,” I continued, just as quietly.

I was transmuted.

People called that old, all-but-forgotten tongue the witches’ cant, but there was nothing special about it. The magic happened in the process of likening one word to another, no matter which tongues the words were from. Innocent children had done it, by accident, when making up words of their own. Employing the witches’ cant was merely a subversive tradition. Some of my comrades preferred to do otherwise. Some used different tongues that they claimed had been spoken by ancient cities, in the days before the City of Many Names arose and put an end to all but the safe cant. I was not sure if I believed them.

The magic had its limits. Transmuting small, inanimate objects was easy. Transmuting oneself, or a single other person, was possible. Rumors spoke of transmuters who could summon storms and cause earthquakes and beguile armies, but I had never known anyone who even claimed to be capable of such feats.

Of course, I had already forgotten all of that.

“Open up,” said the officer, as she approached with the vial in hand. I duly opened my mouth wide. Later, I would recall that while no one knew exactly how truth serum was manufactured, it was whispered that captive transmuters were put to the task of crafting it from mundane substances, upon threat of death if they ever spoke any other words besides the well-prescribed phrase which would create the serum. Should I be found out, and yet not executed on the spot, I might become one of those transmuters.

It was not a pleasant fate to contemplate, but fortunately I had forgotten all that too. The transmutation I had performed on myself seemed to have been rather wide-ranging, erasing much knowledge that had been only tangentially related to the witches’ cant. I would later hope I had gotten it all back.

The clear liquid poured into my mouth. It tasted of nothing. For all I knew, it was mere water. I did not intend to put it to the test and find out. I swallowed.

With a nod of approval, the officer unfurled the scroll. It was old, but clearly well-used. I gazed upon the long lines of brush-painted symbols as they were held up before my eyes. They were not in the script used for the safe cant.

“What does this say?” asked the officer.

“I don’t know,” I answered truthfully. “I’ve never even seen writing like this before.”

She paused, frowning at me. That answer should have satisfied her, but I had gotten the sense this particular woman prided on herself on going above and beyond the call of duty.

“Have you ever heard the word,” the officer continued, “Nakhengk?”

“Never in my life until now, from your mouth,” I replied. “Has it got something to do with witchcraft?”

The woman frowned for a moment longer, but then relaxed, closing the scroll and setting it aside. “It doesn’t matter,” she said with a sigh as she began cutting my ropes. “You are cleared of suspicion. Proceed directly to the palace. They will provide you with lodging and you will receive notice when your audience has been arranged.” She turned away, and muttered perfunctorily, “May the Prescriptor keep you safe.”

“May the Prescriptor keep you safe,” I answered in turn.

I emerged from the guardhouse into the darkness and passed through the open gate, which closed behind me with a low boom. I trudged down the cobblestone street, exhausted. But one concern outweighed even my fatigue.

Why was I pretending to be a messenger from another city?

Why had I even come here?

Later that night, as I undressed in the rather fine chambers that had been given to me, I was surprised to find symbols inscribed upon my chest. They glowed, as if reacting to the light of the lamp. They resembled the writing upon the scroll that I had been shown earlier when being tested.

Did that mean they had something to do with witches? I was disturbed by the thought; I wanted nothing to do with witchcraft. I considered informing one of the palace guards. There was one just outside my door.

But before I could do that, I felt a strange compulsion. To speak. To read those symbols I couldn’t understand.

Nakhengk,” I said. Thanks to the guard, I knew the word now, and it frightened me.

“Means remembered.”

I was transmuted.

My eyes darted around nervously, and I wished that I had spoken more quietly, but no one outside seemed to have overheard me. I quickly dressed myself again. Comfort wasn’t worth the risk of someone seeing my tattoos, even though they ought to only be visible by the light of this particular lamp, smuggled into the palace by a sympathizer.

I recalled the words I had spoken the previous day, before setting off on my journey. “Amatsomo means something you must read aloud.” What amatsomo actually meant, in the witches’ cant was ‘tattoo.’ But from that moment onward, it had been the key to recovering my true self. To ensuring the success of my plan.

I did not know, and never would know, whether all my lost memories had returned. Transmutation didn’t always work the same way twice. But I knew enough to do what I had come here to do.

Now all that remained was to wait for the right moment.

I laid down, and sleep came to me with more ease than I had expected.

Escorted by a rather excessive number of soldiers, I entered the throne room of the Prescriptor. His paranoia was the stuff of legends, and I did not know entirely what to expect. In the worst case, I might be forced to take a second test. I could perform the same forgetting trick again and perhaps survive the experience, but I would not be able to enact my plan until I regained my memories, and then I would have to secure a second audience somehow. And if that audience required yet another test, it would go no differently.

It, of course, was not a given that my memory would come back in full. And it was just as probable that someone could overhear my transmutations, or my tattoo could be discovered. My head swam with the many things that could go wrong.

But I had come here prepared for any fate that might befall me. At long last, I stood in the sanctum of my greatest enemy. The monster with the blood of thousands of transmuters, thousands of my comrades, on his hands. It was time to set things right, or die trying.

The Prescriptor was already there, seated upon his throne.

He was an old man by now, his face deeply wrinkled and his hair white and sparse. If I had not known who he was, I might have thought his appearance kindly. I focused all my willpower upon letting no trace of the anger and revulsion I felt show upon my face.

Rising from his throne, the Prescriptor smiled broadly. “Ah, the envoy!” he exclaimed, hobbling towards me. “Welcome, welcome! I remain eternally obliged to the City of the Second Dawn for your assistance with the southern problem, as you know.” The event he referred to had been four years ago, and I found it odd that he still felt such gratitude, but perhaps the glory of war meant much to the Prescriptor. I knew I would not forget. I had lost many friends in that hopeless struggle.

Or perhaps the Prescriptor genuinely was a kindly man, and at the same time a monster. We had all assumed him simply a monster.

I would find out soon.

Smiling politely, I bowed deeply to the old man, in the Eastern manner. “Greetings, Prescriptor,” I said. “I am most delighted by your warm welcome, but nonetheless, I bring a gift as anyone graced by the presence of such an august personage should.” I opened the wooden box I had brought with me, revealing a red bottle cushioned in velvet.

“Our scientists have recently invented a new kind of truth serum. It is refined directly from the blood of transmuters, and thus is far easier to manufacture in large quantities,” I explained. Actually, we had simply burgled some locally made serum from a storehouse and added powdered cinnabar for color. I hoped that the rumors concerning its means of creation were close to the truth, or the words I had just spoken would be a grave misstep.

The Prescriptor’s smile disappeared, and he regarded me silently. I felt cold sweat rise on my back.

Then, with a clap, the old man broke into a grin again. “Excellent, excellent,” he said. “The current method is such a bother, as you well know, I’m sure.” He glanced at the guards who stood behind me. “I take it the envoy was open with you about the nature of her gift? And that you have verified its efficacy?”

“Yes, Prescriptor,” replied one of the armed soldiers with a salute. “It is genuine truth serum. I tested it personally.”

The Prescriptor rubbed his hands, looking truly delighted. “I do hope your city will be willing to share the secrets of this new process,” he replied. “I will make it worth your while, of course. Name your price, and in the meantime…” He lowered his voice. “Perhaps a mere envoy such as you cannot tell me, but does the blood need to be fresh? If not, I shall give orders to start collecting it immediately.”

There it was.

For my plan to succeed, I needed the Prescriptor to trust me. I could have attempted to transmute him at any time, but it would be quite obvious to those around that I had done it. And that was too risky. The Prescriptor’s authority was absolute, but his minions thirsted for his power, and if they could prove that a transmuter had gotten to him, they would take his place and continue fueling the dark engines of tyranny that he had constructed.

I needed him to be alone.

Drawing closer, I lowered my voice as well. “I have come fully prepared, with the blessings of my city, to offer you all the knowledge I possess,” I told the Prescriptor. “We require only a small favor in exchange, but it concerns a… most sensitive matter.” I glanced slowly and warily at the many guards that surrounded us, making sure the old man noticed. “I dare not speak of it here.”

The Prescriptor’s eyes shined, and he clapped again. “Guards! Away with you! Leave us to converse in private!” he shouted.

“But, Prescriptor—“ one began.

“Begone, or I will have you executed!” the old man thundered, a vein rising on his forehead. Slowly, the guards shuffled out of the chamber.

And just like that, we were alone.

It had seemed too easy. Was this really the monster that I and my comrades had spent years struggling against? Had he outgrown his paranoia? Had his twisted genius faded? Or was he fully aware of who I was, and merely toying with me for his own amusement before he struck me down?

I would find out soon.

The Prescriptor gazed at me in anticipation. “First, tell me of this new process in as much detail as you were given,” he entreated. “Then we shall discuss your price. I am sure you know I will uphold my end of the deal.” He looked thoughtful. “I wonder if any other useful elixirs can be sourced from the blood of transmuters…”

I looked down at the old man, meeting those eager eyes of his; with age, he was slightly shorter than I was. I could barely imagine what horrifying thoughts were running through his head. Bile rose in my throat. But despite all his deeds, despite his lack of remorse, he was as human as me, as my comrades, as all those whose deaths he had engineered.

I spoke.

“Your name, Prescriptor,” I said, “ril ishebu.

In the witches’ cant, those two words were “means a kind person.” Describing someone a kind person in the safe cant required using several words, but the original speakers of Nakhengk so long ago had seen the concept as as important, and fundamental, enough to create a single word for it. No one knew one way or the other anymore, but I liked to think that it had been the default word one used whenever one spoke of another person.

I was not entirely sure this would work, since I did not even know the Prescriptor’s name. But it ought not to matter. After all, no one truly knew what any name, any word, meant.

What mattered is what they needed to mean.

An electric jolt, the sensation of successful transmutation, ran through me. I saw the Prescriptor shudder as well, his eyes widening, his mouth opening. I feared he would shout in alarm, and this would all be for naught as the guards came rushing in and instantly recognized what had happened to him. But he made no sound. I saw horror and sadness and regret slowly dawn in his eyes.

Much time passed before the old man spoke. His voice was weak and filled with trepidation.

“I’ve done a great many things that can never be forgiven, haven’t I?” the Prescriptor said. The sadness in his eyes gave way to something I had already seen in them not long before. His gaze jotted infinitesimally around, this way and that. Movements that were the hallmark of a sharp, furiously thinking mind. He was plotting how he would avoid suspicion and the machinations of the power-hungry minions beneath him, as he began to unmake all he had created, and set things right.

Or so I hoped. I could only trust the act of transmutation that I had worked, knowing only that I would create in the Prescriptor an understanding that had been, for reasons he could not help, beyond him.

“It’s never too late to change,” I replied.

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