The student asks: If my
redstone necklace had every view of every veil that ever
brightened, would I be wise?
The master answers: If I had a thousand pieces of a priceless vase, would I be rich?
—from The Veil of the Thousand Worlds
SU BEI WATCHED AS HIS LAST SERVANT LEFT HIM, riding a beku down the minoral. Zhou had been with him ten thousand days and had begged to stay with his master, but Bei had been firm. My work is coming to an end, he’d said. I’m too old for scholarship. He hoped old Zhou would believe it.
Their farewell had been perfunctory at the end, with Zhou crushed and Bei impatient to get back to his treatise. His treatise on the cosmography of the Rose would be his crowning achievement. Bei rubbed his hands together to fend off the chill of the storm walls. It was a black day, and no mistake. But here at the very tip of the minoral it was always black. The storm walls made it so: one on that side, one on this, converging at the crucial veil of worlds. No other place worth living, even if it meant isolation and talking to stone well machines instead of flesh and blood. Well, goodbye to Zhou. Never say farewell; in a life of one hundred thousand days, they were sure to meet again. Time enough to see one’s friends more than enough and grow tired of them.
Bei raised a hand in blessing, but Zhou was by now well down the minoral, cape billowing in the storm wall turbulence.
He hurried to the lift and closed the doors for the descent into the cavity. There was no sense building the veil above ground. No stability. Further- more, it was hard to keep stone wells functioning what with the dust and the electrical charges. No, deep underground was the place, and Bei now had its warrens to himself and his studies.
Unless you counted Ji Anzi. Well, the girl did not count. Stone well literate, but no scholarly training.
The lift door opened, and Bei hastened down the corridor to the veil of worlds room.
Ji Anzi had promised to stay out of his way while she hid here, though why she came to him, he could not have said. Certainly, his minoral was no haven from the Tarig. Time was when the fiends had watched him closely, coming in their brightships, checking on him, suspicious that since Bei had known Titus in the Ascendancy, he might have seen him again. And so he had; and sent him on his way again, to seek out the correlates.
He’d succeeded in finding them and now had sent them to his old friend. Yes, the dear boy had sent him the great secret of the Entire: the algorithms predicting the specific alignment of the shifting universes, the formulas identifying how and when one might safely travel from here to there and back again. And, if one were not in a traveling mode—as Bei most certainly was not—one could use them for scholarship, to add to his map of the Rose universe. It wasn’t clear the correlates could be used for anything else. Nor that they should be.
Titus was growing in power, just as Bei had predicted; but whether he would ever use his power to make inroads against the Tarig—well, that dream was far beyond the man. Time was that Bei had thought Titus Quinn possessed a high destiny; but he’d yet to prove he had a whisker’s weight of ambition.
He hastened through the great stone well room, empty now except for snaking, disconnected cables. He’d ordered the computational engines moved down the corridor to his sanctuary to concentrate all resources on his great task.
Bei fondled the redstones strung around his neck. The correlates were the very thing Titus Quinn had come seeking in the first place. Given into Titus’s hands in the form of redstone memory nuggets by none other than a Tarig lord, Titus had sent them to Bei for safe keeping—either because he thought he wouldn’t live long or because he feared losing them, Bei didn’t know. So while Bei was curious what the man was up to, he wasn’t going to waste the opportunity of having the stones in his possession.
It was only a few arcs ago that the messenger had arrived with the precious packet, suggesting that a high lord was involved, and the need for utmost secrecy. Of course, Bei well knew which lord was likely to be involved: Lord Oventroe, the very lord that Bei had known so long ago at the Ascendancy. So: Titus had managed to convince Oventroe to help him. Titus could be persuasive, Bei remembered. Obviously, he wasn’t ready to take his daughter and use the correlates to go home. Instead, he’d made sure Bei had them. Should Titus be captured or killed, Bei was to find a way to send them to the Rose woman known as Caitlin, sister-in-law to Titus.
How Bei would be expected to find the woman, he had no idea. But Titus wasn’t dead yet.
There was also the question of the ethics of giving up the correlates at all. Bei could well imagine an influx of Roselings into the Entire, a cultural upheaval devoutly to be avoided. No, he’d have to make Titus see the error of that. And meanwhile, the redstones were perfectly safe in this obscure minoral and scholarly reach.
He entered the veil-of-worlds room, noting the quick transitions on the gel surface, flicking past a thousand correlations every increment, casting a strobing light onto the racks of stone wells and discarded drinking cups. He seated himself at the table where his enlivened scrolls lay in piles. No sooner was he settled and organizing his thoughts, than Anzi appeared at his door.
“I thought you might like some company, Su Bei.” She stood in that still and self-possessed way she had—as though she would wait all day for the answer she wanted. She wouldn’t get it this time.
“Company is the last thing I want. Don’t you have the midday meal to make?”
“It’s waiting for you in your quarters.”
As though he had time for meals, now when all of his scholars were gone and only himself for the work. He gave her a quick look. Maybe she could help . . . but no, there was no time to train her. He wanted no students. They couldn’t be trusted with the correlates, couldn’t be trusted to even know about the correlates—oh, it was a dangerous knowledge that Bei now had; Lord Oventroe’s messenger had made that clear. No one must know. But Anzi already knew; knew about the lord himself and his fascination with the Rose. There was no good reason to send her away, so here she remained at this scholar’s retreat, as useful as legs on an Adda.
Anzi watched the veil-of-worlds bring its sight to bear on the Rose. The scenes flicked rapidly. “Are these of Earth?”
“Earth? Do they look like Earth? It’s the cosmos, girl, it’s darkling space, have you no wits?” Earth was the least of his concerns. The Rose was his field of vision, the universe, not just a world. Each flick of the veil registered a place in the Rose cosmos, one rife with relation to every other place. It must all be coordinated into his grand scheme of cosmography. Where was Earth in such a perspective? It was less than a pimple on a flea on a beku’s arse.
He waited for Anzi to leave, but she went on, “How long will it take you to make your map?”
“Longer than it would if I had peace to make it.”
“An arc, a sequent, a phase of time? How long, Master Bei?”
He pulled on his beard, his mood darkening. “A thousand days. Two thousand days. Why should I know or care? I work until I finish. Then it is done.”
“By then we will be at war. No one will finish the map.”
“Not finish? That would be a catastrophe of the highest order. Of course I will finish it. I’ve already written the introduction. Leave me in peace so I can write the rest.”
She began her protests again, but Bei pointed a finger at the girl, silencing her. “Lord Oventroe won’t let them burn the Rose. He is a powerful lord and will arrange it.”
“Easy to say, not so easy to do.”
Bei strove for patience. “These are matters for the Ascendancy, girl. Best to leave politics for those with a stomach for it.”
She continued as though she hadn’t heard him. “But you have the correlates, Master Bei. You have the power to help.”
“Ah, power. It’s what we’re fighting about, isn’t it, young Anzi? And is it your scholar’s opinion that the correlates can engender power—matter to burn, fuel to keep the bright bright?” He waited for her to dig herself a scholarly hole.
“You could forge ties between the worlds. You could find ways for us to have converse.”
He stared at her. “You think conversations will prevent war?”
She shifted her feet, caught without a rebuttal.
He picked up a scroll and activated it, but she blurted out, “There must be a way for people to cross safely back and forth. Bring some people of the Rose here. And let some of us go there. How can we find peace if we know nothing of each other?”
Bei remained silent, staggered by her naiveté. Had this been her philosophy from the start? Get people talking and they’ll love each other? Is this why she had fatefully snatched Titus Quinn from the Rose so long ago, bringing all this danger upon the world?
As though remembering the same thing, Anzi murmured, “It’s worth some risk.”
“It would be worth it indeed, if there was any likelihood of success. Unfortunately, people in the Rose are trying to shatter the storm walls. Do you suggest that I am supposed to bring more of them over?” His voice had risen a little too fast, too sharp. “Anzi,” he said, trying a more reasonable tone, “you must understand, the more we know of each other, the less we’ll like each other.”
“Just the opposite, master. Remember, Titus once hated me. Now I am his wife.”
Oh, that. She and Titus had been thrust together, shared dangers, and now they called their feelings of gratitude love.
He sighed. Why was he wasting his breath? He had work to do. “I do not have time to try to ferry people back and forth, even if I had a way to do it, which I do not.”
It was true. He hadn’t figured out how to refine his investigations in so narrow a fashion. He was just sketching out the grand structural elements of the Rose, with its clusters of galaxies, its curtains of globular clouds. Chasing after planetoids was outside of strict scholarship. He looked at her obdurate expression. Well, perhaps for Anzi and Titus he might arrange a chapter on Earth correlations, with a few mathematical expressions of affinity. Titus would appreciate a nice chapter.
“He has the war chain, you know.”
This new tactic brought him up short. “The chain, is it? Is he going to kill me with it, then?” He rose from his chair, agitated and aware of the day’s work slipping away. “For not complying with your directives?”
She held her ground. “You should be grateful he didn’t use it to destroy us.”
Bei sighed. “I am grateful. My ancestors are grateful. My bekus are grateful. But gratitude can’t shape scholarship, or we would only have scrolls celebrating our mothers.” He fixed her with his most severe look. “No, Ji Anzi. Titus put the correlates into my keeping. He trusted me with them, not you. And it is I who will decide how to use them. Now leave me.”
“I could help you.”
“I was a student of Vingde.”
“Yes, a terrible one. He said you were a hopeless scholar, and a thief, besides.”
She had the grace to lower her gaze. “A soldier has to make do.”
“You never went for a soldier.”
As she opened her mouth to argue, Bei shoved his palms in her direction.
“I am done with talk.”
“It is a wrong use of the knowledge the lord gave you. It must be for something. Not just a map, not a diagram in a book on a shelf no one will ever read.”
He jumped up. “No one read! You think that’s what all these scrolls are? Treatises no one will read?” He waved his hands at the tightly packed scrolls lining the walls. “I know every thesis, every scroll, every line of them! It is a lifetime of study, more precious than jewels.”
“But they are of no use.”
“Use? Use? What use is loyalty? What use is poetry? You talk of use!”
“The correlates should be used for passage, not study.”
He sank into his chair, lowering his voice. “That is as it may be. Few will read my treatise. I accept obscurity. It is a triumphant obscurity.”
She was silent, gazing at the floor. No doubt she finally saw how far she had overstepped herself.
Then her gaze flicked up. “But master, how can it truly matter, your map of the Rose universe? There are a hundred universes. Your map will never be significant among all the maps that could be drawn.”
Bei narrowed his eyes. “A hundred universes?” He waved his hands at the library. “Where does it say there are a hundred universes?”
Anzi was silent a moment. She was getting confused, over her head . . .
“The lord said so.”
“You spoke of such things with Lord Oventroe?”
“He said it. On the Nigh, when he helped Titus approach Ahnenhoon.”
“That there are a hundred?”
“He didn’t say the exact number. There are many.”
Bei’s thoughts quickly sifted through this claim. All scholars knew it was unlikely there were only two universes, yet in other primacies in the realm the veils showed little. His own primacy pierced the Rose. Every minoral in this primacy was productive of Rose correlations. All scholarship, therefore, concentrated here, in these minorals. If there were other universes . . . Bei pulled on his chin, wondering if Anzi had stumbled upon something important. Perhaps it was a minor comment of the lord, taken out of context. . . .
“Titus bandied the subject about? And the lord allowed that it might be so?”
“The lord said the various realities are like bubbles in a foaming brew. That what we know of life is on the surface of these bubbles. The Entire is such a surface. And the Rose.”
Bei stared at her. Out of her mouth had just poured a stream of either wisdom or foolishness of the highest order.
“Why would Lord Oventroe discuss such things with Titus Quinn?”
“Because Titus wanted to know why Oventroe could not just suggest to his cousins that they burn a different universe, and save him the trouble of going to Ahnenhoon to prevent the burning of the Rose.”
Bei looked at her as though she were a talking beku. “And?”
“And the lord said that, yes, there are other universes, but none of them have much in them. And so, therefore, they are not productive of burning.”
Feeling for his chair with the back of his legs, Bei lowered himself into his seat. “Bubbles, you say?”
“And they touch. Where it becomes possible to go from one to the other.”
“We are a bubble too?”
“Differently shaped. So he said.” Anzi made a gesture of probing. “We are multilobed, pushing into the other realities.”
“Bubbles,” Bei repeated.
“Surely the Rose is the greatest of them,” he whispered, fingering his scrolls, his notebooks, his life’s work.
Anzi’s hand came down to gently cover his own. “Your work is still important, Master. It is a piece of the whole.”
Bei contemplated the veil in front of him for a very long time. When he looked up again, he found that Anzi had fetched him a small plate of food and a glass of spirits, frothing with bubbles.
Ghoris’s ship had fallen deep into the River Nigh, plunging quickly, making Mo Ti feel nauseated and impatient. He lay on his cot, blaming Quinn for the delay. They should have rushed to Rim City where they might have had the chance to kill Hel Ese when she debarked.
He glanced at Quinn as the man lay on the nearby bench staring out the porthole, his eyes filled with a blue fire reflection from the Nigh. In Quinn’s hand, the Paion hoop, Akay-Wat’s gift.
“We have waited too long,” Mo Ti growled. Quinn didn’t answer. They were on their way now, and they’d arrive when they arrived, all depending on Ghoris and if she truly understood the need for haste. Apparently she didn’t understand, since she’d urged Quinn to chase after Paion back at the Inyx Sway. That was what came of taking counsel from madwomen.
“Too long,” Mo Ti muttered again, when Quinn didn’t answer. The stupor of the Nigh pulled on him, but his distress was too great for sleep.
Hel Ese had the small god, the thinking machine. Too much power for such a one as her. The small god could give the Entire to the spider. But the Entire must be for Sydney. Mo Ti believed this with all his heart. Who but a woman born to no home sway, a woman who was more than one sway, could ever supplant the Tarig? This was Cixi’s logic. Cixi, the one part that he had not told Titus Quinn. The matriarch of the Great Within wished to topple the lords.
And wasn’t the man of the Rose the one with the best chance to succeed?
A Tarig lord had given Quinn the secret of passage to and from. With this knowledge, Quinn might locate the place the lords went to renew themselves. A fine trap. Still, Sydney might not approve the alliance. It was a dangerous game, to trust Titus Quinn.
Now they depended upon Jaq to reach the man who held the correlates in safe keeping. Mo Ti hoped the witless ship keeper could even remember the message he was to deliver.
Barely conscious, Quinn muttered, “She has a book of pin pricks, Mo Ti. It measures me.”
Mo Ti snorted in disgust. A man at the mercy of family frowns was forever weakened. Quinn had wasted two hours talking to Akay-Wat about things that could not be changed and would not matter if they could.
Sydney’s heart had been broken by the man when she was a child. She was now a woman grown, and it no longer mattered whether her father had run after her or not or eaten delicacies in the Ascendancy while Sydney ate bricks of straw. That time was past.
The portals were clotted with lightning. Still gazing at Quinn, Mo Ti saw how the light fell on the man’s face, silvering it like a mask of a dead god. He was a great personage, no doubt; but always on the brink of failure. Perhaps the correlates would transform him. A little taste of power inspired most men.
As Ghoris sailed them onward, Mo Ti relinquished consciousness at last.
They dragged themselves up from the binds, Ghoris shouting for her ship keeper and the two passengers staggering into consciousness.
Mo Ti was the first to get to the rail. Just a few miles distant, under an Early Day sky, the lower precincts of Rim City lay thin and long on the shore of the Sea of Arising. But where in all this far-flung town was the ship that carried Sydney? Many navitar vessels streaked into local harbors from points away, some of them manifesting suddenly, rocking as they birthed from the river.
Quinn met him at the rail. “Now we find her.”
Mo Ti murmured, “Hel Ese or Sydney?” It defined what the man was made of. He had to name his goal.
“Both of them,” Quinn answered.