Authors: Eric Van Lustbader
‘The marks on Borros’s head.’
‘Ah, yes. The Dehn spots. That could have been it, you see. And all the more reason for me to find out what Freidal is planning as quickly as possible. Few people know of the Dehn. It is a machine of the Ancients. Like so many of the mysterious artefacts that keep us alive here—provide us with air and heat and light, more than three kilometres below the surface of the planet—we know only what it does; the
is beyond us.’ His voice took on a bitter edge. ‘Yet we have knowledge enough to use it. Wires are attached to the head—at the places where you saw the spots—and shocks are delivered to the brain by the same method by which our Overheads function. Do you remember the Neer who opened one up some time ago and touched the wrong wire? He was black when they found him, and he stank. They had a lot of trouble identifying him became his plate had melted.’ He sipped his wine and sat down again.
‘In any event, the Dehn is very painful, so I am told. Consequently it can be quite reliable in obtaining information from recalcitrants. But there is trouble in controlling it; what can you expect when you are in the dark.’ He paused for a moment, lost in thought. ‘What
Freidal up to?’
Ronin felt something stir within him. He rose. ‘Let me understand this. Are you saying that the Saardin of Security has interfered in the work of a Magic Man, has—what, tortured him, to gain information that he will use for himself?’
Nirren stabbed a finger in the air and his eyes sparkled. ‘Precisely, my friend. I see there is hope for you yet. The time of battle draws nigh, and when it comes Freidal and Jargiss shall be on opposing sides. We are enemies, he and I.’ He grasped Ronin by the shoulders. ‘Listen, my friend, the time for neutrality has passed. All shall be affected by the struggle. You must help us. Ask Stahlig to talk to Borros while there is still time. It is the only way, I cannot get at Freidal quickly. And if we gain knowledge of his secret, it will give us much strength.’
‘Perhaps Freidal has learned nothing.’
‘I cannot afford to think that way.’
Ronin looked at him. ‘You do not care what they have done to him. I do not even know whether he will be able to talk coherently after what they have subjected him to.’
There was a warmth in Nirren’s eyes. ‘Be realistic, my friend. I am talking about something that is larger than any one individual. We are all merely pieces. The Freehold is disintegrating before our eyes because of dissension among the Saardin. You are unaffiliated, so perhaps you are not so aware of it, but believe me when I tell you that much work must be done if we are to survive. But right now, no decisions are being made on behalf of the Freehold. You see? They are all too busy scheming to consolidate their power. This will cause our destruction.’
‘Perhaps it will be your battle which causes our destruction,’ said Ronin.
Nirren dropped his arms and made a face. ‘I will not argue with you. I debate with our people at every Spell. I do not come to you for this.’
He grinned suddenly and gulped down the remainder of his wine. ‘Think on what I have said. I will say nothing further on the subject. I have sufficient trust in you. Agreed?’
Ronin smiled and shook his head. He thought: When he grins, his enthusiasm is hard to ignore. He made a mock bow. ‘As you wish.’
Nirren laughed and rose. ‘Good. Then I will be off. I barely have enough time to change. Until Sehna, then.’
Alone in his quarters, Ronin picked up his untouched wine and sipped it. It was cool and deliriously tart. It could have been brackish water for all he tasted it.
Sehna. The evening meal. A sacred time. So many traditions, Ronin thought as he entered the Great Hall. And how many generations preceded us, lying now in dust, remembered by the traditions they handed down and nothing else.
The heat and noise hit him simultaneously, a vast kinetic wave, startling and bright. Continuous random motion. The Great Hall stretched away, its farthest reaches obscured by a haze of fragrant steam and smoke and heat. Long tables with low-backed benches filled with men and women proliferated in precise rows into the distance. Momentarily his hand strayed to his hip. It felt light and strange without the weight of his sword, but weapons of any kind were forbidden at board.
He moved to the right, then turned and strode down one of the narrow aisles. He wore soft cream-coloured leggings and shirt; no Saardin used that colour. Servers made room for him to pass, lifting huge trays laden with steaming food or tankards of thick ale, flagons of sweet, amber wine. He smelled the mingled aromas of foodstuffs, light perfumes, and thick sweat.
He came at length to his table and took his accustomed place between Nirren and K’reen. She was deep in conversation with a Bladesman next to her, so that he saw only the dark and shining helmet of her hair. He smelled her perfume. Across the table, Telmis lifted a goblet in silent greeting, and next to him G’fand, a very young, blond man, was busy directing a Server.
‘Well, how is our Scholar this Spell?’ Ronin asked him.
G’fand turned and his blue eyes dropped under Ronin’s gaze. ‘The same, I expect,’ he said softly.
Nirren laughed. ‘Now what could be the trouble this Cycle—lost one of your ancient manuscripts?’ He laughed again and colour rushed into G’fand’s face. By this time K’reen had turned towards them, and, seeing the young man’s discomfort, she reached out and covered his hand with hers. ‘Pay them no heed, they enjoy teasing you. They think swordsmanship is the most important skill in the Freehold.’
‘You have evidence to the contrary, my lady?’ Nirren said formally, and grinned. ‘If so, I should like to hear it.’
‘Quiet, you,’ she admonished.
G’fand said rather stiffly, as if no one would hear him: ‘It is all right. I expect it from him.’
‘And not from me?’ Ronin leaned back as a Server filled his plate. He indicated that he wanted wine, not ale.
G’fand said nothing, his eyes still averted.
Ronin began to eat, his mind far away. ‘I shall endeavour, in the future, not to tease you.’
At that moment Tomand and Bessat arrived. They were seated amid a great uproar from the table, partly because it amused them to make a fuss over Tomand’s corpulence, partly because they felt they must ease the tension. Sehna was a time for relaxation, no matter what else was happening throughout the Freehold.
Slowly the table settled down and the food was served. Noise increased and the heat became oppressive. ‘Chill take me,’ Nirren said, ‘why is it so hot in here?’
Tomand stopped eating momentarily and, wiping his heavy, sweating jowls, gestured for him to lean forward. ‘Just between us,’ he glanced from Nirren to Ronin, ‘we are having problems with the ventilation system.’ He took another forkful of food. ‘In fact, that is why we were late to Sehna. We were working until the last moment, trying to figure out the cursed thing.’
‘With very little success, I notice,’ said Nirren.
Tomand grimaced. ‘It is simply impossible. We have lost too much knowledge.’ He chewed, then continued. ‘The most we can do is to try to clean up the mess. I mean how are we supposed to fix something if we don’t know how it works? So little of what the Ancients wrote has survived. Only their Machines—’
‘No,’ interrupted G’fand, ‘we could not destroy their Machines without destroying ourselves.’
Tomand paused with a forkful of food halfway to his greasy lips. ‘What are you saying?’
‘That the writings of the Ancients were deliberately destroyed in the early days of the Freehold.’
Tomand shoved the fork into his mouth, and said around the food: ‘What nonsense. Who would wilfully destroy knowledge? Certainly not civilized folk.’
G’fand said carefully: ‘The Ancients invented many things. A number of them were quite lethal. And they were inveterate graphologers. It appears that our forefathers had little faith in those who would come after them. In any event, they took no chances. They destroyed the written wisdom of the Ancients. Destroyed it indiscriminately, so that I, a Scholar, cannot learn their history, and you, a Neer, cannot understand the workings of the Air Machines, and the Saardin cannot learn how to destroy each other and the Freehold.’
Tomand wiped his mouth.
Nirren said: ‘How came you by this?’
‘A fanciful story, that is all it is,’ sniffed Tomand. ‘A speech to impress us. Everyone knows—’
‘What the Frost do you know anyway?’ G’fand flared. ‘You cannot even perform your job!’
Tomand choked and began to cough. Bessat looked over in alarm as Telmiss thumped him on the back until the coughing subsided somewhat. His face was red and his eyes were tearing. ‘How—dare you!’ was all he could manage to get out.
G’fand was rigid. ‘You fat slug! All you do is eat. You serve no useful function. All you Neers are alike, ineffectual and—’
‘Enough!’ Ronin said sharply. ‘I think you owe Tomand an apology.’ He knew it was the wrong approach as soon as he said it.
G’fand turned on him, eyes blazing. ‘Who are you to tell me anything!’ His voice had risen, overtones of rage and hysteria combining. Cords stood out along his neck. He rose, his arms tense columns, fists tight clumps pressed whitely against the tabletop. ‘It is you who owe us an apology. You don’t care a bit about us’—his arm swung in a tight arc—‘
of us. Your training keeps you above all that.’ He was spitting the words out, and Ronin could tell without looking that heads at adjoining tables were beginning to turn in their direction. But the myriad minute motions of the Great Hall had faded like a painting exposed to the rays of the sun. The hundreds of conversations and separate lives had ceased to exist.
‘G’fand—’ K’reen began, but he swept on without even noticing.
‘You’re special because the Salamander took you and trained you. For what? To sit here with the likes of us, without the affiliation of a Saardin? He must be sorely disappointed in you!’
Ronin sat impassively, and allowed it to flow past him. Even so, he was abruptly thinking of K’reen, her white skin. And then he saw quite clearly the face of a man strapped to a bed, two smudgy triangles high on his temples. He could hear screaming, a terrible pain-filled noise.
Consequently he did not move fast enough to completely avoid G’fand’s mad lunge across the table. Plates and goblets burst apart, sending their contents showering in all directions as they tumbled over backward into the narrow aisle. Servers scattered and people along the adjacent row were sent reeling into their own tables.
G’fand tried to yell but all that came out were grunts as he pummelled the body beneath him. For his part, Ronin was of two minds, as he defended himself. He did not want to hurt the Scholar but neither did he wish to prolong the scuffle and thus risk the intervention of Security daggam. Then, as G’fand shifted, a knee caught him in the side and he felt the lattice of pain lance up into his shoulder. The breath went out of him and he thought, Should have had Stahlig bandage the thing. And the instinct of his training took over. He lashed out with his free hand, slamming his fist into G’fand just below his ear. The Scholar’s eyes bulged and his head danced like that of a puppet. Ronin took a breath and, in that instant, felt a searing pain. He twisted his head, saw the hilt of a small dagger protruding from his shoulder, tore it out, cursing, heard dimly the clatter as he dropped it, balled his hand, and swung into G’fand’s midriff at the low point of the sternum. He had a momentary glimpse of the other’s eyes, open wide, terror burning in them like an uncontrollable fire, before he doubled over. Ronin felt the spurt of adrenalin and he became aware that his fist was raised again. Then he was in control, panting, sweat stinging his eyes, hearing the strange sound of G’fand vomiting on to the floor. He touched him on his bowed back. With that came an understanding of what he had done, and what he had almost done. Then he swung about, searching for the dagger.
Nirren was beside him. ‘I had better see about poor G’fand,’ he said softly. Ronin nodded. He put his palm up to his shoulder because it was still numb and he would not feel the pain for a while, but he wanted to stop the blood.
Then he felt K’reen behind him, and she knelt and he saw her face. Wisps of hair had come undone so that she looked as if she had been standing in a high wind. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, her lips parted. Down deep in the awful stillness at the core of his being, he felt an inexplicable movement, as if he were a stringed instrument and something he could not see had plucked a thawed chord. He shivered involuntarily and K’reen, misunderstanding, put an arm across his shoulders. He shrugged it off, and she crouched like that, very quickly, so that only he could see, bent her head, flash of pink tongue, and licked at the crack between two of his fingers at the oozing stripe of blood. He stood up then, but not before he had seen her eyes shining.
‘Clear away! Clear away!’ called a commanding voice. The gaping crowd parted reluctantly and Ronin saw two daggam push their way towards him. Someone at the fringe of the crowd must have summoned them. He cursed silently and wished he knew where G’fand’s dagger was. They came up to him. If they found it—
‘What caused the disruption?’ The one who was not talking stood with his hands free. There was some space around him. Neither of them bothered to look at G’fand as Nirren helped him to his feet.
Ronin took a deep breath, let it go slowly. ‘Nothing at all,’ he said calmly. ‘Just a slight misunderstanding.’
The daggam grunted. ‘Huh! Awful lotta people staring at a “slight misunderstanding”.’
‘You know how people are.’
‘Yeh, sure. Listen, you Bladesmen know better than to disrupt the Sehna. You got a problem, go work it out at the Hall of Combat, not here. Get me?’
Ronin nodded. ‘Sure.’
The other one had not moved at all. He stood watching Ronin. His eyes looked opaque, as if they had been painted on. ‘Names,’ said the one who talked, and Ronin gave them while he wrote. Then he took down Ronin’s account of the argument.
‘What happened to your shoulder?’ asked the other one, and the first one looked up.
‘I was getting to that,’ he said with some annoyance.