All alone, he hides in
Missing home, he cannot keep.
Watching o’er his eyes so blind
He flees to dreams his Heart to find.
—Lord Ghinamid Watching O’er, a child’s verse
DESPITE HIS RESOLVE NOT TO BE IMPRESSED BY THE ASCENDANCY, Tai stared at the great plaza before him, with its canals, artful bridges, and occasional towers of mysterious purpose. A Jout passed him, walking briskly on her business, smirking at the expression that must have marked Tai as a newcomer.
The Ascendancy was not so grand. It was a circular city resting upon the under-warrens of the Magisterium. Its grand plazas bore a few immense and narrow towers rising to nearly the bright itself. But there were not many of these. In the near distance, a hill upon which the lords’ habitations clustered, those of the Five dwarfing the manses of the lesser lords. Behind Tai, the cutaway sector where the levels of the Magisterium were exposed to the sky.
So. Now he had taken in everything in one round glance. For all his adult years he had dismissed the lords and their works; he had lived by the Sea, he had gazed up at the Ascendancy. It was not so very grand, or if it was, one should not revere such hollow things.
But who was he trying to fool? The Bright City staggered him. The plaza before him could have contained the whole of the Rim undercity. The looming towers, topped with curved roofs, were the more wonderful in that they were said to have no purpose. Crisscrossing the plaza were the twisting canals of the city, crossed by graceful arching bridges. Petitioners of the many sways conversed in knots along the canals and pursued their mysterious errands. Above him the sky buckled in deep folds of lavender-gray in this, the second hour of Early Day. So close to the bright’s essence, one felt oneself in the very doorway of heaven. Add to all this, the city floated high above the land, providing views out to the nearest storm walls, looking from edge-on like the dark legs of the Miserable God.
A shadow passed over him; it was a small flying creature. He had never seen birds fly, though he’d seen them run in the veldt. Momentarily he was disappointed. He thought the shadow might have come from a brightship.
Not that he would gape at such a machine. But he would not pass up the chance to see one at close range.
He still had not moved more than a few steps from the receiving docket of the pillar. It had been staggering enough to ride up and see the Arm of Heaven laid before him, in its vast length, but somehow the city gripped him more fiercely.
However, Tai would not begin his mission here by cowering before towers and bridges. He reminded himself that this city was the home of those who were afraid to live, who walked into their bodies and left them as easily.
This city was created by those who refused converse with the Rose. Who, if rumors were true, had just destroyed the ancient minorals of the Arm of Heaven. The lords were both ruthless and petty, destroying while at the same time promising life of one hundred thousand days, and in so doing, draining value from hours grown too long and too numerous.
As terrible a loss as the minorals were, Tai felt a personal grievance as well. If the to-and-from-veils were gone, Tai could not go to the Rose. Hel Ese, too, was worried about the fate of the veils. Although she had not yet confided in him, he believed she was hewing the pathway for her Rose compatriots to come here. With all her powers, perhaps she would find a way.
Blinking at the glare from the canals, he took several calming breaths.
He’d come to place a weapon here, and, though he hoped it would never be used, he was determined to do it.
Looking around, he found himself in relative privacy. Withdrawing the smooth cylindrical object from his pocket, he held it concealed in his fist. Hel Ese had termed it a finder. She’d given him another mechanical device as well, the one containing the weapon. Standing in place, he let the finder do its work.
He began to walk toward one of the canals, but as he approached, the finder cooled in his hand. Not that direction, then. He chose another direction, all the while praying that the object would not heat up toward the palatine hill. If his destination was the lords’ mansions, he had no idea how he could even enter those precincts.
After an hour, he was still walking along canals, crossing bridges, waiting for the vibration of the finder to show him his target. His skin flushed under the heat of the sky. He had been so long in the undercity, he had no tolerance any longer for the bright. Would Earth’s sun be gentler? It would do no good to worry in advance. Entangled so far with the woman of the Rose, he was in far more danger here than he would ever be in the Rose.
He stood at the foot of a great tower. Its twisting sides rose far, far above him, making him feel as small as a mange nit.
Here, at the base of this great pillar, was his destination. The finder was throbbing heavily in his grip. He surreptitiously pocketed the finder and withdrew from another pocket the thing Hel Ese had called the cell. That so small a thing could threaten the vast edifice seemed unlikely; but he trusted Hel Ese’s direction. The surface of the tower had valleys and ridges, almost like the bark of vine trees. Seeing no one else nearby, he shoved the cell into an indentation. Hel Ese had said it could be pressed and molded. Still, he hesitated to push too hard. As he stepped back to observe the effect, he saw that already the cell was darkening to the color of the tower.
Now that the most difficult aspect of his job was complete, he began to feel nervous. His next steps were to find subprefect Milinard and tell his Excellency that he had seen the woman of the Rose in the undercity. It was useless information, since Hel Ese had by now left the place, but providing intelligence to the subprefect was his excuse for being in the Ascendancy.
Inquiring of a litter-borne Gond where the nearest access to the Magisterium might be, he made his way to his interview. The Jout would be waiting, as no doubt the gatekeepers had informed him that Li Yun Tai had invoked the preconsul’s name to enter the Bright City.
Just as he was about to descend the stairs into the Magisterium, Tai turned to gaze at the tower where he’d left the cell. Stopping a Hirrin clerk and pointing, he asked if the tower had a name.
The Hirrin puffed through her mobile lips. “Name? Of course it has a name.”
“May I know it, most excellent clerk?”
She squinted at him, unsure whether the appellation was completely sincere. “It is the Tower of Ghinamid.”
“Ah. The famous tower. My thanks.” It was, he was able to note at this distance, taller than the others. To maintain his persona of simple-minded newcomer, he bowed to the clerk, though she was only a Magisterial flunky.
Lord Ghinamid’s Tower. The ancient monument to the Sleeping Lord.
Even with Tai’s cynical view of the Bright City, the name of the Sleeping Lord invoked a sober awe. The fifth of the great Lords, Ghinamid slept in a great chamber across the plaza from the tower. Tai’s father had once traveled to the Ascendancy and had seen the bier of the lord—which was an open bed where the great being slept. It was said that as one of the original five lords, Ghinamid had longed so much for home that he decided to sleep until the day came when he might return. Tai had always wanted to refute that story. After all, if you were one of the Ruling Five, surely you could choose to go home. Yet he had been sleeping for a thousand thousand days, since the Age of Radiance began.
And a new thought occurred: If, as the dreams said, the Tarig were constantly passing to and from their home to the Entire, then why was it that Lord Ghinamid could not? Not that anything the lords said could be trusted.
He turned to go. There was no grand entrance to the precincts of the realm’s governing hierarchy. It was a modest entryway, a carved double door, almost hidden in a small but well-kept sunken garden.
As he approached the door, Tai wondered what Hel Ese would make of the sights of this city. He wished he could be with her when she arrived, because he knew she would be, in her own way, rapt. Though she was ill and completely focused on her mission, her eyes sometimes betrayed her curiosity about the All; in those few times she had asked about the wonders of the Entire her voice carried a recognizable longing. He’d heard that in his own voice, when he spoke to her of the Rose.
Unconsciously, he patted the folded paper in his pocket, his growing list of words to memorize. Then he went down the stairs, beginning his descent into the tiers of the Magisterium.
Sydney knelt in contemplation before the low altar.
She hoped her attendants would gossip to their friends about her new devotion to the Red Throne. She hoped they’d say that Sen Ni was not so much human, as Chalin. It would be the truth, even if her adoption of the Society’s ways were mostly for show. Even so, she was a child of the Entire.
And perhaps someday, something higher yet. Geng De said queen, but that was too grand. A leader; a mistress to fill the vacancy created by the fall of the Tarig. Cixi might want her as high prefect; but the citizens of the Entire would say what they wanted. For now she was mistress of the sway— because the Tarig knew the realm was tending against them, and they wanted to look merciful.
Geng De worked very hard on the future, entering the binds and contending with them in ways she couldn’t even imagine. Recently he’d told her that, while there, he saw a disturbing occurrence: her father would betray her.
She had a bargain with her father. It had been a bargain. But since Helice had escaped, would her father still honor it? He’d told her he was close to cutting the Tarig off from their source in the Heart. Would he then let Sydney come into her destiny? She thought it was still possible. After all, Geng De’s vision might have shown him one of Titus’s past betrayals, not future.
“Mistress.” Her servant Emar-Vad approached. This Hirrin was swiftly becoming her foremost attendant. She turned to receive him.
“News has come. In the city. Murders.” He hesitated. “And Tarig punishments.”
Sydney rose quickly. “Tell me.”
“A lord has been killed. As a consequence, many are dying.” As Sydney absorbed this, Emar-Vad added, “A massacre. The lords are retaliating across the city.”
Sydney pushed back a rising alarm. “How can they do this?”
His ears flattened. “A mob killed a lord, Mistress Sen Ni. In the under-city. It was an unthinkable public execution.”
Her thoughts raced. Riod, what shall we do? But he was not here, nor could she share thoughts with him. Beloved, she thought. It rang hollow in her skull.
Sydney strode to the door, and Emar-Vad moved with her.
“Where is Lady Anuve?” she asked.
He led the way. As they hurried, they passed knots of Hirrin servants talking in hushed voices, bowing as Sen Ni passed. She gestured to one of them. “Geng De will be here soon. When he comes, bring him to me.” The navitar slept in his vessel at the foot of the bridge, but had planned to see her this Early Day for a show of religious instruction.
At Anuve’s quarters, she instructed Emar-Vad to knock. The door opened to a silent command inside, revealing Anuve in a chair in the center of the room, giving the impression she expected a visit.
A quick bow, as Sydney rushed to say, “What’s happening in the city, Bright Lady?”
Anuve’s long hand trailed over her skirt, adjusting it. “Retributions.”
Sydney turned to the Hirrin. “Wait outside, please, Emar-Vad.” When she was alone with Anuve, she tried to calm herself. This was her sway. She was mistress of the sway. If she hadn’t learned long ago in the stables to fight for position, she would never have survived.
“You have no permission to kill here.”
“Ah? Such permission is granted by whom?”
“By me.” The mantis lady considered this claim and the tone with which it was delivered.
Sydney went on, “How many are dead?”
“Some hundred sentients. Morts who gather in the undercity, pretending to worship the Red Throne, yet not deceiving us. They hate us. We have withheld our hand until now.”
Sydney could not suppress a growing outrage. My sway. My people. But she needed facts. “How can a lord have been murdered?” The thought of a Tarig’s murder, though never far from her mind, still startled her. For one thing, they were practically walking weapons themselves.
“A crowd came at my cousin with a knife.” Anuve added, “The lord pursued your father. Your father may have killed him, but if so, he was assisted by many sentients.”
“My father? You have him?”
Sydney quelled any expression of relief. “We’ll have no more killing.”
Anuve rose, her voice lowering. “Mistress of the Sway, hnn? You think the Tarig are under your sway?”
“No. But if retributions happen, they won’t be in my sway.”
“The criminals abide in your sway. However, they are dying quickly, by Tarig mercy.”
A rap at the door, and Sydney, in her fury, snapped, “Enter,” though it was Anuve’s apartment.
Emar-Vad stood in the open door. He bowed, nodding in the direction of Geng De, who stood in the hall.
Anuve’s voice came low and smooth. “Perhaps spiritual sustenance will calm you. Let the navitar teach you.”
This pushed too far. Sydney swung around to the creature, saying, “No more deaths. One Tarig has died. In return, you took a hundred. Enough.”
“It is enough when Rim City achieves calm. It is not calm. Citizens have smashed property, people chant in the great Way. It shall become calm.”
Sydney advanced on Anuve, to make her words more forceful. From behind, a hand grabbed her. It was Geng De. Swinging around, Sydney jerked her arm away from him.
He pinned her with his gaze. “It does no good to provoke a gracious bright lady, Sen Ni. Come with me now.”
“The lady and I aren’t done.”
“Sen Ni, you must come away. Walk into the city. See for yourself.” He bobbed a bow to Anuve. “It is allowed for the mistress of the sway to walk abroad?”
Anuve could not object, nor did she.
Geng De’s fist closed around Sydney’s arm. The firm grip and a few moment of consideration had allowed her black anger to abate. She responded to the urgency in Geng De’s eyes.
She bowed at the Tarig. “Bright Lady.” Geng De pulled her from the room.
As they walked down the hall, Emar-Vad some paces behind them, Geng De murmured, “One future I saw last night is that Anuve slit your torso from throat to waist.” They headed to her quarters, as servants bowed very low indeed, avoiding her gaze. The palace staff had perhaps understood that when Sydney went to Anuve’s room with that look on her face, she might not emerge alive.
“I rushed to find you this morning.” Geng De cut a glance at her. “You should dress the part of the mistress of the sway. Hurry.”
Geng De had done well to restrain her display of temper. They had jockeyed over the last forty days for mastery of each other; both of them were stubborn and sure of themselves; she trusted that he had learned that he couldn’t control her. Today, his restraining hand had been welcome. She only wished that, if he could weave the future, he had woven one without a massacre of her people.
Outside her apartment she paused. “Are they still killing, Geng De?”
“Yes. I have seen blood, cries, and death. Here is our best chance.”
“So you’re glad of all this?” She gazed at the navitar, rotund and soft, and perhaps cruel as well.
“Wear something pretty,” he suggested, pushing her through the door.
Emar-Vad didn’t like the roughness and moved in on Geng De, shoving him.
The two faced off. Emar-Vad’s lips folded back to show the ejector in his mouth.
“Emar-Vad,” Sydney said quickly. “Help me dress.” Her attendant relaxed his lips and passed Geng De, entering her room. Sydney closed the door behind them. She rushed to her clothes chest for something to wear. Out came jade green pants and a heavily embroidered jacket, garb rich enough to proclaim her position.
Geng De had said such a day was near, when she would go into the Way at his side, and must look every inch the mistress of the sway. A day when many would die. Will I die, Geng De? she had asked. To which he responded, I do not permit that future. But the binds make no promises. The answer chilled her, but she liked that he was honest.
Four Jouts bore Sydney’s litter into the city. At her side was Geng De, tipping the conveyance in his direction.
They sped down the ramp of the crystal bridge, plunging into the Way, strangely deserted at this waning hour of Early Day. A few people peered from behind curtains at windows.
Geng De was nervous, watching the side streets, alert. “The Tarig are overreacting. Now you can show your mercy.”
“What mercy can I give?”
“Whatever comes to you, seize it. But hear me, Sen Ni: Do not provoke any Tarig lord.”
Faintly, voices came to them. Angry shouts, at first muffled, then growing louder. Geng De pointed to the avenue leading to the Quay of Heaven. A wave of citizens was rushing down this side street into the Way.
As they stood milling, a Tarig appeared from a nearby habitation. The sentients turned as one to confront him. He advanced toward them with long strides.
A woman shouted, “No! Our street! Our street!” As she moved forward from the line of the throng, the Tarig slashed at her, ripping open her arm.
She fell. Not pausing, the lord lunged into the crowd. In the confusion of the milling sentients, Sydney couldn’t see the confrontation, but she knew by the sounds that the lord attacked viciously.
Ignoring Geng De’s murmurs of warning, she instructed the bearers to move closer. When they were some fifty feet from the mob, she jumped to the ground and shouted, but her voice was lost in the screams of the melee.
Nearby was the hulk of a leftover float from the Great Procession that had been dragged into the Way by the protesters. She called a Jout attendant to her side, and using his help, scrambled to the top.
Geng De had told her to express outrage and compassion. She needed no coaching. “Stop!” she shouted. No one heard. She ordered her four attendants to shout, and they did so. Sentients on the edge of the crowd turned to her.
“Stop!” she called again. “I am Sen Ni, Mistress of the Sway. You will stop. No more killing.”
A pause came to the fight. The crowd parted, revealing the Tarig lord among them. He walked toward her.
At the foot of Sydney’s perch, the lord looked up, his face smeared with blood. Holding out a fully clawed hand, he boomed, “Come to us, small girl.”
Geng De was on the other side of the float, standing amid the Jout attendants whose terrified faces were all turned up toward her. “Do not, Sen Ni,” Geng De pleaded.
The lord was Hadenth, that half-mad, paranoid prince. The lord was not Hadenth. But, again, he was. They were a combined swarm, dipping in and out of the Heart, sharing their experiences, mingling themselves in each new body.
“Come and get me,” Sen Ni said. “Come and kill the Mistress of the Sway, then. But I’ll be your last kill. Then it . . . will . . . be . . . enough.”
The lord reached up to climb.
She prepared to die. Geng De screamed, urging the Jouts on the lord, but at that moment, the lord paused in his climb and looked behind him, distracted for a moment.
Approaching them from further down the Way was a massive crowd of sentients: Chalin, Ysli, Jout, Laroo, and Hirrin. They bore lengths of pipe, hammers, and butcher’s knives and whether propelled from behind, or fueled by rage, they advanced on the lord.
With these overwhelming numbers, Sydney knew that another Tarig would die. That must not happen, or the city would suffer.
“Come up to me!” Sydney urged the lord. She hardly knew what she was doing, only that the lord must not die. This war could not be won by hammers and kitchen knives.
The Tarig lord cocked his gore-spattered head to her, and for the first time in her life, she saw a Tarig grin. It was the most awful thing she had ever seen.
Then she knew why he had no fear. From the direction of the quay a line of Tarig advanced. Twenty or thirty lords strode forward, coming into the Way.
They stopped, standing quite still, murmuring among themselves and watching the mob.
Then, as one line, they turned their backs on Sydney, the float, the bleeding lord, and the pile of bodies in the street. They advanced on the larger crowd.
Before she knew quite what she was doing, Sydney had scrambled down from her perch, racing past the bleeding lord, rushing to outflank the Tarig line. She was faster than the advancing lords. She stood now in the middle of the Way, halfway between Tarig and non-Tarig. For some reason, the street had gone quiet. The silence, suffocatingly hot, was pierced by Geng De wailing, “No, no, no, no.”
The line of Tarig stopped, eyeing her.
“I am Sen Ni,” she said, her voice sounding like a butterfly’s wing scraping a leaf. “We are done dying today.”
A hiss came from one of the lords. His stride brought him to her quickly.
From one side, Geng De ran toward her, his caftan hampering him, causing him to stumble. His voice warbled, “She is the Mistress of the Sway; no one must touch her! Mistress of the Sway!”
Geng De fell into her arms, bringing them both onto their knees in the street.
The lord raised an arm, and his fingers pointed to the bright with yellow, extended claws.
Geng De sobbed.
Then, one by one, the claws on the lord’s hand snicked in.
The lord said, “We have finished retributions.” He looked past Sydney and Geng De, toward the hushed crowd of sentients. “Ah?” He turned from one side of the mob to the other. “Ah? One of you wishes to die?”
No one spoke. The bright fell in hot gouts on the Way, the slicks of blood, and the wailing injured. The lords surveyed the scene, finding no further challenges. Then they retreated down the side street where Sydney now saw a brightship waited to take them away.
Geng De urged Sydney to her feet. She staggered on legs gone limp with terror, but he was right, she needed to be here, still needed to assure that the mob would not lose control.
Once upright, she walked toward the crowd. Moving down the edge of the throng, she put a hand on a shoulder, on an arm, on the head of a youngster.
“Enough sorrow,” she murmured to this one; and to that one, “No more dying, let this be enough.” She continued on, tears in her eyes from the exhaustion, from the relief of being alive. “I will help you.” She moved into the depths of the crowd, talking to some, consoling others. She began to see that some wanted useful employment. She nodded at a few. “Bring the wounded help.
You and you, go forward. There are people in need, lying in the street. The rest of you, go home. For now. Enough for now. But we will not forget.”
The crowd began to thin as a few individuals obeyed her, followed by most of the others. Turning back into the intersection of the Way and the side street, she found citizens tending to the injured. She saw Red Throne healers and litters bearing the dead away.
Geng De stood in the midst of it all, watching for her. When she approached him, he bowed deeply. Then a few from the crowd bowed to her.
A healer, hands full of gore, nodded in her direction.
She went to him. “Tell me how to help.”
“Mistress,” he said very kindly, “the helpers need water.”
Sydney sent her attendants for buckets and dippers and clean cloths, which they asked for at doorways along the Way. Once they returned, Sydney brought cups of water to the healers and the wounded.
A Laroo sat propped up against a store wall. He wasn’t bleeding, but only stared out at the Way.
“Drink,” Sydney urged, offering him a cup.
“Their claws,” he said, holding the drink, staring past her. “Terrible claws.”
“Yes,” she whispered, though he wasn’t listening. “I remember.”
When she at last returned to her litter, she looked once again down the side street toward the Heavenly Quay. She saw a small individual standing on a pier jutting into the Sea. It might not have gained Sydney’s attention, but something made her pause. A group of Tarig stood in a knot in front of the pier.
Geng De leaned in to her. “She’s been waiting there for quite a long time.”
Sydney turned back, looking more carefully. “Helice.”
Sydney noted that none of the Tarig near the dock moved toward Helice.
Then Sydney knew why. A Tarig lady was pushing through her cousins, moving toward Helice.
“Anuve,” Geng De whispered.
Helice stood her ground as the lady approached.
Sydney couldn’t see how Anuve hurt her, but Helice screamed. Then Anuve, nearly twice as tall as her captive, pulled her from the dock, with Helice staggering to keep up with the lady’s long strides.
The group of Tarig parted ranks, and Anuve dragged Helice to a nearby brightship. Sydney was too far away to object, nor could she hope to stop what was happening in any case. But the Tarig finally had what her father feared the most: Helice and her plans to sacrifice the Rose.
The ship leaped forward over the water, rising rapidly into the sky on a steep path.