The wise commander avoids the traps of hills, rivers, and narrow places, while inviting the enemy into their embrace.
—Tun Mu’s Annals of War
“WE’VE FOUND HER.” Zhiya had left the door to Quinn’s room open.
One of her spies, a powerful-looking Jout, waited just out of hearing.
Quinn was already on his feet. “Where?”
“She’s in the undercity. Your madwoman of the Rose.”
By the bright, they’d found her at last. Not that he could have acted against Helice before; after thirty-three days he was only recently able to move without difficulty. The wound was clean, though, with the slug passing through the edge of his lung and making a clean exit.
She’s in the undercity, Zhiya said. His knowledge of the place came from former memories of the world, but he didn’t exactly have a complete grip on those. “Underneath Rim City, then?”
Zhiya nodded. “You’ll need an escort.” She gestured at the Jout. “This is Gaulter.” They exchanged bows.
She watched Quinn as he moved, perhaps judging whether he was ready for battle. “I know that area well. Maybe you should let me do this.”
He pulled on his jacket. “Murder’s no job for a godder.” It got the smile he hoped for.
“But it’s a Miserable God, remember?”
“I remember.” After all that had happened, he almost believed in the frowning deity. “Is she alone?”
“No. She’s holed up with a young man who’s bringing her food. He’s a mort. They like the undercity, and some live there. He shouldn’t give you any trouble, even if you’re carrying around a wound that could fell a Gond.”
“He’s a what . . . a mort?”
“Funny word. English, isn’t it? It’s a cult. Disaffected young sentients ducking life. They have a partiality for the Rose, so your Hel Ese chose a good protector.”
“She’s not mine.” He wouldn’t have her in any way be his. Good God, he remembered that once he’d felt sorry for her, when she got burned in the crossing. She’d given a little speech about being fascinated by the Entire, looking for something fine, and couldn’t she just tag along since she had already followed him through the veil and she couldn’t return? If he’d shoved her back into the crevasse then, she wouldn’t be on the verge of mayhem now.
“Tell me about the undercity.”
“The place is small, maybe two hours’ walk from one end to the other. A hangout for the dregs of the city. Young men in particular hang out there, looking for sex and other pastimes their parents would shudder at. They’re a death cult in some ways, because they shun the bright. I believe you have rather a nice reputation among them.”
He raised an eyebrow.
“Man of the Rose. They think you darklings lead a better life. You have to cram all those Rose experiences into fewer days.”
By the bright, Helice would tell him where the Rose engine was. The matching engine to Ahnenhoon. A monstrous vision; from the demon herself. He knew what he was doing: dehumanizing her so he could outright kill her. She might deserve it, but he had never . . . no he couldn’t say he’d never killed. He’d killed Small Girl. And from that moment he had seen himself differently. You find that you are capable of certain things that were once unimaginable, and you became, if not a stranger, then at least more unwelcome to yourself.
He tucked his knife into his boot, thinking that he was becoming a killer. He tried to remember that at least one person still loved him. And more important, he loved her, proving that he had come some few steps toward decency.
Zhiya turned to Gaulter. “Take Ni Jian to the woman’s hideout. And if the spirit moves you, help him kill her. I don’t expect you to murder for me, but the Rose woman is a vile, depraved gondling whose life is an insult to the bright. Do I make myself clear?”
The Jout cracked a toothy smile. “Venerable.” He ducked a bow, and led Quinn down the steps to the city.
Shadow Ebb had crept over the bright while Quinn and Zhiya had talked. Now, Gaulter assured him, the undercity would be at its busiest, and thus at its safest for them to make their way down. They quickly found their way to a ramp leading to the burrows. Quinn’s disguise was a wispy mustache and torn silks. As they descended, smells of greasy food mixed with a whiff of sewage.
Quinn’s eyes began to adjust to their new surroundings: a dim underground street, cramped but lively, sparkling with marquee lights and shafts of light from open doors spilling a clattering music and the pulses of drums. Portholes punctuated the walls, letting in the confused light of the sea depths. Waves of layered dark light shimmered behind the glass, barely illuminating the corridor. Three-wheeled pedi cabs and pedestrians shared the main street. While the press of bodies was decent cover, one thing could well give him away: his age. The denizens of this place were young and artfully dressed. Bright silks clad the men as beautifully as the women. On second thought, some of the women were men.
They passed a few older Chalin men dressed in long sleeveless coats. “Red Throne,” Gaulter murmured, and led Quinn on, out of the commercial district into a dimmer and more neglected neighborhood. He was nervous, aware of the knife in his boot. He’d have to act fast. See her, kill her. Keep her from delivering her devil’s bargain to the Tarig. Why she waited was hard to know.
Up ahead, a Tarig. No, a cluster of them. Trusting that the lords hadn’t seen them, they swerved into a busy foodery. He and Gaulter watched as the lords passed by on the street. Then, slipping back out into the street, Gaulter led him in the opposite direction of the lords. At last they ducked down a narrower street. This way, Gaulter assured him. It was a darker region, one that appeared abandoned. A nice place for a Tarig ambush, too. Gaulter looked behind. No lords following.
“It’s one of the last burrows,” Gaulter said. Putting on his game face, the Jout drew out his knife, not bothering to hide it.
Quinn thought of the first time he’d met Helice, at Stefan Polich’s Christmas gathering. It was long ago now, though it depended on which clock you used. At the time he’d thought of her as typical of that class of hyper-smart savvy who had never learned social skills or compassion. He’d noted her expression when Polich announced that she wouldn’t be going with Quinn on his expedition. A stricken look. He did wonder what had brought her to this. It didn’t matter. He’d hesitated over such things once: at Ahnen-hoon, when, if he hadn’t been thinking too much, he could have preserved the Earth. Now, he wouldn’t pause when the time came.
Gaulter nodded at a dark wall. “There,” he murmured. Just down the alley, barely discernable in the murky passageway, was a hole covered by a cloth.
Quinn reached down to his boot, withdrawing his knife, the one Zhiya managed to recover for him when she found him wounded. It had lain in the Way, a beautifully crafted knife, a present from his old fighting master, Ci Dehai. He was thankful to still have it.
He told Gaulter, “I’ll have a question for her. First.”
Taking a quick look down the alley, Quinn lunged through the door, swiping the cloth aside. Gaulter was behind him, flashing a lamp around the room. It was empty.
“Wrong room!” Quinn muttered.
“No. This is the place.”
A sinking sensation hit Quinn. He kicked over the bed, searching. “Let’s try the next one.”
Gaulter found a pan of water and bandages. “Was she hurt?”
In a corner, a flash of iridescent color. Quinn picked up a small, green silk hat. He’d seen Helice wear it when she shot him. The right den. The wrong time. His gaze lit on the wall near the bed. There was a hole. “Over here,” he said to Gaulter.
“A tunnel,” Gaulter said, then jerked his head toward the doorway.
His companion moved quickly to the door, peering out. Tarig, he mouthed. He clicked off the lamp.
“They followed us,” Quinn murmured.
Gaulter whispered, “Move the bed in front of the door.” It would force the Tarig to come in single file, but that would be little advantage. Quinn had fought with two Tarig: Hadenth and Chiron. He’d won against Hadenth, but the creature had been half dead; he’d lost to Chiron in seconds. They rammed the bed into position.
Gaulter pushed Quinn toward the wall. “Go into the hole,” he whispered. “With any luck, goes somewhere.” Left unsaid was that the Jout himself was too big to fit through the hole. When Quinn hesitated, Gaulter pushed him toward the wall. “I give my life for Zhiya. I gladly do.” He turned to the door, murmuring, “They won’t interrogate me.” More swiftly than Quinn could have stopped him, Gaulter sliced the knife across his own throat. Blood erupted from his massive body.
The door ripped open, and the Jout, still standing, fell headlong toward the crouching Tarig just preparing to enter.
Quinn scrambled into the hole. He couldn’t travel on hands and knees, only by a scrunching movement of his spine, pushing with his toes and knees and grasping for the sides of the tunnel to pull himself along. The burrow was rough and very dark. This fact might hold the Tarig back for a moment. They despised the dark—one reason why the Entire had no night. He scrambled forward.
Behind him he heard the noise of scrambling. So, they’d come in, after all. He couldn’t out-crawl a Tarig, and this one, he’d just learned, had a lamp.
Fajan crouched beside the fallen speaker. Even if he was of the wretched Society, he deserved a chance to speak without a beating. “Are you all right? Can I help you to get home?”
The Red managed to stand, wiping the dust from his clothes. “You have more courtesy than the rabble, I see.”
“You have a right to your wrong opinions,” Fajan said, smiling to soften the rejoinder. The Red nodded at his wit, then straightened and walked off.
Three Tarig stood by, watching the crowd disperse. Merely the presence of the lords stopped the proceedings. Showing restraint, the lords scanned the crowd for the ones they searched for. Two people now, by the view spray posters on the walls: a man and a woman. The man was Titus Quinn of course. The woman, one without a name. The Tarig were foolish to think a Rose fugitive would hide somewhere so obvious when they had the whole of the never-ending city, above, to hide in.
Fajan nodded at the lords as he passed them, murmuring, Bright Lords. They hadn’t seen that he was one of the speakers, so they had no reason to detain him. He drifted down the street, agitated, needing to walk off his excitement. He watched for Tai, hoping to see him.
Down an alley he saw a rowdy group. He headed for it, needing company, hoping it was morts.
Quinn crawled onward through the tunnel, already feeling fatigue. Lungs not one hundred percent, he pulled in gasps of air. Behind him, the scuffling sound of pursuit. In desperation, he turned onto his back and kicked the ceiling of the burrow, trying for a collapse of the tunnel behind him. He slammed his foot again and again into the top of the dig. Nothing. A light flashed in his face. The lamp of the Tarig. He twisted around and clawed his way forward again.
Ahead was a faint light. Even if he made it to the end of the tunnel, he would still have to face his pursuers once out of the hole. A freshening of air told him he was close to the end.
Scrambling for the light, he pushed out, finding himself in a narrow alley. Before ejecting from the tunnel, he gave a last kick. A cloud of dust rushed forward to spill from the hole. Part of it, at least, had collapsed.
People were milling around him. Someone supported him, asking if he was all right. Incredibly, the tunnel had caught his pursuers, but not him. He gulped air, reviving slowly.
But there was another survivor of the tunnel. A Tarig appeared in the hole, and stepped out, unfolding his tall body. Quinn drew his knife. The lord, blackened with soil, stalked toward him, claws extruded, reaching.
The crowd bellowed as one. From behind, they swarmed the lord from all sides, raising boards, stones, bare hands to strike at him.
The lord’s first swipe took out two throats, a move that, rather than demoralizing, enraged the young men. Some of them had taken up a chant of Fajan Fajan. A large female Jout came into the fray with a shovel, slamming the side of the lord’s head with it. Encouraged, the crowd piled forward to bury the Tarig, who thrashed under their weight. Then, bracing his long legs under him, and in a massive heave, he threw the bodies off.
Quinn tackled the lord at the knees, avoiding the claws, trying to bring him down. The Tarig fell, but nimbly came into a crouch and then stood up. As he came up, someone’s knife impaled an eye, digging deep, sticking solid.
The Tarig howled—a tone to shrivel eardrums. The piercing cry stopped the assault, as the mob backed off, watching the creature standing tall among them, streaming blood. The Tarig grabbed the knife and pulled it out.
Then the Tarig lord went to his knees. But he was already dead. Someone came forward and rammed a foot into the Tarig’s chest. He toppled.
“Fajan!” someone cried.
Quinn turned to the group, taking closer note of its composition: young men, likely morts, each one armed with implements and makeshift weapons.
“Go now, go quickly,” he said. “Before this Tarig’s cousins come. And thank you.”
The one called Fajan turned from the body to look at Quinn. Quinn nodded at Fajan, then spun on his heels and ran to the end of the alley. There, he turned, seeing that a few morts still lingered, staring at the lord’s body.
Whoever that Tarig had been, he could return, presumably—if Mo Ti’s tales of Tarig rejuvenation were accurate. Although the recent memory in this individual would never be recovered, an earlier version of this Tarig could take on a new form. Death, in the world of the Tarig, was complicated.
Quinn walked quickly down the street, wiping himself as clean as was possible. Tarig blood was red, he remembered, but it still wouldn’t do to be drenched in it. He found a public wastery and stripped, rinsing his clothes.
He thought of Gaulter. Zhiya inspired such loyalty, and it was good that she did. But Gaulter was dead, and it angered and saddened him.
Emerging from the wastery, he was wet but clean.
Exhausted, grimacing with the pain of his exertions, he put his mind to walking normally toward the access to the upper city. As he walked, he watched for Helice, knowing he would never again have such luck, to see her on the street. Still, he muttered to whatever god was listening: Just give me one chance at her.
From deep in the undercity came the sound of a growing tumult. Maybe the Tarig body had been discovered. Quinn put distance between himself and the scene of the death, climbing the ramp down which he and Gaulter had come just an hour ago.
In the upper city, he made his way home under the lavender ebb. Time enough to consider this bitter failure after he reported to Zhiya that her friend had died. In the midst of these considerations, the thought struck him with special force: he had just witnessed a mob murder a Tarig lord.