To begin anew, destroy the old.
—Si Rong the Wise
IN LORD NEHOOV’S COOKING ROOM, WENG WAS NERVOUS. These were uneasy days in the Bright City, with Tarig gathering in the streets and outlaws captured. But today was worse. She had never accustomed herself to the silences of the mansion with its changing rooms and reconfigured paths, all empty, or nearly so. Once lost in a Tarig lord’s habitation, one could not count on meeting another servant to show the way. The lords preferred solitude and favored mechanicals to perform needful tasks.
Lord Nehoov, however, was particular about his food, and he liked Weng’s cooking.
For this reason he had graciously created special path lights for her to follow down the halls to the cooking room and to his dining platform. She need never worry about getting lost, no matter how many times the mansion altered itself.
In the midst of scraping plates, she heard a sound nearby. She stopped and looked behind her. It had been a definite thunk. A normal-enough sound among normal sentients—but she was in the house of a lord. Still, it did not repeat. Her hands, for some reason, were sweating.
Something was wrong in the city; everyone felt it. It would have been best for her not to go abroad in Shadow Ebb, but Tarig must eat twice a day, and evenly spaced meals were their preference. She would just serve the lord’s after-dinner skeel and leave, letting the mechanicals clean up after the last course.
The noise again.
Wiping her hands on her apron, she walked to the end of the chopping table and peered into the corridor behind the cold boxes that held Tarig delicacies.
A shadow moved behind the last box. Or had the lights dimmed for a moment? Weng saw nothing further. But she followed the line of cold cabinets down to the very end and swung around to face that part of the cooking room she’d just been working in. Empty.
“Bright Lord?” she called.
He never came into her cooking room. Perhaps what she had glimpsed was a mechanical, although they were small and could not have cast a shadow as large as she had seen. Or thought she’d seen. Sighing, she went back to her station, resolving to leave quickly this ebb.
Placing the decanter on a tray along with a filigreed cup, she gathered her self-possession and carried the heavy tray toward the dining room.
Halfway down the connecting hall—and following the light path, showing faintly but clearly in a mansion already light-filled—she considered how it might have been well had she put two cups on her tray, in case Lord Nehoov had company. But she would be late if she turned back to the cooking room, and the lord expected things on time.
The lords had little use for doors. Often, when they wished for an opening, they ordered one. Thus, when she came to her accustomed access to the dining area, she was only mildly surprised to find it gone. It was a long walk around to come in from the far end of the dining hall, a passage usually left open.
Arriving, she turned into the room. Lord Nehoov was alone. However, there appeared to be a broken container on the table. It had leaked. Crumpling her face in worry, Weng approached the table. As she did so, Lord Nehoov slowly fell forward. His forehead crashed horribly into the table, and he sat immobile in that impossible position. Weng rushed forward, skewing the tray, losing the decanter in a crash onto the floor, followed by the cup. She still held one end of the tray as she stared at the lord, bleeding robustly from the neck. “My lord, wake up!” she whispered. He must sit up and heal himself, he must . . . “Bright Lord, please!”
He was a Tarig. One of the Five. He could not be struck down, could not be hurt. A Tarig lord, oh, a Tarig lord.
He didn’t move, his proud, giant form bent over at the waist, and his neck bleeding onto the tablecloth as it hung over . . .
Weng opened her mouth to scream. Even in this extremity she hesitated to scream in front of a Tarig. But scream she did, a wail that frightened even her. She called out, “Help! Oh Woeful God! Help!”
But who was there to hear? None except the murderer. Weng spun around, searching the room. As she looked toward the doorway that had disappeared, she saw that it wasn’t a solid wall after all. It was open again. She glimpsed a swath of fabric that glinted before disappearing down the hall.
She looked back at Lord Nehoov. The table, set so formally a few minutes before, was now smashed, with a gout of blood darkening the white tablecloth.
Weng put the table between herself and the door. She screamed again, unable to contain herself. She still held the tray. Bringing it to her breast, she held it over her vitals like armor. Something had hurt the lord, woefully hurt him.
Lord Nehoov had not moved. He would never move again. Oh Frowning God, Lord Nehoov was dead.
Helice came awake suddenly.
The walls glowed with a feral light; skylights stared up at the gilded sky. A little dusk would be welcome in this too-bright house. In her sick bed in the middle of the outsized room, she felt exposed and uneasy.
Far down the mansion corridors someone screamed. It was the screaming that awoke her, horrid, foreboding screams.
Struggling to rise, she managed to dress and slip her feet into soled slippers. She staggered against the bed, then breathed deeply, mustering her equilibrium. Although fevered and weak, she made her way to the door opening and peered out. Another cry, louder, and then one fainter, as though the person in distress was not always moving in the same direction.
Helice expected someone to come for her, but no one did. No caretaker, no Tarig, no healer—she had banished those. Without someone to guide her, and since she would not be able to go far in her condition, her instinct was to hide. Turning into the hall, she headed opposite to the direction of the screams.
The precincts of Lord Nehoov’s house were strange. The halls were sometimes tubes, round on all sides but the bottom; at other times they were absurdly wide corridors, filled with artifacts like statues, fabric hangings, and tables displaying jewelry and what might be tools or weapons. Worse, the halls changed. She didn’t know where she was.
Behind her the wails occasionally pierced the silence. As she hurried down the odd corridors, she wondered how long she had slept and what could have happened that a person could scream for so long in Lord Nehoov’s mansion and not attract notice.
When she found a corner that was obscured by an imposing and incomprehensible sculpture, she crept into the space behind. It was a good hiding place, so long as she crouched down. She shrank into the little space and put her head on her knees, exhausted.
After a time, the screaming ceased.
Perhaps the person in distress had left, or found someone to help her. It was a she, Helice felt certain. The longer the silence stretched, the more ominous Helice found it. Something was dreadfully wrong. It was the worst timing for bad events and screaming women. After her meeting with Nehoov and his council, things should have proceeded calmly and directly to renaissance. She feared that anything else was profoundly counterproductive.
Lord Nehoov, get it together. Just fucking handle it. Whatever it was, he must smooth it over. So close now.
After a very long wait, during which time Helice was dismayed to find she needed to urinate on the floor, she decided that no one was in the building.
Determined to find Nehoov or one of his companions, she hauled herself to her feet and began to hunt for the way out. The mansion lay icy and silent.
Where were the Tarig? Surely they had servants, guards, flunkies of some kind. How could the palace be so utterly empty?
She had noticed a thin line of light along the wall; unconsciously, she had been following it. Keeping to the light trail, she passed what looked like a kitchen. Then, within a few steps a doorway gave onto a room with a table covered in a cloth. . . .
There, a Tarig lord lay bleeding, head on the table. She froze in the door opening, heart pounding.
Without a doubt, it was Nehoov. Immobile, a puddle of blood around him, he looked quite dead. A small robot was busily cleaning up around the lord, cleaners fizzing in the blood. The sight appalled her. Nehoov, her ally.
His enemies had killed him. And his enemies were her enemies.
Adrenaline fueled her rush away from the room and its body, down the hall, following the line of light. As she hurried, she shrank from doorways that might reveal the conspirators. Nehoov, dead, oh God. Didn’t they know she could cut them off, dispose of the Heart door? Hadn’t Nehoov explained this to them? Or had she threatened too much? Would it all unravel so easily? If so, then she wanted to die. But it was not a release she could give herself, not yet.
Ahead of her, a lumpish form on the floor, in the middle of the corridor. A body. An older Chalin woman in an apron lay in a heap. By the angle of her neck, dead. No cleaning bots had found this one yet; so she’d died after Nehoov. The screamer. The conspirators were ruthless, killing even servants. No doubt they were just working up to the main murder they had in mind: Helice. She was determined to make it cost them.
At last she found a vestibule she thought she recognized, and the door to the outside. Slowly opening it, she peeked out, then slipped into the empty street.
Anzi watched with increasing anxiety as the Jinda ceb showed her scenes from the Ascendancy. She would have to decide soon where to insert, but with Lord Ghinamid on the loose, she had better choose correctly.
The Jinda ceb were masters at maneuvering their field of vision. They worked in tandem with Anzi as she suggested places to look. The problem with the lords’ mansions was that they revised themselves, and thus any previous paths the Jinda ceb found were irrelevant as guides. Anzi watched the shifting views on the veil: old Cixi staring up from her balcony at the empty plaza; masses of Tarig in the upper streets; flights of bird drones over the city. And just now, Ghinamid’s swift and sickening murder of Lord Nehoov.
But where did the lords keep Titus?
Although she had been among the Jinda ceb a long time, just an arc of days had passed for Titus. She vividly remembered her dismay when the time difference became clear to her, and she’d thought for a terrible moment that the time discrepancy would be the cruelest separation of all. But realignment was possible. They had done it, unless what she was viewing was history. It was too perplexing to hold in mind. She was going back, whatever it meant.
A new scene: Lord Ghinamid had entered a different house. There he rounded on a group of Tarig and, being larger than they, and quicker, he cut them down. A few fought, while others actually knelt to him, but whether asking forgiveness or welcoming destruction, she couldn’t tell. Some Tarig lords, he didn’t harm. Then Ghinamid lurched away.
Anzi’s Jinda ceb companion explained: “Lord Ghinamid is designed as a soldier to guard the interface. He has more skill in fighting than other Tarig.”
She nodded, realizing that Ghinamid was indeed imposing. He appeared to be looking for someone, and it made her frantic to think that it might be Titus.
The veil drew her attention again. Here was a glimpse of a small woman with a deformed face racing down a side street on the palatine hill; had Lord Ghinamid attacked her, leaving her face in shambles?
And there! Deep in the underbelly of a lord’s mansion, it was he. Anzi moved closer to the veil. Titus. In his cell, Titus. She had no idea how she would get him out of there, but she must not waste a moment.
“Now,” she said. “If you please, now.” Then a tardy thought came to her.
“No, wait! Set me outside the cell, not in it.”
With that adjustment, they sent her.
The insertion took the wind out of her, and she went to her knees, accidentally touching the light bars. Jerking backward, she was left with a painful scorch on the back of her hand and the smell of burning skin.
When she looked up, she saw that the cell was empty. But he’d been there only a moment ago! Were the Jinda ceb wrong in how they aligned the timeframes between their realm and this one? Had they erred? She stared into the cell, staring past the bars of hot light.
Titus had vanished.
Tai stood in the recessed porch of a closed foodery watching for any sign of Hel Ese. He was as close as he could reasonably get to the palatine hill. If she was in the Tarig confidences now, she might be given free reign to move about. From the foodery, he had a clear view up to the lords’ mansions. Scanning the porches and such avenues as he could see from here, he waited.
No one was in the streets or the great plaza. Occasionally he noted a Tarig on the hill, but those great massings of lords in the streets had evaporated.
He could not help Titus Quinn. The great man had asked for prayers, but Tai couldn’t recall one. His mind was focused on one thing alone: Find Hel Ese and strike her down.
Tai had been working to destroy the Rose. She had known his great desire to be in the Rose, and she had used him without mercy, making him complicit in a crime so large it left him stunned. But it wasn’t for his own humiliation that he would kill her. It was for the Rose. Maybe he could make right what had gone so terribly, unthinkably, wrong.
From the corner of his eye, he caught a movement. A figure came down the street, walking like one who was lame and furtively looking around. He drew himself further into the shadow of the portico. By the bright, it was she. She didn’t look triumphant, or even healed. It gave him a spike of hope that perhaps the lords had spurned her. This changed nothing of his plan.
Then, behind Hel Ese came several Ysli whose short legs hampered their panicked run away from the palatine hill. Others followed: a Jout in company with a Chalin legate; a gaggle of clerks. By their haste and troubled expressions, all seemed to be fleeing something.
Tai moved into the street, mixing among the other sentients, following Hel Ese.
Quinn felt his way in the dark, narrow passageway, with Lady Demat just behind him. They crept with as much silence as they had in them. Lord Ghinamid had wakened. He stalked them, Demat said.
Quinn stopped, whispering, “There’s a split in the tunnel.”
“Go to the left,” Demat’s voice wavered in her terror of the dark, though it had been her idea to come into the tunnel, leaving it dark.
“Do you have a weapon?” he whispered. “If he finds us?”
“No weapon will help you.”
He shuffled on, Demat behind him, like the ghost of his previous life, still trailing. He would end in the Entire where he began, in an alliance that confounded and mesmerized him: a bond with a Tarig female.
They crept on, trying to hear any sound besides their own. Quinn knew from Demat’s report that Helice had forged an agreement with Lord Nehoov.
Now Ghinamid was here to be reckoned with. What did he want? Quinn profoundly hoped he wanted Helice dead.
Demat pulled on his shoulder, stopping him. She knelt down and he heard her fumbling at something along the wall. A crack of light sliced at his eyes. With a push, they were through a wall. It pearled closed behind them.
There were on a terrace.
“Too exposed,” Quinn said, squinting into the ebb time sky.
“We will locate Lord Ghinamid. Perhaps from this high view.”
Dead birds littered the terrace.
Seeing them, Demat hissed, “My cousins want no spies.”
Quinn stepped through the birds to join Demat near the railing overlooking the great plaza. The city was deserted. On a lower terrace, a Tarig body lay sprawled. How many had Ghinamid killed?
Demat pulled him down to a crouch and pointed through the balustrades to the canals below. “Do you see the small form there?” she asked. A body lay there. “It is the first of those who crossed over from the Rose. Killed by Ghinamid. He does not allow the migration.”
Quinn squinted at the crumpled form. The thought staggered him. It was someone from the Rose. Though Helice’s plan depended on people coming over, the sight of a dead human was grim. A bad way to die, to come into the Entire and face an executioner like the Sleeping Lord. “What does Ghinamid want?”
She surveyed the plaza carefully. “Nothing that you want.”
Still scanning the environs, both in the plaza and on the hill of mansions, she said, “To control us, as is his right. We no longer wish his control.”
It was the first Quinn had ever heard of a schism among them.
She went on, “A million days ago, when we first came into form, it was agreed we would meet in the Sleeping Lord as a plenum. As occasion showed it needful, we would mix in this way, both the solitaires here and the congregate of the Heart. In the Sleeping Lord we would mingle in pure thought. It gave us comfort, to have our consensus near, in the great hall of the Sleeping Lord.”
“You meet in Ghinamid’s form?”
“At first, very often. In recent times, rarely. We grew to prefer autonomy, even if it put us at conflict. We found this interesting, that we could be separate from each other, becoming utterly single with particular desires. Even going back to the Heart, we maintained our strains of particularity, and any Tarig who met physical death in the Entire could be brought forth again. But our congregate state became a convenience, a secondary thing. Some of us loved to be solitaires and went home seldom, utterly abandoning Ghinamid.”
She nodded at the body of the Tarig on the veranda below. “These Ghinamid kills now.”
Ghinamid was nowhere in sight, now. But Quinn wished for a weapon, even if it meant wielding it with his left hand.
Demat narrowed her eyes at the body in the middle of the plaza. “This person of the Rose was the occasion that awakened him. Lord Ghinamid noted the door from the Rose opening here. The violation awakened him. We must blame Lord Nehoov for this calamity.”
“What will you do, Demat?”
Turning to him, she looked at him without expression. Had that been Chiron’s look as well, all those years ago? It seemed he had lost his ability to read the Tarig.
“This lady will kill him,” she said. “He has no usefulness and is a danger to us, slaying indiscriminately. When we have accomplished this, it may be that we will send you home, Titus-een, to do your own killing.”
He heard these words with a shock of hope.
“You must return to us, in that case.”
She might allow him to save the Rose. The Earth might live, after all. In return he would pay the price. His heart was deadening by the moment. He would have to return to her.
“Do you swear to love us then?” She rested her jeweled hand on the railing, her arm, sinuous and strong, her hands, slender, despite the sheathed claws.
“Yes, I swear.”
“Hnn, Titus-een. But would it be true?”
She was not stupid or blind. He had to answer with care. “We would have to find each other again.” He would keep his word. It would be a permanent bargain, he knew.
He looked down on the plaza. “If you’re going to save the Rose, it must be soon.”
“You do not command us.”
Something caught her attention. Snapping her head to the side, she watched, utterly still. He strained to follow her gaze, but the Ascendancy lay under the most profound composure. She shrank back from the stone railing, making a small hissing sound. “Hide,” she whispered.
Quinn crouched next to her, watching where she watched.
Whispering next to his ear, Demat said, “He is in the street below.”
They huddled together for a moment, making themselves small. Quinn caught a glimpse of a very tall Tarig, moving purposively below, carrying a sword. He wore a silver helm. A warrior of great size and determined pace.
After a moment, Demat pulled him to his feet. “Go,” she whispered.
“Go where we could not imagine. Think like the Roseling you are, then we will never guess your location. When you see him dead, then come to the center of the plaza. This lady will find you. Go!”
“Let me help you kill him.”
She seemed bemused. “Help us, ah? You are crippled and have no knife.”
Well, she knew how to discount a man. “How will you kill him?”
Demat was already retreating across the veranda. He thought he heard her say, “With my army.”