Nascence: 1. A finger of land, often temporary, protruding from a minoral. 2. A state of impermanence. 3. (informal) Difficulties on all sides.
—from Hol Fan’s Glossary of Needful Words
ANZI WOKE IN DARKNESS. An odd, insistent noise pounded at the walls of her bedchamber: a distant chugging punctuated by sharp, zinging cracks. This was no ordinary sound, even for the stormy minoral.
Rising from her bed, she threw on her long silk pants and padded jacket.
The door opened with a whack. Bei stood there, a candle in his hand.
Stuffing her feet into her boots, she asked, “What is it?”
“The reach,” he said. “We’re leaving. Take what you must.” He waited outside, giving her privacy to dress.
By the urgency in his voice, Anzi didn’t question him, but hurriedly stuffed into her shirt the precious redstones on a thong. Earlier that evening she’d copied the correlates, and when Su Bei had burst into her room just now she thought he’d discovered this. The correlates were far too valuable to be in the scholar’s keeping if he planned to hoard them for mapmaking. Sneaking into his library tonight, she’d feared discovery at every moment and worried as well that Bei might detect her use of the computational device to fashion a copy. Titus would need the correlates for a means of escape from the All. Or if not, perhaps to bring over a force of people to support him.
But Su Bei had larger matters in hand. “The veil has split apart,” he said, breathless. Back in the corridor, no globes lit their way. The candle Bei held lit a ghostly path as he led them in a rush toward his library.
“Yes! The veil of worlds, are you deaf? It split. It’s gone, gone blank, gone.”
In the library, the shelves were in disarray where Bei had already been stuffing their contents into packs. She went through to the veil-of-worlds room, where the destruction of the veil was plain: it had burst, and from behind it extruded a mass of viscous gel. Its push into the room had overturned stone well computational devices, no doubt ruining them.
“Help me,” Bei cried from the library, and Anzi rushed back to him. An unholy noise erupted from behind the wall, and it ballooned toward them, shattering the shelves that lined it, sending scrolls clattering to the floor.
“Master, what’s happening?”
“First the scrolls. In the packs. No, not that one, those!” He pointed toward another shelf.
Anzi began shoving the live scrolls and loose-leaf manuscripts into the nearest satchel. “A storm,” he said. “It’s raging up there. It began an hour past and built to a frenzy.”
“Wouldn’t we be safer down here?”
“No, we’re not safer! The minoral is cracking. Aren’t you listening?” He shoved an armload of material into another pack. “Go fetch the beku if you can’t pack. Bring them up from their stalls to the lift doors. No, bring them down here and we’ll load them. Now run, Anzi.”
She dashed to the door and turned around. “But Master, how can the minoral be cracking?” Nothing cracked in the Entire, much less a minoral, a whole valley. How could it?
“We’ll figure out how if we survive. I’ll write a treatise! Now, by a beku’s balls, run!”
“If we’re in a hurry, we should leave these scrolls.”
“Leave them? My studies, my texts?” He was stacking scrolls in the middle of the room, away from the debris of the bookcase wall. Already he had a pile that would never fit on the two remaining bekus. “Off with you, now.” He thrust a lit candle at her.
Grabbing it, Anzi ran. The ground trembled, and a sift of pulverized stone fell in front of her. The tunnels were shifting. Underground was not the place to be, Bei was right. But what was it like above?
At the stalls, the two bekus were snorting and tossing their heads, eyes wild. Anzi managed to saddle the beasts, which settled them a little. Then she slipped on the bridles and led them from their stalls. Shying at the noises, the bekus yanked and fretted at the reins until they stopped at an unexpected turn to the inhabited section and refused to enter.
Anzi hauled on the reins, but the beasts got the better of her, pulling in opposite directions and making a freakish braying sound she had never heard before. She tied off their reins to a stanchion in the wall and pelted back down the corridor to the library.
Bei was hauling the great packs of scrolls, carrying more than he could possibly manage. “Where have you been? Where are the cursed bekus?”
“Master, the bekus won’t come. Even if they did, they can’t carry all this down the minoral.”
“By the vows, I’ll drag them here . . .” He peered down the corridor, and Anzi put her hand on Bei’s arm. “Take the redstones with your treatise.” She added, to hide her theft, “And the redstones with the correlates. We’ll come back after the storm has passed.”
“The correlates . . .” Bei said, looking stricken. He rushed to his table and took them out of a lacquered box. Anzi helped him thread them onto his scholar’s necklace and he pulled it over his head. He eyed the stuffed satchels around him.
“We’ll come back,” she murmured. She gently tugged him down the passage.
When Anzi and Bei approached, the bekus reared up. “Shhh,” Anzi crooned at them. “There, now, good bekus.” She led them to their service lift, and they complied, with Bei following, silent and sober.
At the service lift, Anzi filled leather pouches with water from the stable spigots. The lift doors rattled as the conveyance came down to them and the doors opened. Bei moaned. “My studies . . .” She could offer no consolation.
They had to leave while the lifts still worked. As they ascended the shaft, the ground through which they passed registered thundering and fractured harmonics, setting the bekus into a frenzy. At this rate, the beasts would never go into the storm.
The lift disgorged them into the small storage area. Here the turbulence of the reach surrounded them, barely muffled by the walls of the shed. Anzi knew immediately it wasn’t a normal storm. The walls shuddered heavily and thunder barked from afar and then near. Although there were no windows, Anzi saw flickers from what she took for lightning firing up the deepest cracks in the adobe walls.
“Master, are we to travel in this?”
“No choice,” he muttered.
The child’s song came to her: Storm wall, where none can pass/ Storm wall, always to last. What lies we tell children, Anzi thought. You can pass through them. And they don’t last. The lords were running out of fuel. The walls were powering down. The sickening thought hovered just out of reach: Maybe it wasn’t just the minoral that was coming apart. Maybe it was everything.
Bei had himself under better command now, and he turned to her, hand on her shoulder. “Out, now, Anzi. We’ll have to try.” He took one beku’s reins, and she the other.
Cautiously, she opened the door.
Ozone-laden wind blasted into their faces. The valley was in chaos.
Around them, the storm walls, one on each side, roared and danced with lightning. Anzi’s silks whipped against her and her hair danced with static.
Converging in this narrow valley, the storm walls had always seemed ready to fight each other. For all that they were called storm walls, this was, at last, a storm worthy of them. It was a terrifying sight: as far as she could see downminoral, the walls boomed and frayed with fire.
The pack beasts refused to budge. They brayed and squealed, digging in.
Anzi gave a great kick to the rump of her beku, but it had not the slightest effect.
A splintering roar came from outside, flashing a spray of light onto the hut. Anzi spun around, squinting into the distance. There, a shape floated in the air. Something was approaching, or trying to. A sky bulb was coming in, but it wasn’t going to make it.
“Su Bei! A sky bulb!” The dirigible was stopped, its mooring ropes whipping about. The airship floated crippled, perhaps struck by lightning.
“Yes, I see it. You want to ride closer to the bright than you need to, girl?” Bei was looking at the distant wedge of the sky, turned green and sickly, riven with lightning.
“Wait here!” she shouted and bolted out the door. Whoever was on that dirigible needed help to debark, or might be persuaded to leave again, with passengers. Sprinting across the intervening distance to the sky bulb, Anzi lunged for the nearest rope, grabbing it. She looked up to the hatchway, blown open and revealing darkness within. She’d have to climb the mooring rope. Wrapping her legs around the rope and pulling with her arms, she shinnied toward the hatch, her weight pulling the sky bulb over to one side. No help came from the gaping dark of the craft’s doorway.
Reaching the hatchway, she crawled through. In lightning flashes she saw someone in the operator’s chair, slumped forward. Making her way to the navigator, she found a dead Jout, a trickle of blood leaking from one eye. In the main cabin she stumbled over piles of baggage and supplies. “Anyone aboard?” she called.
No one answered, but she spied a passenger on the deck, lying in a heap. A Ysli.
The smell of charred flesh came to her nostrils. One of his boots had blown off, exposing a blackened and bloody foot. His eyes came half open, but he didn’t register seeing her. She leaned in, “I’ll help you.”
Garbled words came from the Ysli’s lips.
“Don’t try to talk.” She rummaged without success for a blanket, finally dragging a tarp over.
He swiped at her arm, grabbing on to her. “Su . . . Bei,” he whispered.
“Yes. He’s coming. You’ve arrived.” She tucked the stiff tarp as best she could around him, trying to ignore the smell of cooked flesh lurking under his skin.
“Su Bei . . .” he said again.
She had no medical supplies with her and doubted even Bei would know how to treat the Ysli’s burns. Rushing back to the navigator’s post, she pulled the Jout’s body away from the controls and tested the engine. It came to sputtering life. It might be dangerous to fly the thing, but if the storm worsened, speed might be an advantage.
At the hatchway, she waved wildly at Bei, who was still standing in the shed doorway. “Bring the water,” she shouted, but her words were snapped away by the wind.
Back at the Ysli’s side, she tucked the tarp more firmly around him, feeling helpless.
“Heart,” he whispered. Anzi crouched lower to hear. “He bid me say . . . the Heart. Come all this way. For Su Bei.”
“Yes, soon. First we have to get you to a safe place. What’s your name?”
He waved at her in agitation. “Jaq. Ship keeper to Ghoris . . . the navitar. He’ll block the way . . . to Heart . . .”
His eyes rolled back and he was silent a few moments. In growing excitement, Anzi considered that this ship keeper had come from a navitar whom she knew. Ghoris, who had once shown Titus a vision of the future.
He said, “Titus of the Rose needs Bei . . . to find doors.”
Anzi bent closer to the injured sentient. “Titus?”
“Secret, all secret . . .”
“I’ll keep your secrets. I’m his wife.” Anzi put her hand on the Ysli’s cheek so he could feel her presence. “I am Titus Quinn’s wife. If you have a message, tell me now, for the sake of the bright.”
In the faint gruel of light from the Deep Ebb sky, the Ysli’s eyes glinted.
He knew he was dying. She cupped his face with her hands. “I’m here with you, Jaq. You can tell me.”
“Lords. They go home to Heart. Back and then forth.”
He seemed unable to say more. Anzi hurried over to the hatchway, watching as Bei struggled to stay upright in the gusting wind, but finally making it to the flailing ropes of the sky bulb.
The nearest rope whipped out of Bei’s grasp. She looked back at the wounded Ysli. To her consternation, he was babbling, and now she feared she had missed what he meant to say. She went to his side. “Tell me again, Jaq.
And I will tell Su Bei, I promise.”
His voice was weaker, but with great difficulty he enunciated, “Lords go home. To Heart. Titus Quinn will control doors.”
She recognized that his words held great import, but she was having trouble concentrating. Ghoris—or Titus—had sent Jaq here to give Bei information. She scrambled back to the doorway, this time determined to help Bei climb up. She grabbed hold of the rope secured near the hatchway and swung out, holding on. Sliding down, she reached the ground and hollered for Bei to climb as she held it taut. The storm pelted them with fists of wind as Bei pulled uselessly on the rope, unable to haul himself up.
“I’ll pull you up!” she shouted. Anzi yanked the rope around Bei’s waist, tying it loosely. Then she climbed back up, managing to avoid kicking Bei in the face, and leaned over to pull him up. Useless. He was far too heavy. When he saw her struggling, Bei’s face screwed into a determined scowl, and he began a feeble hand-over-hand climb, gaining inches. Anzi heard the Ysli moaning, but she couldn’t leave Bei now. Gradually, Bei’s old arms pulled him within reach, and Anzi leaned out, grabbing him by the armpits. They hung like this, with her arms loosing their strength, and Bei shouting for her to leave him.
Then, with a supreme effort, she hauled one of Bei’s shoulders over the lip of the entry. This brought the rope around his waist within reach. She seized it, and, with her last strength, pulled. Bei lay half in, half out of the sky bulb, and after a moment’s rest, Anzi dragged him from the opening into the cabin.
They lay on the deck of the dirigible, panting and helpless. When she could move again, Anzi untied the rope from Bei’s waist and hauled in the other mooring rope. She closed the hatch. A relative peace flowed over them, but now they were on a pitching and trembling deck. She noticed that Bei had thought to bring one of their water pouches, still anchored across his body with a strap. She uncorked it and gave him a sip.
He nodded at her. “Get us under way, can you?”
“Yes.” A roar of thunder seemed to contradict her remark, but she staggered to the navigation station and turned the sky bulb around. Out the viewport, she judged her trajectory down the minoral and set the dirigible on its course. Daring to leave the steering, she tottered back to Bei and told him of the passenger and his message.
With her help, Bei managed to get to his feet and come to the Ysli’s side. He was barely breathing.
“Jaq,” Anzi said. “Su Bei is here.”
Bei leaned closer to the Ysli. “Speak now, lad. I am Titus Quinn’s oldest friend in the All. Tell me.”
The Ysli’s eyes fluttered. “Correlates. Su Bei a scholar. Find doors to Heart. Correlates find doors. Give them to Titus.” He looked blindly up at Bei. “You see?”
“Yes, lad. I see.”
Anzi hoped he did, because she didn’t.
“Where is Titus Quinn?” Bei asked.
The fellow rallied his last strength to say: “He . . . is . . . Rim City.”
Bei leaned closer. “Rim City is big, lad. Where might Titus Quinn be in the longest city?”
“Zhiya . . .” the Ysli said. He strained to say something, but his body, which up to now had been full of tension, fell slack. Anzi put her hand on his throat, feeling for life. But he was gone.
“What did he say?” Bei asked.
“He said, ‘Zhiya.’ She’s a godder.” At Bei’s questioning look, she said, “I know Zhiya. She’s a friend.”
Worn out, Bei sat down heavily against the bulkhead, leaving Anzi in charge.
She pulled the tarp over the ship keeper’s still form and made her way back to the navigator’s bench. On her way, she picked up the water pouch and drank until she gagged. She was exhausted and dehydrated. But she and Su Bei were headed down the minoral.
An hour later they were still in progress. Bei and Anzi argued about ejecting the bodies to save weight and fuel. Anzi was horrified at the prospect, but eventually they agreed to let the Jout go. They opened the hatch and threw him out, the most sickening act Anzi had ever committed. Following the Jout went every piece of luggage and extra equipment that the dirigible contained.
But at Jaq’s disposal, Anzi balked, and Bei could not prevail on her for a change of mind.
They motored on, with the storm walls booming insanely around them. As they passed a nascence, it erupted in a fountain of green fire. Hearing the explosion, Bei rushed to the viewport. “Gone,” he whispered.
“They sometimes go,” Anzi said, her voice quavering. The tiny lobes that jutted from the minorals were temporary places, but she’d never seen one evaporate. The storm wall moved in, closing off the juncture.
Bei eyed her. “Can you make this thing go faster?”
She shook her head. “Where are we? Which nascence was that?”
“Who bothers to name them?”
Anzi murmured, “If the minoral collapses, will it tear open the Entire?”
Where the minoral joined the primacy, there was no barricade to staunch the leak into what undoubtedly was the black void.
“That is an answer,” Bei said, “we are about to learn.” He stared out the viewport for a long while, then sat on the bench next to her, watching their skittering progress down the valley.
“I should have brought my stone wells,” he murmured.
“We’ll buy them, or trade,” Anzi said.
“Trade with what?”
“We have a dirigible.”
“Which is not ours.”
“It is now.” She glanced at him. “What will you need computation devices for? To help Titus?”
He snorted. “Yes, to help Titus. No point in scholarship anymore. And it’s a scholar’s challenge, in any case. To find the doors. If there are doors.”
The Tarig used doors for passage to their home. How Titus had learned this, Anzi didn’t know. Didn’t the lords live in the Entire? If they didn’t, why would they choose to go back and forth to a home place? If they needed to do so for some reason, then of course Titus wanted to control those doors. If it was critical to the Tarig, then this was the way to force them to spare the Rose. But the Ysli’s message was still coiling in her mind, not connecting.
“How will the correlates help?” she asked. It looked like Bei already knew the answer, and didn’t like it.
“The Heart, girl. What universe is that? Not ours.”
“The lords have said they came from the Heart.”
“And just what did you think the Heart was?”
“Where the lords came from.”
He smirked. “Yes. And where is that?”
“Well, if you know, Su Bei, kindly tell me.”
“I didn’t know, until now. But the only reason Titus needs the correlates to find the doors, is if the doors lead to another cosmos.” Bei saw her questioning look. “The correlates can tell us how two places in different universes match up. And when they match up. But in the process, we also learn where each of the matching places is. You see?”
Bei stared out the viewport, the prospect of an adventure with Titus not yet galvanizing him. Anzi could understand. This minoral had been his home for tens of thousands of days.
“I could look for the doors,” Bei said, “but not here. For that I must have access from other reaches, other primacies.”
Lightning cracked the air nearby, sending the sky bulb careening. Anzi held her seat and grabbed Bei to steady him. The storm wasn’t tiring; if anything, it was getting worse. “Master,” she said. “I took something of yours.”
Bei pursed his lips, watching her.
“I took the correlates to copy them so I could find Titus a way home.”
She had to look away. “I’m sorry.”
Bei nodded. “I know you did.” He gazed out the viewport, and his voice went soft. “Keep your copies, Anzi. It’s always a good idea to have more than one set of valuable data. I presume you have them in a safe place?”
She patted her waistband.
“Well, then.” They traveled in silence for a time, with the only sounds the thumping of wind against the sky bulb and the frequent thunder. Bei had already forgotten her theft, looking instead to what came next. “By the time I’ve looked for Titus’s doors in each minoral in each primacy, I’ll be too old for scholarship.”
“I can come with you. I’ll help you.”
The minoral dragged by, sand and rock and storm walls squeezing in from each side. It seemed improbable they would ever get out of there, but they talked as though it would happen.
“I might need an assistant,” Bei murmured.
“You’ll need someone to secure a few stone wells.”
“Yes. Someone good at bargaining.” He looked around him. “This conveyance we might need to keep.”
“I’m sure Jaq would have wanted us to have it.”
“Are you, now?”
She shrugged. “Ownership is a fragile concept.”
He pointed ahead. There, an unmistakable glow pierced the gloom.
“What is it?” Anzi breathed, leaning closer to the sight.
They were coming to the end of the minoral.
It took another hour, but eventually the sky bulb motored into the flat basin of the colossal Arm of Heaven Primacy. There they were set free of the buffeting winds and Anzi brought the dirigible into one of a series of mooring masts staged at the entrance to the minoral. She shinnied down the rope and made the craft secure.
Once Bei clambered down, they used what means they had to make a shallow grave and laid the ship keeper into it, imploring the Miserable God to take no notice. They wrote a small paper grave flag: “His greatest voyage, up a minoral.”
They slept for a time in the shadow of the sky bulb. When the minoral finally collapsed, the noise woke them. With the howling sound of wind through a pipe, the minoral seemed to stretch longer and thinner. As they watched, they couldn’t know if the world was ending or preserving itself.
Then the storm walls of the minoral fell away like evaporating foam. Anzi thought for a moment that she saw the void beyond the Entire. But in the next moment the primacy’s great storm walls swept together like a curtain closing.