Against the enemy, use a damning truth; to rouse one’s own forces, a useful lie.
—from Tun Mu’s Annals of War
“ONLY HIRRIN SERVANTS,” Sydney repeated again.
Lady Anuve looked down at her with flat black eyes. It was a look Sydney was coming to identify as fury.
Of all the assembled staff, Sydney wanted only Hirrin, the sentients who could not lie. As the first test of her freedom, she banished Anuve’s spies.
Riod stood by her side, distressingly weak but able to move under his own power now that Sydney herself fed and watered him. Today he was going back to the Inyx Sway, much as they both dreaded being separated.
Deng was the first servant to be dismissed, and if Anuve thought her poisonings had been discovered, then so be it. Because Anuve might overreact to a direct accusation, Sydney managed to hold her tongue. Clearly the mantis lords—and ladies—wanted no Inyx near the Bright City and its great secrets. In this regard, they would be surprised to learn how right they were.
Sydney pressed home her point. “I will have only Hirrin to serve me. And only Hirrin to escort us to the ship.”
“Armed Hirrin,” Anuve said, conceding the issue of servants. Hirrin made surprisingly good bodyguards. They could be equipped with ejectors in their mouths that would take down a sentient with a paralyzing stream at fifteen yards.
Sydney gave ground. “Yes, all right.” She had to pretend that she’d use force to restrain her father if he attempted contact.
Waving her hand at the Chalin and Jout palace staff, Lady Anuve sent them from the foyer to pack their belongings. Earlier Anuve had said once more what the terms were, of being free: “You serve as Mistress of the Sway as long as you do so with honor. This means obedience to us, ah?”
“Yes,” Sydney had answered. Thank God she wasn’t a Hirrin and could lie pleasantly.
Still, she didn’t trust even the Hirrin, not quite yet. She approached two Hirrin females Anuve had brought her.
“Do you serve me honestly, withholding nothing?” If she was truly free, then a Hirrin could answer a simple question.
The nearest Hirrin rolled her eyes and turned her long neck in Anuve’s direction. “Have we leave to serve the Mistress of the Sway, Bright One?”
By gesture from Anuve: Yes.
Sydney locked gazes with the Hirrin. “Do you keep secrets from me?”
Turning to the second Hirrin, she asked, “And do you?”
“I do not, Mistress Sen Ni.”
Sydney turned back to the remaining figures in the foyer: all were Hirrin except for Riod and Anuve. “Every day I will ask this of each of you.” That ought to clear the decks well enough.
Sydney turned to Anuve. “I’m going to the wharf. We’ll keep watch for the man of the Rose.” She wanted so badly to say, And someday you’ll eat my poison. Although it wouldn’t much matter, would it? You’d just come back as another ugly fiend.
Sydney and Riod left, along with the Hirrin guards. It was a slow progression, marked by Riod’s uncertain steps. Sydney kept her hand on his flank: I will miss you always, every minute, beloved.
Riod concentrated on negotiating the palace steps. He would walk on his own down to the dock at the foot of the bridge. A short walk, but painful for them both. Riod had been at her side without pause for a thousand days.
When he was gone, she would be alone. Mo Ti had left—oh, long ago, it seemed. Akay-Wat was in the roamlands. Helice had fled. Who was left now?
With Riod’s return home their goal of better penetrating the Ascendancy with dream probes evaporated. Helice still had her machine sapient; no doubt she still had her great plans of renaissance, within which she sought to control the Tarig at their doors. Perhaps Titus could find the doors to the Heart first. He said he had the means, though he hadn’t confided his methods to her.
As they came into the Way, citizens bowed to Sydney, recognizing her from the celebrations of investiture. As she and her company went on, a small crowd followed them. Few people here had seen an Inyx, much less Sen Ni, up close. They hailed her, and it lifted her spirits. Above them, the glimmering crystal bridge lay aslant, as though leaning out to touch the Ascendancy. Despite the sad duty of sending Riod away, the sight was riveting. It was the largest glass slipper in the universe, and Sydney was the most unlikely of Cinderellas. She was walking free under the shadow of the Ascendancy. She was a child of the Entire, a mistress of a country, and the daughter of no man—only the friend of a horned mount. Looking out at the silver disk of the Sea of Arising, she had the feeling she would never be this free again. Surely it was just a bit of doubt and not premonition. But it came to her hard and fast like instinctual knowledge.
The navitar’s vessel rested at the pier, with only a Hirrin ship keeper visible. No other travelers had booked passage yet, apparently. Riod watched the ship with loathing, remembering the trip out. But his agitation was not because of the pending Nigh voyage. He sent to Sydney, The boy navitar. It is the boy.
Sydney snapped a look at the vessel, searching. The navitar hadn’t made himself visible on the deck, but if it was the same one they’d met before, that couldn’t be a coincidence. Geng De was seeking her out.
I like him not.
Once on the ship’s deck, Sydney looked down at her Hirrin servants. “Wait for me here, and don’t interrupt us.”
In back of the main cabin, a special billet had been constructed for Riod’s transport. When Riod and Sydney entered it, Geng De was waiting.
His doughy face dimpled in pleasure. He bowed. “Mistress.” Gesturing around the cabin, he said, “Everything for Riod’s comfort, as you see. My ship keeper will wait on him, and if I do not care for him well, you may force feed me with river matter.” The expression might convey the navitars’ horror of drowning, a fear Sydney had heard of.
“Thank you, Geng De. Riod is very sick. Please go to the roamlands as fast as you can.”
Exhausted, Riod sank to his knees in the straw. Kneeling next to him, Sydney felt incapable of a goodbye. I will come home with you, Sydney thought.
Riod snatched at the thought, always able to see her mind instantly. He reminded her that he would soon be well, once in the company of the herd and free of poisons. More important, Sydney must be in position to receive the gift her father might give her. If he found the doors.
Sydney reflected on these things. Titus might think he still owed her that much. Though she had not been able to deliver Helice to him, he still had promised her the kingdom, if it was in his power to give. He might believe a thing like that could make amends. And the truth was it could. She imagined that they would have a new alliance, a new relationship. She imagined that she might love him again.
In his boyish lisp, Geng De said, “I have come far to see you.”
But far for a navitar was never much of a journey. “How are you, Geng De?”
“I am strong. In my largest powers.”
Well, good for you. She pressed her face next to Riod’s great head.
Geng De’s voice came to her, needling: “I will help you, if you let me. We have ties, you and I. You remember?”
They would have to have a conversation. Wearily, she stood up, smoothing her silks. “I remember you said so. A lot of people say things to me. It’s hard to figure out what matters. What’s true.” Riod was already beginning to drift off. Stay awake, best mount, she urged.
Geng De looked at Riod with concern. “I have a thing to tell the mount. Is he asleep?”
“Perhaps. Tell me, then.”
“But it’s Riod who needs to know. So he can infect the sleep of the All.”
Ah. He knew about the source of the dream sendings. Sydney felt vulnerable now. She was on Geng De’s ship, rocking on a sea that he commanded in ways she could not imagine. The room seemed dark and confining.
Geng De went on, “It is something I’ve only lately discovered, in the binds. Not many know this. Maybe only me. When it goes abroad into the dreams, it will make the lords unhappy.”
A dimple in the cheek. “It is a lot to tell you for nothing in return.”
“What do you want, then?”
“Oh! I want to be your first counselor, your best friend, your religious guide. Co-master of the Sway. Regent of the Entire.”
The list left Sydney breathless. “Anything else?”
“That’s all you can give me. You might be Mistress of the Sway, but you don’t own everything. Not nearly everything. That could change.”
If he expected her to listen to this sort of talk, he’d have to do better than wild demands and claims. “Tell me, first.” He had a whiff of desperation about him. She’d use that. She outwaited him.
“I know what the Paion want.”
“Everyone knows that. They want the Entire.”
“Did you think, Sen Ni, that the lords do not lie?”
No, she had never thought that.
Geng De’s voice was very soft. “The Paion want to come home. This is their home.”
She tried to grasp this idea, and failed. “This is home?”
“It used to be. They were expelled. If the lords would let them come back to their minoral—just one small minoral—the Long War would be over.”
Geng De glanced at Riod, perhaps uncertain whether to wake him. “The Paion once had a minoral. This minoral was in the Long Gaze of Fire. It was cut off from the roamlands by a shield, and behind that shield was a murk of air only they could breathe.”
“Shield . . .” Sydney had seen this shield. “In the Inyx lands.”
“Well, they’re not all Inyx lands. The primacy is vast. But you saw the Scar?” When she nodded, Geng De went on, “This was all back before anyone remembers. Then the Tarig cut it off. The Paion have been trying to get back ever since.” He shrugged, as though it was just that simple.
“Why?” The idea of minorals cut off like dead fingernails was disturbing at a profound level. And yet, hadn’t the lords done so again just now, in the Arm of Heaven? There were rumors that the minorals had all closed, like doors slamming. There were rumors that they had not just closed up, but vanished.
“The Tarig overreached. The Paion minoral was too expensive, for the energy it needed. To create special air. To keep it separate.” He shrugged. “A guess. I am not in their counsels. But the lords need to keep the bright going.
Every cut helps.”
She let this story settle in her mind. It wouldn’t. “So the Paion aren’t from another universe?”
“Oh, now they are. After the Tarig cut them away. They learned to power themselves, but it’s hard, and they want to come home.”
Sydney’s imagination went back to the time when she had seen the Scar.
She was with Mo Ti then, the first ride she and Riod had taken after Tarig surgeries supposedly cured her blindness. A long ride from the encampment, there was an oval mark on the storm wall, the place where everyone thought the Paion had once tried to invade. But if Geng De was to be believed, it was only the imprint of the minoral where the Paion had lived; the shape of the junction between the minoral and the primacy.
“We have the Long War because the Paion need to come home. The lords could wipe them out of the next universe and end the war, but they like the war. It binds the sways in one cause. So they keep it going, though the Paion are nothing but fleas to such as the lords.”
She thought of the slaughter of that war. “People have died. Sentients have died.” She ran out of words.
“The bright lords find it useful. They might like to watch a nice war.”
The young navitar drew closer to her. “That is a fine secret to tell. Are we friends, then?”
Might like to watch. They keep it going. Geng De was right, it was very useful information. Perhaps explosive. If the lords were vulnerable in their image, this could fatally wound them. She bent down to touch Riod’s forward horn, wishing he were awake.
The navitar looked down at Riod. “Are you two talking right now, mind to mind? Not very nice, in my presence.”
“That won’t ever change. Get used to it, or stay the hell away from me.”
“But it will change. He can’t be close to you if he goes home. You won’t be talking to each other anymore. You could talk to me instead. I’d help you.
You would be my queen.”
She looked at him with an appraising eye. He knew some important things. Astounding things. His disclosures could galvanize her flagging rebellion. And—if he wasn’t fabricating these stories—he might reveal further Tarig weaknesses. But associating with him might alarm Anuve.
“The Tarig watch me. How would I explain a friendship with a navitar?”
“I could instruct you, spiritually. The lords are used to sentients wanting religion. You could take on the religion of your sway: the Society of the Red Throne. It might be well to emulate your subjects, for political reasons. You could adopt an attitude of veneration of navitars, especially me.” He dug into the folds of his red robe for something. “Here is my portrait.”
Sydney took the picture from him. She had seen similar poses of navitars held aloft on the banners of the Society during the Great Procession. He looked like a chubby adolescent dressed up in a tent.
He beamed. “Do you like it?”
The cabin grew too warm. Outside on the dock, her attendants waited.
Sydney would have to make up her mind. She hesitated. Riod was leaving, and this odd but intriguing pilot wanted to take his place.
“I don’t know much about the Red religion. I wouldn’t be convincing as a devotee.”
“You don’t have to convince the lords. They’d know it was for appearances.”
“I won’t worship you. And I won’t pretend to.”
“I don’t want spiritual power, Sen Ni.”
“You want the real thing.”
“Yes. With you.”
Geng De pulled himself to his full height, matching hers. “I will tell you the last thing to know about me. Then you can decide if we are to be brother and sister.” He paused. “I have a gift for the future.”
“To see the future? Then what is the future?”
He looked hurt at her scoffing tone. “It’s more complicated than that.”
“Tell me, Geng De, am I to be in the Ascendancy?”
His voice was perfectly serious as he answered. “Yes. If I say so.”
She could only stare at him. Was he a madman? Certainly peculiar, but delusional?
Riod was present after all. He struggled, and his voice was weak in her thoughts. Still, he sent, He speaks truthfully.
Geng De went on, “Haven’t you grasped it yet? I can control which strands combine. If the strands are strong enough, I can weave them together.
Make you queen.”
Riod’s thought came: That is against the navitar vows.
“Against the navitars’ way,” Sydney murmured, her thoughts racing.
“Yes, the navitars pledge not to. But it’s easy for them to give up what they can’t have anyway. And some try, did you know? But I am the only one who can shape the strands. I’ve only succeeded in small things. The alterations are . . . complex. I only know that I feel the binds differently than others. I am from the river. I am of the river.”
She wanted to dismiss his claims, as outrageous as they were. But he had already demonstrated knowledge of high secrets: seeing the chain cast into the river; knowing the cause of the Long War; discovering the motives of the Paion. But knowing and predicting were different—immeasurably different than controlling. Could he indeed, even in small ways, influence the future?
Riod, is this true?
He does not speak lies, my heart. But he can still be wrong.
She shook her head, overwhelmed.
Geng De put his hands on her shoulders. She pulled back, but he didn’t let go. “You see that I am not like others.” His voice was urgent, and the words spilled out quickly: “When I was barely nine hundred days old, my parents took passage on the Nigh, and as the press of passengers distracted them, I crawled up the railing. I fell. The water swallowed me. It was not water.”
He released her from his grip, pacing to the porthole. “They pulled me up, but I had already gone under, again and again. By the time I was laid out on the deck, I was changed. ‘Throw him back,’ some urged, oblivious to my mother’s cries. My father wrapped me in a blanket and took me to the navitar, but when she looked at me, she fell to raving, and the ship keeper sent us off. I was damaged, but my parents had no other children and were deter- mined to make someone pay for their grief. Besides, my mother thought it was an omen that I survived. She thought me destined for some high thing.
My father, though, went to the Magisterium to find a clerk who would draw up scrolls to bring action against the navitar for ruining me. It happened that the navitar of this ship was a great favorite of one of the lords, and to save the navitar from having to leave her ship and confront unpleasantness the lord, through his legate, offered a compromise: I could go for a navitar. No child had ever been created a navitar. The changing took time. When I emerged, I was as you see me. I am different in nature from the others. I am a child of the Nigh. When I am in the binds, and when I weave the threads, I control them.
With difficulty and imperfectly. But, for example, today I brought you to my side. This is why we are brother and sister, Sen Ni, because I see you in my future days. To me, these days are already gone; I have seen them in the river.”
He stood back from her, wiping the sweat from his face. The telling had taken something out of him: the arrogance, for one thing.
His story had moved her. His assertions and his upbringing were knitting into a coherent, if extraordinary, whole.
In a ragged voice, Geng De went on, “Are we not kin, Sen Ni? We were both dropped away. You by your parents, me by a stumble on the Nigh. Neither of us belongs anywhere, except together.” He held out his hands, palms up. “Do you have the courage to hold the hands of a child of the river?”
Sydney hesitated only for a moment. Her counselors were all gone. All that was left was her father, and she didn’t think he would be worth much in the end. This navitar might be a boy, a man, destined to help her. But he might be an unreliable, ambitious guide. Still, he was mistaken if he thought he could dominate her. She’d faced off with worse. She’d challenged Priov, the chief of the Inyx, when she was a slave. She’d survived Lord Hadenth.
She’d keep Geng De in check, and if not, she would send him away.
She nodded her agreement. “Come with me, then. Be my counselor.
Guide me.” She would listen to him. She didn’t have to obey. And if he could weave a future, then by the bright, let it be a glorious one.
Reaching for her hands again, he gripped them. “Kiss your new brother.”
He came closer.
He would be content with nothing else. She stepped forward and put her lips on his. Though she wanted to pull away, she knew this was the least of the penalties she would pay for his service. She kissed him truly.
Our brother now? Riod asked. He had been listening all this time, perhaps conscious enough to know that Sydney had turned onto a new path. Perhaps he discerned that she was tracing an urge she could not even name, except to align, bind, and gather those who were loyal to her. To provide recompense for things that kept falling away.
It had been a sexless kiss, as a brother’s kiss should be. But Geng De was family now.