I opened my eyes. The blade was somewhat darker, if anything; its curve may have been a shade less pronounced.
Sfido was goggling at me, his mouth gaping. "You have your needier," I told him, "and these troopers of yours, slug guns. Surely you won't begrudge me a mere sword."
Pushing past him, I began to tap the mottled gray flagstones with the point, willing one to sound hollow. "Here," I said at the third, "lift it for me, please, Fava. Help her, Oreb."
Together they did, struggling with its weight until Sergeant Gorak stepped forward to add his much greater strength to theirs. At once the stink of rotting flesh seemed to fill the whole chamber. Steep stairs, narrow and treacherous with slime, descended from the opening. I told Fava, "You had better precede me. It may be dangerous down there, but it would be worse for you to remain up here alone."
She nodded, hesitated, and at length took the first step, shuddering.
"You too, Oreb. Take care of her."
"Bird go?" he croaked doubtfully. (His voice was exactly as it had always been, though he had come to seem a sort of clumsy, feathered dwarf, and I had seen undulant arms wrestling with the flagstone as well as his now-armlike wings.) "Bird save?"
"Yes," I told him firmly. "Bird save. Protect her as much as you can. Go on, Oreb."
Fava's head sank out of sight below the level of the floor. Oreb started forward, flinched in a way I found very human, then dove after her, spreading his stubby wings almost before they were clear of the rectangular opening.
"Good-bye," I told the mercenary troopers peering into it. "This is a hard road and a dangerous one, but in the end it may lead us home. You will be safe here, I believe, until you die."
"Rajan!" Twenty hands at least reached out to stop me.
Kupus pushed his men aside, aiming his needier at my head. "You are our prisoner."
"No." I stepped down. "There cannot be a prisoner of a prisoner, Captain. We are prisoners, you and I-the prisoners of the inhumi who rule this whorl. But I intend to escape them, if I can."
Fava's voice reached me, distant and hollow. "Incanto! There's a man down here!"
Thinking that she had come upon the blind man I remembered, I nodded and went down into the opening.
Querulously, a voice behind me ventured, "Rajan
Recognizing it as Sfido's, I turned. "Yes? What is it, Captain?"
"May I…? May we come with you?" He was crouching at the edge of the opening.
"No," I told him. "But they may go with you, to the place to which you go. You're their leader. You are Duko Rigoglio's representative, and their commanding officer."
Oreb sailed past, his tubby body and stubby wings suggesting an airship in miniature. "Man come!"
I stepped off the narrow stair, which disappeared as my foot left it.
It was Sfido again; I stopped and looked back up at him. "I thought I'd asked you not to call me that. I can tolerate it from the men I knew in Gaon; but when you use it, it puts us both in false positions."
"This hole." I watched him choke back the title he wished to give me. "It's getting smaller."
I waved, told him that I wished them all well, and left him.
A new voice called, "It's me, sir. Lieutenant Valico."
Darkness had closed about me with Sifido's last, despairing cry. Very much afraid of falling, I halted and opened my hand. The light the Neighbor had given me gleamed in a crease in my palm; as I focused my attention upon it, it grew stronger. I held it up and looked around me.
The sewer was a flattened oval, its thick obsidian walls cracked and near collapse. A trickle of water ran along its bottom some considerable distance below the narrow walkway on which I stood; a man's rotting corpse sprawled there, half in and half out of the dark water, a patient traveler waiting for a current strong enough to move him.
"Incanto!" It was Fava, the fact confirmed by Oreb, who sailed past me calling, "Girl say!"
Holding my light higher, I caught sight of her some distance down the sewer.
"He says we're all asleep!"
Valico himself called, "It's true, sir. I-I mean that's how it looked."
I nodded to myself. "Can you see the opening from where you are, Lieutenant?"
It was night in that case, I thought. Night, or we had far to go.
As I drew nearer, Fava said, "He was looking for us, Incanto. Inclito sent him. I mean, Papa did."
Valico nodded. "Are you really the general's brother, sir?"
"Why do you ask?"
"It's what a lot of people were saying when he came back and you stayed in his place, sir. They say you're his older brother, and you stayed behind with your father when him and his mother left Grandecitta, and you've come to Blanko to help him out."
I smiled, although I doubt that Valico saw it. "And what does General Inclito himself say?"
"Nothing, sir. Colonel Bello asked him point-blank, but he wouldn't talk about it."
"No doubt that's wise. Let us be wise, too, Lieutenant."
Fava said, "He can't understand how you brought him here. Neither can I, Incanto. How you do this?"
"We brought him," I told her. "Or at any rate I believe we did, that both of us are necessary for it to take place. I want to talk to you about that, and about the Vanished People, when we're alone. Meanwhile, you must remember what happened in Inclito's house, shortly before you left."
"I didn't understand that, either, or how you got into my story."
Overhead, Oreb called, "Thing come! Bad thing!"
"That will be an inhumu, I suppose," I told Valico. "You have a slug gun, I see. Be prepared to use it." I heard the jingle of the sling swivels and a faint click as he pushed off the safety. "I was wrong," I told him. "It's not an inhumu."
"That's good," Fava said; narrow though the walkway was, she was walking beside me and pressing herself against me, as children often do when they seek protection.
Valico ventured, "You'd better let me go first, sir."
"So that you can have a clear shot."
I shook my head. "Fava said you didn't understand how you came to be here. I'm not at all sure I do, either. Will you tell me? What occurred, from your perspective?"
He cleared his throat. "General Inclito sent us, sir. He told my men and me what happened when you and those two colonels went to try to make a bargain with the enemy, sir, and how they thought his daughter's friend was his daughter, and all that."
"In back!" Oreb had returned.
Far down the sewer, I caught sight of something faint that moved. At almost the same instant, Valico's slug gun boomed behind me; I whirled, nearly knocking Fava off, and was in time to see a long-fanged beast whose naked body was as wrinkled and repulsive as the white-headed one's neck fall from the walkway.
Before the echoes died away, Valico turned to face me, his gun still smoking. "I'll try to keep a better lookout behind, sir."
"And I, a better lookout ahead." The white thing I thought I had seen had vanished, if it ever existed.
"Bird find," Oreb announced proudly; I asked him to fly ahead and tell me what he found there.
"General Inclito said to get in as close as we could, sir," Valico continued, "and see how they were treating you, and to try to get you out if we could. We waited till about midnight before we started off, me and six men."
"You came as close as you dared. Then you yourself went forward alone. Isn't that how it was?"
"Yes, sir. They had sentries out, sir, just like you'd expect."
"But you slipped past them and got in among the sleepers?"
"Yes, sir." Valico paused. "The sentry I came closest to was asleep too, sir. That was the first thing that surprised me."
"What was the second?"
"Everybody was asleep, sir. Just like the sentry."
Oreb returned to report. "No see."
"When it's cold, sir, you've just about always got a few that can't sleep. And unless you make them, there's some that won't even try. But these mercenaries the general told us about were all asleep, and their fires died down to just about nothing, sir. Some just ashes and smoke."
"I understand. How did you find us, Lieutenant? They wouldn't allow us a fire, and there can't have been enough light for you to see our faces."
"I didn't, sir. I was just going from fire to fire," Valico paused to gulp, "and something smelled just… just so awful, sir. And the fires went out, it seemed like, but all of a sudden I was hot."
I nodded. "Fava, you know more about the inhumi than most of us. I hope you don't mind my saying that."
"It's all right."
"Good. Many people fear that the inhumi may begin to breed on Blue as well as Green. Quite some time ago, I theorized that they could not, that their eggs were hatched by the heat of the Short Sun, which is not sufficiently intense on Blue. Was I correct?"
"I think so."
I halted, conscious that something was lying in wait for us only a few steps farther on, whether Oreb could see it or not.
Pressing closer still, Fava asked, "Is that good enough? A good enough answer? I could just say you were right, if it would be better."
"Fava…?" My mind was racing. "What is it?"
"You saw me create this sword."
"Yes, but I still don't understand how you did it."
"Neither do I, but I may be getting closer than I was a minute or two ago. This is a real place, this sewer. I've actually been here. Have you?"
"Have I? You mean before this?" The light in my hand revealed the confusion in her face. "No… No, I couldn't forget this."
"Good. Remember the jungle? We went there from Inclito's. Did that seem familiar? I may well have been there myself, I mean there in that particular spot, but I can't say with any certainty."
"Yes, I was, once. I remembered the little pool."
"Better and better. These are real places. I was held a prisoner in that room up there, for example, and I recall it very vividly. You agree that they're real?"
She nodded. "I suppose so."
"So do I. You told me the Duko had wanted you to murder Inclito, but you refused, remember? Your refusal made me think about my adopted son, who had died in that jungle."
I glanced back to see whether Valico was close enough to overhear me, and lowered my voice. "Then you showed your fangs and we went; but it was to a place you remembered, not to the exact spot where he died-a real place, though we ourselves were not actually there, and no more real than my sword. You've been in the Duko's palace?"
She nodded again. "What are you getting at?"
"Mora told me once that you didn't believe in the Neighbors, in the Vanished People. When she said it, I thought that was simply foolish of you; I myself have seen the Vanished People and spoken to them, and even been saved by them. Later, when I'd had time to think about it, I realized that it wasn't nearly so foolish as it looked, that the Vanished People I'd seen and spoke to here and on Blue were no more physically present than you and I in that jungle on Green."
"Do you think they might help us now, Incanto?"
"I doubt it very much. For one thing, I no longer have the ring Seawrack gave me. Fortunately, I'm not at all sure we need them."
Again, I glanced behind me. "Your… Never mind. The inhumi preyed upon the Vanished People once. You must know it. That was one of the reasons that they left these whorls, and it may even have been the principal one. When the inhumi prey upon us, they are like us. I won't be more specific now, but you must know what I mean. What do you suppose the inhumi were like when they were preying upon the Vanished People?"
"I've wondered about that. It must have been marvelous. Miraculous… For them, I mean."
"I agree. Let us suppose that some small trace of that remained behind, passed from generation to generation in some fashion. Do you see what I'm getting at?"
"I think so."
I halted, waiting for Valico to catch up to us, then called to Oreb, who landed teetering at my feet.
"When we were lying under the thornbushes, Fava, I wanted desperately to be warm, and I must have thought of that room up there, one of the warmest places that I have ever been in. Do you understand me? I want to you to think now of the Duko's palace in Soldo – of his bedroom, if you've ever been there. He's probably in bed by now."
"I haven't." Looking up at me, Fava closed her eyes, her broad, smooth brow wrinkling with concentration.
My first impression was that nothing was happening, my second that the sewer had become larger, or perhaps that it had always been bigger than I thought.
"A window!" Valico pointed a trembling finger (I shall never forget this) toward the other side of the sewer. "Look! I can see the stars!"
"So can I," I told him. "Go over there, Lieutenant, and open it. I don't think you're going to get your feet wet." My voice cannot have been as joyful as I felt at that moment – no voice could be.
Gingerly, Valico tried to step off the slimy walkway; but there was no walkway. The slime had become wax, the filthy stone slabs beneath it a figured floor of gemwood and singing oak.
"Good place?" Oreb sounded doubtful.
"Perhaps not. But you may open your eyes, Fava. We're here."
She did, looked around her, then clutched my arm. "There are guards."
Valico threw up the sash of one large window in a long row of large windows. From outside the palace, I heard excited voices and the rattle of sling swivels, then the unmistakable snick-snack of the bolt of a slug gun opening and closing on a fresh cartridge.
"There's some sort of disturbance out there," I told Fava, "one that we almost certainly shouldn't become involved in."
Seeing an elaborate chair upon a dais at the other end of the room, I asked her whether this was where the Duko held court, and she nodded.
"Where does he sleep?"
She shook her head. "I have no idea."
"It will be on this floor, I feel sure."
While we had been speaking, Oreb had flown to the end of the room, circling behind the throne. "Bird find! Here door!"
He was correct, and the door unlocked. We discovered a reception hall, and a library with a very high ceiling and very few books, and eventually a door protected by a sentry who challenged us.
I stepped forward and offered him my sword (which he had no way to take, since he was holding his slug gun) hilt first. "We are from Blanko," I explained. "We have come at the request of the Duko to sue for peace."
"His Grandeur is sleeping!"
"I'm Fava," Fava said. "You must remember me, Marzo. Duko Rigoglio charged me strictly to report to him as soon as I got here, day or night."
There was a good deal more arguing, which would certainly have roused the Duko if he had in fact been asleep. Eventually the sentry went in to consult him, with me at his heels and Oreb sailing over both our heads to land upon the foot of the ducal bed.
"What is this!" The Duko was middle-aged and clean-shaven; for some reason I had expected a thick mustache.
"That man has a slung gun! Take it from him!"
I told Valico to give the sentry his slug gun, which he did, and added my sword, suggesting that he put them in some safe place from which he could return them when we left. The new sword I created for myself as soon as his back was turned had a straight blade like Pig's. It also had gold chasing, which looked very nice against its black steel.
"Who are you?"
Fava looked demure. "This is Incanto, Your Grandeur. Inclito's sorcerer? I've told you about him, and I thought you might want to talk to him."
"I do." The Duko had recovered from his surprise. His full, round face was without expression, and his eyes reminded me unpleasantly of a sacred serpent that I had at first believed a part of Echidna's image in Gaon.
I said, "And this is Lieutenant Valico, of the Horde of Blanko."
Duko Rigoglio ignored him. "You gave my guard your sword. Now you've got another one. I do not permit anyone weapons in my presence."
"Then you should have taken your guard's slug gun," I told him.
Fava said, "This isn't going to get any of us anywhere, Your Grandeur. It's just like locking me up for telling you the truth, can't you see that? You'll take Incanto's sword again, and he'll make another one, or something worse."
Oreb added, "Silk talk!"
"He means me," I explained to the Duko." 'Incanto' is a bit long for him, so he calls me Silk."
Duko Rigoglio said, "Your child companion, whose status here is that of an escaped criminal as I should warn you, has described your pet to me. She indicated something a good deal smaller, however. A more conventional bird."
I acknowledged that Oreb's present appearance puzzled me as well.
"He is fat. He looks as if he were about to burst."
"No cut!" Oreb retreated to a windowsill.
"Is he the source of your occult power, Incanto?" The Duko studied him. "He seems to have very little himself. I don't suppose I could persuade you open him with your sword?"
Employing the feathers at the tips of his wings as a boy would have used his fingers, Oreb unfastened the window catch and pushed out the swinging casement, admitting a gust of icy wind.
"Certainly not." I explained that Oreb had been intended as a sacrifice, but that Patera Silk has spared his life – if indeed this was the same Oreb.
The Duko's eyes glittered. "You failed repeatedly to honor the gods as is their right."
"You wakers on the Whorl. In Nessus the gods walked among us, lords and ladies of Urth, even unto Shining Pas."
"Scylla!" Oreb croaked angrily. "No god!" (Or perhaps it was "Know god!" I should ask him.) "Wet god!"
I said that if he meant that the gods and goddesses we had known in the Whorl were figures of clay, I quite agreed with him; and Fava wanted to know whether "Nessus" had been the same as the Short Sun Whorl.
"Nessus is our city," He fixed her with that glassy, unblinking gaze. "A city larger than the whorl on which it stands."
"He's mad," Fava told me matter-of-factly.
"No, never!" He sprang from his bed with agility surprising in so massive a man of middle age.
"My child! My child! Hear me."
Startled, Oreb fled through the window.
"Hear me." Duko Rigoglio crouched before Fava in his embroidered nightshirt, his big face intent. "A whorl, my child… A whorl, any whorl, is only flat. Don't you see that? So much land and so much water?" His hands molded a plain around them. "Here on Blue, I'm going to claim it all. In time, hmm? In time. But it's really not so much, now is it? Not so great an area. You must have…
"No, you, sir. The sorcerer. Incanto? That's your name?"
I said that he might call me Incanto or Horn, as he wished.
"But you were in the void, the emptiness between the stars, the mirror sphere? You looked down, down upon this Blue whorl, and you saw it all, didn't you? The seas, the continents and islands, just we looked down on Urth from the Loganstone. We saw land and Ocean, as we had seen green Lune in the night sky. And it was not so very big."
He turned back to Fava, taking her by the shoulder. "Also we beheld Nessus, the undying city. But we did not see Nessus. No one save Pas, whose true name was known to us all in those glorious days, could behold Nessus."
"We came hoping to make peace," she whispered.
"Exactly," the Duko whispered in return. "Precisely so. Listen now, while I explain. There were many buildings there, countless houses of one and two and three and even four stories, and countless towers of twenty and thirty and three hundred. Of three thousand. Do you grasp it? Why, no one ever succeeded in counting the towers in the Citadel alone. That's what they say, though I never tried, or met anyone who had, and the Citadel itself… I lived near it. Did I tell you?"
Fava shook her head.
"I did, near the river, south of the Necropolis, which was unfortunate because its infinite dead polluted the water after each rain, a sort of sticky black, like tar, that might float or sink. We used to say the women floated and the men sunk, but that was a joke. Only a sort of joke. I doubt that it was true at all."
Valico touched my arm and pointed to the open window, from which a clamor as of contending voices issued. I nodded and put a finger to my lips.
"But one could have walked all around the Citadel in three days, or four," the Duko was saying. "It was only a small area, really so small that people from distant parts of the city, of which there were many thousands, actually doubted that it existed at all. Then underneath all our buildings were cellars and sub-cellars, dungeons and caverns and tunnels without end. The wall around the city, which was taller than its tallest towers, was honeycombed with passages, chambers, gun rooms, barracks, shelters, galleries, armories, cells, chapels, retiring rooms, and compartments of a hundred other sorts. One has only to sum the areas of all these, and the damp mines under Gyoll. But no one could."
I said, "We had hoped, Your Grandeur, to reach some mutually satisfactory arrangement by which our Corpo, while acknowledging your supremacy, might retain some local control over strictly local matters.
That, coupled with your guarantee that property rights would be respected, might be the basis of a lasting peace advantageous to both parties."
The Duko laughed, rose, and walked over to lay a hand as clean and well groomed as any woman's on my arm. "Do you know the definition of peace, my friend?"
"Not the one you are about to quote, I'm sure."
Beyond the Duko, I saw Oreb flash past the windows-and heard him, too: "Here Silk! Silk here!"
"Peace, as you intend peace, is but the slice of cheese in a sandwich, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting. Your peace would endure only until Blanko felt strong enough to throw us off, probably when we were deeply committed elsewhere. No, my friend, Pas would agree to no such peace, and neither will I. Would your Blanko consent to surrender all its weapons, every big gun, every slug gun, every needier, every sword and every knife?"
I said that I did not know, but that I felt sure the Corpo would at least consider such a demand.
"Then I make it. I make it because after you have complied with it, I can do whatever I wish."
Soon there was a hubbub in the hallway outside, over which I heard the voice of the sentry, followed by four or five shots.
"It's time for us to leave," I told Fava urgently. "Think of the hillside, of the snow. Concentrate!"
She closed her eyes, and I would have closed mine as well; but the door burst open, admitting Oreb and a dozen wild-eyed troopers I did not at first recognize as Kupus's mercenaries. One leveled his slug gun at the Duko, and fired. The slug struck the slime-draped wall across the creeping stream of fetid filth into which about a third of the mercenaries had fallen, and ricocheted again and again, echoing and re-echoing up and down the sewer as it screamed through the reeking air.