The Red Sun
I tried to sleep after writing those words about sleep, telling myself that it was an appropriate place to do so, and that I could push this account ahead a bit more in the morning. With everyone gone, the house is so quiet! Its silence should lend itself to sleep, but it does not; I am apprehensive, and grateful for the least sound from Oreb, for the small noises Jahlee and Cuoio make.
I want very much to describe the Red Sun Whorl in such a way that you can see it, Nettle-to do it so well that whoever reads this can. Have I made you see Green's jungles? The swamps and their dire inhabitants? The immense trees and the lianas clinging to them like brides? Or the City of the Inhumi, a grove of disintegrating towers like a noble face rotting in the grave?
No, I have given only scattered hints in spite of all my efforts.
What will be the use of trying, in that case?
We stood in an empty street, Nettle. Empty, I say, although it knew a certain traffic of broken stones, which fell from the crumbling houses lining it, rolled into the street, and lay where they had ceased to roll, attended by a guard of rank weeds.
"Look." Mora pointed.
I looked up and saw a shining crimson disk, so large a sun that when I stretched forth my arm, my hand could not cover it all. Stars gleamed all around it, and I felt that the Outsider was trying to convey some message to me by it and them, that this great ember of sun I saw had tumbled from a ruin as the stones had, and that the stars I saw by day here had sprung up around it like the weeds. But I cannot depict the vast city of ruins for you. If I were an artist, I might draw it here, a sketch in my friend the stationer's good black ink upon his thin gray paper. Imagine that I have, and and tell me what would you see in it? What could you? A few hundred ruinous houses, a few hundred dots in a gray sky that is in fact a dreaming purple, and the black sun (for it would have to be black in such a drawing) overlooking everything and seeing nothing.
To understand, you must visualize its sky and hold the vision above you. Not my words. Not my words. Not the smears of ink upon this paper. The sky, a sky purple or blue-black rather than blue, a sky whose skylands were always as visible as those at home, though vastly more remote and colder. It was warm there in the deserted, ruined street; but the dark sky made it seem cold, and I felt sure that it would be cold soon, would turn cold, in fact, before the actual setting of the crimson sun.
"How did we get here?" Hide demanded.
And Mora, "Where are we, Incanto?"
I shook my head and kept my silence.
Inclito's coachman snapped, "Don't do that!" and I turned to see to whom he was speaking. It was to Jahlee, and she was taking off her clothing. "Look!" she exclaimed. "Look at me!" The last worn garment dropped around her feet. She pirouetted, displaying hemispherical breasts, a slender waist, and narrow hips.
Mora muttered, "Is there some madness here?"
"Yes." It was Duko Rigoglio. As he spoke, he fell upon his knees before me. "Free my hands. That's all I ask, free my hands, please, as you love the Increate."
It was a new term to me. I could only peer into his eyes and try to guess what he meant by it.
"I'm a proud man. You know that. I'm begging now. Have I begged you for my life?"
"Your Grandeur-" Morello began.
"I'm begging, Incanto. This is more than life to me. Whoever you are, whatever you are, have pity on me!"
I motioned to Hide. "Cut his bonds."
Sfido exclaimed, "No!"
"Are you afraid he may escape, and remain here?" I asked him. Without waiting for an answer, I told Hide, "Free him, and the others, too. For their sake, I hope they do."
Hide tore his eyes from Jahlee, drew a knife smaller than Sinew's, and cut the cords that had held Rigoglio's hands behind him; Rigoglio rubbed his wrists, muttering thanks.
"You know this street," I told him. "You recognized it at once. You're a proud man, just as you say-too proud to enjoy feeling gratitude for anything. Share your knowledge with me, and I will acknowledge that you have settled any debt."
"I can't be sure," he said, and stared about him with wide eyes. After a moment, a trickle of blood ran from his mouth, so that I wondered if it were possible that he was an inhumu, and had deceived me; but he had merely bitten his lip.
"It's so quiet here," Mora said. Her hand was on the hilt of her sword.
Eco had a needier, and was studying each empty, staring window in turn. I told him, "I believe you're right, someone is watching us," and he nodded without speaking.
Jahlee ran long-fingered hands down her slender body. "This is your doing, Raj an, it has to be. Do you like it? I do!"
I shook my head. "You must praise-or blame – Duko Rigoglio. There is a city somewhat like this on Green, but we are not on Green; these houses would be the towers of the Neighbor lords there. Where are we, Your Grandeur?"
"We've come home… To Nessus."
Mora said, "You can't have lived here. Nobody alive now can. Just look at them."
He started to speak, but stopped.
"Big place!" Oreb dropped onto a pile of rubble, looking as he had on Green-a dwarfish man in feathers. Until that moment I had not been aware that he had come with us, far less that he had left us to scout.
"You asked us to free your hands," I told Rigoglio. "They are free. What do you intend to do with them?"
He indicated the house before which we stood. "I would like to search it. May I?"
"For weapons?" Sfido inquired. "I doubt that you'll find a stick."
"For something…" Rigoglio turned to me. "They forced me to board the Whorl and put me to sleep. I told you."
"Poor man!" Oreb studied him through one bright, black eye.
"If I could find something more, something I recognized…
I asked whether he did not recognize the house.
He pointed to the roof. "There were arches up there, and statues under the arches… I-I'm sure of it. They…" He wandered toward the house, bent, and rooted in the rubble banked against its wall.
"I was trapped in a pit in a ruined city of the Vanished People once," I remarked to Mora. "Have I ever told you about that?"
She shook her head.
"I've been thinking about it, and about the City of the Inhumi on Green. Those were ruins left by the Neighbors' ancient race; these were left by ours, I believe-we are as ancient as they, or nearly. How long have these been empty, do you think?"
She shrugged. Eco said, "A hundred years, perhaps."
"Longer than that, I believe."
I went over to watch Rigoglio, and in a moment more found Jahlee clinging to me like the lianas, her body warm and damp with perspiration (as those of inhumi never are), and fragrant with some heavy, cloying scent. Long sorrel hair that proceeded from no wig draped us both like the vines of Silk's arbor.
When I tried to free myself from her, she grinned at me. "I've got teeth here. Real teeth, Rajan. Adieu to my famous tight-lipped smile! Look what I can do now." She grinned again, more broadly than ever.
I suggested that she do it to someone else.
"Your son? He was flirting with me before we came into your bedroom. He isn't very good at it yet-"
Rigoglio straightened up, holding up a broken stone hand about half the size of mine. "Statues," he said. "Up there, underneath the arches. I told you."
"So you did. Statues of whom?"
"I don't-the eponyms."
"And who are they?"
He shook his head. "May I search the house?"
I nodded, then hurried after him. Seeing me run, Sfido shouted, "Stop him!" But I was not afraid that Rigoglio would escape, and in fact I would have welcomed it if it could have been arranged without my culpability. As soon as he left me, I knew that he was going into danger.
Nor was I wrong. Ducking under the lintel, I heard him fall, and his muffled cry. In what must once have been the solaria, he was struggling with a skeletal, nearly naked assailant. I saw the dull gleam of steel and snatched at the filthy wrist as the knife came up.
My fingertips only brushed it.
Rigoglio's gasp as the knife went home was followed at once by the boom of a slug gun, close and deafeningly loud. The skeletal attacker stiffened and shrieked, empty hands raised before his filthy, bearded face.
"Don't shoot him," I told Hide, and was seconded at once by Oreb, who was flying in tight circles above our heads: "No shoot! No shoot! No shoot!"
Looking up at him, I thought for a moment that it was a painted ceiling I saw beyond him; but it was the sky, a clear, star-spotted sky so dark that it seemed practically black; the roof and upper floor of the house had fallen in, leaving only its walls standing.
"I missed him?" Hide sounded disgusted with himself.
"Don'. Don'." Hesitantly, Rigoglio's attacker was getting his feet.
"Man run," Oreb warned us.
"You're right," I told him. "He will run, and Hide will shoot and kill him, and we will have lost him." I caught him by the arm as I spoke.
We tied his hands behind him with what remained of the cords that had bound Rigoglio, Morello, and Terzo, and contrived a hobble for his ankles that allowed him to take small steps. He seemed to have lost the power of speech almost entirely-it is no exaggeration to say that Oreb could talk better-and was so clearly mad that I was very happy indeed that Hide had not killed him. I had seen the tunnel gods that Urus and his fellow convicts had called bufes, and had killed several of them before Mamelta and I were apprehended; this new prisoner of ours recalled them so vividly that when I was not looking directly at him, or was preoccupied with my own thoughts, it seemed to me that we were accompanied by one, starved, vicious, and desperate.
Rigoglio was badly wounded, as we found when we had ripped his shirt away. We bandaged him as well as we could with strips torn from it, and I promised that we would let Morello and Terzo carry him as soon as we found materials from which to contrive a stretcher.
He managed to smile as he struggled to his feet. "I can walk, Master Incanto. For a while anyway."
"Leave him here with the boy to guard him," Morello suggested, "while the rest of us look for help."
Mora sheathed her sword. "What if we don't find any?"
"There are more of them here," I told her. "More who are watching us, and listening as we speak. I feel their eyes, as your husband did earlier."
Sfido nudged Eco and whispered, "Having a nice honeymoon?"
Overhearing him Mora said, "It's had its good and bad, but I've got to admit this is the low point so far."
"For which Jahlee, the Duko, and I are all to blame," I told her. "I was about to say that if we were to leave Rigoglio and Cuoio here, they would be attacked-probably as soon as we were well away, certainly after nightfall. No, His Grandeur must come with us, walking if he can, carried if he cannot."
I had begun walking myself as I spoke, and they followed me, Morello and Terzo beside their Duko to assist him.
He dropped to the ground at my feet, neither bird nor dwarf.
"Have you seen people in this place? Not people like this man we've tied up, but normal people, people like us?"
He bobbed his head. "Flock men! Flock girls! See god?"
"No, not there. Lead us to them, please. The Duko requires a physician."
"Big wet! Come bird!" He flew.
One ruined street led to another, and that to a third. Eco and Mora hurried ahead after Oreb; I lagged, staring horrified at that desert of abandonment and decay, and soon got the position I wanted, beside Hide and behind the Duko, Terzo, and Morello.
Jahlee joined me there, naked still save for her long hair. "You did this, didn't you?"
I shook my head.
"I'm not angry, I'm very grateful. You have a wonderful, wonderful father, Cuoio. I'll never be able to repay him for all he's done for me."
Hide nodded, his face guarded.
"But you said it was me and you and Duko Rigoglio, Incanto. I don't think he had anything to do with it, and I know I didn't. I've never lied to you. I hope you know that."
I told her that not being a complete fool I knew nothing of the sort.
"All right, once or twice, maybe, when I had to. Will you lie to me if I ask a straight question?"
"Not unless I must."
"Fair enough. Could you take us back? Right now?"
Hide turned to look at me, startled.
"I don't know," I said. "Perhaps. I believe so."
"And I-?" Jahlee glanced at Hide.
"You're prettier now," he said.
"You will be again what you were, unless I am very much mistaken," I told her. "I cannot be certain, but that is certainly my opinion. Hide, you must remember that there were an old woman and a young one living in the farmhouse in which we stayed."
"The old one was presumed to be the farmer's mother, and to own the farm. You brought in a chair for her, saying that she should not have to stand in her own home."
"I may have told you that both were called Jahlee. I know I told Mora that."
Hide nodded. "Everybody says the young one was named for her grandmother."
"They are the same person-the person who is walking with us-and an inhuma."
Jahlee hissed. "My secret! You swore!"
"I swore I wouldn't tell unless I was forced to. I am forced to now. Hide is my son, and you will seduce him if you can. Don't deny it, please. I know better."
Giving her no time to reply, I spoke to Hide. "Honesty compels me to tell you that Jahlee is not an inhuma at present. She is a human being here, exactly as we are, and I believe for the same reason. But if we return to our real whorl, and I believe that we will, she will be again what she was before we came. Someday soon you will take a wife, as I did when I was younger-"
I felt a strange confusion, and having no mirror looked down at my thick-fingered hands, turning them this way and that.
"You look different." With more penetration than I had ever given him credit for, Hide had discerned my thoughts. "Maybe we all do."
I shook my head. "You don't."
"You really look a lot more like my real father here. You're taller than he was and older, but you look more like him than you used to."
"You were lying when you called him your son! I should have known! "
"He is my spiritual son," I told Jahlee, "and I was not lying-though he himself believes I was. I was going to say, Hide, that you will soon marry. I was a year younger than you are when your mother and I were married. Go clean to your marriage bed. It is better so."
"Yes, Father." He nodded slowly.
I turned to Jahlee. "I can take us back, or at least I think it likely that I can. If I do, I believe that you will be what you were. Do you wish me to do it now?"
"Then watch your tongue, and put on clothing when you can find some."
Oreb sailed over our heads, a miniature airship. "Big wet!"
"He's right." Jahlee pointed, and I caught the glimmer of water ahead.
It was a mighty river, the largest I have ever seen, a river so large that the farther bank was nearly invisible. A wide and ruinous road of dark stone ran beside the water, which lapped its edges in places, leaving the great, dark paving blocks slimed and filthy in a way that recalled the sewer on Green. Guided by Oreb, we followed this ancient road, walking upstream as nearly as I could judge and forced to adjust our steps from time to time by wide gaps in its spalling, rutted pavements.
In a troubled voice, Hide said, "If we went back, we could take the Duko to a doctor in Blanko, couldn't we?"
"No!" Jahlee caught his arm. "Please, Cuoio. Think of me."
"He's trying not to," I told her, "but finds the effort futile. We could indeed take Duko Rigoglio to a physician in Blanko, Hide, a daylong ride for a well-mounted man. Will he still have his wound if we return to Blue, do you think? A knife wound he can show to a physician?"
He glanced quickly at me, surprised, then looked away.
"We are spirits here. Watch." I extended my hand, and my black-bladed sword took shape, floating before us until I reached out and grasped it-and felt it grasp me in return. "My staff has been left behind," I told Jahlee, "and it is better to have something, perhaps."
Hide slung the slug gun with which he had been guarding our prisoners and touched my arm. "If you can do that, Father, can't you heal the Duko?"
"I doubt it, but I will try."
Rigoglio must have heard us; I saw him look back at us-by then he was walking with his arms over his friends' shoulders-and the pain in his eyes.
"Would you want him back on Blue," I asked Hide, "with his spirit wounded and bleeding inside him, invisible to us and beyond our help? That is what befell certain mercenaries, who fought for me in the City of the Inhumi."
"I don't understand any of this, Father."
"It's very likely no one does." I softened my voice still more. "I wanted to take us to Green, where Sinew is. I wanted to see him again, as I still do, and I wanted you others-you and Duko Sfido particularly, and Mora and Eco as well, after they providentially appeared-to see what real evil is, so that you might understand why we on Blue must come together in brotherhood before our own whorl becomes what Green already is."
I fell silent, forced to think myself about what I myself had just said.