Shed no tears until you see the grave flag.
IN THE FIELD, TEN THOUSAND INYX GRAZED AND SLEPT under the Deep Ebb sky. It was a peaceful scene, observed from a distance by Akay-Wat, Takko, Adikar, and the other riders, but they knew the mounts were vividly awake. No tendrils came into Akay-Wat’s mind from Gevka; her mount was pressed into the service of the herd, led by Riod, and directed at the city of the lords.
In the midst of the herd consciousness, Riod felt himself swept along, faster and higher than he had ever flown. They knew the path to the minds gathered in the Ascendancy, and sped there each ebb, spying for Tarig weakness. Although never able to penetrate the mind of a Tarig, the mounts sensed them as streams of light. One frazzle of light was much stronger than any other. This lord had been of interest to Riod for many weeks, but not even a concerted effort by his combined forces could penetrate the being’s heart-thoughts. This ebb the creature grew stronger. The signature of its consciousness grew incandescent, spraying into the dream realm like a beacon.
If Sydney were home in the steppe lands, Riod would tell her what they witnessed. But she was far away. Over far distances, their hearts were silent to each other. Only Inyx to Inyx could leap past such barriers. In the field, his fellow mounts soothed his mind, bringing him back to their purpose. They surged on, dipping now and then into the dreams of Titus Quinn, whose mind was also a bright flame. But the man slept little, and his heart was as chaotic as the lord’s.
Geng De stood at the prow of his ship as his vessel sped out, leaving the quay and Rim City behind. At a time when ordinary sentients slept and when Geng De longed for rest, he ordered the ship under way. And now, into the binds.
He nodded at his ship keeper, who moved to his bed to wait out the journey. Taking one last look at the floating city in the distance, hanging like a pendant fruit from the tree of heaven, the navitar gathered his caftan about him and climbed the companionway, leaning on his cane. The stairs were steep to his enfeebled legs. Each time he dove down and wrestled with the strands, he paid a price. But it must be paid! A mad lord loose in the Bright City; Titus Quinn seeking kingship; the lords themselves divided; the world contending with the Rose for precedence.
He prepared for the plunge into the binds. Now the strands would come to him: red, the color of the Rose, gold, the color of the Entire. Only one could thrive. The possible futures were complex blends of colors. Pulling on them—oh, so gently—he would knit them into one vast plait. Why had this weaving been given to him, of all the navitars? It granted him large and frightening powers. It made him a slave to the Nigh, his life an offering to the Entire. As was Sen Ni’s.
Was she strong enough to thwart her father? Oh, but she must be. She was the beloved land’s only hope. The binds had taught him that the Entire could die. First the bright would pale; then flicker. The Nigh would leave its banks and surge across the midlands. The Empty Lands would pull down the storm walls. He saw the Ascendancy sucked into the Heart. Perhaps at the end, the lords, and they alone, would endure.
The ship plunged down. Geng De stood up on his platform, ready to weave.
Zhiya sat by her mother’s bed, unable to sleep while her mother was in such distress. She dipped a cloth in the pan of water, dabbing the old navitar’s face and arms to cool her.
“Hush, Mother. All will be well.” She didn’t believe it but said it anyway.
It expressed a hope and was perhaps a worthy prayer.
“Nooo,” Jin Ye moaned.
Then it would not be well. So much for God listening to a corrupt god-woman. “Sleep, Mother. That is best.” Over the last days her mother’s mutterings were again and again of a baby—also a navitar—whose mouth was stopped with river matter and who had become deformed. Mother feared this child because he was breaking—or would break?—the immemorial ship vows to navigate and never tamper with fundamental things. Zhiya hadn’t known that tampering was possible.
She had asked her mother: “What is the worst that will come of this child?”
“The world, devouring everything.”
But what could this mean?
Zhiya put her head on her mother’s shoulder and rested. Sleep tugged at her. But her mother’s hand came up to touch Zhiya’s hair, bringing her daughter awake.
She looked steady and clear, her eyes bright. With great deliberation, she enunciated her words. “Each . . . universe . . . is . . . sovereign. Leave the Rose to the Rose . . . and the All to the All. This is the law, my daughter.
“No, Mother. Should I?”
“Geng De . . . forgets.”
“Sleep is best, Mother.”
Her mother moaned. “Do not sleep. Not this ebb, do not . . .” But then she closed her eyes, appearing to sleep.
Geng De. That was a name Zhiya knew. It was a navitar who had been visiting Sen Ni, according to her spies. A fully grown navitar, but one who left his vessel, one who walked about and did not appear to rave. Zhiya’s mind circled darkly around this thought: the baby had grown up. He was tampering, devouring.
Sleep was out of the question, now.
Anzi tore the hem of her tunic to make a bandage for her hand. It had bled from the fiery bars of Titus’s cell. From this side of the bars, she saw little in the cell that indicated he had ever been there, only a blanket thrown at the foot of the pallet and a water cup.
How much time had passed? Had he set down that cup, cast aside that blanket, only increments ago—or a much longer time ago? She pushed away some of her darker worries. He was gone, and she would have to find out where.
A sound at the door to the anteroom leading to Titus’s cell.
The door pushed open. In the opening stood a Tarig carrying a short sword.
Anzi backed up a step.
The Tarig lord was muscular and tall. He wore long pants made from a metal mesh that scraped as he strode into the room. A cloak over his shoulder fell to his calves, making him seem enormous. On his head, a metal helm with flaps covering his ears and neck.
She’d been watching him with impunity through the veil. Oh, that she had stayed on that side!
His gaze flicked to the cell, then back to Anzi. While it might be proper to greet the lord, nothing would come out of her throat. Her attention focused on the sword.
When he spoke, his voice was a low growl, a terrible sound. “Titus Quinn. Where?”
“I . . . do not know, Gracious Lord. I came here. He was gone.”
With a few paces he came close and put the sword at her neck.
She managed to whisper, “I swear by the Bright. I do not know.”
The growl again: “Released him, did you?”
Anzi was acutely aware of her windpipe and her small voice, all at risk of severing by the sword. Faintly, she eked out, “I swear. I did not.”
Slowly the sword moved down and away from her neck. The lord grasped her hair with his free hand, bringing her close to him. She thought he was going to kiss her, as bizarre as the notion was. Bringing his face close to her neck for a moment, he held her in an immobilizing embrace. Then, stepping back from her, he said, “You are Chalin. We can smell the others.”
He moved to the fiery bars and they evaporated as he passed through. In a mighty kick, the lord toppled the pallet, as though Titus might have hidden under it.
Anzi thought of a dash for the door and abandoned the idea. The lord could easily close the distance between them.
Then suddenly, he moved out of the cell in her direction. She closed her eyes in dread, but in a moment he was past her. Turning, she saw that he had opened a hole in the wall behind her. Light burst from it as he ducked into this opening, turning into a passageway.
He was gone.
Without thinking, she rushed in the opposite direction, out the door and up a stairway leading away from Titus’s prison. She was in an arched corridor, sparkling and empty. Choosing a direction at random, Anzi ran.
Despite her brush with the Tarig’s sword and his grotesque voice, Anzi was harboring a kernel of relief, if not outright happiness: she hadn’t come too late; she and Titus were back in the right harmony of time. Though she was older than the last time he saw her, he, at least, was the same age. She gave thanks to the God of the Rose. Then, as she ran, she put two fingers by her left eye to ward off the usual bad luck of prayer.
Quinn had just left the balcony after taking leave of Lady Demat. Climbing a narrow flight of stairs that curled around the outside of the mansion, he sought out a better viewpoint of the hill itself. Demat had told him to find a hiding place that no Tarig would think of. But he had no intention of doing so. Helice might have done her worst, but he still needed to discover the site of the engine she and her people had created. He still needed to find Helice.
Demat might help him. She had strongly hinted she might. He had promised her his life; and that it would be true. Among the many—perhaps endless—differences between Tarig and human, here was the most chilling: that she could accept his promise to love her at some point in the future, although he did not love her now. She obviously believed such a bargain was possible.
Anzi, he thought. Anzi. What will we do?
Noises from the city caught his attention now and then as he climbed higher on the hill of mansions. He heard an occasional closing of a door, a shout of Tarig voices. All other sentients must be cowering in the Magisterium. He thought of the questions he should have asked Demat: Can you send me home quickly? Is there a way to go home from here?
If he had ever doubted Helice’s renaissance scheme, the human body lying on the plaza put an end to skepticism. Helice’s people had started to come through. If they crossed over in groups, their intentions could be realized in a few minutes or hours. Then they’d match cycles with the engine at Ahnenhoon and the destruction would proceed. No time remaining now. But he couldn’t just wait and hide. If he glimpsed Helice in the streets of the palatine hill he’d confront her and extract the information from her. Of where the Rose engine was. Then Demat would help him. That was his plan, if an unlikely one.
He wandered upward, choosing paths at random, watching for Ghinamid, who would surely kill any human he found. Did Quinn pass for Chalin? He’d counted on that during his days of hiding in the Entire, but today he felt exposed, as though his true self was obvious to anyone who looked.
Ahead was a dark archway overhung with black vines glistening in reflected lavender sky. It looked familiar. While his head had pondered things to come, had his feet followed a course he’d used before?
He knew this place. The tall facade of the mansion surrounded a garden on three sides. On the ground, bird drones lay scattered like fallen black leaves. Over the corner of the pond in the center of the garden, a plant trailed drooping limbs. The sky was amethyst, darkening quickly into Deep Ebb, but he could see the garden clearly.
He moved inside the archway, staring at the water, empty now of toy boats. Because it was that garden, of course. Glancing up at the dense shrub on the far side of the pond, he imagined someone hiding there. It was something a child might do, peeking at a stranger, afraid to come out in the open.
His mouth felt dry. Not wanting to be here, his steps nevertheless led him to the very edge of the pond.
She would not be hiding. This was now, and she had been dead—how long? In his own time frame, about two hundred days. His throat caught. A breeze lifted the leaves of the vines, rattling them and the feathers of the fallen drones. The Tarig had no children, Mo Ti had said. Small Girl was a decoy creation, fashioned to be childish. He had killed that malformed creature to keep her from bringing the lords down upon him when he had the world to save. Anyone would have done the same. He had said this to himself many times, but the thorn still remained in his side. He had tested savvy at thirteen. Didn’t his mind grasp that he had . . . not . . . killed . . . a child?
But that day when he brought Small Girl the toy boat, he had thought her a child. And wasn’t she, in some sense? They had created a being something like a Tarig, but with less developed intelligence. He stood staring at the pond. What, by the Miserable God, was a child, what was the very definition, what was the quality of life and years and cognition that made a creature a young sentient?
He had taken her into the pool. She had fought with ferocious power.
Under the water, her screams had been silent.
The darkening bright glowered down on him. Sitting on the lip of wall around the pool, he let his injured right arm hang down, his hand breaking the surface of the water, sending out small carnelian waves.
Despite all that he had told himself of reasons and logic, he wept. He had become a man who could do terrible things. Titus Quinn must have his way; let nothing get in his way, but he would do his job, the thing that fell to him to accomplish. He couldn’t take back what he’d done. Worse, he didn’t want to take back what he had done. He would make the same decision today. It was all mixed together in a poisonous brew. Why was his life always about the child?
Removing his hand from the water, he tested his range of motion. He could raise his arm, if slowly; he could make a fist, but not grip a pen. The Tarig cuts had severed the muscle down to his tendons in his upper arm.
Other slashes might have gone deeper, and as Demat had implied, they had done a sloppy job of mending him.
“She won’t fix this,” he whispered. “I promise, Small Girl. When I come back, Demat will not fix it.” He would keep his body just as it was. He knew how it sounded: like he was crazy. But it gave him some peace to have decided this.
When he stood up, a motion at the garden wall caught his attention. Something gleamed. It was someone walking on the other side of the wall. It was the top of a helm.
There was only one way out, through the arch. But Ghinamid was headed straight for it. Quinn rushed to the entrance of the mansion. The door yielded to his push, and he slipped inside. Too bright and empty; no place to hide. He ran through a large, echoing room and into a wide corridor, also empty. The place was abandoned, perhaps had never had occupants. He ran down the corridor, turning into a side hall.
In the distance, the outside door banged open.
He ducked through the nearest doorway, closing the door behind him.
The room was furnished with a few large chairs against the walls. A window gave onto the garden below. Rushing toward it, he looked out to see the garden empty. He grabbed an object from a table nearby, a hand-sized cube of filigreed metal. Then, opening the window casement, he hurled the object through the window, aiming for the archway. It crashed outside. He hoped the noise would attract Ghinamid; hoped the lord’s hearing was keen.
Positioning himself behind the door, Quinn waited. From the hallway he heard footsteps; he guessed they were retreating.
A movement at the windowsill startled him. He half expected to see that Lord Ghinamid had climbed the outside of the mansion in his zeal. But it was a small, dark thing: a bird. It shook its wings in a remarkably accurate display of preening, then turned to the clear glazing of the window and pecked.
It was pointing at him. Titus Quinn is here, here, here. If Ghinamid had gone into the garden, he would hear this pecking. He turned to the door, putting his hand on the latch handle. Was the corridor empty? He couldn’t be sure where Ghinamid was.
Turning back, he saw that the window was melting away where the bird pecked. A small aperture had now formed in the midst of the window. The bird hopped through.
It gripped the edge of the melted glass with its feet, head turned to the side, one eye fixed on Quinn. In a voice like the smoothest silk, it said, “Hel Ese is on Magisterium. Fourth level, Titus-een.” It nuzzled its beak under a wing.
Demat had sent the drone, and its message was spectacular: the Magisterium, fourth level. Helice, at last. The talking bird might be helping him, but it was also marking his location. He ducked into the hallway, and seeing it empty, turned down the corridor in a direction away from the garden entrance.
Now he’d have to cross the plaza. And he wasn’t the only one who had been watching it, he was quite sure.
A sound behind him. Quinn whirled. Flapping past, the bird drone sped to the end of the corridor, then waited for him. He followed the creature until it led him into a foyer that had oddly frozen in place in the midst of one of the mansion’s transformations. The ceiling was domed but too large. Walls jutted up to different heights, while doorways sagged. The bird pecked at the floor. As Quinn watched, a hole melted open on the floor. Expanding rapidly, it revealed a passageway beneath. Now it was large enough for Quinn to pass through. The bird fluttered in, and Quinn followed it, jumping down into a cramped passage. The bird worked at knitting the hole back up and then flew ahead, glowing phosphorescent in the darkness.
“Demat?” Quinn asked the bird. He didn’t know if some part of her consciousness might ride in that drone.
The bird flew on, not answering.
The drone left him when they reached the Magisterium. Quinn would apparently have to find Helice on his own. As he stood in a small chamber with a bed and washstand, he considered his chances of passing unnoticed among the stewards in their fourth-level province. Searching through a chest in the corner, he looked for a uniform, finding nothing.
Soon he was rifling through the rooms and apartments nearby, all de -serted. When at last he emerged into the corridor again, he wore the humble uniform of an understeward, with the backward-sloping hat of the room’s occupant and a jacket bearing the image in back of a white carp. The hall was empty, but he heard voices from a gathering nearby.
Helice could be hiding in any of these rooms. He could begin searching them, but it would take longer than he feared he had. Approaching the source of the voices, he saw a mass of sentients gathered in a large hall. A legate addressed them, urging calm. They remained surprisingly professional. They were of the Magisterium; the lords would protect them. Except the lords were killing many, and some who served the Great Within had already been slain.
Quinn scanned the crowd. He would never find Helice if she was among them. But he doubted she would risk mixing with the stewards outright. As he turned away he remembered the drone’s words. Something odd about what the bird had said, that Helice was on the Magisterium. Not in it. On it.
She was outside. That would have been a place that a bird/drone might have seen her, and was a good hiding place. He quickly made his way to the nearest egress door.
A cold breeze confronted him as he stepped outside. He stood on a long balcony overlooking the flat, five-armed world. A ramp connected the balcony here with one above, on the third level. Ignoring the view, he moved to the end of the balcony, looking over to the ramps, viewing platforms, and balconies jutting out from the fourth level. They were all empty. Even if she was on one of them, he’d have to approach her from the inside, guessing which door led to her.
The viewing platform where he stood was littered with the bodies of birds. Who had grounded them? Lord Ghinamid might be one who didn’t want to be tracked. Still, Quinn wished his guide bird would return and make a circuit of the outside walls, looking for a small, Chalin-like woman with a scarred face.
The underside of the city was in the shape of a bowl, making it impossible for him to see levels above, where overhangs obstructed his view. He, could, however, look to the level below by leaning out.
Pressing against the railing, he pushed his upper body past the resistance of the field barrier, which assured a modicum of safety on the outside decks.
Helice was there, below him, on the fifth level.
Huddled into a ball in a recessed alcove of a balcony, she sat with her head on her knees. Oh, sleep, Helice, he thought. Sleep.
But she was on level five, not level four. How could he find her again, once inside the Magisterium and trying to guess which door led where? He’d have to try. Turning to leave, he paused. He would lose her. Going inside the Magisterium he could easily become lost. He knew the Magisterium only slightly, and these lower levels not at all.
He leaned over the rail again, looking below the jutting balcony on which he stood. His stomach contracted at the view: a drop of thirty thousand feet into a blinding mirror of water, reflecting the high bright. He would not look down again.
Moving to the very end of the balcony, he squinted down at the wall, seeing protuberances he might use for handholds. The wall curved inward, dropping away from his sight. It was impossible. But on closer inspection, he noted more jutting features of the skin of the Magisterium: nozzles, vents, spars, and moldings. He had no more time to evaluate; Helice was in his sights.
He climbed up to the rail, gripping it with what strength remained in his right arm. With his left, he reached out for a grip, spied his footing below him, and pulled himself out onto the outer wall of the Magisterium. The air was cold beyond the field barrier. Feeling with his feet for the next foothold, he discovered an indentation that gave him a tiny ledge to balance on. He lowered himself, willing strength into his right arm. Moving with what efficiency he could, he sought his next foothold. With his face next to the crenellations of the wall, he found his handholds, using his left arm and hand to lower himself, and his right to hold fast to the protuberance nearest his chest, to keep himself clinging.
Lower, now, and unable to lean out for a view of where he was going, he continued his blind downward creep. It had only been a minute, and already his good arm was losing strength. He hooked his right elbow around a large, jutting bar, resting his impaired hand. Without that bar, he might have fallen. Hanging thus, with a shallow foothold barely a help, he rested for a few seconds. But he had to keep going, or his body would give out.
Resuming the climb down, he found, of all things, a window. The deep reveal provided a tiny space for him. It was, blessedly, a flat sill. He rested there for a long time, but his hands were growing cold in the sharp air. He had forgotten the cold outside the field barrier. That might be a fatal miscalculation.
Crouching on the sill, he peered below. There was his destination, curved under and away: the rail of Helice’s balcony. Setting out once more, he willed his hands to by God hold on, because it was only another minute, and he would have his feet on the solid world of a balcony. He was now just a machine on a puzzle of a wall; there were only feet and hands—good hand, weak hand—searching, praying for a handhold, for the next foothold, . . .
The railing was just below him. With an urgent command to his trembling legs, he persuaded them to reach for the railing. He swung his leg, feeling for the rail, finding it. Now with one foot precariously planted, he clawed his way to an upright position. He felt he couldn’t move another inch.
His body had gone beyond its strength, held together by will alone. He felt like a block of ice. Somehow he managed to slide down from the rail; he didn’t allow himself to fall and collapse. Silence was important.
She was just around the curve of the wall.
Crouching and shivering, Quinn recovered. He tried not to gasp for air. Quietly he stood up and leaned out enough to see the rest of the balcony.
She was still there. But now she saw him.
Jumping up, she turned to flee. Quinn raced to grab her, reaching her and pulling her back. He jerked her against the wall, his hand at her neck.
She looked ghastly, sores oozing, hot blue eyes looking at him with feral panic.
“Don’t make me kill you,” he said in a whisper, all that was left of his lungs.
As she struggled against him, he noted with relief that she was not stronger than him in his exhausted state. He kept her pinned to the wall, his thumbs on her windpipe. “Now, Helice, you’re going to tell me. Everything.”
He struck her. To do so, he had to release her with his good hand. She fell away from his blow, stumbled, and fell. Following her, he fell on top of her, too weak to drag her up. Her face bleeding, she spat out the blood that ran into her mouth.
Sitting on top of her, he grabbed her hand and brought it forcibly in front of her face. “I’m going to break each of your fingers, starting with this one, unless you tell me where the machine is.” He leaned over her, ready to murder her, ready for anything, nothing held back.
“Go to hell.”
He pulled her index finger back in a jerk, breaking it.
She screamed. Then she clamped her mouth shut against the sobs. Her defiant eyes met his. Perhaps she didn’t understand that he was going to break them all.
He spat at her, “Don’t try lying to me, because I’m going to take you with me, back to the engine. If it isn’t there, I’ll kill you.”
“Go . . . ahead. I don’t care, I don’t bloody care. In fact, you can . . . kill me now.”
“Nobody wants to die,” he hissed. He climbed off her and pulled her to her feet, looking at her with loathing. They stood in a mutual embrace, each leaning against the other, each wounded, sick, exhausted. “You don’t want to die,” he said.
“Quinn,” she whispered, her eyes alight with a calm madness. “I don’t care what you do. I’m already dying. Didn’t you notice?”
He stared at her.
She smirked at his hesitation. “It’s too late for you. And it’s too late for me. I’m free of you. A dead woman already.”
“But you have an engine that will kill the world.” Now he needed to hear that there was an engine.
She grinned at him, cracking the scabs around her mouth. “Yes there’s a bloody fucking engine.” She held her hand with its broken finger next to her like a claw. “We’re already bringing people here, and they’re going to start over again. Start from a clean slate. Clean up the mess you’ve made. Your precious malformed Rose. Yank it out. Replant, as it were.”
Enraged, he dragged her to the rail.
As he hauled her, she gasped, “I won’t live to see it. But it was worth it, just to stop insufferable, self-righteous crusaders like you.”
He held her at the rail, forcing her to look over. “Look, look down. Tell me where the engine is, God damn you to hell. Before you die, do one decent thing.”
With far more strength than he’d guessed she had, she yanked away from him. Then with a quick jerk, she rammed her knee into his crotch. He crumpled, and as he did so, she kicked his damaged arm, sending him staggering against the rail, down to one knee.
Someone rushed at them. Suddenly someone else was between then, grabbing Helice, wrestling with her. Just as Quinn managed to haul himself to his feet, he saw Tai holding Helice balanced on the rail on her back. They struggled. Helice reached her knee back for a kick.
As she did so, Tai pushed hard against her, heaving her over the rail. She fell, the expression on her face startled and puzzled.
“No!” Quinn rasped. He reached for her as she fell. He clutched at her tunic, got hold of it, gripping it fiercely. His hand didn’t work, nor his fingers. The material shredded away from his grasp. She fell, dropping away, falling like a lost soul from heaven.
“No, no,” Quinn said, leaning over, watching as she fell, watching her grow smaller.
At last her form vanished into the platinum brilliance below.
Tai turned away from the sight, his face ashen.
Quinn was leaning his hands on the railing, letting his defeat settle around him, dark and brutal. She’d taken the information with her. My God, she was still falling, somewhere below, had not even hit the water yet. It would be minutes yet. It made him sick.
Tai croaked, “She would have pushed you. I tried to help, but she fought, and then . . .” he turned back and looked at the railing, as though he could see the progression of events more clearly, staring at it. “. . . and then I pushed her.”
Quinn still stared down, but he couldn’t see her anymore. “Yes. You pushed her.”
After a few moments Tai whispered, “I wouldn’t have pushed her, but she pushed against me.” When Quinn didn’t speak, he went on, “I tried to help you. She would have killed the Rose, wouldn’t she?”
“Yes. Perhaps she still will.”
Tai looked confused. “She was evil, wasn’t she?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know what she was.”
But she was the only one who knew the location of the engine.