In war, destroy the enemy’s soldiers. If you cannot, diminish his supplies. If you cannot, disable his allies.
—from Tun Mu’s Annals of War
THE HIGH PREFECT WAS OUT OF SORTS. Cixi would give no audiences, hear no reports this ebb. Her chamberlain closed the great doors of the hall, the doors that when shut showed only the tail of the dragon inlaid into the audience chamber floor. The chamberlain, a Ysli who’d been in her service so long he was almost as old as Cixi herself, now stood in front of those doors, sending her supplicants away until the fourth hour of Prime of Day.
Petitioners, legates, preconsuls, and stewards—those who had hoped that by staying up late into Deep Ebb they could find the high prefect with perhaps a few moments of idle time to hear their briefs—went away unfulfilled.
Behind the great doors, inside the hall, nine figures gathered in the lavender shadows. One was Cixi. Of the remaining eight, three were Hirrin, two were Jout, and three, Chalin. Cixi stood by a small carved table, her finger resting lightly on a pile of scrolls.
“These are your paroles,” she said.
A stirring among those gathered here. Hirrin nostrils flared. A Chalin man, lately a soldier of the Long War, narrowed his eyes. Each of them knew what parole was his. For six of them, the parole was for a high crime that until now Cixi had held over them in case of need. Tonight she had need. For the soldier Yinhe, the parole was for a crime of his daughter, as he well understood.
“After tonight, each of you is freed forever of vow breaking in my eyes, and therefore in the eyes of the Magisterium. You understand? You have absolute pardon. I erase not only your guilt, but the crime itself. Where there were victims, they are forgotten. Let any sentient remind you of the sin, and they will quickly know my displeasure. Your grave flags shall say only heavenly things, may the Miserable God not look on you early, of course.” She eyed each of them in turn. “You understand.”
They did. They also understood that something large would be asked of them.
Cixi nodded at the scrolls. “Let each of you take the scroll inscribed with your name and read his parole. Come forward.”
As they did so, Cixi went to the verandah doors and with great effort— she being small, old, and wearing elevated shoes that made most movements difficult—closed them. A further gloom descended on the hall.
Lord Oventroe would arrive in thirty increments. They must be ready.
For the first time in her long life, she trembled. Soon she would set in motion an action that could never have parole.
Titus Quinn had just come into Tarig custody in Rim City. Earlier, a fugitive woman of the Rose had also given herself up. This individual, known as Hel Ese, was now sequestered in the furthest cell of the Magisterium, the Dragon’s Eye. She was said to be sick. Perhaps that was why she came, for the lords’ healing.
Why Quinn gave himself to the lords, she could not know, but she guessed that he wished to have access to the Ascendancy. She didn’t know his plans. But she was quite sure they were coming to fruition. He had the correlates. He’d given them to the scholar Su Bei in order to effect some great plan. Her minions had almost caught the old meddler. Following him across the Gond primacy, the incompetents had let him slip into the veil. And he’d taken the correlates with him. So the key to travel to and from was still loose, and in the enemy’s hands. She would pay dearly to know what Quinn intended with those correlates. But what was it likely to be, except to open the Entire to the darklings? Why else have the correlates? Why else, indeed, would Lord Oventroe have given him the correlates, except to open the Entire to the Rose?
That must never happen. Rose billions would descend, and they would corrupt the All, eschewing the traditions, undermining the Magisterium, and bringing their warlike ways to the realm of peace. Another hard kernel of misgiving was at the center of it all: Titus Quinn rising in power would mean Sen Ni weakening. For thousands of days Cixi had watched her plans for Sen Ni unfold. One man could ruin it all.
He would soon arrive. Then he would have access to his ally, none other than one of the Five. Who knew but that by Heart of Day tomorrow, he might be High Lord of the Ascendancy? He would put his own partisans in place of her subprefects and preconsuls. He would cast Cixi down, replacing her, perhaps with Su Bei. Or with the detestable Yulin.
These thoughts put iron in her bones, and she walked with a steady gait back to the reprieved criminals. Finished perusing their scrolls, they had placed them back on the table.
“Now I will tell you,” she said, “what you must do for the sake of the All.
We have in our midst a great traitor. He is one who has given the keys to the Entire over to the Rose, those who hate us. I have separately told each of you how the darklings sent Titus Quinn to Ahnenhoon to destroy us. His goal was to attack the engine of the Repel, that great mechanical so needed to generate wardings against Paion incursions. That attack, had the lords not foiled it, would have pulled apart the realm.
“This is the man whom the traitor has aided. Titus Quinn is now on his way to the Ascendancy, supposedly as a prisoner, but soon to prevail with the help of our traitor. Tonight we will stop that traitor. Tonight we will kill Lord Oventroe.”
She waited as they absorbed this news. “Among you are three who will watch if any of you hold back. Those who hold back will die with the lord.”
Watching them carefully, she waited. They must get over the shock now, but not wallow in it. Too much thinking would make cowards of them all, even Cixi.
“At my request Oventroe comes by a secret route. No one will know he came here. When he disappears, there will be no trace. On this floor I have created a barrier line, a perimeter over which the lord and I will pass. I will call you to me, and then enliven the barrier. It will not hold him long. It must happen quickly. Sounds will die inside this circle. It will repress even a Tarig bellow.” She knew from former reports from Mo Ti that the Tarig did not die in the ordinary way. But she would take Oventroe off the stage at a critical time. It might be many arcs before he returned. By then, with any luck, Titus Quinn would suffer the Tarig execution he so deserved.
“Now that you know the night’s work, you understand there is no turning back. None of you can be innocent of this.” She saw that one of the Jouts looked ill, but the Chalin assassins, especially Yinhe, were stalwart, and the Hirrin could be depended upon.
“Have no doubt, you serve the Entire. Heaven will shine on you.”
They heard a sound from the far wall.
“Go into the shadows, all except you Hirrin. You are my attendants.
Stand by my chair.” The group quickly dispersed, each one armed with his best weapon.
Cixi had no time to settle herself on her dais, so she turned to watch Lord Oventroe approach. He moved warily toward her from the far wall where the access lay to the passageway, one that only Cixi and the Tarig knew. Was he moving warily? No time to be imaginative, she chided herself. Bowing just deeply enough, she murmured, “Bright Lord.”
“Prefect.” He stopped some paces form her. “Such secrecy, and at such a time.”
“Yes. You will not regret the effort, my lord.”
He nodded at the two Hirrin. “They share in your secrets?”
“Absolutely to be trusted.”
“Yet it is your secret, not mine, and I am eager to be among my cousins for what is to come.” He had not yet come close to her. As a courtesy, he held enough distance that she needn’t look up at an undignified angle to see his face. However, tonight she wished him closer.
“Walk with me a few paces from my attendants,” Cixi murmured. “Some things I will whisper, Bright Lord.” When he made no move, she felt sweat forming around her hairline. She made her face stern. “We have only these few increments before the woman Hel Ese may say what she knows. Even now she has sent word to me that she will tell what she knows. It will change everything, you must understand.” The lie was flimsy and could not hold for long. She turned and walked toward the side of the hall, crossing the barrier line, praying that the lord would follow her.
“You do or do not trust the Hirrin servants?”
“I trust them. Yet some things are private.”
With that, he began moving toward her again. In what seemed a lifetime, Oventroe crossed the threshold.
When he had joined her in the middle of the corral, she said, “The Rose woman knows about the correlates. In fact, she has the correlates.” These lies need only seem credible for a few more heartbeats.
Oventroe raised his chin just a little. She had his absolute attention.
“You may not believe me. I did not think my word alone would suffice.
I have brought two witnesses.” She turned from Oventroe, saying, “Come. He will hear you.”
Two Jout came from deep shadows where they had been standing along the wall. In their wake, three Chalin.
“You said two witnesses.” Oventroe was now troubled and alert.
“Two who saw the correlates. These others—they saw how the correlates were delivered. Most strange, my lord. Most troubling. Worth your hearing.”
“How delivered?” Oventroe asked. He turned at the sound of Hirrin hooves on the floor.
“Yes,” Cixi murmured. “How delivered. Let me whisper.”
Oventroe bent down, but he took hold of her arm as he did so, in an unbreakable grip.
When his face was beside hers, Cixi whispered, “By you, great fiend.”
The eight were within the circle. Cixi broke a small stick in her hand, and the air crackled into walls of invisible force.
Oventroe spun at the sound of the barrier snapping. Charging against the nearest wall, he fell backward from the shock. In that moment of surprise, the first blow came to Oventroe’s back, a short sword driven in, sending him staggering against the wall again. Still holding Cixi in his grip, he thrashed, sending her flailing off her feet, shoes hurtling away. With an agonizing grip on her arm, the lord spun around, kicking high, catching a Jout in the neck with a blade extruded from his boot. The Jout fell, spraying blood, but now the Hirrin grinned, sending darts into the lord’s chest from spring-loaded mechanisms in their mouths.
It was a silent dance. No one shouted or cried out. The blows came too fast. Yinhe darted in, slashing at Oventroe’s hands with a sword. The lord, though now gravely wounded, was upright and still able to kill. He jumped into the midst of them with sickening speed, delivering a massive blow to the nearest Hirrin’s muzzle. From behind Oventroe, Yinhe found the leverage for a mighty blow that took off Oventroe’s left arm. It was the one that held Cixi. She fell to the floor, blood-drenched, with the gripping Tarig hand still attached to her.
Then it was Jout, Chalin, and Hirrin, stomping and thrusting, grunting at the work of killing a powerful animal. The sounds of tissues rending.
Cixi thought how quiet killing was, even this melee. And how fast. Only a few increments had passed since she whispered in his ear, By you, great fiend. Now Oventroe lay on his back, pumping blood onto the floor. It was finished.
True, he might come back, if Tarig never died utterly. But Oventroe’s cousins might wait a very long time before giving him another body; after all, they could not know where he was. Cixi would make sure he was never found.
Through a growing slick of blood, Cixi crawled toward him. She pulled herself over a Hirrin body to get to the felled lord. Drawing the stiletto knife from her tall coiffure, she knelt on Oventroe’s chest. Despite his grievous injuries, he remained conscious.
“It does no good to kill us,” he whispered.
She knew that. But it would slow him down. And she would kill him again if he came back.
She sat on his chest, heart hammering, mouth so dry she could hardly form words. He was dying, and Cixi still knew little about his conspiracy; by the looks of him, she had only a few moments to find out. “Why did you give him the correlates?” When he didn’t answer, she leaned forward, bringing her face close enough to his that he could not avoid hearing. “You are dying. Tell me, my lord.”
He burbled through a gashed neck. “The correlates do not matter. Going to and from. It does not matter. You love a worthless thing, old woman.”
He closed his eyes, and she feared he would say no more. But now she was adamant to know: could he really want the Entire’s destruction? She pressed her hand on his neck to staunch the frothy blood.
His eyes flashed open. “Only one may survive.”
“But our realm! You would destroy it?”
He whispered, “I want . . . the Rose . . . instead.”
She had never heard a lord use the word I before. “Want it?”
“Lord of the Rose. They would call me lord.”
“They would fight you.”
“I would give them knowledge . . . they would worship me. I would rule them; I would give you a high station. Do not oppose me, Cixi. Give my body to my cousins, and I will return for you.”
When he came back, he wanted to know his enemies; he wanted to know how he died; she would be a fool to let him know a thing like that.
Still, she could not fathom the enormity of his defection. “You already have worshippers here. Is the Rose better?”
He looked past her as his vision failed. “I grew tired of . . . here.” He said the last word with clear contempt.
Cixi took her hand from his neck. Still sitting on the lord’s chest, she contemplated a creature who would betray a kingdom out of boredom.
“My cousins . . .” he pleaded.
“But it would be rather hard to explain your body . . . to your cousins,” she sneered. With enormous satisfaction, she drove her knife into the side of his eye.
Afterward, there were three bodies: Oventroe’s, a Jout’s, and a Hirrin’s. They were all wrapped in tapestries and taken to the crematory through the secret ways, down five levels, to the catacombs.
The clerks tending there had been excused for the evening.
The three dead found their resting place in the alcoves. They each had a grave flag. Oventroe’s said, at Cixi’s order, “A bad death. Instead.”
Finally, the Tarig lords let Helice sleep. After hours of questions and terrorizing, the tall beings looming over her, bending at the waist to peer at her, threatening her with strangling, at last they abandoned her to her cell.
Fighting for emotional control, she reminded herself that the lords’ great city had been her destination since the first day she’d sat in Minerva’s boardroom and seen a spike of Entire grass. Despite the awful interrogation, she was nearing the end of her quest. She clung to her intention; to renaissance.
She slept intermittently, dreaming of the Tarig and their swarm minds. Sydney and her horse friends thought most sentients would despise this style of consciousness, but to Helice, it made the Tarig more imposing. Each one bore the collected wisdom of thousands of years. The swarm, as Helice imagined it, was like a luscious hive of honey, with the bees constantly bringing home the nectar of experience. The Tarig weren’t disgusting; they were splendid.
After taking her clothes and searching her, they’d given her a long sleeveless shirt to wear, made of the finest soft cloth. So, here in this hellish prison, she wore silk. The room, small but not confining, had a toilet and nothing else. They called it the Dragon’s Eye, they’d told her when they brought her here.
Mustn’t look down.
As she lay on her back, staring at the ceiling, her whole face ached. The putrefaction stank. She wanted to sleep again, but terror kept her awake. Their rumbling voices stuck in her mind, replaying. Where is Titus Quinn?
I don’t know about him, but I control your going home place, she’d told them.
They became very quiet. She had time to marvel at their excellent English. Their interrogation had been fluent. At least language was no barrier to her plans.
What place? they wanted to know.
She couldn’t describe the location; only the mSap and Tai knew that. She had grid coordinates, but they meant nothing to her or to them.
The place where you go home, and where you come back, entering new bodies. That place. I don’t know the name, only that it’s here and that my machine with artificial intelligence marked it by the energy signature. A very big one, so we could hardly miss it.
You will die now.
I have said: I control it. I’ve planned how to destroy it if you hurt me. But I don’t want to destroy it. I need you for something. And now you need me.
All this time, she had only looked down once. She was proud of that self-control amid the powerful draw of the sight. Soon she’d have Tarig respect; when they learned to fear her, when Tai set off the demonstration at the junction point between the Ascendancy and the Heart. As soon as the Tarig saw a little destruction, they would come back to her, prepared to talk.
The demonstration would prove she could threaten the Heart door. She’d tell them that the ability to completely destroy it lay with her mSap. That it was preprogrammed to do so unless she intervened. They might stoop to torture; but her frail health should give them pause. And one thing more: she would rather die than give up. After weeks of consideration, there was no doubt in her mind: she was fully prepared to die.
The mSap lay safely hidden. After Tai had left for the Ascendancy, Helice had taken the mSap and gone into the city, finding an old God’s Needle. There, she’d climbed the circular stairs and hidden her machine sapient amid the refuse at the top where devout sentients left offerings. The mSap sitting atop that God’s Needle could bring down the great door of the Tarig, a transfer point requiring so much power that, once destroyed, it might be impossible to rebuild.
However, some aspects of her scheme were pure subterfuge. She had not programmed the mSap to act on its own. That was too important a decision to automate. Sick as she was, she might lose consciousness at any time. The threat of it was enough, she reasoned.
Destroying the door to the Heart depended on actuating a command on the device that Tai held in safekeeping. He thought that the finder was a simple mechanism to help him locate the door. It was not that simple. Finding a way to retrieve it from him would require some ingenuity.
She needed to use the toilet. But that meant getting up. Turning over, she crouched on hands and knees first. Not being able to stop herself, she looked down. Her stomach felt like it was dropping out of her body. She was standing on nothing, high over an ocean. Here, in the bottom-most section of the Magisterium, she stood on a small concave section of the floor, like a giant eye staring down.
Yanking herself away from the view, she crawled to the toilet and vomited. Her face and neck burned from the stomach acid splattering up. She put a hand to her throat, something she usually avoided for fear of breaking the scabs. Her fingers came away sticky. She didn’t know whether to hope for Tarig healing, or mistrust it.
She allowed her thoughts to stray to comforting things: to her stay among the Inyx and her first excitement about being in the Entire. Everything had been before her then: that pure vision of humanity renewed. Earth cleansed of its imbeciles and entitled commoners. Earth cleansed of every ancient burden and unworthy desire for ease. Now came the final steps, no longer abstract, but solidly real, washed clean by fever, pain, and vertigo.
She would hold on. Hugging the little commode, she rested her face on its cool side.
Tai stared as the giant celestial’s face rose over the edge of the city. Those sen-tients in the great plaza of the Ascendancy turned and pointed as the gas bag creature appeared on the horizon, lifting on warm currants from below, blinking at the greatness of the Tarig royal seat.
The Adda hovered for a moment at the edge of the plaza as though reluctant to come near the spires puncturing the city’s sky. Nearby, an astounded Laroo commented to a Ysli steward that Adda could not float so high— because nothing living could rise so near the bright—but the celestial beast moved serenely toward them, oblivious of the Laroo’s declaration. Functionaries rushed out of the Magisterium, pointing at the beast. Tai stared with the rest of them, hoping to see the Adda come to ground in their midst, but it sailed over them toward the mansions of the lords.
“It is Titus Quinn,” Tai heard a legate say. Through the crowd shouldered six large Chalin men carrying a sling bearing a Gond—by his silver-capped horns, a preconsul. Gap-mouthed, the Gond watched with the rest of them. Tai heard him say to a clerk that Titus Quinn had been captured in Rim City, but the sway’s upstart Mistress would have no brightship in the city and commanded an Adda for conveyance, and to the preconsul’s evident disgust, she had been indulged.
But Tai’s only thoughts were, Titus Quinn, Titus Quinn.
More denizens of the city came streaming across bridges and up from the Magisterium at the fast-spreading rumor that the man of the Rose had been captured. Titus Quinn, the one whose exploits were on the breath of every sentient in the Entire—who had killed Lord Hadenth, who had stolen the fleet of brightships, whose daughter was now queen of the Rim.
Tai wondered what they would do to Titus Quinn now that he had been captured. The lords hated him, but Hel Ese would protect him. They were friends. Though she didn’t tell Tai what her mission was, he felt sure that she and Titus Quinn worked to open converse between the realms.
Tai sat on a low wall next to a canal, watching the Adda disappear behind the slanted roofs of the lords’ palaces. At his side the canal bore its stream of water flashing here and there with mottled carp. He was in a strange city, great and despised. He had done things and hoped for things that had split his life into before Hel Ese and after. The last arc of days traced a new Tai— one he admired but did not know very well. The things he’d seen! The man of the Rose, the clandestine meeting with his daughter climbing into the Adda, a Paion missive, the halls of the Magisterium. And the things he’d done! Hidden a fugitive, defaced the Tower of the Sleeping Lord . . . lied to Sublegate Milinard. Excellency, I saw her in the undercity, but she slipped away. She’s probably hiding there. Milinard, at first excited to have news, soon dismissed Tai as sincere but of little interest. Hel Ese had already been captured. The sublegate bid him stay in the city for a time in case further questions occurred to him.
But Tai’s mission was done. He was glad of that. He could sit here for days, watching carp, watching for Hel Ese. Soon she would be powerful among the Tarig, and when that happened, she would send him to the Rose.
Something moved on the lords’ hill. Squinting against the glare of the bright, Tai saw the narrow avenues moving, filled with some dark material.
He tried to make sense of it. Then he saw what it must be, a surge of Tarig through the streets. Every lane, every pathway, avenue, and even the terraces and overlooks, brimming with Tarig.
Now he noticed that the plaza itself was devoid of the lords. They had withdrawn from the public spaces. It made him uneasy to think that the masses of Tarig crowding outside on the hill might be due to Titus Quinn’s arrival. Perhaps some plan of Hel Ese and Titus had gone astray. He watched the Tarig stream through the streets in the shadows of the mansions, a splash of silver from their garments sometimes catching the light.
Too nervous to sit, he wandered toward the Magisterium, thinking to find news. He closed the door behind him, taking relief from the cool interior, away from the press of the bright. Hoping to learn what was going on, he went down to the precincts of the clerks where he had waited yesterday for a summons from Milinard. He listened to what gossip he could overhear. The clerks, the lowest order of magistrate, were the easiest to talk to. They carried their computational boards with them wherever they went: the broad, backward sloping hats. By this means they could always be productive, and by this means too, they seemed to know the latest gossip.
Posing as an interested newcomer, he began asking questions about the man of the Rose and his capture. It was no more than everyone was doing.
On the great stairways, in the covered galleries, in the immaculate corridors of the Magisterium, he heard the man’s name whispered by legates, clerks, factors, understewards, and sublegates.
Titus Quinn. Titus Quinn.