Escape to Green
Once again I have let this account fall behind events. I am back in Blanko, and staying once more with my friends Atteno the stationer and his wife; he has let me refill this little ink bottle, and given me a great deal of paper-more, surely, than I will ever need. My task here is to raise enough money to pay our mercenaries, and I am finding it far from easy; but before I get into that, I should explain how we came to have them, although I can scarcely expect anyone who reads this to believe me.
They had no tent for Fava and me, the only tent in their whole encampment being the one Sfido had brought. The snow, which I had borne easily at first, became a sort of torture after sunset, wetting and chilling everyone. I huddled under some thornbushes with Fava; and although she may have gotten some warmth from me, I got none from her. For hours I lay there shivering while four troopers with slug guns stood guard over us, my freezing fingers grasping one another inside my robe; but eventually I fell asleep.
I was lying upon stone instead of stones, a level stone floor that felt blessedly cool although the steaming air I breathed might have come from a bathhouse. A man with a cloth around his head in the Gaonese fashion crouched beside me. He shook my shoulder, saying softly, "Rajan, Rajan."
I sat up, sensing somehow that the perspiring girl who lay at my side was a human being, although the light was so dim that I could only just make out the face of the man who had shaken my shoulder. "Yes, Chaku, I'm awake. What do you want with me?"
"Rajan, where are we?"
I had no idea; but I held my finger to my lips, fearing that he would wake Fava.
One of the troopers who had been set to guard us stepped over to stand next to Chaku. His name was Schreiner, and he asked "Have you done this to us?" in a voice that trembled with fear.
"Done what to you?" When I do not have the answer, I find it best to ask another question.
Chaku turned to him. "Am I dreaming?"
When Schreiner did not answer him, I asked, "Do you usually ask others whether you're dreaming in your dreams, Chaku?"
"Then I doubt that you're dreaming now," I told him.
The door was flung back by a burly human slave, and a small but handsome man in rich robes came in, followed by three naked muscular human slaves. Iron bands encircled their wrists, bands joined by heavy chains they swung like weapons. The robed master pointed to Chaku; sensing what was about to happen, I hurried over to stand before him with outspread arms.
The slaves hesitated; then the largest, a graying man with protruding ears and a lantern jaw, indicated Schreiner.
His master nodded.
Schreiner raised his slug gun, but it was knocked out of his hands before he could fire; a second blow from the big slave's chain followed like lightning, dashing Schreiner to the stone floor.
At once the robed master threw himself on top of him, and appeared to kiss his neck. His slave whispered, "You shaggy well better beat hoof, Patera."
Chaku fired as he spoke. The robed master's head seemed almost to explode, wetting my face with blood and brains flung hard enough to sting. From other parts of the huge room, others fired, slugs shrieking as they ricocheted from walls, ceiling, and floor. The slaves shouted and raised their hands, then snatched up their master's body and ran, slamming the iron door behind them.
Fava sat up screaming.
By then I had recognized the place. Overcome with wonder and awe, I muttered, "I am asleep and dreaming, and they are in my dream." Fortunately, Chaku did not overhear me.
The chamber that confined us was so dimly lit that I could scarcely make out its walls; but as well as I could judge, only Fava had changed at all. And even Fava had changed only subtly, for she had always seemed an apple-cheeked child just short of puberty, with long, light brown hair and a winning smile.
Thinking about this, and what had just occurred, and certain other things, I sat down upon the cool flagstones again, my right forefinger drawing circles on my cheek.
While I sat lost in thought, Schreiner, our guard, recovered consciousness; his head was bandaged with strips torn from his tunic, and then, because he seemed not to like my company, he was helped to his feet and led away. I saw these things, but they made little impression on me. The dream, I felt, must surely end soon, as our earlier dream of Green had when it was interrupted by the cook. The various difficulties that I had tried to think of some way of confronting as I lay beside Fava under the snow-covered thornbushes would be pressing again, and I struggled against them with little hope, while wondering whether I was not in fact freezing to death while I wiped the sweat from my face with the sleeve of my robe.
I wanted to prevent the mercenaries from murdering one another, and I could see no way to do it other than by bringing them all to Blanko's side, meanwhile stepping in to smooth such quarrels as I chanced to witness.
Very well, they had to be brought to Blanko's side-but it seemed out of the question until enough time had passed to show the falsity of the Duko's promises clearly-and by that time the war would more than likely have been lost. I reproached myself bitterly for pretending to agree when Inclito spoke of intercepting the mule-loads of silver the Duko had promised to send, since by nodding as I had, I had appeared to accept the idea that Duko Rigoglio had such a sum at his disposal and would pay it out. I had nodded so it would seem that Inclito and I were in agreement on all questions. Still it had been a mistake, and one I continue to regret.
(As I write, it strikes me that there is a chance, however slight, that Inclito was correct and I mistaken. The tenth is only three days distant. It would be well to send horsemen to intercept the silver, if it exists; but I have no horses here to speak of, and I feel sure Inclito will do it himself if he is not hotly engaged.)
How could Duko Rigoglio be persuaded to abandon his war? I had sent Fava with that hope, and had likewise written those letters to Olmo and Novella Citta, hoping that the messengers would be captured by the Soldese – all in order that Rigoglio, fearing that his allies were not as reliable as he had supposed, would cancel his invasion. Both my tricks had clearly failed, and as I sat on the stone floor of that sweltering room in which I could not possibly be again, I could devise no fresh scheme that seemed apt to succeed.
What was worse, Mora had made herself one of the messengers whose lives I had risked in the hope of securing peace. By this time she had presumably been captured and raped, I reflected, and was weeping in a dungeon much worse than this dream dungeon of mine.
Behind these lurked the greater problem: how could I make my way back to New Viron and you, Nettle, as I long to, without abandoning my friends here? All these problems plague me still, and none more than that.
Fava came to sit by me; and I, looking around at her and smiling, realized with a start that we had half the chamber to ourselves.
"I thought you might like some company." She returned my smile. "Somebody to talk to, even me."
"You think I'm your enemy." I shook my head. "I never was, Fava. While we were where we were, I could not be your friend; but I was never your enemy."
"That's what Mora said once."
"Mora was right. If we're going to be friends, tell me something now. Are you as young as you look?"
After a moment, she shook her head.
"I didn't think so. You're older, and very cunning-"
She laughed at that, and it was a girl's clear laughter.
"Too often, you let it show. Did you really try to free Inclito?"
She nodded. "He'd been nice to me. He let me live with his daughter in his house, and treated me almost as well as her. I'd hurt him and his mother, and if I could I wanted to make amends."
I smiled again, and tried not to let my smile become bitter. "Very few of us are that honorable."
"I'm not fooling you for a minute, am I?"
"To the contrary," I said. "I very much hoped that you were telling the truth."
"Well, I was. But I wanted to get even with Duko Rigoglio too. That message you gave me, I'll bet you thought I wouldn't deliver it."
"I hoped you would, and thought you very well might."
"I did. He had me arrested and was going to chop my head off for it."
I apologized and told her that I had not considered that he might react violently.
"You think I'm clever because you are. You think everybody against you must be clever too. If the Duko had been clever, he'd have wanted to keep me as a spy. I was counting on it, but everybody says he's more than half mad, and he got furiously angry when he thought I'd brought bad news."
I said that I would like to speak with him sometime.
"No you wouldn't." Fava sounded positive.
"So he was going to have you killed. I take it you escaped?"
She laughed again. "Did you think I couldn't? They put me in a little room with bars on the window, and as soon as they weren't looking, I went out between them. We can change our bodies a lot. You know that. I know you do, because you put it into my story that time."
I nodded. "I know you can lengthen your legs and widen your arms into wings."
"We can do lots of other things, too. Remember how Flosser tied my hands? I could have pulled them right out! Don't think I wasn't tempted to, either, just to see his face. We can even slip under doors if there's a big crack there. Want to see me make my neck long and open my hood? It's something we do here to make animals think we're bigger than we are."
I told her it was something that I would like very much to see, if she was confident that no one else would see it too.
"They're afraid even to look at you, and my hair will cover it. I'll only do it a little bit."
She turned to face me squarely, raised her head, and grinned. Nothing happened, and I told her, "We need not worry about their seeing that."
"Neither can you fly," I said. I was guessing, but I was quite certain my guess was correct. "You can run and jump now, however; and if there were horses here, you might even learn to ride like Mora."
She stared. "What's happened?"
"I have fallen asleep, that's all. You and I sit talking in my dream, and you are as I think of you."
She threw her arms around my neck and kissed me.
When I had freed myself again I said that Krait had told me once that his life was a nightmare in which he was trapped in the body of a blood-drinking reptile.
"That's it! That's it exactly!"
"I don't think so, but I am not your judge. What you must realize-what we both need to realize-is that this really is a nightmare, whether it is mine alone or ours. Your mind has joined my own to produce it. I thought of you as a girl often, though I knew what you really were. And you must think of yourself as a girl frequently as well. Thus in our shared nightmare you actually-"
She had leaped to her feet and raced away, her long hair streaming behind her like a banner. I watched her, recalling how Mamelta had run in the Hall of Sleepers, possessed by a girl locked in a small and stinking bedroom-a girl far too starved and sick to run even if she had been free.
A second more, and Fava had disappeared into the dim farther reaches of the chamber. Another, and she was returning. I had said that she could no longer fly, but she seemed to fly as she raced back to me.
"Some men-" She dropped breathless to the floor. "Are coming. They saw me kiss you. The Soldese-" She pointed.
I looked. "Captain Sfido and Captain Kupus, and another officer."
"Zepter." She gasped. "He doesn't like us."
Zepter was the burly officer with the blond mustache. I muttered that under the circumstances I could hardly blame him, but I am not sure Fava heard me.
Sfido called, "May we speak to you, Rajan?"
"You may speak with me, of course; but I would rather you didn't address me like that."
"What should we call you?" He was advancing hesitantly; even so, he was well in front of the other two.
"In Blanko, the people call me Incanto."
They halted, the three of them looking at one another. "Call him Dervis," Fava suggested impishly. "It's a good name, and I don't think he'll mind."
"We-" Kupus began, and started over. "The men…" He cleared his throat.
"Sit down," Fava told him. "He doesn't like your standing over him like that." (They were still half a dozen strides away.) "Neither do I. Papa's just the same, and I'm sure he hasn't forgotten all those times you made us sit on the cold ground and yelled down at us."
"No insult was intended," Sfido told her smoothly. "I let you sit as a gesture of respect."
"You made us sit because you were afraid he'd kick you again! He would've, too!"
I rose. "These brave troopers haven't come to quarrel with us, I'm sure."
All three nodded, Sfido vigorously.
Fava declared, "These brave troopers wouldn't have come at all if I hadn't shown them you didn't bite."
Kupus said, "We want to make a bargain. You'll have to trust us-"
"And you can. You came during a truce, and no one tried to harm you. You exchanged yourself for a prisoner we held legitimately. You proposed the exchange yourself."
"I came voluntarily too," Fava told him, "and Incanto wanted to exchange for Papa and me."
I motioned her to silence. "At that time, I didn't know you could escape whenever you wanted; thus it made no real difference whether you stayed behind with me or left with Inclito. Let's not argue about that. Captain Kupus, what is your bargain?"
Zepter interposed. "The men are saying you carried us here by magic. Did you?"
"No," I told him.
Fava stamped her foot, "Incanto…!"
"I didn't. Would you want me to lie?"
"You-" Her face was flushed with rage.
I spoke to Kupus. "Now that we have settled that point, what is your bargain?"
"Can you carry us back where we were?"
"To that barren hillside in the snow? I'm surprised you don't prefer this."
Angry as she was, Fava giggled.
"He was an inhumu, wasn't he? The man whose servant knocked down Schreiner."
"Do you know where we are?"
"I believe so," I said. "Do you, Captain? Tell me, what whorl is this?"
Kupus shook his head. "Are you saying we're actually on Green? I don't believe it, magic or not."
After a moment Zepter asked, "Do they really have human servants here? I didn't know."
"They have human servants on our whorl, too," I told him. "You're a mercenary, Captain?"
"Lieutenant." He drew himself up. "Yes. I enjoy that honor."
"You serve Duko Rigoglio for a silver card every-"
"Three," Kupus told me. "Two cards per month for a sergeant and three for a lieutenant."
Fava told him, "Four for you," and he nodded.
I asked Zepter, "How many would it take to persuade you to serve the inhumi?"
"You insist I'm a strego, a male witch; so let me turn those silver cards to gold. Three cards of gold every month, Lieutenant Zepter. Wouldn't that be sufficient?"
Sfido said, "It would. More than enough. Don't deny it, Zepter. I saw your face." He turned to me. "Do you really believe the inhumi may have human servants on-where we came from?"
I shrugged. "I encountered some once in a place called Pajarocu, and it should be obvious by now that they could have them here if they wanted them and had the gold-still better, real cards enough. Or even silver, I imagine."
Fava asked, "Are you applying for work, Dervis? How much? When we get back, I'll see if I can't raise it."
Zepter said angrily, "You're no inhuma, you dirty little sprat, and-"
"Mora! My name's Mora, and it's a better name than yours!" Fava lifted her gown above her knees and danced, comically at first but soon gracefully. "Look at these legs. They're an inhuma's legs, aren't they? Here." Stopping, she gathered her hair behind her as though she were about to tie it up, and pressed the whole hank into his hand. "It's a wig.
Pull hard, and it comes right off."
Rising, I laid my hand upon her shoulder.
"No teeth, see?" She grinned at him, displaying two rows of white and very even teeth. "That's because we don't chew. Just fangs to suck up your blood. Want to see them?" Held to her mouth, her forefingers assumed the role.
To me Kupus said, "We came to talk to you about a serious matter."
I nodded. "What is it?"
"We've already-" He paused and drew breath. "We would like to return to the barren hillside you reproach us with." He looked at Sfido and Zepter, and both nodded. "If you can do that-"
I shook my head, and Fava crowed in triumph.
"No," I said. "Not now, at least."
Sfido stepped nearer me. "Later you might be able to?"
"How?" Zepter asked.
"You are trying to bargain with me," I told them, "so you can scarcely blame me if I bargain with you."
Kupus nodded. "Go ahead. Let's hear it."
"If you will return my staff-my own property, taken from me for no good reason-and if all three of you will concede that we are in fact on Green, a whorl that to most of us has never been more than a colored disk of light in the sky, I will tell you how we may be able to return to Blue."
Sfido nodded. "One of the men may have it. I'll ask. For myself, if you assert we've actually been taken to Green I'll accept it. Do you, Rajan?" Seeing my face, he gulped and hurried away.
Kupus said slowly, "It's hot in here. Very warm."
"We inhumas love it," Fava announced.
He ignored her. "But we're in a room in a building, after all. I'm old enough to remember the Long Sun Whorl, Incanto. So are you, as anyone can see. I don't know how it was in your city, but ours had buildings that were kept warm by a big furnace in the cellar."
I nodded. "I think the Prolocutor's Palace in Viron may have been heated in that fashion, although the Calde's was not. The floors of the Prolocutor's Palace were always warm in cool weather."
Grunting, Kupus bent to touch the floor on which I had been sitting earlier, and I assured him that it was cool in comparison to the air of the room.
"Are you saying that it's this warm outside?" "No."
Zepter asked, "Then why are you insisting that we're on Green?"
"I'm not," I told him, "but I remember this room, and it was on Green. I think it more likely that we are there than that it has been carried to Blue. Don't you?"
Kupus began, "A duplicate-"
I sat down again.
Fava said, "It won't be as hot as this outside because it will be a lot hotter, that's what he means. This's the cellar. Can't you see that?"
"It looks like one," Kupus admitted grudgingly.
"It is. We're underground, and so it's cooler here. It should be very nice outside."
Zepter crouched to speak to me. "I'm sorry about your staff, Dervis. Captain Sfido ordered it, and he represents our patron. The rest of us were merely following orders."
Heavily and rather awkwardly, Kupus sat down beside me. "Do you need it to bring us back?"
I shook my head. "It won't help in that way-a slug gun might be more useful."
Zepter began, "Without Sfido's-" Kupus silenced him.
"I don't actually want one," I told them. "Or at least I don't think I do, and especially not on those terms. I haven't quite made up my mind about it. I was hoping you'd return my staff because I miss Oreb. He likes to perch on it."
Zepter raised his eyebrows. "Your bird?"
"Yes." I closed my eyes. "You chased him away, some of you back there. I think the staff might make it easier." I tried to visualize the staff and Oreb fluttering down to land with a thump upon its T-shaped handle, as he had so often during the past few days.
Fava said, "Here comes that Soldese officer again, but he hasn't got it."
"Once in a while," I whispered, "when I'm nearly awake…
At times Sfido had an oily, almost feminine way of speaking that reminded me of one of the augurs at our schola; in it he said, "I'm terribly sorry, but your staff doesn't seem to have come with us, Rajan. I talked to Private Gevaar. He was the one who actually took it from you. He told me where he put it, but it doesn't seem to have been taken when we were."
I was thinking of the sun on Oreb's black wings, of Oreb as he had looked when he flew up in alarm from Scylla's shrine of twisting pillars on the cliffs above Lake Limna, and did not reply.
Fava asked someone, "Where did he put it?" and Patera Grig replied, "What difference does that make?"
A rougher voice with an undertone of cruelty in it: "Is he asleep?"
"No," the girl told him.
"Yes," I said; but I was not sure they heard me – Oreb fluttering up and away over blue water, a hint of blue upon one black wing. For a moment (if only for a moment) he seemed more real to me, the sable-and-scarlet bird flying beneath the slim golden bar of the Long Sun, than the hideous prison-room on Green in which I sat, or the snowy thornbushes under which I huddled with Fava. I may have heard the creaking of the hinges; now that all that horror is over and we have returned to Blue, I cannot be sure.
Certainly I heard the girl Fava's shout of surprise, and Kupus's incredulous "Gods doom!"
Then- "Bird back!"
I opened my eyes. Oreb was about the size of a child of four, with wings that seemed almost feathered arms; but he cocked his head at me as he always has, regarding me through one jet-black eye. "Good bird?"
"Good bird, Oreb. I'm very glad to see you."
"He frequently calls me Silk," I explained to Kupus. "I believe it must have been the name of his former master, the man I set out to bring to my town of New Viron, but failed to bring. Silk is an aspect of Pas now."
Fava began, "He looks so different-"
"So do you," I told her.
Zepter asked, "Is that another inhumi?"
"I'm sure it isn't. Come over here, Oreb. You're too big to perch on my staff at present, I'm afraid. You'll have to walk for yourself, or fly. Can you still fly?"
"I doubt it, but we'll soon see."
Nodding, I stood up. "Certainly we'll need food if we're going to stay here indefinitely, and I doubt very much that the inhumi will feed us."
Fava rubbed her hands. "I'd like to eat right now. A small salad with some of that thick white dressing that Decina makes from eggs and olive oil, and maybe a slice of roast beef and some bread and butter." All that she was, was in her smile-the girl and the artful intelligence behind the girl's, and the torpid inhuma (dressed as dolls of painted wood are) who froze with me beneath leafless branches covered with snow through which there protruded, here and there, needle-sharp points of black.
"Girl thing?" Oreb was clearly puzzled.
"I would take that, too," I told Fava. "But if you're expecting me to conjure it out of the air for you, you'll be disappointed."
"Oh, no. I just wondered what you thought about the roast beef. Not terribly large and not too rare, if you please."
Zepter nodded, the nod of a man who takes food seriously. "I'm with you on that last one, Mora."
"I hope you'll be with her on a good may other things as well," I told him. "She supports Blanko and Inclito-"
"Papa? I certainly do!"
"To begin with. You oppose both, Lieutenant Zepter-or at least you have been opposing them up until now. Sfido, I don't think it's wise for you to let your hand stray to your needier like that."
The burly lieutenant turned on him with a low growl that might have come from the throat of a large and suspicious dog.
"Your own loyalty to Duko Rigoglio does you credit," I told Sfido, "but you cannot keep these troopers loyal to him by force."
I spoke to Kupus. "When we had our meeting yesterday, Captain, there were four of your officers present. Lieutenant Zepter is here with us, which leaves three unaccounted for." I indicated the other side of the room by a gesture. "Are they over there?"
"Then call them. No, call everyone."
Kupus raised his left arm, moving his hand in circles. "On me!"
"We will reconvene that meeting," I told Sfido. "Has it occurred to you yet that this girl and I, and all the mercenaries of Captain Kupus's company might go back to Blue in some fashion, leaving you here?"
He stared at me without speaking, and at last shook his head.
"It will. You have seen nothing of Green yet, Captain. Nothing beyond this room. When you have slept in her swamps and jungles, and seen the City of the Inhumi, it will occur to you at every breath."
"I will not betray Soldo," Sfido declared.
"I would not ask you to," I told him.
Oreb sprang into the air, his clumsy wings flailing. "Men come!"
I waved to them. "Lieutenant Karabin? I don't know the names of your brother officers. Perhaps you could introduce them."
Kupus said, "I should have myself. Go ahead, Karabin."
"Yes, sir." Like Zepter he had a bristling mustache, but he was tall and rather slender, and his was black. "You and I haven't met formally yet, Rajan." He offered his hand, and I shook it.
"This is Lieutenant Warren, and this is Lieutenant Wight. They're from the same town. We don't have two officers from the same town very often."
I shook hands with both. "May I ask without offense how a mercenary becomes an officer?"
Wight said, "We're elected by our men, Rajan. We formed my platoon, and then we elected sergeants and a lieutenant."
"You?" Fava asked, and he nodded.
Kupus said, "We elected me captain once the lieutenants had been decided on. After that, the First Platoon had to elect one of the sergeants lieutenant, and choose a new sergeant."
By the time he had finished speaking, the men were all gathered around us, which had been my chief purpose in asking the question. Most were staring at Oreb, and I waited a moment more for them to assuage their curiosity, smiling and nodding to every man who wore a headcloth.
"Watch out!" Oreb muttered, and I nodded. What I planned to do, or at least planned to try to do, was fully as chancy as letting my legs hang over the prow of the Trivigaunti airship; but I needed to understand the extent of my powers in what I still thought of then as a nightmare that I shared with Fava, and this would delineate them as nothing else could have.
"Troopers," I began, "you deserve to know why I'm doing what I'm going to do, and what I expect from you. I'm going to explain all that, and it won't take long. To start with, we're on Green, the green whorl that you've seen in the sky since you were children. Green is the breeder of storms and the breeding grounds of the inhumi."
There was a rattle of excited talk.
"Some of you may doubt that we're really here. I won't argue the point-you'll be convinced soon enough. A minute ago, I was about to explain to your officers how I thought we could get back to our own whorl. I said I'd do it, if they'd give me back my staff. I'll make you the same offer: give my staff back, and I'll explain how we may-I said may-be able to get back home."
I stood silently then, concentrating, and let them talk. After some minutes, Gorak approached me. "We haven't got it, Rajan."
"Do you still consider yourselves troopers in the Duko of Soldo's horde, Sergeant?"
"If you're asking me personally, Rajan-"
"I'm asking about the whole company," I told him firmly. "Do you?"
At my elbow, Kupus said, "Yes."
His tone had been at least as firm as mine. After looking for a moment into that hard-featured, somewhat fleshy face, I shrugged and raised my voice. "In that case, I'm going to tell you nothing more, and leave you here." Closing my eyes, I extended my hands before me, and thought with all my might of the sword the Neighbor had revealed to me. I do not mean that I described it to myself in so many words, saying that the blade was black and keen, and all the rest. Instead, I recalled its weight in my hand, and the bitter edge that had killed so many inhumi and severed the head of the spitting horror.
I heard the hiss of a hundred indrawn breaths, and a little gasp from Fava. To me, I thought, to me! I extended my right hand as I had offered it to the lieutenants. And something hard, cold, and hauntingly familiar grasped it from within.