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The Virtu

CHAPTER ONE

MILDMAY

When I opened the door, I could tell that Thamuris was dosed to the gills on laudanum.

"You sure about this?" I said.

Thamuris came drifting into the room like a ghost. His feet were bare, and his hair was down, and he was wearing something that looked basically like a bedsheet. I hoped like fuck nobody'd noticed him on his way here. "I have to," he said, and there was something about the way he said it--I can't explain it, but I knew there wasn't a thing in the world I could say that would mean anything to him. He was past the point where anybody could talk him down. I took a deep breath, let it out, admitted to myself that I was going to get in trouble over this and I was okay with it. Then I shut the door and said, "What d'you want me to do?"

Thamuris had asked me for a favor. Maybe that don't sound so weird, but you got to understand. He was a Celebrant Celestial, which meant he outranked everybody in a Great Septad mile radius, including the lady who ran the Gardens of Nephele. And me, I was just a lamed-up cat burglar who used to murder people for money, no education, no morals, and the only reason people here put up with me at all was my half brother Felix Harrowgate, who was a hocus and could charm the stars down out of the sky besides. So there was no way somebody like Thamuris should've been asking somebody like me for favors. But he had.

He wanted to perform a divination, he said, but none of the celebrants would help him. Seemed like they all thought it was a really shitty idea. And maybe it was. I'm annemer, no kind of hocus at all, and you could fill books with what I don't know about magic, and, I mean, he was dying of consumption. It only figured that there was a Great Septad and a septad and six things he shouldn't be doing, whether he wanted to or not. But I owed Thamuris. He'd tried to help me when nobody else cared enough to spit on me, when my leg wasn't healing right and they didn't want to hear about it because I was a murderer and they'd got some things back to front about my relationship with Felix besides. Which ain't exactly surprising, seeing as how he was crazy and mixed up in his own head about who I was, and they weren't about to ask me what was going on. And I can even sort of see it, since they thought I'd been beating him up and powers know what all else, and if I was what they thought I was, I only would've lied about it anyway.

Only I wasn't and I wouldn't, and even if I didn't blame them exactly, I couldn't really forgive them either.

So even though Thamuris hadn't been able to get none of them stuck-up bastards to listen to him, I still owed him. For trying. And this was the only thing he'd ever asked me for--fuck, the only thing he'd ever seemed to want--and I knew there wasn't a single fucking other thing in the world I could do for him. That's how consumption is.

It took a second for my question to get through the laudanum to him, but then his whole face lit up, like the big chandelier in the cathedral of Phi-Kethetin that I was probably never going to see again. "I've had to adapt the ritual, so you will have to take two parts. You must be both querent and anchor." He gave me a look like he expected me to know what that meant and to be pissed off about it.

"Spell it out for me, Thamuris. Stupid annemer, remember?"

He sat down on the bed. "As my anchor," he said, "you help me maintain my link to my body, to the tangible world. I will need you to hold onto my hands--that's where the khresmos can take hold."

He wanted me to hold his hands. I could do that. "Okay. What about the other thing? The q-whatsit?"

"Oh, that's easy. You just ask me a question."

"Wait--what?"

"It is dangerous, stupid, and useless to open oneself to the huphantike without a specific question in mind."

"Why can't you ask one?"

"It doesn't work. You can't ask questions for yourself."

Mavortian von Heber sure could--him being the only other fortune-teller I'd ever met. But I was willing to bet there was more Mavortian hadn't told me than what he had, and besides I wasn't about to try and tell Thamuris he didn't know what he was talking about.

Well, fuck, I thought. I couldn't think of a single thing I wanted to know. The future felt like a herd of buffalo stampeding straight at me, and all I wanted was to get the fuck out of the way.

"Give me a minute," I said.

"As long as you need," Thamuris said, and I knew he'd wait all the way to the end of time and out the other side. I was stuck. This was the thing Thamuris wanted. So I racked my brain for some kind of question I could ask that wouldn't be a cheat or a waste of time, but wouldn't tell me something I couldn't stand to live with.

Thamuris said, very quietly, "What are you afraid of?"

"I ain't afraid," I said, and we both knew I was lying.

"Then ask." He came and knelt in front of me and held out his hands. "Take my hands and ask."

It didn't feel like anything I meant to do, but I found myself holding his hands. They were cold. And I heard myself say in a dry sort of croak, "What's going to happen to me?"

His fingers suddenly clamped down--not quite hard enough to hurt, but hard enough that I really wasn't going nowhere--and his eyes rolled back in his head, which ain't no nice thing to see right up close. I would've thought he'd fainted except he didn't fall down, and he didn't loose his grip on my hands. Which made it most likely that he'd started his divination, and I just hoped he didn't need me to do nothing but sit there.

Whatever was going on with Thamuris, it wasn't nothing I could see or hear or feel. All I could do was sit there with his cold fingers digging into my wrists tighter and tighter, waiting for something to happen and hoping it wouldn't be nothing bad. I had that feeling again, like I was doing something wrong and everybody in the Gardens was going to be pissed at me. But Thamuris trusted me and wanted my help, and so I sat and waited. My new career.

And then, just when I'd pretty much resigned myself to sitting there that way until dawn and Khrysogonos or somebody walked in and found us, and powers that was going to be a nasty scene--Thamuris's eyes came rolling back down, although they didn't look like his eyes at all. They looked too old and too far away and too mean. It was somebody else looking at me out of Thamuris's eyes. I don't know who, and I don't want to. I knew whatever this person had to say to me I didn't want to hear it, but I wasn't going to be able to break Thamuris's grip without hurting him, so there was nothing to do but sit there and take it.

Thamuris said, "Love and betrayal, the gorgon and the wheel. The dead tree will not shelter you, and the dead will not stay dead. Though you do not seek revenge, it will seek you all the same."

I know it sounds like complete bullshit, but the voice was cold and kind of bored, and those eyes were watching me like they wanted to see me flinch, and it might be Thamuris's hands, but the force grinding my bones together wasn't nothing to do with him, and I knew those words were the truth. I didn't know what the fuck they meant, but I knew for sure I was going to be sorry when I found out.

I felt it leave Thamuris, because his shudder ground the bones in my wrists together. His eyes were shut and his face screwed up like something was hurting him, and he fell straight over backwards like he'd been pole-axed.

I stared at him for a moment, and then I realized he wasn't breathing.

FELIX

I was woken, from a confused and frightening dream of searching the Mirador for a pocket-watch Shannon had given me and I had lost long ago, by the sound of someone knocking on the door. I was on my feet almost before I was awake; my first coherent thought was gratitude that I'd made Astyanax go back to his own room after we'd made love.

I called witchlight, snatched up my robe, shouted at the door, "What?"

Sudden silence.

I tied the robe, ran my hands through my hair, and flung the door open. "What?"

A small acolyte started back, her eyes wide. "Oh! Please, I'm sorry, sir, but I was told ... the Celebrant Lunar said I ought ..." I stood and waited, letting my eyebrows rise. She turned scarlet and said in an embarrassed mutter, "Your brother."

"What about my brother?"

"The Celebrant Lunar said you should come."

"Is there time for me to get dressed first?" I said and smiled at her, which caused her to turn an even more alarming color and back up a step, as if she was afraid I might ravish her then and there.

"Thank you," I said, shut the door, and scrambled into yesterday's clothes. If it had been truly urgent, Xanthippe would have told this silly child to tell me so; I knew that, but the residue of my dream, the almost-nightmare of looking for something that could not be found, tainted even that certainty. As I followed the acolyte through the stately maze of the Nephelion, I could feel the truth pounding in my heart: if something has happened to him, it is my fault. He is only here because of me. I know they don't understand him; I know he hates them. I have done nothing to help him.

It had been a month and a half since the wizards and healers of the Gardens of Nephele had cured me of my madness. I no longer saw monsters in every shadow or imagined that those trying to help me were tormentors long dead. I was whole again, clear-headed, vital and focused in a way I hadn't been since I was first learning magic, first learning to be free. On some days, it was almost as if the last year and more had not happened, as if my life before the Virtu of the Mirador had been broken--before Malkar had broken it, using me as his weapon--could truly be stitched together seamlessly with my life here in the Gardens. But on other days, I knew that was not true. And if I needed reminding, there was my half-brother, lamed in trying to help me, apparently unwilling to move without me for all that we were nearly strangers to each other.

The door of Mildmay's room was open, lamplight pouring out. At first glance, the room looked as if Troians had descended on it like locusts, but the impression resolved itself into Xanthippe, speaking in a low, venomous voice to a pallid young man I did not recognize; Oribasios, a Celebrant Terrestrial I knew vaguely, standing in the middle of the room performing something easily recognizable as a ritual dispersement; and Khrysogonos, the acolyte assigned to my brother's care, kneeling by the armchair where Mildmay sat. I was peripherally aware of my little acolyte attaching herself to Xanthippe's presence like a limpet.

I looked at Mildmay and was appalled; I had not been spending much time with him, but how had I not noticed how thin he was getting? His cheekbones were stark against his skin; his hands and wrists were nothing but knobs and staring blue veins. He was ashen, colorless except for the poison green of his eyes and his burnished fox-red hair; the scar that disfigured his face was a livid line of despair from his mouth to his left temple.

But his eyes were open, aware; I saw him note my arrival before he looked back at Khrysogonos. A weight of dread and guilt rolled off my shoulders, and I crossed the room to say to him, "You seem to have been busy this evening."

Khrysogonos glared at me, but Mildmay just tilted his head back a little and said, "Yeah. Got bored."

"So what were you doing?"

"Magic."

"Magic?" I said and let my eyebrows go up. "Really? What branch did you choose for your maiden voyage? Necromancy? Geomancy?"

"Divination. I think." I saw his gaze flick toward the pallid young man.

"Ah, yes. Your partner in crime. To whom I believe I have not been introduced."

"That's Thamuris," Mildmay said.

"He is a Celebrant Celestial of the Euryganeic Covenant," Khrysogonos said aggrievedly, although I wasn't sure if he was mad at me, Mildmay, or Thamuris--or if he even knew himself.

"Which means?" I said.

"He should have known better than to do such an insanely dangerous, stupid, and selfish thing," Xanthippe said behind me. Khrysogonos went nearly as white as Mildmay.

I turned around. The pallid young man was staring down at his hands; Xanthippe was almost crackling with fury.

"What exactly did he do?" I said.

Xanthippe glared at the bowed head of the pallid young man. "He used your brother as an anchor in a pythian casting."

"And that is?"

"Pythian casting is the form of divination preferred by the covenant of Euryganeia. It requires four trained celebrants in addition to the diviner, and even then it is quite dangerous."

"And he just used Mildmay."

"Apparently."

I turned back to Mildmay, "And you let him?"

Mildmay gave me a half-shrug. "He trusted me."

I bit back the first three responses that came to mind and said, quite levelly, "You could very easily have been killed."

Another half-shrug, an impatient jerk of one shoulder, as if he were throwing off an intrusive hand. "No big loss."

"No big loss? Are you out of your mind?" They were all staring at me, and I realized that my calm, level voice had become a shriek. I turned on the pallid young man, made a conscious effort to modulate my voice, and said, "What did you think you were doing?"

His golden eyes were dreamy with fever and drugs, lambent in his white face. He was consumptive, and that explained a great deal. He said, "I didn't hurt him. I would never have hurt him. I just had to ..."

"Thamuris," Xanthippe said gently.

He turned to her, wide-eyed, pleading, "Xanthippe, it was perfectly safe. I swear it."

"You'll forgive me," I said, "if I am skeptical."

Xanthippe shot me a not now look and sat down next to Thamuris on the bed. "I know you would never do anything intentionally to hurt anyone," she said, taking his hands and making him look at her, "but you don't have the strength you used to. If something had gone wrong, you couldn't have controlled it."

"But I had to," he said, and I saw his dream-hazed eyes fill with tears. "Xanthippe, I had to."

She sighed, touched his cheek, and said, "Khrysogonos, Oribasios, Hesione, would you see that Thamuris gets safely to bed?"

Acolytes and Celebrant Terrestrial, they helped Thamuris to his feet and half-led, half-carried him out of the room, leaving Xanthippe and me staring at each other and Mildmay slumped grayly in his chair, staring at nothing.

I pushed my hair off my face. "Xanthippe, what just happened here?"

She sighed, rubbing restlessly at the ache of arthritis in her hands. "Thamuris is dying."

"Yes, I recognize consumption when I see it. That isn't an explanation."

She looked past me at Mildmay. "What did he tell you?"

He didn't move, but he seemed to sink even lower into the chair. "He asked me not to tell anyone. He said it wouldn't be difficult. I was gonna be two things for him. Anchor and ... and some word I didn't know."

"Querent?" Xanthippe said in a tone indicating she knew the answer and didn't want to hear it.

"Yeah. That was it. And he was going to tell the future."

"That's it?"

"Um. Yeah."

Xanthippe said some things under her breath that I politely pretended not to hear.

"He didn't hurt me," Mildmay said, and there was perhaps a hint of anxiety in his voice. "I'm really okay."

"Then what happened to your hands?" I said.

"I bruise easy," he said. He met my eyes as he said it and made no effort to hide the rising bruises on his wrists. I wasn't going to be able to stampede him into giving anything away.

Xanthippe said in a slow, measured voice, "The fact that you are neither dead nor insane is a miracle. Thamuris should never have performed a pythian casting with an annemer."

"Didn't look like nobody else was helping him," Mildmay said with the first spark of real feeling I'd heard since I came into the room.

"Not helping him kill himself? No. No, we aren't."

Mildmay's flinch was all in his eyes. He said nothing.

"I'm sorry," Xanthippe said. "That was unkind. You had no way of knowing that the celebrants of Hakko sent Thamuris here precisely to keep him from doing what he has done." Her mouth compressed, bitter, angry, helpless. "What they themselves trained him to do. In Euryganeic thinking, it is what he was created to do."

Mildmay muttered something.

"What?" I said.

"Junkie," Mildmay said in Marathine.

"I'm not sure the analogy of addiction is going to be a very popular one here," I said, also in Marathine.

"It's what it was like. Or maybe that was just the laudanum." He sank back down into himself and shut his eyes.

Xanthippe was waiting politely, her eyebrows raised. "So what was this evening's demonstration about?" I said to her.

"I don't know, and it troubles me. Using an annemer as an anchor is not unheard of, but it has not been done since the ascendency of the House Hippothontis, precisely because it is so dangerous."

"Well, if no one else would help him," I said, "and if he was as desperate as it seems he was--"

"He wanted it," Mildmay said without opening his eyes. "Only thing I've ever seen him want." And that, I thought, was essentially what he'd said to me in Marathine, merely stripped of the ugly metaphor. "He didn't care if it killed him. Almost did, too. I had to--" He broke off with a sharp, painful shake of his head.

Xanthippe went over to Mildmay, touched his hand lightly. When he looked up at her, she said, "I do not know if you did the right thing, but you did the best thing it was in you to do." The silence remaining when she had left, the heels of her shoes beating a slow but impatient rhythm down the corridor, was heavy and cold, like great blocks of ice.

Mildmay said, out of that coldness, "Don't have to stay."

"There's no point in going back to bed," I said. "I'm quite thoroughly awake."

"Sorry," he said, turning his head to look out at the dark-drowned garden.

"Mildmay."

When he tilted his head back, I realized I was about to do something terribly wrong, and knelt quickly down beside him, so that our eyes were level. With the six inch difference in our heights, it was not a vantage we had on each other very often. His face was expressionless; it was always expressionless, and sometimes it made me want to shake him until his teeth rattled.

I said, very carefully, "You do know it would have been a, er, 'big loss' to me if you had died tonight."

He didn't even give me the twitch of an eyebrow, just sat there, watching me, silent.

"I haven't forgotten," I said.

"I know that." Flat, heavy words; I had a momentary, ugly flash of stones falling from Diokletian's mouth, a memory of my madness, and shook it away.

"I am ... grateful."

He looked away, muttered something I couldn't understand.

"What?"

"Don't want that."

"Don't want what?"

"I don't want you to be grateful."

"Then what do you want?"

I watched, fascinated, as a slow tide of crimson washed over his face; he said nothing.

"Tell me," I said, as gently as I could.

He shook his head. "It's stupid."

"If you're feeling suicidal, nothing's--"

"I ain't."

"Then quit acting like it!"

"I don't want to be a crip, okay? And I can't have that and I know it and it's stupid. So fuck off and leave me alone."

The silence in the room felt like a bubble made of crystal, as if the slightest movement, even a breath, would shatter it. I reached out slowly and took his hands. They felt like bunches of sticks, and they were shaking with the fear and unhappiness he would not let anyone see on his face.

I had expected him to jerk away from me, but he did not move. He did not look at me, but I did not expect him to.

There were all sorts of things I could have said--should have said--but too many of them were things I didn't want to say, or he didn't want to hear. I said, "I think it's about time we went home."

His head came up at that, and I could see the darkness leaving his eyes like shadows fleeing from the sun.

"Okay," he said, and after a moment, struck dumb and breathless by his sudden beauty, I remembered to let go of his hands.

#

I spent the next two days in the library, trying to bury that terrible flash of desire.

I had desired him in Kekropia, I remembered; I had been mad then and surely could be forgiven. But this ...

He is your brother, I said to myself, and even in my own mind, the voice sounded pleading rather than stern. He was my brother, and I knew I should not desire him. But knowing that changed nothing.

And in fleeing from my own monstrosity, I achieved nothing more than confronting myself with another monster I did not want to face: the De Doctrina Labyrinthorum of Ephreal Sand.

I had never read Sand's Doctrine of Labyrinths; I would not have said I'd even heard of it. But when I had come across it in the Gardens' library, it had been familiar in a nagging, terrible, senseless way. Every effort I made to prove to myself that it was coincidence merely reinforced the knowledge that it was not. It was not quite déjà vu; it was too diffuse, too persistent. I had tried to avoid it, much as I had tried to avoid Mildmay, distracting myself with the search through the Gardens' resources for possible ways to mend the Virtu, to reweave the torn and tangled magic of the Mirador. But Sand's book fretted at me like a headache, so that I hated reading it and yet could not leave it alone.

De Doctrina Labyrinthorum seemed at first a simple catalogue of labyrinths in the Empire, and for a time I had lost sight of my dread in wonder at how many there were--or, at least, how many Ephreal Sand claimed to have found. Until I remembered something else.

He had gone mad.

There was a voice in my ear, a Kekropian-accented tenor with a precise cadence that was achingly familiar: He began to draw mazes that could not be solved. At first his apprentices thought it was but a new phase of their master's research, some new theoretical bauble. But days became weeks became months, and still Ephreal Sand did nothing but draw these snarls and tangles, and when they asked him why, he would merely point at the maze he was drawing, as if it contained within itself the only possible or necessary answer.

I shook my head, and the voice was gone. It was not a voice I knew--it was not Thaddeus de Lalage or any of the other Kekropian wizards who lived and worked in the Mirador--and yet it was familiar. I could hear the way the aspirants eroded away from "th" and "ph"--the way "Ephreal" was almost but not quite "Epreal"--as clearly as if the man who had spoken those words were standing next to me now in the library's dimness.

Reflexively, I reached for a pocket-watch I no longer owned. And stopped, sitting with my hand halfway in my trouser pocket, for a moment unable to breathe. That pain, that sharp, shocking, mortal pain, mocked all my efforts to make of my past a mere nightmare, dismissible, forgettable, all my efforts to pretend it didn't matter.

So do something, I said to myself, exasperated. Ask the questions you know how to ask, while you still have the opportunity to ask them. I pushed away from the table and went to find the historian who could tell me about the lost city of Nera, the city I knew more about than I should. I had seen it mentioned in the De Doctrina Labyrinthorum, and had had a sudden terrible knowledge of Nera's fall, knowledge I could not explain.

Themistokles was a Celebrant Terrestrial, an archivist. His specialty was the Empire of Kekropia and its history as a territory of Troia. Nephelian Celebrants, I had learned, were as likely to be scholars as healers, and many were both. Theirs was the only magic-practicing covenant which prized the past as more than merely the source of tradition and precedent; wizards of a scholarly bent gravitated to the Nephelians, and although the focus of their research remained healing, the scope of their studies had gradually broadened, until there were now a number of archivists, like Themistokles, whose specialties had only the most tenuous connection with their ostensible purpose. No one seemed to mind; I understood that the Gardens' relationship with the university in Haigisikhora was remarkably cordial.

I found Themistokles in his office, a dusty, closet-sized room with parchments and codices overflowing from the shelves, stacked on the desk and the window-sill and the floor, so that only Themistokles himself could move safely through the labyrinth.

And then I wished I hadn't thought that.

"Felix!" Themistokles said, taking off his spectacles and waving them at me in a hospitable fashion. "Come in, have a seat! What can I do for you?"

Since there was nowhere in Themistokles's office to sit, I stayed where I was, leaning against the doorframe.

"I need to ask you about Nera," I said.

"Nera?" he said, putting his spectacles back on to frown at me. There was ink staining his fingers and a long smudge of it down one cheekbone. "Good gracious, what about it?"

"Well," I said, and bit back the insane impulse to say, I've been having visions in the library. "Just ... it was destroyed, wasn't it? By Troians?"

"Oh, yes. Back in the ascendency of the house Atreis."

"Why?"

"Why?" he echoed, baffled.

"Why was it destroyed? What did they do?"

"They worshipped abominations," Themistokles said, as if surprised I had to ask.

"Did they practice abominations?" I said, too sharply.

He blinked at me, taken aback and a little hurt. "Felix, this is ancient history!"

Not for me, I nearly said. "What sort of abominations? Did it involve ... mazes?"

Themistokles gave me a narrow, searching look. Absent-minded he might be, and very little interested in anything outside his research, but he was not obtuse, and I had been too distressed (I realized belatedly) to be subtle.

After an agonizing moment, he decided he would not ask. "The state religion of Lucrèce," he said, "included a number of strange and unsavory deities. I shan't detail them all, if you're interested in mazes ... ?" He trailed off, eyebrows raised.

"Yes."

"Then you want to know about their death-goddess."

"Do I? Grand."

Themistokles leaned back, his expression becoming abstracted and distant. "She was called the White-Eyed Lady. She has no name--or, rather, her name died with her last worshipper. It was anathema to write it down, or to speak it to anyone who was not an initiate in her mysteries."

"It was a mystery cult?"

"Yes. Does it matter?"

"No," I said, remembering the stories of the Obscurantists I had heard as a child. "Please go on."

"She was worshipped in labyrinths. Or with labyrinths. The texts are unclear. There's a hymn--unless it's an apotropaic prayer--that begins, 'She is the center of every maze.' Since she is death and despair and mikkary, I for one don't find it a comforting thought."

"Wait. What did you say? Death, despair, and what?"

"Mikkary."

"What's that?"

"A Midlander word, I think. The etymology is singularly obscure. It means ... well, it means a number of things."

"It sounds like a Marathine word: 'misery.'" I gave the Kekropian. "Is that close?"

Themistokles grimaced. "Well, yes and no. It'll do for a start, but mikkary is more than that. There isn't a word in Troian for it. But it means something like insanity and something like ecstasy--in the theological sense, not as in the throes of delight--and something like terror. And the texts we have always describe it in conjunction with buildings, especially but not exclusively their goddess's labyrinths."

"It sounds lovely," I said and couldn't quite repress a shiver.

"It was her miasma, her perfume if you will. She was a goddess of fear and pain. Her rites were performed in darkness. Her followers drank the blood of their own children."

This goddess was sounding more and more like the God of the Obscured Sun. "And the Troians eradicated her worship?"

"Three thousand years ago, give or take."

"Do you know, was there anything special about the labyrinth in Nera?"

He frowned thoughtfully. "Well, Nera was the Lucrètian capital, so I imagine the labyrinth of Nera would have been notably opulent. But I've never heard anything about it particularly. Why?"

"Just something I came across in the archives. I'm working my way through your Midlander books, you know. I found de Kalends's treatise on linguistic borrowings quite fascinating."

"Oh, yes," Themistokles said, his vague eyes lighting. Here, as in the Mirador, it was not difficult to decoy academic wizards onto their specialties; I escaped a half-hour later without having to answer any more questions about my interest in Nera's labyrinth.

MILDMAY

Felix showed up in the evening and dragged me to the Gardens' refectory for dinner. I wanted not to like it--and it sure did piss me off the way everybody stared, like I had three heads and a couple extra arms or something. But there was a stupid little kid inside me, and that stupid little kid was so fucking happy to be getting attention from Felix that I couldn't hate eating dinner with him the way I thought I should. It was purely embarrassing. About the only good thing I could see in it was I didn't have to talk to Felix about it.

Mostly, I didn't have to talk at all with Felix. Mostly, Felix was happy as a drunk saint doing all the talking himself, and powers and saints, the way he talked I could listen for hours and not get bored. He talked about everything--the plants in the gardens, the books he was reading, gossip about the celebrants. I could just sit and listen and not have to try and be smart and not have to worry about how I sounded or nothing. And that was good.

That night I could tell he was on edge about something. It didn't show exactly, but he was talking just a little too fast and gesturing with his hands a little too much. And his spooky mismatched eyes were too bright.

But he let me eat in peace, aside from talking my ear off, I mean, and it wasn't until I was done and he was sitting there with his brandy that he said, "Do you know anything about Nera?"

"Nera? You mean the place where ..." And then my mind caught up with my mouth.

"Where what?" Felix said after a moment.

"I dunno," I said. "I mean, you're the one knew what it was."

"Knew what what was?"

"Don't you remember?" He didn't really flinch, but his face tightened up for a second, and I said, "Oh shit you don't remember."

"Don't be absurd," he said, which ain't even remotely the same thing as, Yes, I do, and I can prove it.

"You wouldn't be asking if you did."

There was a minute there when he thought he was just going to bull through on brass alone, but then he sighed and said, "All right. I don't remember. I remember almost nothing from the entire time I was ... was not myself."

"So you don't remember what happened in Hermione or with Mavortian or Gideon or anything?"

"Gideon?" His eyes went sharp suddenly. "That's a Kekropian name."

"Um, yeah. He's a Kekropian. Little guy, looks sort of like a choir-boy, sort of like a clerk. Really smart. A hocus."

"Ah," he said. "I think I do remember Gideon. Slightly."

It occurred to me to be damn fucking glad that he'd remembered me at all. "I'm sorry." Kethe, Milly-Fox, do you think you could say anything stupider?

He waved it off. "Tell me about Nera."

So I told him. I told him about the crossroads and the dragoons and him hearing crying people and how we'd walked for two days. I left out the part about me getting locked in a farmhouse cellar, because it didn't seem like it mattered. But I told him about the valley and how he'd told me it was the ruins of a city called Nera and how the people that had died there wanted a maze so they could get shut of the world and rest. And about us making the maze, and how it had seemed like all them ghosts had used it the way they wanted.

By that time he was white as a sheet, and I could see his jaw muscles all tensed up, so I left out the part about how I'd had to beat him up to keep him from following the ghosts through the maze. I didn't feel like that would help the situation none, and Kethe it wasn't nothing I wanted to talk about anyway.

"So we made a maze," he said finally.

"Yeah."

"So the ghosts could reach Hell?"

"I guess." It hadn't been that long ago, but, well, he'd been crazy and I hadn't been crippled and there was a whole ocean we'd crossed between here and there. So it took me a moment to remember what he'd said. "You said their goddess liked mazes or something."

"Oh," he said, and if he'd been anybody else it would have been a swearword.

"What?"

"Nothing. Something I read today. It doesn't matter."

"And that's why you look like you been served up a dish of eyeballs?"

He actually laughed a little. "Thank you for that vivid piece of imagery. I can't explain it. I don't know what's going on. But that book I've been reading ... ?"

He raised his eyebrows at me, like he expected me to remember this book of his and know why it mattered.

"Yeah?"

Like a quarter-sigh, just enough to let me know he expected better. "De Doctrina Labyrinthorum. Of the Doctrine of Labyrinths."

"Oh. That." And now I remembered him talking about it, because I hadn't known what a labyrinth was. A maze. Like the curtain-mazes. Like that maze we'd made in Nera. Oh fuck.

"It mentions Nera," he said.

Well, I mean, what the fuck do you say to that? I couldn't think of nothing, so I just sat there, staring at him like a halfwit dog--which I was compared to him, no question, but it still ain't no nice feeling. And after a bit, he kind of shook himself and said, "Would you ... I was wondering if ... ?"

"What?"

"Would you do something for me?"

I probably looked even stupider then, because I couldn't fucking believe my ears. I pulled myself together and said, "Um, sure. What?"

He was frowning now, just a little, and staring off into space. "Do you ... I remember, I think. I remember that you are good with maps."

"I guess. Why?"

"Because we have an empire between us and Mélusine." He looked at me and said, "What?"

"Nothing."

He raised one eyebrow. Powers, I hated that look. And that's probably what made me tell him the truth. "I just ain't used to you doing the thinking."

He went red, which was kind of satisfying in a nasty mean-hearted way. For a second, we both thought he was going to chew me out up one side and down the other, but then he stopped and shut his eyes and made a kind of little pushing-away gesture, like he was just shoving it to the side. Then he looked at me and said, "Will you look at maps for me?"

"Sure. I mean, I got nothing better to do."

He kind of flicked a frown at me, like I wasn't supposed to be, you know, honest about it. "I'll have the archivists send their maps of Kekropia to your room tomorrow. I know ... that is, I didn't think you'd want to come to the library."

"Not 'specially. What d'you want me to be looking for?"

"How to stay as far away from the Bastion as possible."

My belly went cold clear back to my spine at the thought of what the Bastion would do to him if they caught him. "I hear you," I said.


Chapter Two | plain-text
Chapter Three | plain-text
Chapter Four | plain-text


© Sarah Monette 2006     Feel free to link to this excerpt, but please do not reproduce it without permission.