Viriconium, p.21

Viriconium, page 21

 

Viriconium
 



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  Cellur. Ten thousand seasons once were his, years beating like hearts! These geometries could tell us. They are the spoor of Time itself, did we but know. Cellur the Bird Lord! Now he speaks All are assembled in the throne room but Alstath Fulthor.

  (Rumour has him running through the filthy alleys of the Artists’ Quarter, up the hill at Alves, and through the grounds of the derelict observatory, expressions of madness eroding his proud features; rumour had him leaving Viriconium for the third time in a month-no horse, no armour, only his heaving lungs, and his past in close pursuit. The Low City is entranced.)

  The Queen sits with her calm hands in her lap; at her feet kneels Tomb the Dwarf, picking his teeth with the point of his knife; Fay Glass of the vanished House of Sleth, dressed in a new cloak, whispers nonsense to the Queen’s Beast: while Galen Hornwrack stands apart, with a face like death. All wait, except perhaps the madwoman. Round them hover curtains of mercurial light, twists of mirror’d air. Before them five false windows tremble with views of a landscape to be found nowhere in the kingdom.

  In the Time of the Locust it is given to us to see such things. “My lady” (began Cellur, bowing to Methvet Nian): “I had, as you know, some small part in the war against the North. But that war was almost my death-as I shall tell-and it destroyed both my refuge and my birds, which hurt me grievously. I have been many years coming to terms with this, and my life has been a curious one since then. I return to find the kingdom much changed, and I am afraid my very coming heralds further uncertainty. It is eighty years since I sent the iridium vulture to tegeus-Cromis in his tower at Balmacara among the rowan woods: I wish he were here today to answer a similar summons. Although I believe he thought of himself as a poet, he had a great gift for murder. Events again require such a captain. If I am to explain why, I must return for a moment to the War of the Two Queens…

  “That I survived the onslaught of Canna Moidart’s forces was as much a surprise to me as it is to you, who last saw me beleagured and without hope. My birds were long dead, or else scattered. The Geteit Chemosit held the causeway. Their airboat, though grounded during the early part of the exchange, mounted weapons of which I could not conceive. I was trapped in my tower, whose armoury I had never had the wit to investigate. A battle began in which the sole true flesh and blood at stake was mine, yet I looked on impotently, terrified. Stone dripped and sputtered in the face of their cannon; the estuary brine boiled and threshed with the power of mine! The watching cliffs echoed and roared with it, dust trickling down their immemorial buttresses like mortar from a rotten wall. All across the water hung a pall of glowing smoke, through which I caught brief glimpses of those dreadful automata coming and going about their vessel, their yellow eyes baleful. A curious armour seemed to protect them against my beams.

  “Day gave way to a long night of blue fogs and drifting corrosive lights. The tower began to show signs of strain. It hooted mournfully into the wrack. Its summit revolved erratically, threatening nonexistent enemies. Every five or six minutes its armaments blazed forth like crooked lightning, but every time a little duller. Soon its foundations began to shift. It was doomed. I knew I could not survive a night above ground, even if it should achieve some Pyrrhic victory: two hours after tegeus-Cromis had led you to safety over the estuarine cliffs, the air and water had become contaminated with some energy which poisons the fish even now, so many years on. The tower moaned, its trapped electrical voices pleading with me in strange militaristic languages, whether for advice or relief I could not tell. I could do nothing. I left it, feeling like a traitor, for the cellars beneath, reasoning that I might make my escape through the very tunnels you had used on the previous day.

  “It was useless. The estuary floor had subsided. Those passages which had not collapsed were blocked with hot mud or full of boiling water. Only one would admit me, and down that I wandered for some time, the distant thud of weapons to spur me on, until I realized I had entered a part of the system unknown to me. I say little of what I found there. Much I did not understand. Much I would not even wish to remember. The sounds of conflict above grew steadily more muffled, progressively more dreamlike, until I could hear it no longer. How long it continued I do not know. Which side had the victory, I am at a loss to say. By the time I found my way back to the surface the melted stone was cold again, the tower like a snuffed candle, the Chemosit and their weapons gone. Two fish eagles patrolled the grey water; the cliffs were quiet. This was much later.

  “I had known for some time of the existence of such regions beneath the tower. They had lain beneath me like a new continent, but something had kept me from exploring them. They were, I sensed, still too close to the millennial past. Echoes of the Afternoon had not yet died in them. But such echoes are not, after all, confined beneath the surface of the earth; they move above it, too: wherever one goes there is always that sense of a door closed but a moment since. And I had little choice, for only my death waited above. Therefore I went down.

  “The architecture below was cold and complicated. The staircases, of which there were many, bent back on themselves, to peter out at florid, blind arches, or deliver me bemused into some hanging gallery from which I could find no exit. There was no sense of being under the earth; rather I felt that I had stumbled into some empty city or vast deserted museum. Hundreds of small cubical storerooms led off the major passageways, each one containing an eccentric object the height of a man, wrapped against the effects of time in grey sheeting. Dust covered everything. For the most part these chambers and corridors were dark, although not silent. Instruments ticked, or clattered suddenly into life as I passed. I was afraid, which seems strange now, for it was shortly made clear to me that I had built most of these things, or at least collected them, against some contingency I have now forgotten. Eventually I reached a lighted section: at first a hundred yards of corridor strung with dim green beads; then a part of one room, full of submerged blue light from an unseen source; finally a whole suite as bright as day, haunted like a summer afternoon by an insectile hum, and full of drowsy voices!

  “In these nitid quarters I was to spend many years. Here I confronted myself (although this meeting was more metaphorical than literal, and ultimately barren. I remain an enigma). Here also I learned the thing which has brought me to you today. It was here that I came to curse the monstrous burden of immortality and the fatal snare of compassion. For I am sure now that I am immortal, though I have no idea of where or when my life began. I no longer believe myself to be human. But it is human beings who have kept me here for so long.

  “I entered, then. I was tired and hungry. The place was full of moving lights which took the form of columns, diffuse spheres, or dancing lampyrines. My uneasiness communicated itself to them immediately. They flickered in the cold sour air, drifting agitatedly about and whispering in secret electrical voices. Each was the outward form or “personality” of a different machine. One might listen to the earth, another the air, while a third measured the stars themselves: they were possessed of an excitable, nervous curiosity, like thoroughbred horses. An endless ritual interweaving allowed them to exchange information or-should the situation demand it-compound their functions, so multiplying their great native percipience. One, however, was supreme above the rest. It was a magnificent ivory column over twenty feet tall. Out of the hubbub of voices-which by now rose like flood water or the wind at night among alders-this one addressed me. All the others ceased immediately, as though in deference.

  “I was astonished, for it spoke with my own voice. It maintained its superiority over the others by virtue of being the keeper of my memory. The skull, you see, cannot contain the years. Memory fades or is destroyed in periodic bouts of madness and self-disgust. Before this happens the best must be consigned to some archive. Luck or perhaps an instinct brings me to that room every hundred years or so, to be relieved of the burden. In that column of ivory light reside the dry fragments of all my former selves, like a cache of earthenware shards in the f
oundations of an old house. I learned this with horror (and with what horror have I contemplated it since!): an emotion that was as nothing to the misery with which I confronted the incompleteness of the record itself… For more than ten millennia this machine has lodged beneath the estuary-gaps have now appeared in its own memory! Something in the machine is broken; many times too I have lost the material before it could be transferred, and there have been, it seems, deliberate deletions. A decade is missing here; there a century has slipped quietly away, leaving no clues. At the beginning of the record (if it can be said ever to have had one) only tantalising glimpses remain to imply a period half as long again as its entire span! What remains is like a tapestry holed and flimsy with age (torn, too, here and there, in senile rage), through which one must stare forever at the great void. In each new incarnation. I must learn afresh how to operate the machinery. That is not hard. But to understand my purpose in being here at all… I can review ten thousand years, but I have no identity beyond that which I can scrape together in any one incarnation. I am, in short, nothing but what you see before you, an old man who has wandered into the city from the past…

  “The years I have spent in that cavern burn me! The machines with their strange lights and their voices like dead leaves; the sour underground air; the Past rampant. I watched it all, on windows that formed out of the empty air at a word of command! Saw myself from many angles-a hand extended, a new robe, speaking to a crowd, watching my first awkward creation as it hawked above the waters. I watched the Afternoon, of which I shall not speak, with its madness. I learned: but I have still not learned who or what I am, and from vague clues must build up a fleeting image, a memory which slips away even as it forms. Worse, my present memory is becoming unequal to the years. I become uncertain of my own name. Soon I shall find it hard to remember why I owe you an explanation of all this, or of myself. The void reaches out.

  “Do not pity me, my lady. I have pity enough for myself.

  “Months passed. I learned. The machines cared for me. They passed their secrets on to me, willingly. During the long hopeless nights I sought an image of myself in the foxed mirror of the past, but by day I learned to interrogate the natural world. I became an inexpert ear cupped to that silence which has overcome the earth since the end of the Afternoon. Where once the air sang, now only thin electrical noises came from my instruments, like the cries of dead children. When Tomb the Dwarf disarmed the great brain in the Lesser Rust Desert, I overheard. Lights flickered in my cavern. All over the empire clusters of signals faded abruptly-the Chemosit going out like corpse candles. Later I followed his triumphant progress across the continent, Alstath Fulthor with him. From site to secret site they went, awakening the Reborn Men. For a while the aether was full of voices. Then, as the tragedy became apparent and the rebirth complexes shut themselves down one by one, silence fell again. It lasted until ten or eleven years ago when I picked up the first of the transmissions that have brought me here.

  “I could hear it only when the moon was in the sky. It came as a hollow whisper, filling the stony subestuarine chambers. It was a strange, unreliable, inhuman voice, speaking a dozen made-up languages. Had it not so obviously belonged to a man I might have taken it for the monologue of some stranded alien demiurge, leaking accidentally into the void between earth and her wan satellite. I cannot tell you how it excited me, that voice! Feverishly, I interrogated my machines. They knew nothing; they could not advise me. I answered it, on all wavelengths: nothing!

  “ Septemfasciata, it whispered, over and again: Guerre! Guerre! The machines remember every syllable. Dai e quita la merez… a hundred years in the cold side of the moon… the veiny wing… ‘the heaven whose circles narrowest run’… I saw the garden that lies behind the world. There the cisternsturn against the men… nomadacris septemfasciata… colonnes fleuries (douloureux paradis!), temps plus n’adore… Oh, the filmy wing! Cold ravages me… And then, dreadfully loud: Septemfasciata! The outer planets! Methven!

  “For a year I suffered this monologue, with its meaningless warnings, its references to a search for ‘the metaphysical nature of space,’ to madness and death between the stars. I tired of its chuckled obscenities and cabalistic circumlocutions, its mad prophecies. I despaired of making any sense of it, and began to believe that the moon had been infiltrated by some vast corrupt cosmic imbecile. Attempts to make contact were fruitless: there was never a break in the flow in which to admit of my existence. It ceased as suddenly as it had begun. I rushed to the machines-nothing but an empty hiss. For three days the cavern was silent and dark. The machines would not respond to me. It was as if the ending of the monologue had been a cue. I sensed that they were not so much dormant as fascinated; their attention was focused elsewhere. On the fourth day a purple mist sprang up, a pure and sourceless illumination; through this there danced excited rods and lampyrines of light, spinning, whirling, and interpenetrating in a mad quick ballet. I had never seen them so agitated. They spilled from the cavern and out into the surrounding corridors, whispering hysterically their single message.

  “Something had detached itself from the moon and was now making its way toward the earth.

  “I have never heard that demented lonely voice again. But every lunar month since then has seen a fresh launching, a new landing. I have watched them, my lady! They are like puffs of white smoke issuing from the moon’s bony grin; they are like clouds of pollen. They fall to earth here in the empire. I do not know exactly where. My instruments are confused, their findings incomplete and contradictory. They report interference, of a kind not encountered in ten thousand years of operation. But listen: yesterday I spoke with Alstath Fulthor the Reborn Man, in his house above the Artists’ Quarter. From him I learned that some unknown force is harrassing the Reborn communities in the Great Brown Waste. We have agreed-as he would tell you if he were here-that these events must be linked. And though my instruments cannot agree on its location or its origin, they report that a city is being built somewhere in the north and west of Viriconium.

  “My lady, it is not being built by men.”

  Cellur’s eye is like a bird’s, ironic and bright; his profile aquiline. It was different when we thought him human. His expression betrays so little now that we know he is not. Having delivered himself of his revelation, he drinks some wine and looks about him to gauge or enjoy its effect.

  The Queen sits with her calm hands in her lap. At her feet kneels Tomb the Dwarf, his mouth open and his knife forgotten in his hand; he is actually trying to remember something, but it will not come to him until a day or two later. Fay Glass, of the vanished House of Sleth, what is she trying to remember? It is immaterial. She sits singing to an imperturbable sculpture of steel and white light dug up long ago in the ruins of Glenluce, while Galen Hornwrack stands apart-wounds griping, expression cynical and amused. (It’s clear he has forgotten the events of the Bistro Californium, and thinks the old man mad.) Round them hover curtains of mercurial light, bright primary colours flecked for a moment-like flawed but vital ores- with the reflected uncertainties of the room.

  No one knows what to say.

  Viriconium, remarks Ansel Verdigris in his last ironic essay “Allies,” is a world trying to remember itself. The dumb stones perform an unending act of recall. This pervasive awareness of the past, recent or distant, informed the personality of all its rulers, not least that of Methvet Nian. Cellur had pricked old memories back to life. Her mood, when Galen Hornwrack was brought to her in the side chamber or salle she used as a library and sitting room, was already a nostalgic one. This affected her opinion of him, perhaps: although events, in the end, might be said to have borne her out.

  She knew little enough about him. Alstath Fulthor, returning whey-faced and muddy from some unexplained errand only an hour before, had outlined their dependence on him as a witness to the incident in the Low City. “The girl herself found him, by luck or instinct; she insisted that he come with us (though we’d have brought him anyway). I
t is hard to know why. He seems to have fought on her behalf-and thinks well of himself for it-but he will say nothing about the fate of the message she carried, and that is the important thing. His motives for refusing seem confused.”

  Of Hornwrack’s history he had been reluctant to say anything save, “A disaffected lordling from the midlands near Soubridge. After the war he seems to have wiped the clay off his boots and tried to drink himself to death in the Low City.” Nevertheless, when pressed, he admitted, “Hornwrack was the youngest son. His brothers fell with the rest of Waterbeck’s ploughboys in the Great Brown Waste. His mother and sisters were murdered later, when the Chemosit invested Soubridge. At the outset of the war he was an apprentice airboatman with the prospect of his own command, but he saw no service as such. Initially he was too young, later- with the destruction of its vessels-the whole corps was dismantled. This he appears to regret more than the deaths of his family. After the defeat of the North he seems to have failed as a farmer, and the family estate was forfeit to the Crown when debts made it unworkable. Now he lives by his knife in the Artists’ Quarter, retaining his title perhaps as an advertisement, more likely as an insult to the empire that bestowed it on his grandfather.

  “At the last count he had killed more than eighty men, in High and Low Cities. A dozen are presently trying to kill him.”

  I will at least understand his bitterness, she had thought.

  Now she looked up from a sheet of music as he came in. His demeanour was a sham, or so it seemed to her: he affected the braced instep of the professional dancer; his long grey hair he wore gathered in a steel clasp, in imitation of those doomed airboat captains who had flown their final sorties over the Great Brown Waste at the height of the war; his cloak was the crude meal-coloured garment of the hired bravo, tailored for swagger, its hem dyed with sardonic vulgarity to the exact shade of dried blood. How could he mean anything to her, this ageing assassin with bones as raw as a jeer? He filled the sitting room like a murder. His very existence was too much for her delicate little coralline ornaments and collection of antique musical instruments; he overpowered them at once. It cannot be said that she saw through the Low City and the failed lordling, through the trappings to the man beneath: there was, after all, hardly any of him left to see.

 

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