Viriconium, p.19

Viriconium, page 19

 

Viriconium
 



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  The old man opened his throat, retched, squawked inhumanly, then seemed to smile.

  “Oh! Oh! Oh!” cried Fay Glass, staring upward.

  Alstath Fulthor, his brain an empty beach across which were scattered the bones of understanding, felt, rather than saw, something detach itself from the racing clouds above.

  It fell slowly at first, toppling languidly off one great wing, giving vent to a high wailing cry (thus do the fish eagles of the Southern Marches plummet almost lazily a thousand yards into the cold salt water of their native sea lochs: but this one was fully five feet from wingtip to wingtip, and of an odd grey colour); plunged quicker and quicker until Fulthor was sure it must bury itself in the paving of the Circuit; then in the final instant shot horizontally across his field of vision in a rush of displaced air, to smash into the assassin’s rib cage with a noise like an axe going into an oak door. Shouting in rage and fright, Hornwrack fell backwards off his horse. He lost his hold on the old man, hit the wet road, and was bowled over in a mist of blood and feathers.

  Relieved-if astonished-at this turn of events, Fulthor drew his powered blade and cursed his horse in close, found that he could get a clear stroke at neither assassin nor bird, and swept the old man up to safety instead. This gave him the illusion, at least, of participation.

  In the immediate aftermath of its strike the hawk had the advantage of momentum: with its talons fastened in his face, Hornwrack went rolling and bellowing about the roadway, knife arm flailing while he tried with the other to protect his eyes and throat. There was little to choose between them for ferocity. The bird shrieked and croaked; the man groaned and wept; rain fell on them both. Alstath Fulthor stared, appalled. Eventually, blood streaming from his face and forearms, the man wriggled into a kneeling position. He grasped the bird by its neck and pulled it off him. Time after time he drove the knife into its body, but it was like stabbing a brick wall. The huge wings buffeted him. Their faces were inches apart, and both of them were screaming now as if they had finally recognised one another from some other country and were continuing a quarrel begun there long ago… Suddenly the man threw his knife away, transferred both hands to the bird’s neck, and twisted it once.

  They raised their bloody heads and shrieked together. The man choked. The bird was still.

  Fulthor rode over, dismounted, and watched Hornwrack get unsteadily to his feet. His cloak was ripped, his shoulders a mantle of blood. He looked round him like an idiot, empty-eyed. “Yours, I suppose,” he said to Fulthor, his voice thick and dull. He hardly seemed to notice the powered blade flickering and spitting at his throat. He held out the dead bird. “Some bloody thing dug up out of the ground.”

  The Reborn Man stared at it in silence. It was a perfect image of a bird made all in metal: a fantasy with armoured wings, every feather beaten from wafer-thin iridium, the fierce raptorial beak and talons forged from steel and graven with strange delicate designs. It hung from Hornwrack’s hand, though, like anything newly dead-loose of limb, open-mouthed, and vulnerable (as if in the moment of death it had been surprised by some truth which made nothing of beaks and claws), one great wing hanging in a slack double curve. He shook his head stupidly and turned away.

  The old man seemed little the worse for his adventure, though the strain seemed to have accentuated something not quite human in the set of his features, the way his almost-saffron skin clung to cheekbone and jaw, taut as an oiled-silk lampshade. “You had better tell him why we need him, Alstath Fulthor,” he whispered hoarsely. He massaged his scraggy neck and chuckled. “I believe he will not come except of his own accord. And I would rather he destroyed no more of my property.”

  Fulthor failed to hide his surprise. “You made the bird?” he said.

  “Long ago. There may be a few more left”-he looked up into the grey sky-“but they have grown shy since the war. They are less dependable, and no longer speak.” He nodded to himself, remembering something. Then: “Tell him why we need him.”

  Fulthor could think of nothing to say. He looked from the old man to the ruined bird and back again, then at Hornwrack (who, far from showing any further signs of fight, had begun to shiver volcanically).

  “The girl,” he began. “She was sent here with a message, we think, vital to the city, to the empire. To all of us in these peculiar times. But look at her! The rest of her party must have wandered off somewhere between here and the Great Brown Waste: they are far along the road to the Past in her village, and it is hard for them to concentrate for long on what they judge to be nine-tenths dream.” (Waxen figures were at that moment processing through his own skull, carrying something wrapped in a fantastically decorated sheet, all of them leaning at thirty degrees to the vertical; they were singing. Nine-tenths dream! He had placed her by the weave of her cloak. He could find the place, but would he ever leave it again?) “You must know what they are like out there.”

  The assassin seemed preoccupied. With the hem of his cloak he was dabbing at his lips, his cheeks; the lobe had been torn off his left ear. He fought off a fresh bout of shivering (looked for a second hunted and afraid, like a man who suspects in himself a fatal disease). “She said nothing to me. Nothing but gibberish.” He touched white bone where his jawline had been laid open, winced. “Look at me! I am already bleeding for her. Three times now she has brought me to this, though that bastard Verdigris had his dirty hands in the matter.” He sneered. “ ‘The face of the ewe lamb bone white in the meadows’! Gibberish!”

  Fulthor could follow little of this. He thought privately that the man was mad.

  “It is not what she has said,” he explained carefully, “but what she brought with her, that is of significance. Had she anything with her? I thought as much! You are the only one who saw it. We must know. You owe us this, if only because you were the cause of its loss!”

  This seemed to enrage the assassin.

  “Then ask her, Reborn!” he shouted. He spat blood into the road at Fulthor’s feet. “It is I who am owed. I killed five of the Sign last night on her behalf and my palm is empty. One of them at least would have fetched twenty pounds of steel in the open market. Martin Fierro under my knife! That was a black madness. Here!” He stuck out his cupped right hand. “Black bloody madness! I am sick of doing the work of the High City and reaping only their sanctimonious stares!” He turned away disgustedly and made to pick up his knife. When Fulthor’s weapon pricked the small of his back, he froze. He looked back over his shoulder, a sneer spreading across his lacerated face. “Are you frightened of a steel knife now, up there in the High City? You could chop me like an onion with that thing if I had fifty knives like this!” He bent down quickly and snatched it up. “Look, blunted at the tip.” It had vanished under his cloak before Fulthor could protest. He had sensed now to what extent he was needed; to what extent safe.

  “She cannot tell us, Hornwrack,” said Fulthor tiredly. “You can. That is why she brought us to you. It was her only means of communication. At least come to the palace to discuss it. I agree that you may have been treated unfairly.”

  Hornwrack ignored him. He shook the carcass of the metal bird. He put it to his ear. “It hums still. It hummed even as I strangled it.” His hands trembled, then stilled. “I feel my death in all this.” He walked off a few paces and stared up at the palace, a mile distant and misty through the blowing rain. “Methven’s hall!” they heard him say. He seemed to be listening. “I was once one of you,” he said. “I was one of the rulers. I chose to become one of the ruled.” Then: “To hell with all of you,” he said. “I’ll come because you have the weight of that behind you”-pointing to the palace-“and because you have the baan . But I’ll tell you nothing.” He regarded Fulthor with a cold smile, drew his ragged sleeve across his red-daubed face. “You had better watch me, Reborn Man,” he threatened. “You had better watch me all the time.”

  I would rather be a ghost than play such hollow games, thought Alstath Fulthor.

  Hornwrack:


  The horse had run off and he refused to try and catch it on foot.

  “Then walk,” the Reborn Man told him.

  He writhed his bruised lips and spat. (If he shut his eyes the bird came at him still, tearing long elastic strips of flesh from his chest until the ribs showed through.)

  “So,” he said. He shrugged.

  Lord Galen Hornwrack, scion of a respected-if relict-House, one-time officer and pilot of the Queen’s Flight, now a professional assassin of some repute in the Low City, made his way for the first time in eighty years to the palace at Viriconium. He walked. His wounds throbbed and chafed. Memories of the night gnawed him. But at his belt hung a metal bird he had ruined with his own bare hands, and he felt this to be the symbol of a continuing defiance: though he now had to admit that control of his own destiny had passed from him. Occasionally, small wheels spilled from somewhere deep within the bird to run soundlessly in diminishing circles until the wind whirled them away like chaff across the Proton Circuit. Before he went into the hall of Methven he looked up at the sky. What had begun at least in light was now dull and unpromising. Even the deadly litharge stain of dawn had faded from the cloud layer, so that, grey and solid, it capped the earth like an enormous leaden bowl, a single thin crescent of silver showing at its tilted northern extremity. And as he watched even that faded.

  4

  IN THE CORRIDORS

  Tomb the Dwarf came in through the southeastern or Gabelline Gate of the city, just before dawn, some two weeks after his strange meeting on the edge of the Rannoch. A fine rain was falling as he led his ponies beneath the heavy seeping curve of masonry-more tunnel than arch-where the guard dozed in a wicker cubicle and old men, woken by the rattle of wheel on cobble, squatted under their dripping felt hats and stared incuriously at him as he passed. Here, in an alcove in the wall of the arch, had once hung the notorious Gabelline Oracle, sought out and yet dreaded by all who entered or left the city: the severed head of a child hanging from a hook, beneath which had been constructed an alchemical “body” composed of yew twigs bound together by certain waxes and fats. A lamp being lit beneath the oracle, or in more special circumstances an inscribed wooden spatula being forced under its tongue, it would give in a low but penetrating voice the fortune either of the consultant or of the city itself. No one who had ever heard that voice could forget it; many would take the Gate of Nigg to avoid it.

  Tomb heard nothing, though he cocked his head for echoes; but a breath of the past followed him a little way beyond the gate, a cold and depressing air generated in those outer regions, overflowing into the alleyways and peeling demimonde avenues of the suburbs where geranium leaves were turning ochre and a faint smell like cat’s urine issued from the mouldy brick. Viriconium, sump of time and alchemical child, sacrificer of children and comforter of ghosts-who can but shiver and forgive in the damp theatrical airs of dawn?

  A red stain grew in the sky above the Haunted Gate. Against it floated the airy towers, suspended as if in water glass, while below were conjured shabby reflections-a glitter of fish scales, olive oil, broken glass, and the west wind shivering the wide shallow puddles in the empty squares. Asleep one minute and aware the next, the Pastel City woke like a whore, to commerce and betrayal, to pleasure and misery-to rare metals and offal, velvet and sackcloth, lust and holiness, litharge, lithia salts and horse cures. The red stain spread until it had filled the sky. Worm-eaten floorboards groaned. Gummy eyes gazed forth, half-blind already with boredom and disgust, to watch the dawn drop dead among the sodden chestnut leaves in the Rue Montdampierre! Tomb the Dwarf, recognizing in this suburb the same slut who had emptied the pockets of an impressionable Mingulay tinker’s son a hundred years before, was overcome by sentiment. He took deep delighted breaths, spoke almost kindly to his ponies, and grinned about like a juggler.

  Beneath Minnet-Saba the Rivelin market spilled across his path like the encampment of a besieging army, dotted with paling flares and the little warm enclaves of charcoal braziers. It was a good-natured, anarchical siege, noisy and stinking, full of laughter and mock acrimony. Fish stalls predominated, but among them were distributed the kerbside pitches of tattooist and juggler, prostitute and priest; together with the booths of those deft-fingered old women who are equally happy to play at the cards for whatever stakes you name, or with them tell your fortune to the accompaniment of a practised homily. The gutters were filled with fish heads, with sneaking cats and unconscious thieves. Fishwives rubbed elbows with boys selling anemones from neck trays (while others offered filthy marzipan, or caramelized locusts like intricate jewellery from the forgotten towns of the dusty East). Over it all hung a marine reek, a pall of hot cooking fat and reedy, disconnected music.

  Into this came the dwarf’s caravan like a spirit of chaos-pushing aside tottering stalls, running over unguarded feet, impervious to abuse, drawing forth as it passed each brazier the ironic catcalls of idlers and the shrieks of fishwives (who required that the dwarf come behind a booth with them and there bash the dents out of a pot they would show him). The anemone-boys rode his tall yellow wheels, grinned into his face, lost their balance, and fell into the street. All the while he moved steadily up the hill toward Minnet-Saba, the crowds eddying in his wake, until he came to the upper limit of the market; and there, on the precise interface of High and Low Cities, chanced on the booth of Fat Mam Etteilla.

  Despite the coming and going about the booth, it had attracted few onlookers. Wan torches set at its corners guttered in the growing light. Its greasy satin curtains were drawn back to reveal the Mam herself, billowing over her three-legged stool and coughing like a horse in the raw air. In her vast lap sat a small drunken man with a depraved triangular face, from the top of which stuck straight up a stiff brush of almost crimson hair. His bottle-green jerkin was not only encrusted with old filth, but was sticky besides with new foulness, and he seemed to be confessing his part in some brawl or murder the night before. Tears were running down his cheeks; great twitches racked his body; odd spasms of free verse left him now and then like vomit. (“I renounce the blessed face,” he intoned, “the silent sister veiled in white and blue,” and made a sound like a choking cat. “What else could I do? He was no friend to me!”)

  Before them on a flimsy baize-covered table were arranged the cards- four Urns above him; behind him the Conjuror reversed; the MANTIS crossing him; and many others. Each strange little scene glowed up from the grubby pasteboard as if viewed in a reducing mirror-leaning columns clustered beneath a vanished constellation, extinguished suns and naked supplicants, the shadowy hierarchical figures of a symbology as old or older than Viriconium, legacy perhaps of some Afternoon parlour game. “This,” she whispered, “is your card, MALADIE; and here are three towers and a dog, the future as yet unrevealed, also disgrace. (Another account speaks of greed frustrated.) Look! Here’s a deserted beach, and in the tide a hermit crab. Above fly three swans: APPUI. Between the alternatives there is no marriage possible-on the one hand magnificence; on the other, disease. (Also a certain clouded joy.)” The man with the red hair, though, would look anywhere but at the cards. If his glance fell on them by accident he would pretend to see someone he knew in the crowd.

  But the dwarf saw little of this, and of what he saw retained only fragmentary impressions: a white, bony face; the scattered cards like pieces of coloured glass. He heard a voice like the outfall of a sewer say, “A locust the size of a man; a head two feet across!”

  At this Fat Mam Etteilla shook herself as if surfacing from a dream. She looked down at the little drunk in her lap and put one of her great fat hands over his. “I wish I could help you, dearie,” she said with a sigh, and set him carefully on his feet. A fit of coughing overtook her as he bobbed about in front of her trying to bow. “Piss and blood!” he screamed suddenly. “I saw it!” He ran off into the market and vanished.

  “Wait!” cried Tomb, any talk of insects having recently become of interest to him. “Stop!”-more to himself than to the retre
ating figure. The caravan was being carried forward, despite his best efforts, by the sheer weight of humanity behind it. He stood up on his seat to get a better view: nothing but a red coxcomb and a despairing cry. “Its head twice bigger than a man’s!” And then nothing at all but heads, bobbing and eddying; the market had ejected him and he was alone in the bleak formalistic spaces of the High City. The wind ruffled the puddles, and the Proton Circuit rose like a question mark into the air before him.

  No one recognised him at the palace gates. An officer made him wait while they verified a complex sequence of passwords given him twenty years ago by someone who might have been dead for ten of them. His ponies fidgeted, and furtively bit one another. Servants came and went, but none of them looked at him. “It won’t take long. Look, can you move the caravan? We really need the room.” The city’s sudden indifference hurt him, although he pretended to take it with a certain stoical amusement. “Oh, well,” he told the officer. “Oh, well.” Then he jumped out of the caravan, ducked the presented arms of the gate guard, and ran off into the palace. Old wounds had given him a dragging, unsteady gait so that he looked from behind like some escaped ape. After a shocked silence a lot of shouting began.

  A little while later he stopped to get his breath back in a corridor where the light fell as if strained through muslin. He had lost himself quite quickly in the maze of passageways which riddled the outer regions of the building like the interstices in a piece of pumice-quickly enough at any rate to evade the detachment which had tried to catch him at the front door. He grinned. He could still hear them faintly, crashing about in the empty lobbies and forgotten storerooms of quite another quarter, moving away from him all the time. But he realized now that he couldn’t reach the Queen without moving into the more frequented passages and thus being sighted. An undignified homecoming. His chest hurt. He leant against the back wall of the alcove, staring at some old machine and trying to remember with half his mind whether he or someone else had dug it up and brought it back here; and when finally he decided he did indeed recognise it, he found he had forgotten which desert had given it up to him, back when he was young. Whole sections of the palace were “his” in this respect, which only galled him further…

 

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