What word lies at the heart of the world?
A Bright Smoke, Cold Fire Notable Moment: Runajo and Juliet in the Sunken Library
Before I begin to dive into Endless Water, Starless Sky I feel I need to first do some digging at the first novel, Bright Smoke, Cold Fire. I don’t have a grand idea of what to say, so I thought I might examine a handful of my favorite moments more carefully to see what I might uncover through a close reading of the text.
After Juliet and Runajo have broken into the Sunken Library beneath the sanctuary of the Sisters of Thorn they take a moment to rest before they begin to hunt through the archives to find scrolls to take back. And during this rest they have a conversation that is one of my favorite moments in the novel. Here are the three key passages:
“The word for justice is written on my back. All but the final stroke.[. . . ]
The word for justice is . . . I can *feel* it. Not just as an idea in my head, something I was told or that I made up. It’s like the way the sun rises, or stones fall to the ground. It’s infinite and eternal and closer than my heartbeat. And when people are hurt— even people who die and are gone and become nothing in the darkness— people my family would say I should care nothing about— I can feel justice scream against it. Nobody in my family understands that. They all think justice is just for use, some kind of — of instructions on how to keep us safe and headed toward the Paths of Light. It’s not. It is real and it *wants*. It wants to reach into every corner of the world, and I want to make that happen. That’s what I wanted. To bring justice to the whole city, and not just my people.” She drew a ragged breath and fell silent.
*Oh*, thought Runajo. *Her too.*
She hadn’t known there was anyone else.
* * *
Do you want to know why I joined the Sisters of Thorn?”[ . . . ]
I was a little girl. . . I think maybe nine years old. It was one of those spring days where the sky is bright, bright blue but the air still tastes like winter. I was sitting in my family’s garden. [ . . . ] The sun was glowing through the grass and the flowers on the trees, and there was a little gust of wind and— it was as if the skin of the world peeled back, and I could see . . . I felt like I could *almost* see the very heart of the world and it was something impossible and perfect. It was so beautiful, and I could almost see it. All I’ve ever wanted since it to find that thing, that infinite, perfect truth, and understand it. [ . . . ] The Sisters [ . . . ] know something about the nature of the world, even if they don’t know everything. I wanted to learn from them.”
“Magic only works insofar as it understands the nature of the world. When they say that everything is bought in blood, that is true. Only I am not sure it is the only truth. [ . . . ] The Sisters of Thorn say that there is a word that lies at the heart of the world, and that word is *inkaad*. It means. . .” Runajo struggled to sum up the concept. “Both cost and price. ‘Appropriate payment,’ maybe.”
“That’s not quite the same as justice.” Juliet clenched and released her hands. “My people would say it is *zoura*. Correct knowledge. Because it is knowledge of the correct spells that allows us to walk the Paths of Light.”
* * *
Juliet again: “Would the Mahyanai have an answer?” she asked, “For what word lies at the heart of the world? Or do they not believe in that, any more than they believe in gods?”
“We don’t believe in *nothing*,” Runajo said mildly. “We have our own sages. I suppose they would say it’s *monyai*. It means both ‘dust’ and ‘river.’” She paused, trying to think how to explain it to someone who had not grown up with the words of the sages, or the hundred and eight poems they had saved from the Ruining.
“The Sisters of Thorn will tell you that all things move by the blood of the gods. This is false [ . . . ] The sages of our people tell a different story. They say that everything in all the world is made of particles like motes of dust. They spin and cling and part, and we are formed of their patterns. [ . . . ] Like a river, the particles are ever-moving, ever-changing; we are the ripples in the river, that vanish in a moment and never return. But while we are here, we are like dust motes caught in the afternoon sunlight, dazzling before we fall into the darkness.”
The words had been beautiful and comforting before anyone she knew had died.[ . . . ] Runajo stared at nothing and wondered how much dust floated in the air of the Sunken Library, and how much of that dust was made from bones and dried flesh.
* * *
This is the moment when Juliet and Runajo begin to become friends. When each realizes that the other also is a seeker with a passion for something eternal and perfect and beautiful. “Her too,” thinks Runajo. She sees in Juliet’s love for justice her own love for the impossible beautiful thing at the heart of the world that she can’t quite grasp. And I think what I love about Runajo is this tension of certainty and uncertainty. She knows there’s something worth fighting for, even if she’s not quite sure what it is. She’s on a quest to find and understand the thing that she glimpsed and half-guessed at.
Runajo realizes that there is a truth in the Sister’s of Thorn’s concept of inkaad, but it is not the only truth. I think she realizes that Juliet’s justice is a truth too. And that perhaps there are other truths that neither of them has any inkling of. They are like the blind men in the poem who try to see the elephant with their hands but each of them has only a partial truth. Neither of them can see the whole of it.
It’s interesting, too, that this conversation happens in the ruined library when they are hiding in the archives with hungry revenants prowling outside the door. I’m not sure yet what that points to, but it feels significant.
Somehow this feels like more than just an idle philosophical interlude while the characters and readers alike catch their breath between action sequences. Somehow it feels like perhaps the answer to this question of what word lies at the heart of the world might be just as important as the scrolls that Runajo retrieves from the archive. Perhaps it holds the key to Runajo’s self-apointed task of undoing the Ruining and freeing Viyara and its people from both the revenants and the bloody guilt of human sacrifice.
More about Bright Smoke, Cold Fire here. A few preliminary thoughts about Endless Water, Starless Sky here.
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