It is impossible to snare a dragon cub if you do not enter the lair of the dragon.
—from The Twelve Wisdoms
HELICE LAY ON A BED SURROUNDED BY A DOZEN OR MORE TARIG. Out of the Dragon’s Eye at last, she had come to what Lord Nehoov said was his habitation. In the oversized room, the small bed felt adrift on a sea of pain. The walls exuded a harsh light. For the sake of her raging headache, Helice had asked them to dim the room, but they had not.
Here in the fortress of the Tarig, the scene she had imagined so many times was unfolding, but in a nightmare way. She was bargaining with them from a bed, because she could no longer rise. She was dying.
Undoubtedly she could save herself if she chose. But if she submitted to their ministrations, she might lose her will, her power, and her goal.
On a table nearby she spied the thing that the Tarig had made, the creature she thought of as a golem. It was still captive under the glass bell jar.
Lord Nehoov was there, and others just as magnificent. Lean, sculpted, and clad in silver, they possessed the beauty of powerful animals. Or perhaps it was just the beauty of power. They had come to hear her, and had been listening for the past hour. Only Nehoov asked questions. They had been probing about the attack launched against Ahnenhoon, no doubt fearing that others might come.
“How do you know there are not molecular attacks under way? You do not control the Rose.”
They were speaking to her in English. She kept forgetting it wasn’t their native language. She was forgetting things, struggling to remain competent.
“You’re right, I don’t know. The sooner we act, the sooner that can be prevented.”
“When you die, who speaks for your contingent?”
They spoke so matter-of-factly about her death. “One named Lamar speaks for us. Another named Booth.”
The bell jar drew her gaze. Was the golem really her? Did it contain all her knowledge, all her true self? How would the Tarig be able to judge whether it did or not, even if they were sincere? Could they create a normal-size reproduction of her? And then, too—and this was the worst conjecture— what if the small Helice had gone mad during the transformation?
The one thing the Tarig hadn’t reckoned on was how facial expressions could convey a state of mind. The golem was terrorized. Its eyes were glazed and feral.
But it was true she looked healthy. No scabs. Good skin color. Helice wished they had put clothes on her double. It was a small thing, but Helice didn’t like seeing her naked form on display. It was so tempting to close her eyes and trust that she was captured in that miniature form. But she didn’t believe it.
She breathed deeply, fending off a wave of pain. “Can you bring my people over? You should do so quickly. It’ll go badly for you if I die before I signal my computer to cease its countdown. Do you understand?”
“One understands. But Titus Quinn still claims to have his weaponry.
We must hesitate if he has such a power.”
The damn cirque. Didn’t they realize how lucky they were that Quinn was such a weakling he hadn’t dared to use it? She had already told them to kill him. But clearly they had some residual fear that the cirque still existed.
Summoning her strength to continue, she whispered, “The longer you wait, the more likely it is that more people will come with molecular weapons, nuclear weapons. You have a fragile world. You should get rid of enemy states. I can help you. Our engine is ready now. It’ll take you years to do what we can effect in a few hours, joining with you. Do it, Lord Nehoov. Bring my people through.”
She frowned. “You can bring them over? People say you destroyed the crossover points in the Arm of Heaven. Can you find another place?”
“It is no barrier to us.”
“Where will they find entry if not at the Arm of Heaven minorals?”
Nehoov paused. “If they begin an insertion, we will find them. We will bring them to our city. Directly here.”
One of the Tarig, a female, hissed. She looked around at several of the lords. So they were not in agreement. Helice dearly hoped that Nehoov didn’t need a vote.
“Then do it now. The engine will prevent further attacks from the Rose.
That’s why I came here. To protect you. Remember that. Bring them over, Lord Nehoov. Do it now.”
The female Tarig whispered to Nehoov, and they bent toward each other, in discussion. When they separated again, the female, by her expression, had lost. The other Tarig murmured angrily.
The female stalked from the room, and several Tarig followed her. It reminded Helice that there were factions.
Nehoov turned back to Helice. “You have an engine. It can be useful. For this reason, we will grant favors.”
Helice remembered a crucial question. “When you bring them, you need to fix the time differential. I have to see them here now. Not in ten years. Not in ten thousand days.”
“It can be done.”
Incredibly, the decision had been made. Nehoov had said yes. It can be done. The four best words of her life. She forced herself to stay on track: “We’ll live anywhere. Give us a small sway. We’ll be your Rose subjects. You might even find us interesting.” Tears collected on her eyelashes. She wouldn’t be a part of it. It would be the new world, and she wouldn’t be there.
“We will bring them,” Nehoov said In her exhaustion, tears coursed down her face, stinging her scabs. “Send them a message, Lord Nehoov. Can you send a message so they can begin? Is there a way?”
“Yes. The engine is easy to find.”
She nodded. “The message is: ‘From the dark to the bright.’ They are waiting for that.”
Gradually, the remaining lords dispersed, leaving her alone with Lord Nehoov. Her people might have enemies when they came through, but they would be here. And their protector, the mSap, would be nearby.
“A favor, Bright Lord.” Thinking of enemies, she couldn’t forget Anuve.
“I don’t want Lady Anuve around to cause trouble. Send her back for . . .” she was going to say recycling, but caught herself “. . . back to the Heart. She wouldn’t mind, would she? To be frank, she hates me.”
Nehoov said, “She has already gone. In disgrace that you escaped her. If she returns, perhaps she will not care about you.”
Helice was starting to long for that nice little renewal system they had.
And she did wonder what pure mentation would be like. Alas, it was not for her. The present circumstances were as strange as she could bear.
She nodded at the bell jar. Fixing Nehoov with her coldest gaze, she said, “Take it away and kill it.”
“But she can be useful.”
That put chills into her. “No. Destroy it.”
“You will change your mind.”
Helice lurched out of bed. “No! I won’t . . . change my mind. It makes me crazy.” She stood there, swaying and desperate, all the horror and stress rushing into her limbs, trying to get out.
Nehoov watched her with a maddening calm.
She rushed to the bell jar. Lifting it from its table, she used all her strength to raise it over her head and hurl it onto the stone floor. The glass shattered, splintering, screaming. The base rolled into the room’s far corner.
Amid the glass fragments, a still, bloody form.
Helice tottered back to the edge of the bed. “Never . . . do such a thing . . . to a human again, ah?” Those words took her last strength; she sank back onto the bed.
Nehoov looked down on her. “Are all the others like you?”
No, they weren’t. She was unique. They could have never done the things she had. They could never have killed their own golem, for instance.
As Quinn had paced in his cell during the last few hours, he’d struggled to come to terms with Lord Oventroe’s absence. If Oventroe was going to intervene, he would have done so by now. So the lord was not going to help him.
The lord might still have some plan, but his silence was ominous. Oventroe had once risked everything to save the Rose, saying that his cousins’ intention to burn it was rash, wasteful.
Not the words Quinn would have used; nevertheless, the lord was his ally. Or had been.
All that remained was to return home to try to stop Helice’s conspiracy.
He’d start with Stefan Polich, given Helice’s link to that company; or he’d start with Lamar, who, in retrospect, might be the most afraid of dying.
Remember that I’m an old man, he’d once told Quinn. Remember it when, Lamar? Today, when you planned to come across to the Entire?
There were obstacles. Su Bei hadn’t come to him; the ship keeper might never have given him the message. Even if Bei were here, how could the old man help him? They had no minoral, no scholar’s veil for a transit point.
Even if he found a way through, where was the engine? What if Lamar and Stefan had already gone to ground? But he’d go home if he had a way; he’d expose Helice as quickly as he could.
The penalty was that he might not be able to come back—for many reasons. He was dependent on Minerva for the crossing, and if he did return, time in the Entire could have left him behind; Anzi could be aged, or dead.
Crossing over established a time relation between the traveler and the world, and unfortunately, the insertion point was random. Each time he left or came back, time twisted. It was the best argument for never doing it.
Nevertheless he was preparing for it, determined. It was all written down, all he knew about renaissance. He’d scrawled it with his left hand, since his right hand lacked fine motor movement. If he managed to make it home—then even if he died in the transit, it was possible the information could still be found.
A jolt of pain coursed through his shoulder and arm. In these four days some of his cuts had begun to heal, but the gash to his arm was still raw. He counted himself lucky that they hadn’t killed him that day in the streets, though he still didn’t know why they hadn’t.
A noise at the outer door to the cell unit. Someone entered the short hall giving access to his cage.
Demat. In poker, you seldom get the card you pray for.
She came to the light bars, and he did, gazing at her. “We will leave you lame,” she said. “It makes you pliable.”
“I’m at your disposal anyway.”
Her face was broader than Chiron’s. Demat had prominent cheekbones and wore her hair shaved very short. Her vest was plain linked silver, her long skirt jet black. Altogether, she was not as imposing as Chiron. Disappointing. He was counting on them being the same, on their seeming the same.
“I have the cirque. I’m growing impatient. I’ll use it if I have to.”
She cocked her head as though confused. “The pilots saw you throw it into the Nigh. So you do not have the cirque.”
“The navitars see what they want to see.”
“So you might think, Titus-een. But they all saw it, all the navitars.”
Titus-een, she’d called him. Chiron’s term, once again. Chiron might truly hate him, but hate was no barrier to an interesting relationship. “If you believed that,” he said, “you’d ask the navitars how to solve all your problems. They’re mad.”
“In a few hours, the Rose as you know it will be gone. We think it is pertinent to tell you.”
So, the lords had gone over to Helice. Bitterness flooded him, nearly spilling out. He held it in. Woo her, if you remember how.
“Then I’ll have to use the cirque in revenge.”
So he didn’t remember how to deal with women. Threats were not a good start.
“No, Titus-een, you will not.” She seemed very sure. Her voice, like melted pearls. He remembered how self-assured the Tarig could be.
“You could have killed us at Ahnenhoon. You will never do it. The Entire claims you now, admit it. But even this will not save you.”
She interrupted him. “You have no way to tell her what to do. And if you did, she would not destroy her home.” After a pause she added, “My cousins give no credence to your threat.”
He saw how it was. How pathetic his threats were. What remained was this last measure. Pausing, he wished for something to happen that would stop him from speaking. The silence between them lengthened. Drawing closer to the light bars, so close his face almost touched them, he whispered, “Save the Rose, my Chiron, and I’ll stay with you. I’ll stay forever and it’ll be as it once was between us.”
“You have a wife.”
“I’ve had wives. They come and go. There’s only one Tarig queen, Chiron. Why should we have less than each other?” He had her attention.
“Spare the Rose, and I will love you.”
Her gaze didn’t leave his face. “And give us the cirque, ah?”
“No. But it won’t matter between us.”
“Say again, Titus-een, why we would do this.”
“Because the Rose is of interest to you. Because you don’t love the Entire enough to commit genocide. Because you love me.”
Slowly, Demat raised her fingers to the light bars, banishing them. She touched his face, pressing his skin as though testing him in some way, or commanding him. At length she said, very softly, “So the Entire will fade, Titus-een. Without burning the Rose, we would have so little time.”
“It all vanishes. It’s why life is so sweet, Chiron. Sustain the Entire as long as you can, and then let it go. At the end, go back to the Heart.”
“And you will come?”
He considered this only for a heartbeat. “No. But you’ll tire of me by then.”
“Perhaps we have tired of you already.” Dropping her hand from his face she backed away. The bars flashed into place.
She left him alone. He tried not to think about what he had just set in motion. But the vision came, of a life with Chiron/Demat. From what he knew of the Tarig now, how could he even treat them as real beings? The definition of life was malleable, he had learned in the Entire. But when he thought how they sometimes went blank and insensible, he thought they were only semi-alive. They turned off in some way when they were bored. To stay involved with the world they needed the stimulation of other sentients.
For that task, other Tarig would not do. Other sentients were their favorite sparring partners. Quinn wished that, in his past life with Chiron, he had not been quite so interesting.
Pranam the Ysli steward performed his circumambulation of the bier every day. It was considered odd, but Pranam took great comfort from the ritual and cared little for others’ opinions. He walked up from the sunken garden of the Magisterium, as he had so many ebbs before, pausing at the pool of the carp, then made his way to the great hall of the Sleeping Lord.
Pranam had been in service to the Magisterium for seven thousand days. He found happiness in small accomplishments and in devotion to the lords. His piety waxed all the stronger these last few days as he’d watched with dismay the lords’ very home suffering indignities. No doubt it was all due to the traitor Titus Quinn. Pranam remembered the darkling when he had lived among them. He had been seen everywhere on the plaza, sometimes feeding carp, or staring at the bright, and other times in the company of the great lady, Chiron, or some other high figure. Now the miscreant was back again, said to have defaced the tower, among many previous crimes. Pranam and many of his friends expected a public execution. Though the Ysli had never witnessed a garroting, and did not look forward to it, he would be there when justice was finally done.
Entering the hall of the Sleeping Lord, Pranam climbed the back stairs to the gallery surrounding the hall on the second floor. In the center of the spacious room below was the bier itself, the only furnishing of the great mausoleum. Properly speaking, it was not a bier. It was the very bed of Lord Ghinamid, the lord who missed his home in the Heart so dearly, but stayed in the Entire for love of the land over which he reigned with such graciousness. Even if he was asleep. It was a fabulous mystery, and a comfort to those who toiled in the Magisterium and seldom left the Great Within even to visit loved ones.
Lord Ghinamid had lain there for two million days. The mystery and miracle was that the lord still breathed.
Pranam walked beside the railing, the only sentient in the hall that ebb.
It was often thus, and his excursion was more peaceful for the solitude.
Continuing his circumambulation, Pranam glanced down on the hall below. And stopped. Moving closer to the rail, he peered down.
Pranam’s peace vanished. How could this be?
He heard a cry issue from his lips. Then he rushed back to the stairs, pounding down them and hurrying to the center of the galleried hall.
His heart kicked heavily in his chest as he looked at the bier. The stony coverlet that had draped over the lord’s lower body lay crumpled on the end of the bier. The lord’s pillow lay askew.
Lord Ghinamid was, unthinkably, gone.