So to begin with, General Mercator was dead.
There'd been rumors for months that he was sick and then that he was failing and then that he was dead, but the news had come for sure that morning. General Mercator'd been in charge of the Bastion for longer than I'd been alive, so I guess it wasn't no surprise that nobody in the Mirador quite seemed to know what to do now that he was dead.
So Lord Stephen had cancelled all the committee meetings and soirées and stuff that was what the Mirador normally did with its time. Me and Felix had gone back to the suite, and Felix and Gideon had talked the thing to death, because that was how Felix was, either you couldn't get him to say nothing, or you couldn't get him to shut up. They'd been reading since dinner while I played hand after hand of Hermit's Pleasure, but all at once Felix shut his book and said, "Do you want to go see Berinth the King tonight?"
"I don't mind," I said. Mehitabel was in it.
"Well, I don't mind either," he said--teasing me, but only a little. "It's a nice change from arguing with Edgar and Simon about the nature of the stars."
"You could wear your new coat," I said, hoping I could keep his mind off me. "The one Rinaldo says--"
"Is an affront to seven hundred years of aesthetic philosophy. I could, couldn't I?" He loved to wear this red-violet color that clashed with his hair something awful. He said, enough people stared at him, they should suffer for it. The new coat, aside from the color, had gold bullion around the cuffs and down the lapels. "Loud" don't quite begin to cover it.
A little pause, and he looked at Gideon. "Do you want to come?"
It wasn't no big secret that you could hardly get Gideon out of the suite with a crowbar and an ox-team. I don't blame him--powers and saints, if I'd had the choice, I'd've been right there with him, and I don't know which one of us had the worse deal. I mean, there's me with the obligation d'âme and being the guy that offed Cerberus Cresset, and then there's Gideon being Kekropian for one thing, and having had his tongue cut out by the Duke of Aiaia for another. And then there was the fact that he was sleeping with Felix and everybody and their dog knew it. And the Curia wouldn't let him take the Cabaline oaths. No, I don't know why. Felix and Gideon were both so pissed off about it that I didn't even want to ask. So, anyways, he didn't go out much, and like I said, I didn't blame him.
But Felix kept trying, first one way, then another, and mostly Gideon said no, but sometimes he said yes. And tonight, he gave Felix a crooked sort of half-smile and nodded, and got a smile back, too.
"All right," Felix said. "Let's go see Berinth the King."
After the worst rehearsal in the history of the world, I went back to my dressing room. Well, fled back, to be perfectly honest, and if I had a plan at all, it was to make faces at myself in the mirror until I felt better.
But when I got to my dressing room, there was someone already there. He was about my age, Kekropian-dark, not like the people in Marathat with the leaven of Tibernian blood, well-dressed and as sleekly self-pleased as a cat with a songbird pinned beneath one plump paw. He would have been perfectly cast as Uriel Glabney in The Siege of Kerchesten.
I drew myself up on the threshold like every outraged cuckold in every comedy de Ferric ever wrote and said, "You have the wrong room." Corinna's taste in men was frequently ghastly.
"Oh, I don't think so," he said. And paused. And smirked. "Maselle Cressida." Cressida was the codename I'd had in the Bastion, when I'd been a spy; anyone who used it was therefore a spy from the Bastion himself, and oh didn't that just put the hatpin through an already foul day.
The door swung shut behind me, and I heard the bolt thump home.
I could have screamed, like a good little bourgeoise, or fainted, like the ingenue I was getting too old to play. I said, "Who are you?" and made sure I said it crossly.
"Come now, maselle," he said in Kekropian. "Surely you do not believe I will give you my real name. Why don't you call me Vulpes?"
The Midlander word for fox. So he knew about Mildmay. "Very well, Messire Vulpes," I said and swept him a curtsy, more to relieve my feelings than out of any real hope it would annoy him. "Now that I know who you are, may I ask what you're doing in my dressing room?"
"Lieutenant Vulpes, please," he said finickingly. "And I should think that would be obvious, Maselle Cressida. I have come from Major Goliath."
"Of course you have," I said, all weary irony; he couldn't tell that my mouth had gone dry. "General Mercator is dead, then?" I had prayed--actually prayed--that when Mercator died, his spymaster Louis Goliath would be caught in any purging Mercator's successor decided to do. Clearly, I was not that lucky.
"General Parsifal's caefidus arrived this morning."
Gemma Parsifal. A great many people must still be smarting from the debacle of Malkar Gennadion, if Gemma Parsifal had been appointed to the generalship.
"What do you want?"
Vulpes shrugged fussily and said, "Information."
"What sort of information?"
"Useful information. Will anyone bother us in here?"
"No," I said. "And if you're waiting for me to invite you to sit down, you're going to be standing an awfully long time."
"Temper, temper," he said and wagged a chiding finger at me, sitting down on the less rickety of my two chairs. I wanted to force-feed him that finger, and the hand it was attached to, but he was a wizard. I'd never even get close to him. And coming as he did from Louis Goliath, anything I did to harm him would only rebound tenfold onto my own head. Or someone else's.
But I didn't have to roll over and show my belly, either. And there was some value in playing the thing grimly out--no shortcuts. "Can you prove that you are what you say you are?"
"And what is it that I say I am, Maselle Cressida?"
"A creature of Louis Goliath's."
His smile disappeared, and I was glad to see it go. "I am no one's creature, maselle. But I am here on Major Goliath's behalf. Will his seal be sufficient proof?"
"It will do," I said negligently, as if he bored me.
He took a folded half-sheet of paper out of his pocket; he had lifted the seal cleanly, and it was Louis Goliath's signet all right, that thing that looked like a badly drawn wheel but was really a spiderweb. "And I have a token for you."
He was smirking again as he handed me a grubby slip of paper. I gave it only a glance, only enough to know who had written those straggling words. Nothing more.
I inspected the seal with far greater care, then gave Vulpes a long, slow, considering look, the sort my grandfather had used to spectacular effect on wives and children and intransigent players. It made Vulpes fidget. "Oh very well," I said, turning away from him indifferently. "I don't suppose you have either the skill or the balls to have forged Major Goliath's seal." And then, as if I'd forgotten about him entirely, I sat down at my dressing table and began repinning my hair.
Vulpes's face, as reflected in my mirror, was a treat. I'd learned a lot about wizards from observing Felix Harrowgate over the past two years, and one thing I'd learned was that wizards were completely unprepared to have an annemer ignore them. They didn't know what to do with it--especially wizards who had spent any amount of time in Mélusine, where the Cabaline wizards were marked by their rings and barbaric tattoos, and where the common people were deathly afraid of them.
I'd found, though, that compared to old school Eusebian wizards, Cabalines were a collection of indolent and good-natured tabby cats. And Vulpes, for all his swagger, was not a Eusebian of the old school. He was not Louis Goliath.
If he had been Louis Goliath, he would have had the sense to outwait me. I was the one with a performance of Berinth the King that evening; I was the one who had to placate him to get him out of my dressing room. But he let himself be rattled into forgetting that. He said, in a hard, falsely nonchalant voice, "I believe you know Gideon Thraxios?"
"I do," I said. I did not turn away from the mirror.
"What do you know about him?"
"He's a refugee from the Bastion. His tongue was cut out, so I assume he's one of those cultists." I made sure I continued to sound bored, half-distracted, as if it all meant nothing to me.
"And?" Vulpes prompted, confirming my suspicion that he had come from the Mirador. He knew perfectly well what "and," or he wouldn't be trying to make me tell him.
"I didn't realize your curiosity was vulgar," I said--dear God, if I sounded any more bored I'd have to pretend to fall asleep. "He's Felix Harrowgate's lover."
"Is it a relationship of long standing?"
"They've been lovers for as long as I've been in Mélusine. Nearly two years."
"Is the relationship a, er, happy one?"
I slewed round to stare at him, the gesture just exaggerated enough to sting. "In what sense, lieutenant? As the knight and his lady in a romance? Or are you asking me if Messire Thraxios is sexually satisfied?"
He was too swarthy to show a blush, but I knew I'd offended his prudish Eusebian soul. He said stiffly, "Do they quarrel?"
I didn't try to bite back a shout of laughter. "Do they quarrel? You realize that's the same as asking if Felix has a pulse?"
He glared at me. "Do you think their quarrels are serious?"
"Meaning, do I think Felix would ever throw Gideon out? Not a chance."
"What about Messire Thraxios? Might he leave?"
"Where would he go?" I said callously.
"I . . . see." He changed the subject briskly: "Why has Messire Thraxios not sworn the Cabaline oaths?"
"Surely you're better qualified than I am to answer that question."
"But I'm asking you, Maselle Cressida. Why?"
"I don't know. I try not to have anything to do with Cabaline politics."
"That will have to change."
"You would do better to cultivate a wizard."
"Who says I'm not?" His smile was sharp and ugly. "But still, maselle, I have asked you, and I should like you to answer."
"And I did. I told you. I don't know."
"Oh, come now. Your lover has told you nothing? I find that hard to believe."
I said lightly, "Mildmay doesn't like to talk about what he calls 'hocus-stuff.'"
"Then you will have to induce him." But at least he seemed to believe that I didn't know anything, for he stood up, saying as he moved unhurriedly toward the door, "I will expect you to be a good deal more informative next time, Maselle Cressida."
"But what do you want to know?" I said. The exasperation in my voice was quite real; I only hoped it was adequate cover for the equally real desperation that was cold lead in the pit of my stomach. "Why Gideon hasn't become a Cabaline--"
"You have a wide acquaintance among the court," he said with a sneer. "Use it. Go trawling. I will tell you if you find anything interesting."
The door shut behind him with a small, decisive snick. I waited, but when a full minute had passed and he had not popped back in like the Necromancer in the pantomimes so popular in the Lower City, I concluded he had really gone. Then I let myself look at that grubby slip of paper and touch the inky blotches of Hallam Bellamy's fingerprints.
I'd let Mildmay believe Hallam was dead, and God forgive me, sometimes I wished he was. They had broken his fingers, cut off both his thumbs; I was trying not to wonder how he'd held a pen at all.
SO SORRY TABBY was all he'd written, in sprawling, clumsy letters I didn't need my spectacles to read, that and a squiggle that was a sad travesty of his wizard's sigil. I sagged down across my dressing table, pillowing my head on my forearms. Once you sell your soul to the Bastion, you never get it back.
The cult of Felix worked like usual on the Empyrean staff. The ushers fell over each other to get us into the second-best box. The best box was for the Teverii, just in case one of them decided to come. Lady Victoria never did. Lord Stephen came for premieres, and he'd come to see The Tragedy of Horatio three times. Lord Shannon came a lot. Small favors--tonight the Teverius box was empty. Which meant Felix was in a good mood. He was telling a story about the lady in the box opposite and who the father of her third son was supposed to be. Gideon grinned, and he must've said something, because Felix laughed out loud. They'd forget I was here in a minute or two. We might go backstage after the play, if Felix was feeling nice, and then we'd go back to the Mirador. They'd go into their bedroom, and I'd go into mine. I'd lay there and pretend like I didn't have a clue what was happening on the other side of the wall.
Mehitabel wouldn't be alone tonight 'less she wanted to be.
By the time the curtain went up on Berinth the King, it was too late for the story to save me from my own stupid head. The best it could do was distract me for a while, but everything was waiting for me when the play was over, right where I'd left it.
We did go backstage for a minute, but it would've been smarter of me not to. You get in moods sometimes where you have to prove to yourself that the world is a pile of shit. So Felix and Gideon hung around in the stage-lobby while Felix flirted with Corinna Colquitt--she knew it wasn't going no place, but it didn't do her no harm to be seen flirting with him. And Gideon just watched, smiling a little. Madame Colquitt wasn't no threat to him.
I went back to Mehitabel's dressing room. Something about the play had pissed her off. I knew that as soon as I walked in the door, just in the way she was pulling the pins out of her hair. Probably Madame Dravanya, because so far as I could tell everything about Madame Dravanya pissed Mehitabel off.
So I went and opened my stupid mouth. "Surprised I beat the rush."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Usually, I can't see you for all the boy-toys."
Her back was always straight--it was the way she carried herself, like a queen--but I saw it go stiff. She didn't turn around, just gave me a look like pure black murder in the mirror and said, "If I didn't know better, I'd think you were jealous."
Meaning, don't pull this shit on me. Because, powers and saints, we'd had that fight, gone round and round 'til we were both dizzy and sick with it. And what it all came down to was, I couldn't marry her, and she wouldn't've had me if I could. I knew I should be glad she was willing to have anything to do with me at all--even if it was mostly fucking--and, you know, if I didn't like it, wasn't nobody forcing me to keep showing up to get kicked in the teeth. I just, I don't know, I wanted her to want me for more than my cock, and I wasn't sure she did.
Right now, from the look on her face, she didn't want me at all. "Were you like this with Ginevra, or did she pander properly to your masculine vanity? Before she dumped you, of course."
My breath hitched in like she'd hit me, and, powers, I kind of felt like she had. And sacred bleeding fuck I must have caught her on the raw, because she'd never said nothing that nasty to me before, and we'd never talked about Ginevra at all. Mehitabel'd always pretended like she didn't know, even though we both knew she did.
I opened my mouth, shut it again. Mehitabel said, "You call me by her name in bed sometimes. When you say anything at--Oh for God's sake! Would you just go away already?"
Somehow, it seemed like good advice. I went.
Mildmay shut the door behind him carefully--a tidy-minded man, he was--and I made a face at my reflection. "Oh, very well played. What will you do for an encore, kick him in the crotch?"
It wasn't that I'd lied--he did sometimes call me Ginevra. It was just that I'd never meant to tell him. Unless of course, I thought, disliking myself intensely, I'd just been saving it. Because I knew exactly why I'd said it. I was scared and angry and needed to lash out at someone. And Mildmay was safe. I knew he'd forgive me. The worst of it was that I actually felt calmer, better able to attend to tonight's business with a clear head.
Corinna and Susan between them had the Empyrean's ushers and prompt-boys well trained, and I hadn't hesitated to take advantage of that. The prompt-boys in particular loved the sense of intrigue--God only knows what stories they told each other about our goings-on. So there'd been no difficulty in finding out which boxes were being used tonight.
Lionel Verlalius had come, but he'd brought his fiancée--an insipid creature and I hoped he'd be as happy with her money as he thought he would. Barnabas and Harcourt Malanius were in their family box, but I really wasn't in the mood for a threesome, and picking one over the other wasn't worth the resulting aggravation. Arthur Lelius, Rudolph Novadius . . . Felix, who was not himself a problem--or even a factor--but I hadn't needed an exasperating and time-consuming scene to know that Mildmay was a problem.
I'd been right about that.
But the prompt-boy had also told me that Lord Peter Jessamyn was attending the play, and I'd spotted him myself: Peter Jessamyn, sitting alone and meek as an anchorite's cat in the box he and several other wizards had gone shares in for the season.
Peter Jessamyn was ideal for my purposes; I'd sent him a primly worded note in the first intermission, to which he'd responded, equally primly, in the second. And since Peter could hardly be expected to be enthusiastic with Mildmay playing Eofor Henning all over the place, I'd cleared the stage the quickest--and dirtiest--way I could. I'd told the doorman to stop everyone else.
I was glad of the knock on the door; feeling guilty about something you've done on purpose is a terrible waste of time. And I liked Peter: middle-aged, nondescript, soft-bellied and soft-handed, and a keen and cynical observer of the Mirador's politics. Also a considerate and imaginative lover. Not as good as Mildmay--no one was as good as Mildmay, who sometimes seemed to forget that he, too, had a right to climax--but a charming bed-companion. And he liked having me on top.
We went to The Harpy's Kiss, where Peter had thoughtfully bespoken the Rose Room and a late supper. We talked about the play while we ate; Peter nearly made me choke with a wickedly accurate imitation of Susan Dravanya, and I retaliated by describing, and even acting out bits of, the mimed and furious cat-fights that were an inevitable part of life backstage. "One of these days, Drin is going to murder Bartholmew and then go shooting out on stage with his hands covered in blood. Because it will never occur to him to wash them."
"Well, as long as he waits until the fifth act," Peter said reasonably and grinned at me over the rim of his wine glass.
I grinned back. It was easy with Peter. We enjoyed sex with each other; we enjoyed gossiping with each other. He appreciated the cachet of being my paramour--Mildmay's scornful cant term "boy-toy" echoed unpleasantly in my head--and I quite liked having a lover who wasn't high-profile, who didn't have to please anyone but himself. And who didn't want anything from me except bone-rattlingly good sex.
We managed that all right, and in the aftermath, lying together companionably to wait and see if Peter was going to be good for a second round--sometimes he was, and sometimes he wasn't--it was easy for me to trace one of the swirls of his tattoos and say, "Did these hurt very much?"
"Oh, you know. Not much more than setting yourself on fire."
"Why do you do it?"
"Become a Cabaline? Well, the alternative is to be a heretic and get set on fire for real."
I shuddered and I wasn't entirely faking. "You could leave."
He shook his head. "Wouldn't want to. And being a Cabaline is worth a little pain."
"Why? I don't understand why anyone would want to . . ."
"You're annemer. You can't understand."
"Try me. Why is it better to be Cabaline than to go to the Coeurterre or the schools in Norvena Magna?"
"You really want to know," he said, half skeptically.
"It puzzles the living snot out of me," I said promptly, and he laughed, distracted.
"Different wizards will give you different answers, of course, and the Virtu has a good deal to do with it, too."
"I don't understand that, either."
"My sweet, if you want me to explain thaumaturgic architecture to you as well, we're going to be here all night."
Thaumaturgic architecture was his specialty; he probably wasn't exaggerating. "No, I don't," I said firmly. "Just tell me why you wanted to be a Cabaline."
"That question's not much better. But all right. When I was young, I thought I wanted to be powerful, and all I knew about power, growing up in Breadoven, was that the Mirador had it. By the time I was actually ready to swear the oaths, I knew I wasn't powerful and wasn't going to be. So one answer to your question is that becoming a Cabaline offered protection. The warding spells, you know. And a chance to do my work in peace. And . . ." He was frowning. "I don't think I can explain the rest of it. But I suppose I like feeling that I'm part of something much larger and much older than myself."
"You're right," I said, smiling at him. "I am no wiser than I was." A lie, since protection was a very good reason indeed for Gideon to want to become a Cabaline. I kissed Peter's nose. "Are there lots of wizards who feel that way--I mean, did you have a lot of competition?"
"Competition?" he said blankly.
"Well, they don't take everyone who asks, do they?"
"Powers, no!" That was genuine, appalled horror; I let myself laugh.
"So how do they decide? And who does the deciding anyway?"
He told me about the Curia and the complicated systems of sponsorship and patronage and the list of criteria--some of which seemed exceptionally nebulous and vulnerable to interpretation--and I listened and wished I could take notes.
When I'd heard enough, it was very easy to shut him up. And it turned out he was good for a second round after all.
Oh, I was in a shitty mood. It was just as well Felix and Gideon wouldn't have noticed me if I'd got up on the table and started dancing, because I would have picked a fight with Felix, just because I could. That kind of mood.
I went into my room and threw myself on the bed. I sat there and stared at the wall--the other side was Felix and Gideon's bedroom and Kethe knows what they were doing in there, I didn't want to--and spun my butterfly knife, first one way, then the other. I'd used to do it for practice, when I was a knife-fighter--and for swank, too. And then it got to be a habit, and I'd never got around to making myself quit.
And powers and saints, it was better than thinking.
But sometimes, no matter how much you don't want to, you get to thinking anyway. And after a while, a thought got in my head. If I was calling Mehitabel Ginevra--and no matter how mad she was at me, she wouldn't make up something like that--then there was something wrong. Something very fucking wrong.
And it wasn't Mehitabel's problem, neither.
See, Ginevra was dead. She'd been dead for indictions. We'd been lovers, and we'd crossed Vey Coruscant, who was boss of Dassament and a blood-witch besides. And when the Dogs got on my track, Ginevra walked out on me, walked straight back to her stupid poet. And a decad later, she was dead. Somebody'd told Vey Coruscant how to find her. And the cade-skiffs had dragged her out of the Sim with her throat cut.
All at once, I had to move or I was going to start screaming. It was past the septad-night so I wasn't likely to meet anybody else wandering around. I let myself out of the suite and started walking. I didn't care where I was going. Truth to tell, I didn't notice. I was thinking about Ginevra, like a knot you can't untie and you can't fucking leave alone.
I hadn't realized it had got so bad. I know how stupid that sounds, but blessed saints, if I'd known I was calling her Ginevra, I wouldn't've fucking done it. I'd known I was still dreaming about Ginevra, but I'd kind of got used to it--got to where it seemed like it was normal, and maybe that was the problem.
I was dreaming about a dead girl maybe two or three nights in the decad. That couldn't be good, could it? I mean, I ain't big into dream-casting or nothing, but you didn't fucking need to be. And so what I was doing while I limped around the Mirador was trying to figure out how to shut it down. Which, yeah, I should've been working on a long fucking time ago, but I couldn't do nothing about that.
"So what is the big fucking deal?" I said out loud in the Buried Rotunda because there wasn't nobody around to hear. It wasn't like I'd never known anybody dead before. And sure, I'd loved her, but I couldn't hardly remember her no more. I mean, I remembered things about her, but I didn't remember her, and I knew it.
Well, what did you do when somebody died?
You went to their grave. But I didn't know where she was buried. Probably out in the Ivorene where I'd never find her.
You made offerings, burned a lock of their hair or something of theirs you still had, to a saint or the god they'd particularly followed or Phi-Lazary or Cade-Cholera. But I didn't have nothing. Not nothing.
You got together with other folks what knew them and had a wake, but even if any of Ginevra's friends were still alive, they sure as fuck wouldn't want to talk to me.
You settled your debts with them. You did things they hadn't gotten finished. You found answers to questions they'd been asking.
And there, finally, I caught hold of the end of something I could use. Because there were questions, oh fuck were there questions, and they all clustered around when Ginevra had died. Somebody'd sold me to the Dogs. I didn't know who. But it got me out of the way real neat. Somebody'd sold Ginevra to Vey Coruscant. I didn't know who'd done that, neither. I didn't know if it was the same person had done both. Or not. And I didn't know which idea I hated worse.
And well, fuck, Milly-Fox, if you got questions, then you need to talk to somebody with answers.
I knew right where to go, too. There wasn't no problem about that. The problem was that it meant going down in the Arcane and, well, me and the Lower City weren't exactly on speaking terms no more.
How bad you want them answers, Milly-Fox?
But I knew ways to go--secret or forgotten or just not used--and I figured I could get where I was going without getting lynched.
I could probably even get back again.
Gideon sighed, his body tensing in climax, his hands knotting in the sheets. He was very good; he never tried to touch my head when I did this for him. I swallowed copper-salt warmth, my throat muscles working around him, and then eased slowly back, kissing his thigh, the line of his hipbone, buying myself what time I could.
Gideon touched my shoulder gently, almost shyly. :Do you want to . . . ?:
Neither of us ever said the word.
I didn't want to, particularly, but saying so would only lead to another of our increasingly frequent, futile arguments, and I wanted that even less.
I went carefully, slowly, biting the inside of my lower lip when the urge for power got too strong. Gideon was sacrificing as much of his autonomy as he could in submitting to me--and he could not think of it in any other way. I could not be so ungrateful as to tell him it wasn't enough, especially when the one time I had dared hint at the ways of tarquins and martyrs, his revulsion had been all too palpable.
Gideon thought submission was demeaning. I knew it disturbed him that he enjoyed it, that I could make it good for him. He never asked me to submit in return, and it was something I could not offer. The words jammed and died in my throat even in imagination.
He achieved no more than half-hardness, although I kissed the knobs of his spine, stroked him, used clever caresses I'd learned at the Shining Tiger. Finally, he said, :Don't bother about me. Once is all I'm good for tonight.:
:Are you sure?:
:Please. Just go ahead.:
My teeth sank into my lip until I tasted blood. Bright pain kept my hands gentle against Gideon's hips as I thrust and strove and finally climaxed. We cleaned up silently, and then, finally, I could escape into sleep.
In my mental construct of Mélusine, Horn Gate was now bound open by wisteria vines. It led to the Khloïdanikos and nowhere else. I kept the other gates closed and tried to ignore the so-called Septad Gate, where even in my construct, the truth bled through and the Sim exited the city. The Khloïdanikos was the only oneiromancy I was interested in.
Thamuris and I had been meeting for two years, and the Khloïdanikos's geography was warping itself very slowly around us. Horn Gate had a stable location now, a brisk walk past a ruined orchard wall to the bench which Thamuris and I had chosen as our meeting place.
I stopped, as I always did, to check on the mostly dead perse´d tree that stood against the ruined wall. I didn't know if the tree still retained any symbolic connection to the waking world, but it had been linked to Mildmay, to the huphantike that Thamuris had cast and that I, in my blind arrogance, had enacted. It might have been superstition or it might have been penance--either way, I could not enter the Khloïdanikos without making sure that the perse´d still had some life in it, even if only a bare handful of green leaves.
I had learned not to hope for more.
The tree looked as bleak as ever tonight, and I did not linger. Thamuris was waiting, stretched out on the bench and staring up at the stars. He preferred the Khloïdanikos at night, when myriad paper lanterns stood beside the path, hung from the bridges, floated on the koi pond, nestled in the branches of the perseïd trees. The moon did not wax and wane here, but bloomed always full and beautiful in the sky; the stars, against the velvety blackness of the sky, glittered in constellations that neither Thamuris nor I could recognize.
The astrologia of the Khloïdanikos was an abiding mystery, one we returned to again and again. "Any progress?" I asked, by rote.
"Well," Thamuris said, swinging upright with an ease he hadn't had in the waking world for three years or more, "I found Astrape."
I goggled at him unbecomingly. "You're joking. Where?"
"Where Hydrastra should be."
"You are joking." But I looked south, to where the cluster of seven stars should have been, and sure enough, recognizable now that I knew what I was looking at, there was the bright cruel light of Astrape, named for the lightning the ancient Troians had thought she governed.
"And Hydrastra?" I said after a moment.
"Yes. Where Astrape should be."
"So they put the sky in upside down."
"And backwards. It's harder to tell, but I'm pretty sure that"--and he pointed to the west--"is the upside down mirror image of Arktidion."
"This is going to give me a headache," I said. "Have you a theory yet as to why?"
"It seems to me that it might have something to do with, um . . . well, with why the Khloïdanikos has remained extant--remained stable--for centuries."
"Which is certainly a question deserving of an answer. Go on, Thamuris. Tell me."
For all that he was a Celebrant Celestial, Thamuris was self-deprecating to the point of insecurity about his intellectual abilities. I had learned to tread carefully, not to say things that would sound condescending or as if I were merely humoring him when I listened to him.
He said, "From what Khrysogonos and I have been able to find, which isn't much, the weakness of most oneiromantic constructs was that they needed periodic reinforcement. Otherwise they collapsed into the dreams of the person who made them or--if I understood the passage correctly, which I may not have--just dissolved back into the waking world. Or both, maybe. The monograph I've been reading is written in a dialect I'm not very good with."
"Either, or even both, would make a certain amount of sense. But what does it have to do with this lunatic sky?"
"Well, those stars aren't going to collapse back into the waking world, are they?"
"No," I said, looking at Astrape so egregiously out of place. "And you couldn't just dream them, either. It must have taken a great deal of work."
"Oh yes," Thamuris said. "And I think it works like . . . like an armature. Once they set the stars, it didn't matter if the garden shifted a little here and there. Because those stars--"
"They're not a dream," I said. "They're thaumaturgic architecture."
"If you say so," Thamuris said doubtfully.
"No, really. It makes sense. And you're right. It explains why the Khloïdanikos doesn't seem to need . . . anything. And why there are ghosts."
"You lost me."
"Think about it! The stars--to get them like that, they must have picked a particular day, mapped them all out, transposed them. It's why the moon doesn't have phases, either. There's one day in the Khloïdanikos. Well, one day and one night, but you know what I mean. So everything that happens in it, happens at once."
"Now I'm getting a headache," Thamuris said. "So why haven't we run into ourselves, then?"
"Who's to say we won't? I think it's a very slow day, though, and since we can find either night or day . . . I don't know."
"You think I'm right, though?"
"I'm sure of it. Those stars are what keep the boundary. And that's why we've never found the walls, either."
"When we went looking for the boundaries. We didn't find them, because they're up there." I jabbed an emphatic finger at the night sky. "The gardens can go on forever, as long as they've got that sky overhead."
"That's . . . very odd."
"It's brilliant. I would never have thought of holding a boundary that way." I sat a moment, contemplating. "Do you suppose we can work out what day they used?"
"The astrologists have charts--I know that much. I can send Khrysogonos to plague them. Does it matter?"
"Probably not. But I would like to know just how long this has been . . ." Not "here," because this wasn't a place. Not exactly. "Has been extant. It might help us figure out how and why the Khloïdanikos does change. Because it does."
"Yes," Thamuris said. "And I admit, I have been wondering a little if the boundary is, um, permeable both ways."
"What do you mean?"
"I can't explain it. Not yet. Let me marshal my thoughts first."
"You don't have to mount a defense against me."
"I know." But his smile was nervous, fleeting. "You're just . . . you can be a little overpowering, you know. And I don't . . . I should go."
"Thamuris!" I caught his wrist, and then flinched back. I was usually careful not to touch him, for I could feel the consumption in him when I did. I risked a smile, half in apology. "I know I get excited about things. But I've never wanted to make you feel . . ."
"Crushed beneath your advance?" he said dryly. "It's all right, Felix. Just let me take things at my own pace."
"All right. If you're sure--"
"It's who you are. I don't expect you to change."
He couldn't know why that made me wince--an echo of Gideon I did not want, a reminder of my own foolishness in believing it could be true--and I said hastily, "I'll try to remember not to browbeat you in future."
That got a proper smile. "Don't make promises you can't keep. But I really do need to go. Xanthippe wants to show me to a healer visiting from Theodosia."
"But I'll see you Jeudy?" I couldn't keep the anxiety out of my voice.
"Of course," he said and strode away with a vigor and briskness he only had here, in the garden of dreams.
I stayed until the Mirador's dawn, watching the twisted constellations in the Khlo´danikos's immutable sky.
Felix hated the Lower City. For him, it was all about hate, the way he hated Pharaohlight and Simside, the way he'd hated his keeper and his pimp. He didn't get why I missed it, didn't get how I could ever have been okay with my life there. And he didn't get that I'd been brought up to hate the Mirador the same way he hated the Lower City. He hadn't lived in the districts where the Mirador went witch-hunting. He'd only seen that from the Mirador's side, where it got called "necessary purging"--and you want a phrase to spook you the fuck out? Think about that one for a while. Nobody in the Mirador really understood that Cerberus Cresset being the Witchfinder Extraordinary was a reason for somebody to want him dead. And I was only in the Mirador because of Felix. Last fucking place I'd ever thought I'd end up. He didn't get that, either.
I was sort of wishing I did hate the Lower City the way Felix did, because then walking through the Arcane wouldn't've hurt so fucking much. Wouldn't've been like a list of things I couldn't do no more, places I couldn't go, people I couldn't talk to. And, you know, it did hurt. And it hurt worse because I couldn't tell nobody about it. Nobody who'd listen to me could understand what I meant. And the people who'd understand were never going to fucking listen. They'd say I'd made my choice and it was too fucking bad if I didn't like it.
Three hookers and two pushers gave me the come-on in the three blocks I walked down Rue Souterraine between the back alleys of the Limerent and the Goosegirl's Palace. I guess they figured my money was good anyway.
The bouncer on the side door of the Goosegirl's Palace recognized me straight off. I knew him, too. Tiny d'Orisco. Biggest guy I've ever laid eyes on--six and a half feet tall and almost as broad.
"You," he said.
"Me," I said and waited, not in grabbing distance. I could hurt Tiny in a brawl, but he could hurt me way worse.
"Talk to Elvire."
Tiny grunted. He gave me the sort of look he gave drunk guys just before he bounced them, then stuck his head in the door and yelled at one of the eunuchs to tell Elvire Mildmay the Fox was on the doorstep.
"If she tells me to joint and gut you, you know I'll be happy to oblige," Tiny said while we were waiting.
"I know," I said. She could, too. I was betting she wouldn't, because the thing I knew about Elvire was that she was a junkie for information. She wouldn't turn me away if she thought I had something she could use. I hoped, anyway.
And the eunuch came trotting back and said as how Madame would see me, so I'd won the toss.
Elvire's look wasn't much warmer than Tiny's, but she waved me to a seat. "What do you want?" She had that perfect flash voice that nobody knew if she'd come by natural or been trained like Felix had. I'd heard Felix slip a time or two, but never Elvire.
"I don't want to make trouble," I said, "and I ain't here 'cause anybody sent me."
She gave me the hairy eyeball. "I see. And how do you suggest we prove that?"
I very nearly said, Why don't you get out the thumbscrews? but I was afraid she'd take me up on it.
"Look," I said. "S'pose I tell you what I want. Then you can decide what you think." She gave me a grudging sort of nod. I told her what I wanted.
"That's old information," she said. "You only want this for yourself?"
"Swear it on anything you like."
"What makes you think," she said--and she still sounded like a plate of icicles, but she couldn't quite sound as bored as she wanted. Elvire loved the hunt. "What makes you think that anyone will remember?"
"C'mon, Elvire. It ain't that old, and there were people watched Vey Coruscant's doings pretty close."
Elvire signed herself against hexes. "Is it true you killed her?"
"Yeah. Thought that was common knowledge."
"Rumor is rumor," she said. "What do I get out of this--aside from the pleasure of having you in my house?"
"I'll pay you what I can, but it ain't much." Felix would give me all the money I wanted, but he'd want to know what it was for.
"To think the day would come when I would hear Mildmay the Fox say that." She gave me a look like curdled poison. "I don't need your money. Is it true that Felix Harrowgate is also Methony Feucoronne's son?"
She smiled. I wondered how much somebody was going to pay her for that, and I wondered why the fuck they wanted to know. "I will look. Do you expect me to send you billets-doux in the Mirador?"
"I ain't that dumb," I said. "I'll come back on Huitième and ask."
She nodded. I'd given myself away--never, never let anybody know how bad you want something when you're bargaining. But it was sort of okay with Elvire. She'd jack up the price--more secrets that weren't mine to give, most likely--but she wouldn't lie to me, whether she hated me or not. As far as things like that went in the Lower City, she was trustworthy.
That far and no farther.
© Sarah Monette 2007 Feel free to link to this excerpt, but please do not reproduce it without permission.