More bitter than a sip of the Nigh, one’s faithless friend.
SYDNEY PRESSED THROUGH THE CROWD, her best Hirrin servant, Emar-Vad, by her side, and another attendant just behind. Hands reached for her, to touch her or to hail her. She told Emar-Vad not to prevent them. They were her charges now. She recognized one or two of them and smiled in recognition. With the insouciance of typical Rim City dwellers, they weren’t overly impressed with titles. She belonged to them, and they pressed as close as they liked.
This high station of Mistress of the Sway wasn’t all sham. A thread of loyalty had woven itself into her heart on that day of the Tarig massacre. Sen-tients of the Rim, she thought, this city is yours. And the Entire is yours. When my father gives it to me, I will hold it for you.
She looked up to the Ascendancy. It had been tightly closed for six days, with no one coming or going. Wild with uncertainty, she wondered what her father was facing. And what Helice had done. Helice had given herself up, and would have done so only if she was ready to act. If she held the fiends’ access doors hostage, it would shock the Tarig to the soles of their clawed feet.
As her party moved down the ramp from the bridge to sea level, the crowd grew. She asked how they fared, received their petitions, and listened to tales of hardship—of relatives dead or recovering from the Tarig incursion. The citizens of Rim City weren’t criticizing the lords—they didn’t trust her that far—but a new and darker view of the Tarig lay behind every utterance. Anuve wisely stayed behind; the crowd was in no mood to see a Tarig lady, and Sydney claimed the right to walk into her city in relative freedom.
Her destination: the wharf and Geng De. He had not come to her since the massacre in the city—too long an absence for one who wanted to be her advisor.
From the wharf she saw that the sea had fallen to an amethyst hue, reflecting the bright in Deep Ebb. As she boarded the navitar’s vessel, her followers milled on the dock, waiting for her. The ship keeper met her at the main cabin door, leading her to the companionway.
But as the ship keeper began to ascend the stairs, Sydney placed a restraining hand on the Hirrin’s back. “Alone.” The ship keeper retreated as Sydney climbed the stairs.
Geng De sat at a small writing desk. Turning at her entrance, he spread his arms in welcome.
She went to him, exchanging the kiss that, for Geng De, sealed their bond. “My Sen Ni,” he said. “You should be resting, like me—after your triumph in the city.”
“But where have you been? It’s been six days.” Her tone was more blameful than she had planned.
His expression turned pained. “No. That is not how it will be between us. You will not chastise me for what I do. I have kept you alive. I have dissolved the bad strands.” His youthful voice had an odd rasp. Perhaps he wasn’t well.
He went on. “The binds showed me a future: you on the junked float in the street. I saw how the lord climbed up and drew a handful of claws across your neck. You slumped against him, and before any of us could climb to your side, you were dead. Then, all who came to your aid were slaughtered.”
He gazed at her until he judged she had absorbed that vision.
“Instead, Sen Ni, you turned the Tarig line away from massacre. You brought help to the injured. These sentients now love you.” He gestured toward the pier where the crowd waited for her. “You did well. You did what I knew you were capable of. But I wove that future in your strands. I did that.
I am still protecting you.”
She hadn’t thought clearly how the things that were happening might be separated into events that were bound to occur and those that were altered.
It stunned her to think that the confrontation with the Tarig soldiers had been orchestrated by Geng De.
But there were immediate matters before them, serious ones. “What about Helice? We have to know what she’s doing. Have you . . . seen . . . anything?”
Agitated, the navitar struggled to his feet. “No. Do you think me a magician? Performing for a carnival?”
This was a new tone of voice, and she didn’t like it. “She needs watching, Geng De. I had hoped to find the doors. Now, maybe she’s done it first.”
It was then that she noticed a cane leaning against the bulkhead. He took it for support, shuffling to the nearest porthole.
“That’s not who needs watching,” he murmured, staring out.
“If you’re tired, then rest,” she said, trying to soften the tension in the room.
He turned to her, looking bemused. “I will. I will rest when I must and follow the binds as I can. Neither you nor I decide, but it comes to us. By all that’s bright, sister!” He waved the cane at her. “No one has ever done it before—to take the day and make it conform. No one else is a child of the river. But even for such as me, it takes from me. Takes from me.”
His lecturing tone grated, making her push harder. “What about my father? Surely you’ve seen him in the binds.”
“Oh yes. Him I’ve seen.” Standing with his back to the light of the portal, his shadowed face was impossible to read.
“Must I beg you to tell me?”
“That was the vision I wrestled with, the one that sapped the strength from my limbs. I wrestled with it.” He leaned on the cane, as though just the memory of it made him weaker.
She waited, suddenly fearful.
“I see a thread that floats almost in my grasp, where he acknowledges you.
A beloved daughter. The wronged child. And he lays the Entire at your feet.”
The simple words undid her. Her face heated up, and she turned away.
Beloved daughter . . .
“And then,” Geng De went on, “I’ve also seen . . . other things.” His gaze slid away.
Her father would die. The navitar was going to tell her that he would die in the Ascendancy. She stood frozen. A glint of the ebbing sky struck the porthole as the vessel rocked at anchor.
Geng De’s voice was low and soft: “I’ve seen him cast you down.”
“No, he would not . . .”
The navitar’s voice rode over hers: “I’ve seen him king himself.”
“That is not a true vision,” she snapped.
He only gave a small, insufferable smile. “Now you are the navitar?”
“I . . . I am his daughter.” It was feeble, embarrassing.
“Daughters can be sacrificed. As surely you recall?”
She spun around, throwing out the words with venom. “Have better visions, Geng De.”
Now a silence came between them, cold and prolonged. What was she saying? Geng De didn’t decide what to see. Neither you nor I decide, but it comes to us. What she’d first feared he’d say—that her father would die in the floating city—was now preferable to I’ve seen him king himself.
Her voice faltered. “King, you say?”
He limped closer to her, his face showing a trace of compassion. “It is a thread. Hope for a different one. But be prepared, Sen Ni, for the worst.”
For years she’d been prepared for the worst from Titus Quinn. Why did it hurt so much now?
Geng De put a hand on her arm and said, his eyes pleading: “Learn to trust me, as I do you.”
“Trust is a hard thing.” When she thought of trust, it was only Riod who came to mind.
“Hard things are just beginning.” He sagged against his cane and made his way to the closest chair, where he eased himself down.
Ashamed to take so little note of his condition, she brought him a cup of water from a pitcher on a nearby table.
Holding the glass without drinking, he looked up at her. “When will you call me brother?”
She tried to control her voice, but it was husky in her throat. “Don’t ask me today.” She went to the stairs and turned back. Geng De was her advisor now; without him, who did she have?
“Come to me soon.”
Cixi went to her secret meeting in full view of the world. She might have taken a secret passage; there were passageways everywhere. They riddled the floating city, ancient, between-the-walls routes, some so old even Cixi could not remember which high prefect had had them forged. But some things were more reliable in full daylight.
She was accompanied by a procession of legates and consuls snaking through the great plaza and over the bridges. Her formally clad entourage made its way toward the hill of mansions to pay an imperial visit to the darkling in his cell. Parasols up, the attendants shielded the high prefect from even the ebb’s bruised light, and carried scrolls so that work could be done in progress. The outing took a very long time, a grand sight, even in Deep Ebb.
Civil servants and visiting petitioners who, at the first sign of trouble, had run in confusion to their chambers below crept back when the dragon court’s delegation was sighted. They craned necks to make out the smallest personage, the one who wore the dragon icon on her jacket. Cixi hobbled onward, looking regal, she presumed, whereas her pace was dictated solely by the God-blasted platform shoes.
She was attended by the clerk Shuyong, should she wish to compose messages or have a minion on hand for errands. None of the legates with her this ebb knew the clerk; he was new and coached by Cixi how to act.
Subprefect Mei Ing bent close, murmuring, “The lords are everywhere, Your Brilliance. Will they let us pass?”
Without deigning to look at Mei Ing, Cixi muttered, “I’ll see the gondling.”
Mei Ing fell silent then. By the expression on Cixi’s face, no words were welcome; Mei Ing could not imagine that even the Tarig would question her mistress in such a mood.
Cixi noted Mei Ing’s cowering aspect with satisfaction. They must all understand that she went to the darkling to bid him fry in the bright. Even the lords could understand that High Prefect Cixi would demand to see the man who had made a fool of her. On his infamous return to the Bright City the time before, Titus Quinn had pretended to be someone else. The traitor had gone so far as to brazenly seek an audience with Cixi. And she had let him pass. Even the lowliest clerk knew Cixi’s fury over this humiliation. And they were not wrong.
A bird flitted close over their heads. Cixi didn’t allow herself to look up.
Of course the fiends would have their spies about. In the last few days the loathsome flying vermin had even swooped down into the Magisterium, taking in views of the balconies and windows there. No, she would not take note of them. Most people thought they were favored creatures of the Tarig, and they were favored, the vile little spies. Well let them peek. All they could see was the prefect and her entourage.
The procession of the dragon’s court reached the palatine hill. Through the steep and narrow avenues, the functionaries passed throngs of Tarig who waited and watched in their silent manner. Cixi looked to neither the right nor the left, affecting single-minded purpose, despite her deep disquiet.
She was a woman in desperate need of news. For the first time in a reign of one hundred thousand days, she was bereft of information. The lords had not summoned Cixi, had not sent word, had not informed her of any details regarding the astonishing events of the last days: The damage to Lord Ghinamid’s Tower; what would be done with Titus Quinn; what they had learned from Hel Ese, and why they had taken her from her prison cell in the Eye.
Her spies had learned that Titus Quinn had been tortured in the street. But he still lived, they said. That might prove useful. She needed him for information and guessed that he had some pieces she lacked. Oh, how it galled.
A Tarig lord blocked her path.
Cixi bowed. “Lord Echnon, my life in your service, I will see the darkling.”
“High Prefect,” the lord acknowledged. “Which darkling?”
“The creature who wormed his way into my court. The gondling who came in disguise and caused the death of our beloved Lord Hadenth. The darkling who stood before my throne and lied.” She bowed again, not so low this time. “That one.”
“May I pass?”
Standing aside, he waved her forward.
“He is caged where, Bright Lord?” She said this pleasantly enough, but she had lost face by having to ask what she should have been already told.
The lord pointed to the mansion of Lady Demat, and the line of legates got under way once more.
Quinn’s jailors brought him water and small, tough bricks of food. They might be poison, but he ate them. He slept what seemed like long hours, perhaps induced by the food. A Tarig came in once to clean his wounds, but Quinn was in a stupor; all he knew was that it was not Lord Oventroe.
The lord had abandoned him.
He sat on his pallet and leaned forward with his bad arm braced on his thigh. If Oventroe was washing his hands of him, then the whole strategy of coming here had failed. The lord might have reasons for delay, but Quinn could no longer rely on rescue from that quarter.
There remained another angle. Ugly beyond bearing, the idea had been wheedling into his consciousness over the last hours. It was time to use every scrap of leverage he had.
He managed to rise. Staggering over to the bars of light that separated his cell from a small antechamber, he shouted for his guards.
A Hirrin appeared in the outer door. He was impassive and cold-eyed, like all his Hirrin guards.
“Tell Lady Demat I have to see her. I’ve got something important to tell her.”
The Hirrin blinked. “Next time I see her I might mention that.”
And she might slit your long, ugly throat, too, he thought. “Tell her, if you value your career in the Magisterium.”
The door slammed.
He had not handled that well. Next time he would try a more diplomatic approach.
But at his next opportunity, it was the same Hirrin guard, and he responded no better to flattery than he had to threats.
Quinn tottered back to his bunk. Once the whole Entire had been on the lookout for him, combing the cities and midlands for any sign of the man of the Rose. Now that they had him, no one was impressed, not even his guards.
He slept, cradling his bad arm, hoping to be wakened by Oventroe’s voice, fearing to hear Demat’s, instead.
Cixi saw the darkling asleep on a pallet by the wall. She half expected him to stink of blood, but the fabbers had cleaned him up, no doubt. Even prisoners did not escape Tarig fastidiousness.
She nodded for Shuyong to hold well back. The clerk was the only other visitor allowed in. He carried a box of pens and scrolls, standing ready to record anything of note that Cixi said. That, however, had been for show. He would hear nothing.
She leaned toward the bars of light that stretched from ceiling to floor.
“So, bastard son of Yulin.” He sat up. Swaying slightly, he struggled to his feet, squinting toward her.
She growled, “So you come among us again.”
“Cixi . . . High Prefect.” He bowed.
His address was presumptuous, but she ignored the lapse. He had done worse. “If you touch the bars, your hands will burn, bastard son of Yulin. Do be careful.”
A crooked smile. “Thank you, Your Brilliance, I will.”
His wounds were healed, those that she had heard about. But when he approached, she saw that his right arm hung stiffly.
She noted that his face had changed once again. Would the man never cease transformations? It was so much easier, over time, to hate the same face. “Before they kill you, I would know Yulin’s part in your lies at court.” She needed no confirmation of Yulin’s treachery, but listeners might expect her to ask.
A long pause. “Yulin knew.”
“And his supposed niece, Ji Anzi.”
He smiled again. “I assume her greater sin is having married me.”
“True.” She gestured for him to come closer. When he did, she spit in his face.
Slowly, he wiped his face on the sleeve of his good arm, his expression turned as cold as any she’d seen from a Tarig.
Having performed the necessary drama, she brought her hand to her belt and activated a small jewel. The prisoner followed her movements with extreme focus.
“For a few moments we have privacy, darkling.” She hoped that was true.
Such engines of science as she had were small and carefully hoarded. The Tarig bestowed little knowledge, but they couldn’t keep it all. “I would know why you’ve come; why Hel Ese is here. Tell me the truth and I will give you a small reward. Tell me lies, and I leave you to the lords.”
Hesitating only a moment, he said, “I followed Helice here to stop her.”
Then, with growing openness, he told more; and why not? He was in desperate circumstances. Confidences might appeal.
“She’s come to offer the lords a quick burning of the Rose. In exchange, she wants them to allow her to live here. Her and a group of her human friends.”
She saw him teeter. He was weak, and his right arm looked immobile.
Had they taken the arm off during his march through the streets? Cixi thought it had not come to dismemberment. In any case, the arm was attached now. “The lords would never allow it.”
“She’s found their access to the Heart. The way they go home.” He snaked a look at her as though checking to see if she understood what he meant. “She wants to control it. Maybe she already does.”
By the bright, the door was at the Tower of Ghinamid! “Did you know, Titus Quinn, that the Tower of Ghinamid suffered a small fire? Hel Ese’s doing, then?”
The Tower of Ghinamid stood the highest of any of the pinnacles in the Ascendancy. Of course no one saw Tarig moving to and from it . . . it would all be hidden in passageways. Despite this portentous revelation, she must focus on her questions. One was terribly dangerous to utter. “How does Sen Ni fare?”
“My daughter?” Frowning at this unexpected question, the man of the Rose said, “She’s Mistress of Rim Sway. You knew?”
“Of course I knew! Tell me what else.”
“She has done well; she faced down the Tarig in the streets.”
Cixi snorted in disgust. He would not divulge secrets unless she did so first. Very low, her lips barely moving, Cixi whispered, “She is my daughter.
My daughter of the heart. I have . . . comforted her.” She let that ultimate secret settle on him.
By the look on his face, he doubted her.
Cixi hissed, “Why would I give you proof of my treason? I do not lie. She is my dear girl. We have been united against you. Take no offence. You brought it on yourself.”
“If you were her friend, why did you let them put her in slavery?”
“Why did I?” She decided to let that despicable comment pass. “No one could have stopped them. There was an advantage for her to exploit with the Inyx. I sent a warrior to protect her.”
He seemed stunned. “Mo Ti?”
“Where is Mo Ti, darkling?”
“In hiding.” He came very close to the bars, speaking rapidly. “Mo Ti was helping Sydney to raise the kingdom. And you, Cixi, I think you were helping them. If you are, I’m on your side. I’ll give her the kingdom; I’ve already told her I will. But first, I have to eliminate Hel Ese.”
“She’s with the lords; too late, I expect.”
“Help me, Cixi. Helice has a controlling device brought over from the Rose. She’s using it to threaten the doors to the place where the lords go to renew themselves. I need to take control of those doors. You should help me, because if I control the lords, I’ll give them to Sydney. If Helice does, it will be for herself alone.”
She stepped back, fending off the idea that she would ever align herself with this man.
“Cixi, listen! I’ve promised the Entire to Sydney. I don’t want it.”
She snorted at this claim.
“I don’t want it, I’ve never wanted it. It’s all to protect the Rose.”
Cixi sucked her teeth, considering. But, no, it could not be done. “I cannot help you, darkling. Hel Ese is welcome here. The Rose must die for us to live. I am not opposed. She is already released from confinement, conferring with the lords.”
That brought a grim look. “She won’t let Sydney raise a kingdom of sways. She won’t share power. She’ll betray Sydney to the lords.”
Well, perhaps she would. But Cixi didn’t trust either of them. “Leave that, darkling. Our time is done. I cannot save you or your Rose Earth, nor could I bear to see you rise high.” Cixi put her hand over her belt, waving her clerk forward. “I have not the power to save you. We are done.”
He blurted out, “Send Lord Oventroe to me, Cixi. I beg you for a last favor.”
Ah, so they were in alliance. Or had been. “He is suddenly out of the city.” The man’s chagrin was easy to read. “But I will give you a small favor; a visit from a friend.”
Shuyong approached. Cixi went on, “If this man is your spy, you may work your strategies through him. He will have a few minutes with you alone. I have instructed him to write down—for promulgating to the Mag-isterium— your abject apology for your degradation of the court when last you came among us. Use your time wisely.”
She backed away from the cell. “Goodbye, Titus Quinn. I have hated you too long to change now. Do not expect I have esteem for you.”
“I would never presume on your esteem, High Prefect.” As she reached for the door she heard him say: “Please! One thing more. A favor, High Prefect, easy for you to grant. The life of a steward named Cho. They say he is interred.”
The steward Cho had long outlived his usefulness. “Dead, I regret to say.”
Quinn nodded slowly.
The clerk, whose real status was mort, and whose real name was Li Yun Tai, came up to the bars of Quinn’s cell.
Cixi bowed, just the slightest tip of her chin. Titus Quinn was a worthy adversary. Unlucky, perhaps, but worthy.
For the second time in his life, Tai looked on the man of the Rose. Tai’s artless question in the Magisterium had drawn attention, and before he had quite understood his mistakes, he’d found himself answering to the High Prefect herself. Although he admitted nothing, she had deduced that he was an operative of Titus Quinn. To his surprise, she said she might help him.
Standing before Titus Quinn now, Tai was exceedingly nervous. This was politics well beyond him, and beyond his instructions from Hel Ese.
“I am Tai, a servant of Hel Ese.”
Titus Quinn’s eyes grew wary.
“Hel Ese is here, too, of course! It is all arranged, Master.”
“Call me Quinn.”
Tai wasn’t sure he could manage that, but he nodded, pretending to write on the scroll, in case anyone was observing. As he did so, he said, “It is all arranged. Hel Ese is working on your mission. A great enterprise of the Rose, she said. She’s been sick, and I cared for her. I can’t talk to her because she’s with the lords, but she’d want me to help you. If I can, I will.”
“Do you know how to get me out of here?”
“No. The high prefect gave me nothing. Only permission to see you.”
Titus Quinn came closer, fixing Tai with a riveting gaze. “Helice has lied to you. She and I aren’t together. But I’ll tell you the truth, if you want it.”
Dumbly, Tai nodded. Hel Ese had lied?
His Excellency—Quinn—went on then, telling him a profoundly different story than the one Hel Ese had related. As the awful words slid out of the man’s mouth, Tai grew sick with shock. Could he have been so wrong about the woman of the Rose? Was he to believe Hel Ese or Titus Quinn? But could there really be a doubt? In his heart, Tai admitted he didn’t like Hel Ese, that she had always treated him with contempt. He had been duped.
Quinn’s mouth quirked in sympathy. “She’s fooled the best of us. You couldn’t have known.” He continued, telling—oh, telling such terrible things—how Hel Ese wanted safe passage to the Entire for a few, and then the Rose would be gone.
Gone. Tai’s throat felt glued shut. Gone. Was it possible that the Rose could die? That he had been helping it die? He broke into a sweat beneath his heavy clerk’s robe. It was monstrous. She’d used him. Promised him a terrible promise: to go to the Rose. Which would be dead.
A steward appeared at the door to the anteroom of Quinn’s cell. The Chalin steward fixed Tai with an authoritative gaze. “You are to leave now, Shuyong.”
When he received Tai’s nod, he departed.
Desperately, Tai leaned toward the activated bars. “How can I help you, Master Quinn? I will do anything, even if I die for it.”
“Give me a parchment, Tai. And something to write with.”
Though Tai worried they were being watched, he obeyed. He fumbled among his box of supplies and retrieved a small paper and an inked pen, passing them through the bars.
“What will you do, Master?”
Quinn tucked them in his jacket.
“Tai. Take a message for me to Zhiya the godwoman. Ask for her in Rim City, and her people will eventually find you. Tell her that I’m going to try to go home. That I found no . . . help . . . in the Ascendancy, and that I’m going home to stop Helice’s plans. Would you do that for me? I want someone to know what became of me. I want my wife to know.”
“Yes, Master Quinn, anything. I’ll find her.”
The man of the Rose glanced toward the door. “Do you know the names of the Tarig who are currently among the ruling Five?”
Tai shook his head. He had never paid attention.
“Are they all assembled here? Do you know if they’re all in the Ascendancy?” “I . . . don’t know, Master. I’m sorry.” Tai was now experiencing a growing horror as his past actions began to sink in. “There must be something more I can do!”
Titus Quinn murmured, “If you believe in God, pray for me.”
Reluctantly, Tai left the room. He wondered if Titus Quinn was a religious man, or if he was just that desperate.
As he hurried to join Cixi’s entourage still winding its way through the great plaza, he stifled little moans of dismay and terror. He considered his foolish, rash actions. Hel Ese had used him without pity, if the man of the Rose was to be believed.
And oh, Tai believed him.