One is welcome in all sways, but in two be watchful: the forests of the Gond, the mansions of the lords.
BELOW HELICE THE ENTIRE LAY FLAT AND SILVER. Thousands of feet down was the sea. Pillars of frazzled light fell from the city, and she could see—in the nearest one—things riding up and down in it. It took an hour to reach the bottom, as nearly as she could judge. It was very difficult not to watch. Forcing her gaze to the perimeter of her view, she caught glimpses of the storm walls, mere smudges at this distance. The city was at the center of everything, as though she could forget, as though anyone could.
Tai, did you do what I asked? Did you bring the nan cell to its proper place, or did you disappoint me, losing your resolve here in the Tarig city?
At times, lying on her back for relief from the view, she stared up at the ceiling. She forced herself to think of other things. Guinevere, her pet Macaw.
The good beku that had pulled the cart carrying herself, Quinn, and Benhu across the midlands of the Entire. The cart was bright green and decorated with the face of the Woeful God. She thought of Titus Quinn, and wondered if she had killed him that day on the street of Rim City. Soon after that came the riots; maybe his murder would have gone unnoticed.
Tai, have you kept faith with me? Tai, you must understand: The Rose was once great—the Earth, that is, was great. But the world grew timid and gluttonous, breeding indignities great and mundane. You wouldn’t like it, Tai. They would give you a wall screen and feed you stories of happier people.
A sound at the door.
Only one Tarig entered the room. This one was imposing: his long garment looked like poured mercury. He wore a black choker around his throat that shimmered more than his skirt. His hair was formed into little knots on his head. He had long nails. No, his claws were out.
She rose, standing in the center of the dimple. Now it begins, she thought.
“Lie down,” the being said.
She knelt and was beginning to lie on her back, when he strode forward, coming into the dimple. With a powerful grip, he flipped her onto her stomach. He held her there on the concave floor, with her back arched in the wrong direction. Pressure on her neck kept her motionless.
His voice was low and eerily gentle. “This is the Dragon’s Eye, darkling. Look, or I will take your eyelids off.” He murmured: “It blinks, this Dragon’s Eye.”
She tried to speak, but the hand around the back of her neck pushed down, silencing her.
His meaning registered in her stomach, and though she tried mightily to prevent her gorge from rising, bile rushed up her throat. He let her spit it out, a small kindness.
“If you hurt me . . .”
The voice came, more menacing. “You will not speak, hnn?” His voice droned above her. “We created the Dragon’s Eye and all that it sees. You have created nothing. Your world builds with stone; we build with forces. You languish in darkness, stumbling with weapons. We have the bright forever. You are nothing. But you come against us, ah?”
“I don’t . . .”
The hand on her neck pressed harder.
“The Radiant Land existed from the dawn of all things. Your land was an accident of cosmologics. The Radiant Land grew as the many universes grew. We are a universe”—he said it as though it was a word he seldom used—“but your world is a node of matter in a universe. Against the Entire, the Earth does not signify. Yet you come against us.”
Tai! The demonstration had taken place. She had come against them, he said. Well, yes. Take a good, unblinking look, you gangling freak. Tai had done it. Oh Tai, I will give you anything now.
Outrageously, she felt pulled to sleep. Maybe it was her brain turning off so that she didn’t have to think about the dimple beneath her opening.
“Eyes are open?” he asked as though reading her mind.
“Now, darkling, tell us of the door.”
Forced to speak with her face pushed up against the glass, she whispered, “You go home through a brane interface. You go home frequently, some of you. At home, you exchange information and come back.”
Savagely, he pressed her face down. She could hardly breathe “The door,” he hissed. The hand relented, giving her room to suck in a breath.
“I found it. I brought a machine sapient from the Rose. I looked for all the doors, but there’s only one. I won’t hurt it if I don’t have to. I gave you a demonstration that I know where it is. Just a demonstration.”
The Tarig slowly lifted her from the floor. He sat her up, holding her to prevent her falling over. Gazing at her with terrible, steady attention, he said, “Sen Ni brought you to Rim City for this purpose?”
Helice had decided not to implicate Sydney. She might have to make nice with the girl sometime, if the dream rebellion paid off. “No. I used her, plying her with stories of her father in the Rose. I wanted to come near the Ascendancy with my machine sapient. She’s ignorant.”
Softly, he continued, “Now again, the door.”
His face was long and planed, but not so much as to be deformed. If he’d been sculpture, he’d have been beautiful, but as flesh . . . at close range, she shuddered.
“You may speak.”
“When the nan cell burst, it sent parts of itself all over the vicinity. The next time the pieces actuate, it’ll eat through the tower. The whole brane interface will likely collapse. Given your resource issues, that’s bad for you. It doesn’t need to happen, if you’ll listen to me.”
He looked at her sideways, fixing her with one eye. “Titus Quinn brought the device?”
“No, please listen. He and I aren’t for the same thing. He wants to preserve the Rose. I don’t.”
“Yet, you, Hel Ese—” he used her name for the first time—“are from the darkling realm. You come with Rose machines, Rose thoughts. You attack us. We see no difference between you.”
“Oh, there’s a difference.” To her horror, she felt faint. “I’m sick,” she said. “Get me out of this place.”
“Hnn. Sick. We have seen this,” he said, utterly flat.
She had to keep going, she had to say it all. But from days of raging infection and lack of sleep, her thoughts were growing muddy. She blurted, “I have friends in the Rose. They’ve built an engine. Similar to Ahnenhoon.
We can match the engine to yours, immediately. That’s how we can stop the assaults on the Entire, assaults like Titus Quinn at Ahnenhoon. All we want is for some few of us to come here; not many.” She slumped to the floor. God, this wasn’t how she’d imagined bargaining with them. “Don’t you see? Then you can be done with assaults. And burn it all now. But I have to have water.
If I die, you’ll die.”
“If you die, your threat dies.”
“No, it’s all preprogrammed. I can turn it off. I’d rather let you kill me before telling you how. I’m already half dead. You see?”
“And Titus Quinn?”
“Is nothing! Why keep bringing him up? He’s alone here. He has no plan, no commission from the Rose. He threw away the cirque. He threw it in the river!” God, she had planned to say that at the very first. They didn’t need to worry about retaliation anymore. They could act at any time. If they acted immediately, it would forestall the Rose devising any new cirque. She fought to stay conscious.
“I’m your ally. I could be your proud servant, the same as any person of a sway. I ask for a sway. A small one. And for my people to come across, and then your door is safe. Do you see?”
The lord regarded her with a feral gaze.
Quinn stood on a small balcony overlooking the city. His right arm hung limp and bleeding at his side. The right side of his face was hot and leaking blood. Around him, hundreds of Tarig crowded. Standing, determined not to fall in front of them, he staggered, turning in every direction, taking the measure of his surroundings. On one side, high balconies and rooftops formed perches and viewpoints for them; they gathered in judgment of him. No, judgment had been delivered long ago. They stood to watch him die, to say they’d seen it. Behind him was a long railing; far below it, the great plaza of the Ascendancy. He stood, swaying.
A tinge of smoke in the air.
Lady Demat left him alone to stand if he could. Whether she did it for her amusement or to give him a last measure of respect, he didn’t know.
The crowd turned toward a side street as something drew their attention.
He had a moment of calm to gather himself. He had time to wonder if Demat/Chiron would kill him. She had loved him, once. She had showed him kindness when others had only curiosity. Even Su Bei had been at first only curious. In those days Chiron had been his only friend and they’d taken their pleasure of each other. He long ago had decided that although he’d been typical of a man locked up, he had still betrayed others. Nothing could change that except forgiveness. Sydney had not given it to him, but Johanna had. He would have taken her home; he would have died first, before abandoning her to Ahnenhoon. Then events had turned, maliciously. The Miserable God had given Johanna the mission to destroy the Entire. It was the only way to save her beloved Rose. She had been willing to kill the All. And he had not been willing. So she fell at the site of the engine and he left her there. Because if he hadn’t slipped away he wouldn’t have been able to contain the compromised cirque. Thinking the Rose’s demise many decades off, he’d disposed of the cirque, the only deterrent to the lords.
It was a miserable recitation of his performance in the Entire. He mightily wished for a chance to do better.
Someone was approaching. Lord Nehoov. The executioner?
Quinn looked at Lady Demat. “I’m ready,” he said, in case she cared.
Nehoov come near and leaned in to Demat, whispering. Then Nehoov turned to several of the lords who came forward, voices angry.
During the next interval, Demat took his arm, the one that still worked.
“No, Titus-een,” she said softly. “Not yet. It is not yet.”
The bright shed its glare on them, but it wasn’t enough to cure him. He toppled.
Lady Demat caught him, lifting him up like a rolled rug.
The lord had been absent for some time. Around Helice in her delirium, the room spun. She no longer cared if the Eye opened, if only she could sleep.
Someone pulled her up. She had drifted off. The lord was back.
“If you hurt me,” she whispered, “if you hurt me, I won’t stop my sapient from hurting you back. And I’m sick. If you try to hurt me to get information, I might die. You shouldn’t hurt me.”
“Yes. We have understood you.” Not ungently, he helped her hobble from the middle of the Dragon’s Eye, up the sloping sides to a place where she could sit propped against the wall.
Woozy, but fighting for consciousness, she heard the cell door open. A Chalin attendant holding a tray came to the Tarig’s side.
“No medications,” she murmured. “If you give me medications, I’ll make my sapient kill you.”
“You are full of infections,” the Tarig said.
The Tarig brought a cup to her lips. She drank, though it stung her lips.
When she finished, she noted that the attendant had something large on the tray.
“One’s name is Lord Nehoov,” the Tarig said. “We will listen to you.
First we will heal you. You should wish us to.”
Fever made her confused, but she hung on to her decision. “No.”
Lord Nehoov gestured at the servant to come nearer. “Here is a picture of health, what we can do. You are healthy here.” He flicked a wrist at the attendant, who pulled a cover off the object.
It was a bell jar. Inside, a small person pressed hands and nose against the glass. A miniature human on a plate. The human was as tall as her hand. It moved inside, just a little, pushing against the glass, looking up at her.
It was Helice herself, under the bell jar. A very small Helice.
Helice began to cry. “I . . . can’t . . . don’t . . .” she began to wail. “Take it away. Go away from me!”
The Tarig cocked its head. “This small Hel Ese is free of infection. She can be disposed of. It is just a . . . how do you say it? A demonstration.”
“Take it away. God damn you, get it out of here.” She was shaking now, horrified to see the miniature of herself.
“Among us in this cell, darkling, we think God has damned you.”
The attendant placed the jar on the floor and left.
Sitting on his heels, the lord looked down on her. “You do not wish healing? It can sustain the conversation that you wish to have.”
The little figure walked over to the edge of the jar. It looked out of the glass toward the Dragon’s Eye, a look of profound horror on its face. It fell to its knees, head against the glass.
Helice looked at the little golem of herself, sickened. “I do not wish . . . your healing. Only take me out of here.”
“Stand then, if you can.”
She managed. Helice waved at the bell jar with its awful prisoner. “Cover her,” she rasped.
The lord did so.
Anzi tried to look through the shell of the sac, pressing her hands against its concave sides, peering at the noises. Since separating from Su Bei, her journey had been silent. These new sounds were very close, just outside the shell.
Something was trying to get in. She could see shadows outside. The sac walls were becoming transparent, no longer showing scenes from the third kingdom. She had finally arrived somewhere. Half-starved and weak, she felt ready to welcome whoever or whatever was out there.
The sac rocked, throwing her against a wall.
The assault on her conveyance finally succeeded, as a puncture wound opened at the top. A sharp object slowly drew down the wall, splitting it.
The sharp object looked very much like a claw. Miserable God, let it not be a Tarig, she thought. There would be no fighting a Tarig. In her present condition, perhaps there’d be no fighting anyone.
The rupture of her little shell continued. Beginning again at the top of the sac, the creature slit open the other side.
Keeping well away from the moving claw, Anzi held her knife ready.
The walls on either side began slumping away. She glimpsed a dark thing waiting for her. “Oh, Frowning God,” she murmured, “do not look at me, do not see me, do not note my small life. Oh counter of sins, look on this attacker, so worthy of Your notice, but do not notice me . . .”
However, it was too late to escape God’s notice. He had already singled her out. “Then may You be damned,” Anzi muttered. She rose to defend herself as the two halves of the shell fell heavily to each side.
She sprang to her feet, kicking away the remains of the wilted sac.
What waited for her was not a Tarig.
It was a being she had never seen before. A being of the third kingdom.
Though not large, it looked fully able to slash her to pieces.
Anzi went to her knees.