He who rides a Gond is afraid to dismount.
ASMALL AND INCONSEQUENTIAL SCHOLAR knelt before the high prefect in her audience chamber. Alone with the man, Cixi had heard his report with growing astonishment and distress. Now, leaving the scholar with his head pressed to the floor, she moved to her veranda, staring at the lords’ hill of mansions.
She made sure her expression betrayed nothing of her inner turmoil.
When Cixi stood on her balcony, a hundred functionaries watched from their own balconies and windows of the Magisterium. Her heart racing, she calmed herself by taking in the superb view of the fiends’ elaborate city.
While complex, the layout of the Ascendancy could be reduced to a simple rule: The lords dwelled above, all others below. The floating city was a sphere cut in half, with the rounded bowl oriented down. In this bowl resided the seven levels of the Magisterium. In the upper realm, the Tarig had created a hill on one side. There, the lords’ greater and lesser mansions clustered, looking down on the great plaza.
There was a chasm in the Bright City from which offices of the Magisterium could look up to the top structures of the city. Of course, the lower one’s rank, the lower a functionary’s level in the Magisterium, and the worse the view.
An enormous plaza footed the palatine hill, a space adorned with canals and small bridges. Punctuating its expanse were enormous uninhabited towers reaching almost to the bright itself. These columns were said to have a defensive function; one could not help but think they related to the bright itself. Among them was the tower of Ghinamid, named for the Sleeping Lord, the one who never woke in all the archons since early time.
Perhaps, given what Cixi had just learned, the lord would consider getting out of bed.
Out of the mouth of this man named Zhou had come a tale to stagger even the high prefect, who had heard one hundred thousand days of shocking things.
Zhou, it seemed, had been banished from the minoral where the scholar Su Bei lived. To be dismissed after such long service, when the two scholars had grown old together, was too much for him. His revenge was to bring intelligence to Cixi that would destroy his master. Zhou’s story was that a lord of the city— one of the ruling Five, no less—had given away the key to the doors between the realms of light and dark. A messenger had come to Bei and put into his hands this great secret, one that Cixi had heard of but did not herself possess.
Su Bei obviously thought that the nature of the gift was secret. But the messenger had taken a cup or three of wine with Zhou and implied he’d come from a high lord. In fact, and by the fourth cup, Lord Oventroe.
It could hardly be believed. Was Lord Oventroe, then, a traitor to his own kind?
Zhou had found himself motivated to look at the redstones, and with great stealth used them, concluding that they were the fabled mathematical keys that could be used for going to and from. The correlates. Cixi had always assumed that they were myth. Perhaps they were not.
As she questioned the scholar, it became clear that Su Bei was in league with Titus Quinn. She learned how Quinn had hidden at Bei’s reach when he had returned to the Entire the first time. Thus it might be concluded that Su Bei was holding the correlates for Titus Quinn. From there, it was a simple leap to understand that Lord Oventroe had allied with the man of the Rose.
Her mind wound in a tight skein around this shocking conjecture. If it was true, using this information would require her most delicate machinations. It was a story that should be brought to Lord Nehoov. But Cixi hesitated. Once Oventroe knew that she had moved against him, Cixi herself would be at risk. This would take a great deal of thought. She turned from her balcony’s view and walked slowly back into the hall, her high-platformed shoes echoing off the smooth stone walls and floor.
Zhou was whimpering from the strain of the position of obeisance. She left him in that position while she considered.
If his accusation was true, what did the lord’s support of Titus Quinn portend? What could possibly be Lord Oventroe’s intention? If he was aligned with Quinn, he must secretly be aiding the Rose against the Entire, though how this could be was beyond Cixi’s imagination.
“You may rise, Zhou.”
With great effort he wobbled to a standing position. He had scarcely any hair left, and he was as thin as a dragon’s whisker.
She should hurl him from one of the thousand balconies of the Magisterium. He was privy to things he shouldn’t know, and now he could reveal to others that Cixi knew them. But murder was forbidden in the realm. She, least of all, could break the vows, laws, bonds, and clarities. Those of low status always got that piece wrong, thinking that the powerful could do what they liked.
“Zhou. I have a dilemma. Help me to resolve it, and I will thank you.”
“Yes, Your Brilliance,” he stammered.
“On the one hand, you are a repugnant traitor, helping the most virulent enemies of the bright realm. On the other, you have brought to the lords’ attention a most foul crime that without you might never have been discovered.” She leaned toward him. “What should the high prefect do with you, in all justice?”
“Advance me to legate. And punish Su Bei.”
Yes, you want that faithless master to fall, don’t you? She could empathize with such thoughts after all these thousands of days staring out at the palatine hill.
She sucked on her teeth, drawing the moment out. “I think I cannot trust you here in the Great Within after you gave refuge to Titus Quinn. The punishment for treason is the garrote. This you know, scholar.”
“Great Cixi! Please. If it hadn’t been for me, you would never have known.” He fell on his knees. “I throw myself on your powers, your brilliance, your mercy, your—”
Cixi waved him to silence. “But such a late confession, after how many arcs? No, I think you will fall at the Tarig’s feet. Yes, this seems fair.”
“I am old to die such a way, Your Brilliance. By the Woeful God, I beg you.”
“Mmm.” She let him wait. Looking down at her index fingernail, she tapped it twice, blanking the scrolling words, her functionaries clamoring to talk to her. She tapped again, summoning her most trusted legate.
At the sound of the gentle hooves of her Hirrin attendant’s approach, Zhou winced, as though hearing his executioners.
Cixi whispered to the Hirrin, “Give him a weight of primals and send him from the Ascendancy. He is never to repeat what he told me here. Make him understand that he is fortunate to have escaped my wrath. Make him love me, in other words.” One needed a friend now and then, both the high and the low.
The Hirrin bobbed her head in obedience. Then she walked up to the cowering Zhou and kicked him with a hoof. The scholar was persuaded to rise and follow the legate from the room, leaving behind a puddle of sweat.
Cixi took her place on her chair of office, shifting her feet on top of the stool that kept her jeweled shoes off the floor.
Before all else she must have her spies bring Su Bei to stand before her and tell what he knew. Zhou also had said that Bei was harboring Titus Quinn’s helper, Ji Anzi—a girl who styled herself a niece of Yulin, the disgraced former master of the Chalin Sway. A minor fugitive, this one, but perhaps a fount of knowledge about Quinn and his plans.
Likely both she and Bei were dead, however.
Bei’s minoral had just been culled from the All. As had all the minorals of the Arm of Heaven primacy.
Reports were already flooding in to her of the collapse of the minorals. It was a tragedy of the highest proportions, naturally, and one the lords undertook with reluctance. It would take a long while for the news to travel, for the extent of the holocaust to be known. Cixi would declare herself as shocked as anyone, but in fact she had had advance warning from the Five.
They had now closed all doors to the Rose. More to the point, they had closed all doors to the Entire from the Rose. To make sure of this, they had severed the minorals in the Arm of Heaven primacy. Minorals in other primacies were spared, since they did not access the Rose.
Maiming the primacy was an act of desperation. But the lords were alarmed. Ahnenhoon had barely averted a Rose attack; the evil dreams were now open knowledge; all sentients knew—or thought they knew—that the lords were not normal creatures of birth and death. These were anxious times.
While the Tarig were her enemies, Cixi certainly wished for them to succeed in securing the Rose as fuel. If Lord Oventroe was thwarting this worthy cause—as he must be if he thought the Rose had a future—then she must report him. All in good time. Meanwhile she must investigate whether Su Bei and Ji Anzi, against all likelihood, yet lived. She would dispatch her operatives to the city of Na Jing, near the minoral in question. A little quiet probing might quickly set the matter to rest. If the correlates were burned to cinders along with Su Bei and the girl, then it was all to the good
Sydney curled by Riod’s side as he lay crumpled on the straw. She had decided to spend her ebbs with him in his stable at the far side of the crystal mansion. He was worse than two days ago when she had last seen him, and her anxiety mounted by the increment. She would have sent him home to the sway if he had been well enough; but it would be dangerous for him to travel in this condition.
He had been sleeping for several hours. When Deng came to bring him fresh water, Sydney motioned the steward away. Whenever anyone except Sydney came into the stable, Riod thrashed and sent chaotic thoughts to her.
Best mount, she thought fiercely, trying to soothe him.
Deng put the bucket down and backed away.
People had to obey her now. She was Mistress of the Sway in truth. She’d tested this a few times, once even going into the city without a Tarig escort. She’d bought a delicacy of goldweed thistles for Riod to eat, and he did nibble at them.
Her hand caressed the broad plane between his eyes and down to his nose. What can I do for you, my heart?
Riod’s eyes came open. No water, he sent.
He really must drink, but he sent the message with such force, she sat up, alert.
The Tarig lady pours.
“She’s in the house. I’ll pour for you.”
His head sank back onto the straw, trailing the thought, Tarig lady pours bad water. No water.
Sydney’s mind began racing. Slowly, she came to her feet and walked over to the bucket Deng had left. “Is this bad water?”
Riod lay immobile. She waited, knowing he was awake but too weak to think straight. Then it came into her mind, that clear, familiar touch of his voice: Water has poisons. Deng brings bad water.
The bucket occupied the floor in the middle of the doorway. Sydney stared at it with growing fury. With a violent kick, she toppled the bucket, dumping the water out on the pavement. Then she hurled the bucket away, smashing it into a nearby tool shed.
A servant came running, looking at the spilled water and then at the expression on her mistress’s face.
Sydney wanted to scream at her, wanted to raise the whole house, bringing them here to see the bad water. She wanted to force Deng to drink from the pavement. But it was not the fault of the servant standing before her.
“Bring me a clean bucket,” Sydney asked in as even a voice as she could muster.
While the servant hurried off, Sydney went to Riod’s side and knelt by him. Oh, Riod. I will bring your water. No one will hurt you now. Her hand trembled as she stroked his hide. Beloved, I didn’t know. She hoped that he could pick up her thoughts, and in fact, he stirred.
Someone was coming. Sydney met the servant at the door and took the bucket. Dismissing the girl, she went outside to find a spigot. Deng was nowhere in sight, and that was just as well. She had to think carefully about how to handle this. Deng had received orders from the Tarig lady to poison Riod. But Sydney couldn’t directly accuse Anuve, or even Deng, lest she push matters too far. Sydney might be Mistress of the Sway, but she was no equal of a Tarig.
Fresh, rushing water filled the pail. The execrable Deng had been poisoning Riod, under orders from Anuve. She should have guessed, should have paid closer attention. Thank goodness Riod’s heart powers, though diminished, had not failed him. Deng must have worked skillfully to hide his intentions.
And why had Anuve tried to kill Riod? It was obvious. The mantis lords—and ladies—were fearful of Inyx mind powers and wished to keep Sydney weak.
That Sydney hadn’t taken precautions against this possibility sickened her.
She brought her bucket of water into the stable and used her hands to form a scoop for Riod to drink from. He did so, feebly.
Her thoughts toward the steward were murderous, but toward Anuve, coldly calculating. She would wait her chance to punish Anuve. It might take some time, but Sydney would make her pay.
Tai bandaged the woman’s hands as best he could. She wouldn’t say how she had cut them, or if someone had done this to her. Huddled on the edge of his bed, ready to bolt at the first sign of treachery, she looked terrified.
As he bound her hands, he was shaking. If he was not mistaken, he thought that this remarkable being came from the forbidden place: the Rose.
There were clues. First, she spoke Lucent in a halting manner. Second, he thought that he had seen her in the home of the Mistress of the Sway, standing on the balcony. She kept a scarf wrapped around her neck and a tight skull cap that looked as though it perched on a bald head. It was said that those of the Rose began their lives with dark hair and moved to white, opposite to the All. So hiding her hair, or shaving it, was a clue.
He’d been watching the undercity for Titus Quinn. After seeing him riding the Adda yesterday, he looked for him in every crowd, in the face of every Chalin man. Then, instead of Titus Quinn, he had sighted this woman, the one he’d seen on Sen Ni’s porch. Her expensive silks made her stand out—Tai knew his silks. Furthermore, these were torn. He followed her, noting her reaction when she spied a Tarig on the street. The woman shrank into a doorway, turning away. She was hiding from them. That was when he got close to her and offered his help.
She had a heavy bundle wrapped in a scarf. From the moment the woman had sat on his bunk, she had protected the package. It rested against her back, and by the look in her eyes, Tai thought she would attack him if he so much as touched it. Maybe she thought that since he lived in a simple burrow, he was some common fellow who might steal from her. He’d have to assure her, somehow. This burrow was one he’d enlarged by digging into the hard packed soils under the city. It had no portal to the Nigh and only a cloth over the door. It was hovel, but at least it was a private place where he could care for her.
“Water, please.” A thick accent.
He brought her a drink in a clean cup, and it ran down her face as she drank, spilling into the scarf around her neck. She removed it, showing a patch of festering skin on her neck and chin. Now that he looked more closely, he thought she might be feverish.
“You need a healer.”
She quickly snapped, “No.” Her glance went to the door.
“All right. But you are sick.”
“Not sick. No healers. No one finds me.” She was wild-eyed and swaying from exhaustion, but afraid to sleep.
“I won’t let the Tarig find you,” he said. “I am honored to serve a being of the Rose.”
At this, she moved back, drawing closer to the package in back of her. “If you tell about me, I will kill you.” She gestured behind her. “This is a machine. I can make it hurt you even if you run.”
She was desperate, and perhaps delirious. He humored her. “Some of us revere the Rose, did you know that?”
“I know some things. Not others. Who are you?”
“I am Tai. I am a mort. Do you know what that is?” She watched him warily. “My friends and I think the Entire is a place where people live too long. It makes them shallow and boring. We shun the bright, the upper city, so we will live shorter lives, and deeper. Like you do in the Rose.”
She leaned against her machine, eyelids drooping. He wished she would lie down, but this appeared to be a woman who would sooner fall down than rest.
“Mort is a nickname for a Rose word meaning death. Morts aren’t afraid of death, not like most sentients. The lords say life is better here. It isn’t. I’m sure of that.”
“You like the Rose, Tai?”
That seemed friendlier, and he was quick to answer. “It is my dream. To go there.”
“I know how.”
His heart crimped at this utterance.
“Your dream.” She nodded. “Help me, and I will help you.”
“I was going to help you anyway.”
She asked for food then, and he spent his last minors on meat rolls and buns, bringing them back as fast as he could, afraid she would run away. But she was waiting for him.
He tried not to stare at her as she ate. He was so stimulated that he could hardly be still. At last he found the courage to ask, “Is Titus Quinn your friend?”
She swallowed a bite that looked like it got lodged halfway down throat.
“Yes. Such a good friend. What do you know of him?”
“I know that he was at Sen Ni’s dwelling on the crystal bridge. He took her up into the Adda, and after they were together a few increments, she came back down again. All very secret. I would never tell.”
She stopped eating for a while, eyes narrow. Then she said, “That is good, Tai. Don’t tell our secrets. You really don’t want to tell. There are very big plans at work. You can be part of it. Then I will send you to the Rose. You can live the short life you want. You like that?”
He nodded, overcome.
That seemed to please her, because she said, “My name is”—he thought she said Hel Ese. “I’m on a . . . Rose mission. But I can’t tell you about this. You have to trust me. Agreed?”
Tai began to relax. They were becoming friends. “If you have great things to accomplish, I want to be part of them.”
She looked around her. “Tell me where I am.”
“This is where I stay. It’s a hole, but it’s cheap. You’re in the undercity.
It’s where we—us morts—like to be, because it’s dark.”
“Secret from the Tarig?”
“No, the Tarig built it long ago. They know we’re here, but they don’t come down among us very much. Morts like it here, since we don’t fit in—” He pointed toward the ceiling. “—up there. No one will come here.”
She lay down, keeping the machine between herself and the wall. “I have to sleep.”
He brought her a blanket, a fairly clean one, he was happy to note. “Sleep, Hel Ese. No one will disturb you. Don’t worry.” He pulled the blanket over her as she lay down.
“Send you to the Rose,” she murmured. “If you hide me well. If not . . .”
It hurt his feelings that she was still threatening him. He glanced at the machine covered with a scarf. Glimpses of metal showed through the wrapping. A picture formed in his mind of a machine sprouting legs and rushing after him like a Paion. He didn’t doubt that she could be dangerous. There was something in her eyes that was flat and unreceptive. Once she knew him better, they would be friends.
She was already asleep, snoring lightly. Stepping close to her, he inspected the raw infection, oozing in places. He quelled a spike of worry. Counting out his few coins, he found he had just enough to buy medicinals.
Tai went to the flap on the door, slipping past it into the murky corridor. Elated and exhausted, he hurried to the market stalls. He kept an eye out for her good friend Titus Quinn.