To stand next to the master is to see with the corner of his eye.
—Kan Shi, Red Throne Scholar
MILINARD THE JOUT STOOD BACK FROM THE ALLEY WALL of the under-city, admiring his handiwork, another likeness of the fugitive. Here, among the dregs of the Entire, a man like Titus Quinn might find anonymity. And more: among the morts, he might find accomplices.
The view spray would last for an arc, and then Milinard would return and squirt up another poster. Maybe across the way. Or down there. But not too many places, as the undercity was sacred to the adherents of the Red Throne, and the gracious lords would not have religions disrespected.
Now that was a subject he’d like to broach with the darkling Quinn himself: if the lords were so blameworthy, why was it they allowed all sentients to live as they liked, even worshipping foolish gods instead of venerating the Tarig as was proper? In the lords’ generosity, they had even created the under-city, these burrows, so that the Society of the Red Throne could meditate in front of portals and ascribe to navitars the qualities of gods.
Do contemptible leaders tolerate such folly? Yes, let us ask that of the man who destroyed the brightships and killed the Lord Hadenth and now subverted the Entire with unhealthy crimes!
Of course, while the lords were supremely tolerant, the Magisterium was less so. The Great Within sent spies into the undercity, of whom Sublegate Milinard was one. Let the dregs do what they wished, but watch, watch them.
Milinard himself had a network of informants. Some of them were even Reds. He was proud of those inroads into the undercity. Perhaps one of them would provide an important clue in the matter of the fugitive. Milinard imagined himself reporting personally to the High Prefect Cixi, the old dragon herself, perhaps receiving an advancement to full legate. The petals of the Jout’s skin fluttered in satisfaction.
The Reds might be peculiar, but at least they were proper citizens, often rising to high positions—in Rim City especially. They thought of themselves as travelers on life’s river, open to the best futures—futures they believed the navitars could see. The Society urged right actions to enable the most propitious futures to come forth. Time was when the cult had been more prominent, in a day when religions of striving were more popular. Nowadays sentients wanted religion that made no demands, which explained the resurgence of interest in the Miserable God. Milinard sighed. It was a sentient’s choice.
As he packed up his squirter, he saw a young man gazing at the poster. By his outrageous attire, he was a mort, one of those flash boys so common here. Noting the sublegate, the young man turned away, striding as fast as he could in his skirt and boots.
“Hold, young fellow.” Milinard beckoned him, and the youngster obeyed. The sublegate made it a point to occasionally, and at random, question a denizen of the undercity, especially morts. The morts claimed to venerate the navitars—so technically they were Reds—but Milinard had little doubt that all they desired was to carouse in the undercity out of sight of their families.
“Name?” he asked of the boy dressed like a girl.
“Li Yun Tai.”
The young man called forth an insulting bow, hardly a nod. Well, that would merit a sterner tone. “You will say Excellency.”
Still, a tone of voice. “Come closer, Li Yun Tai.” When the young man did so, Milinard gestured at the poster. “What opinion do you have of this man’s aspect? Is he fair, do you think?”
“He is a darkling. That says enough, Excellency.”
An evasive answer. Morts like this one might well give Titus Quinn refuge. They practically worshipped the Rose, hoping to copy those sad, short lives. Indeed, the man of the Rose was practically a hero among these odious boys.
Milinard persisted. “But would not Titus Quinn be fine to invite to your burrow for pleasures? It can’t be easy for a boy in a girl’s skirt to find company.”
“Oh, but it is. A girl’s skirt with something extra in it is what some people prefer, Excellency.”
Milinard’s temper edged upward, but he restrained himself. “Yun Tai, I have a pleasing duty you will perform.”
Now the youngster looked worried. Did he think Milinard would demand sexual favors? But Milinard was still contemplating the happy pillowing with his wife last ebb and needed no adventures today.
He put a hand on Yun Tai’s shoulder, drawing him closer. “I’ll spare you the rigors of my physical prowess, mort.” He released him, noting that the boy was shaking. “You might say, thank you, Excellency.”
“Thank you, Excellency.”
Milinard slapped him across the face. “That is an insult to me personally.”
Yun Tai murmured, “Your pardon, Sublegate. I meant no offense.”
“Very well, then. You can pleasure me some other time. Here, then, is your task: You will watch for the man whose image you see on these burrow walls. If you see anyone who, even in the least way, resembles this fugitive, you will rush to the Ascendancy and report to me. Your entry is assured when you mention the name Sublegate Milinard. You understand?”
Yun Tai did. He might be a mort, but he was no fool.
Milinard dismissed him to slink back into the murky streets. On that excellent note, the sublegate left the burrows, climbing the broad stairs to Rim City.
Night deepened in the undercity, bringing its accustomed throngs. Storefronts opened windows, exposing wares to the passersby, pedi cabs made early passes down the streets trolling for passengers, and vendors presided over piles of scarves, music redstones, and navitar trinkets. The first wave of sentients trickled in, dressed for the night.
Tai passed the dumpling stand, declining offers of a sample. Before meeting the disgusting Jout he was famished, but now his appetite waned. But he wouldn’t let thoughts of Milinard the Gross weigh him down; rather, he let thoughts of Titus Quinn lift him up. Titus Quinn, who came from the Rose, who defied the lords, who stole the brightships and sent them into the storm walls. They called him a hsien, an immortal hero. But he was, before anything, a darkling of the short, deep life—a life that had meaning because it was not long and tedious.
Truly, if he came across the personage Titus Quinn, Tai would never turn him in. He pictured himself befriending him, even helping him evade the lords. The idea excited him. Such actions would be full of risk, but they would be bold and meaningful, unlike his life at present—largely empty, he thought with sudden dismay. The idea of sex-right-now was only a pretence at intensity. For a truly vivid life, you had to find a worthy goal. Could it be that, posturing and needy, he had been wasting his days?
A matronly shopkeeper beckoned him to inspect her pile of navitar icons—framed portraits of bloated, misshapen pilots in their red caftans. He ignored the vendor. His insight was growing: Even the navitars were beside the point. They weren’t to be venerated, but pitied. Morts and Reds thought that navitars were open to all experience. But they were closed to it. What can you know of life, cooped up on a vessel and seeing futures that would never come?
His appetite had returned. He entered a foodery and ordered a serving of deep-fried momo. Washing down his meal with mouthfuls of steaming oba, Tai reflected on the idea of a superior cause. It wasn’t likely he would encounter Titus Quinn on the street. Why would the man of the Rose come to a place where he could be so easily cornered? Tai’s goal would perhaps not be so grand. He didn’t have a clue what that new goal might be. But at least he knew that he didn’t know, and that was a start.
The street was surging with eager, spark-driven revelers. The influx would soon overflow into the dance pits, the fooderies, the wine dens. Just outside the window of the foodery, he saw the lit-up, skittery looks of faces seeking thrills. He could relate; he’d done that himself. No more, he vowed.
Still, tonight he had a date. He’d honor his rendezvous with blue feathers, as he secretly called the boy he’d met at the Dark Flower. He paid his bill and headed to the den where Fajan and his friends were gathered. After their tryst at the Dark Flower, Fajan asked to see him again. Perhaps sex against the porthole wall didn’t define Fajan any more than it defined Tai. And without his mask, Fajan had the face of someone who could be wise as well as fatally handsome.
The burrow, when he arrived, was jammed with morts and pulsing with music. He watched the crowd: the plasmic girls, the Rosy boys, and there, a Ysli in a gold cape . . . now that looked street major. Several very flash morts were wearing capes. He stopped, feeling out of place and wishing, suddenly and with fervor, for time alone.
“Tai!” Fajan hailed him from the corner next to the room-spanning porthole.
As Tai approached, Fajan waved him into the group settled on the floor away from the general din. Fajan slipped an arm around Tai’s waist. His face was ethereal in the wan light of the exotic water. There were introductions, nicely received all around, and Tai felt easier.
He relaxed in the company of Fajan’s friends, and together they gazed at the porthole, as though the silver waters might confer a special benediction. In this meditative frame of mind, Tai whispered to Fajan: “Do you ever hope for something more?” At Fajan’s raised eyebrow, Tai added, “Something with a purpose?”
Fajan smiled a little, as though he did have a secret purpose.
Tai persisted. “What if we had to risk our lives for something worthwhile? Would you?”
Some of the morts glanced at him, annoyed by the distracting whispers.
“Just watch,” Fajan murmured, giving Tai a hug. A bowl of smoking resin made the rounds, but Tai handed it on unsampled. Tinny music came from a stone well computational box in a far corner, music chosen for its weird scales and hypnotic base. The river was layered in gray and yellow light.
Fajan whispered, “You’re tense. I’ll help you relax later.”
“Let’s go now,” Tai suggested.
Before Fajan could answer, a murmur went through the room. Someone cried out and was silenced. Something hung in the depths outside the porthole. There in the foaming waters hovered a form, wavering in the uncertain light. Fajan gripped Tai’s hand. All of them were leaning forward, eyes alight.
“Rivitar,” Fajan whispered.
Rivitar. A being that lived in the sea, in the Nigh. Tai had heard rumors of such things, but they were impossible. Nothing could live in such waters.
“I’ve seen them before,” Fajan said. “Just watch.”
If it was a creature, it was like none other: it was shaped like a box.
“Will it see us?” Tai asked.
The apparition approached. A sigh vented from the crowd; they would get a special vision this night. As the cube snugged up to the porthole, an image appeared on one of its surfaces. It was the face of a Hirrin. But on an adjoining surface, a Chalin face. Each visible side of the cube showed the face of a sentient.
Fajan gripped Tai’s hand harder, barely containing his excitement.
A girl stood up and walked to the porthole as though in a trance. She put her hand against the glass. This brought the cube closer, and the room fell into disarray, with sentients—Chalin, Ysli, Jout—pushing forward, surging toward the girl and the bubble, the girl and the rivitar.
On the side of the cube closest to the porthole was a Chalin man’s face, with a pleased, relaxed expression. No one else dared touch the glass lest they break the girl’s reverie, or lest the rivitar flee. Her hand pressed on the glass. The rivitar’s face pressed too, from the other side.
“Speak to him,” someone said, and then others urged the girl to say something, as though anything could be heard through the thick, clear wall. The crowd stood transfixed and worshipful. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, the object winked out, flattening to a vertical slit, barely visible. The remnant broke up into segments and vanished.
The girl collapsed. People caught her, ministering to her. She stirred, murmuring, perhaps making more of her role than her smoke-infested gestures deserved.
Tai sat down, shunning the celebratory mood of the room as the music got louder and people shouted over it to compare stories.
Fajan’s eyes were lit up. He knelt in front of Tai. “Like our rivitar?”
“Has it ever said anything?”
“It can’t. It’s in the river. But someday we’ll speak to it. It will tell us mysteries.”
This thing, whatever it might be, was fascinating, but Fajan’s attitude was foolish. Fajan had—all of them here had—taken a reverence for the River Nigh to an extreme. Perhaps, once, Tai would have done the same.
Tai shook his head. “I think we’ve all had too much heavenly resin.”
Fajan sat back on his heels. “You’re not ready. You can’t hear the rivitar if you’re not ready. You’re still living for sex-right-now. I used to do that, too.”
This condescension was too much for Tai, after he had come to this burrow with a new vision of life, feeling above all the flash. He stood up, and Fajan did too, facing off with him. They were on the verge of saying things they couldn’t take back.
Let the truth come, then, Tai thought. “That thing in the river is a machine. Anyone could paint faces on a box. Whatever it is, it isn’t going to save you.”
A patronizing shake of the head. “You’re so Entire.”
“And you’re so Rose?” Fajan’s calm silence drove Tai to say: “What if whatever is inside that box is attracted to other faces and has no more intelligence than an Adda? What if it’s a prisoner? What if it’s trapped inside the cube?”
Fajan smiled in his self-important way. “When you’re ready, you’ll see it differently.”
Tai shook his head, murmuring, “I already see things differently.” He turned and made his way through the crowd to the door, eager to be alone.
The air of the undercity was never fresh, but compared to the burrow it was sweet. People thronged: hurrying, loitering, posturing to be seen. Fajan did not come after him, Tai was thankful to note.
The rivitar had stunned him; but so had the reaction of Fajan and his friends. Whatever the apparition was, why idolize it? The rivitar might be trapped in the river. Its faces had looked happy, but that might be because it hoped the light-filled window offered escape. Tai knew what it was to be trapped in a land that wasn’t his true home.
As to belonging, Tai thought he knew where he belonged. He’d been pushing it away too long. He wondered if he belonged in the Rose. Titus Quinn had shown it was possible to pass through the veil-of-worlds. Maybe Tai could too. Was it a far-fetched dream that someone like himself might go to a place so far away?
The thought solidified. Perhaps he really did belong in the Rose. Perhaps he had always been striving for it—through his pretensions as a mort, through his striving for intensity. A new vision came to him, that he would go to the Rose—somehow, he would go.
He walked home in a daze of startling clarity.
Zhiya huddled on Quinn’s divan, her short legs curled under a blanket against the cold. She was glad to see Quinn. He’d been missing for the last four days, and her imagination had been running to Tarig torture and worse.
“You might have sent word,” she murmured.
“You don’t seem happy to see me, Zhiya.”
“Oh, I’m happy. Last time I saw you, you were determined to be a common man. So disappointing.” She pushed back her long hair that had fallen over her shoulders. “I rather fancy a driven man.”
And she did like him more, now that he was back in the game. Not that it was a game: Hel Ese and her twisted idea of saving her people by killing them. Zhiya shook her head. That was taking zeal a little too far.
“Mo Ti might have made up this business of the matching engine, have you thought of that? To get you to kill the woman for him.” She wondered who would destroy their own land, their own home. Traitors were common as bekus, but this betrayal was breathtaking.
“It’s hard to credit,” Zhiya went on.
“She doesn’t like dreds.” Quinn was gazing out his veranda doors at the sea of Arising, even though, in the heavy fog, he couldn’t see it.
“An average person. She can’t stand average.”
The breeze was cold off the veranda and Zhiya snugged her blanket more firmly around her. “Close the door, my dear.”
“Do you suppose my daughter is down in those streets somewhere? She could be.”
“No, she’s playing the part of the Mistress of the Sway. Up in her mansion.”
Still looking out he murmured, “She has a sway. My child was a slave. And now . . .”
“You were a slave once, too. Quinns have a way of rising in the world.”
A gust rattled the porch doors. “Shut the doors,” she muttered. For the last two days a heavy fog had hung over the city, stoving up her joints and making her hair frizz. It was not a good day even before Quinn dropped the news that he was going to track somebody down and kill them.
He moved away from the porch doors at last and began pacing the room.
Zhiya got up and shut the doors herself. She turned to Quinn. “I’ll send one of my people to get rid of her. How convenient the little gondling is in town. That’s to our advantage.”
He shook his head. “I’d like a few words with Helice before we put her out of her misery.”
Yes, Zhiya could well imagine. But was his disgust directed at Hel Ese or himself? She imagined that Quinn was kicking himself rather hard for not dealing with Ahnenhoon when he’d had the chance. She wasn’t about to bring that subject up—the little matter of the chain that could have destroyed Ahnenhoon lying at the bottom of the Nigh where Quinn had thrown it in a fit of moral goodness.
Quinn went on, “I need to find out where her engine is. That’s the important piece.”
Zhiya sighed. “Haven’t you figured out, my dear, that your daughter has set a trap for you? Why do you suppose the Tarig brought her here? To show their love of a scrawny Rose girl who’s caused them so much trouble?”
Quinn managed a bitter smile. Hiding a lot of pain, that smile, Zhiya guessed.
“I know it’s a trap.”
Now that surprised her. Quinn usually clung more tightly to his family illusions. She raised an eyebrow.
“Helice is there. I may never get closer to her.”
Somewhere in the distance, a short burst of fireworks shattered the silence; a little practice session for the big celebration. Purple and orange thudded into the sky, smearing the fog. Someone shouted, and horns blared. Then once again the fog cloaked the neighborhood with white and silence. The denizens of Rim City had been told to express joy at their new status of sway, and in ten days time they would oblige. The massive celebration would include a grand procession, galas, fireworks, floats, public drunkenness, and food venders lining the Way. It was a fine excuse for a street party, and Rim City denizens knew how to throw one, having the longest street in the Entire, the Way that circumnavigated the sea.
It might be odd to have a woman of the Rose as mistress, but since the city wouldn’t pay much attention to a leader anyway, she might as well be a darkling. At least she’d taken a proper name. Sen Ni had a Chalin sound, though it was just a transcription of her Rose name.
“Let me have my helpers bring Hel Ese out,” Zhiya said.
Quinn picked up the Paion artifact he’d brought back from the Long Gaze of Fire. He turned it in his hand, as he often did, gazing as though into an empty mirror where lost things might be seen—such as a daughter whose childhood one had missed.
“No,” Quinn answered. “They’ll never get her out. The place is guarded by Tarig; it’s up on that bridge.”
Yes, the damnable bridge. Sydney had taken residence in the biggest house in the lower Rim. Occupying the central span of the arch over one of the Rivers Nigh, her mansion was inaccessible by boat and had only one street passing near: the Way. The Way crossed the five great crystal bridges spanning the Nighs, leaning away from the storm walls that came to an end at the sea. The crystal bridges. Lit from within, spectacular in the Deep Ebb, now one of them was essentially a fortress.
Zhiya challenged him. “How can you get her out?”
“I don’t have to. I’ll question her there. Then, to escape, it’s just me.”
“You think your daughter won’t give you up to the Tarig. By the bright, you really think that.”
He didn’t answer.
Zhiya bit her tongue, but it had to be said. “You’re going to convince her you’ve been a loving father.”
“No. I’m going to ask her to forgive me.”
Zhiya stared at him. “Forgive you? She sent the big eunuch to kill you. Not a forgiving sort, that girl.”
When he didn’t answer, an ugly thought struck her. “You want her to betray you. That way you can pay off your debt.” She shook her head. “You’re a man with too many corners.”
“You wanted me to be a hsien.” He smiled. “This is my big chance.”
She’d rather meant for him to immortalize himself by bringing down the Tarig, not by winning this little skirmish between the Rose and the Entire.
But changing his mind was hopeless.
“What will you have me do?”
“For starters,” he said, “you could find me someone who isn’t afraid of heights.”