Until the rise of Yzordderrex, a rise engineered by the Autarch for reasons more political than geographical, the city of Patashoqua, which lay on the edge of the Fourth Dominion, close to where the In Ovo marked the perimeter of the Reconciled worlds, had just claim to be the preeminent city of the Dominions. Its proud inhabitants called it casje au casje, simply meaning the hive of hives, a place of intense and fruitful labor. Its proximity to the Fifth made it particularly prone to influences from that source, and even after Yzordderrex had became the center of power across the Dominions it was to Patashoqua that those at the cutting edge of style and invention looked for the coming thing. Patashoqua had a variation on the motor vehicle in its streets long before Yzordderrex. It had rock and roll in its clubs long before Yzordderrex. It had hamburgers, cinemas, blue jeans, and countless other proofs of modernity long before the great city of the Second. Nor was it simply the trivialities of fashion that Patashoqua reinvented from Fifth Dominion models. It was philosophies and belief systems. Indeed, it was said in Patashoqua that you knew a native of Yzordderrex because he looked like you did yesterday and believed what you’d believed the day before. As with most cities in love with the modern, however, Patashoqua had deeply conservative roots. Whereas Yzordderrex was a sinful city, notorious for the excesses of its darker Kesparates, the streets of Patashoqua were quiet after nightfall, its occupants in their own beds with their own spouses, plotting vogues. This mingling of chic and conservatism was nowhere more apparent than in architecture. Built as it was in a temperate region, unlike the semi-tropical Yzordderrex, the buildings did not have to be designed with any climatic extreme in mind. They were either elegantly classical, and built to remain standing until Doomsday, or else functions of some current craze, and likely to be demolished within a week.
But it was on the borders of the city where the most extraordinary sights were to be seen, because it was here that a second, parasitical city had been created, peopled by inhabitants of the Four Dominions who had fled persecution and had looked to Patashoqua as a place where h’berty of thought and action were still possible. How much longer this would remain the case was a debate that dominated every social gathering in the city. The Autarch had moved against other towns, cities, and states which he and his councils judged hotbeds of revolutionary thought. Some of those cities had been razed; others had come under Yzordderrexian edict and all sign of independent thought crushed. The university city of Hezoir, for instance, had been reduced to rubble, the brains of its students literally scooped out of their skulls and heaped up in the streets. In the Azzimulto the inhabitants of an entire province had been decimated, so rumor went, by a disease introduced into that region by the Autarch’s representatives. There were tales of atrocity from so many sources that people became almost blase about the newest horror, until, of course, somebody asked how long it would be until the Autarch turned his unforgiving eyes on the hive of hives. Then their faces drained of color, and people talked in whispers of how they planned to escape or defend themselves if that day ever came; and they looked around at their exquisite city, built to stand until Doomsday, and wondered just how near that day was.
Though Pie ‘oh’ pah had briefly described the forces that haunted the In Ovo, Gentle had only the vaguest impression of the dark protean state between the Dominions, occupied as he was by a spectacle much closer to his heart, that of the change that overtook both travelers as their bodies were translated into the common currency of passage.
Dizzied by lack of oxygen, he wasn’t certain whether these were real phenomena or not. Could bodies open like flowers, and the seeds of an essential self fly from them the way his mind told him they did? And could those same bodies be remade at the other end of the journey, arriving whole despite the trauma they’d undergone? So it seemed. The world Pie had called the Fifth folded up before the travelers’ eyes, and they went like transported dreams into another place entirely. As soon as he saw the light, Gentle fell to his knees on the hard rock, drinking the air of this Dominion with gratitude.
“Not bad at all,” he heard Pie say. “We did it, Gentle. I didn’t think we were going to make it for a moment, but we did it!”
Gentle raised his head, as Pie pulled him to his feet by the strap that joined them.
“Up! Up!” the mystif said. “It’s not good to start a journey on your knees.”
It was a bright day here, Gentle saw, the sky above his head cloudless, and brilliant as the green-gold sheen of a peacock’s tail. There was neither sun nor moon in it, but the very air seemed lucid, and by it Gentle had his first true sight of Pie since they’d met in the fire. Perhaps out of remembrance for those it had lost, the mystif was still wearing the clothes it had worn that night, scorched and bloodied though they were. But it had washed the dirt from its face, and its skin gleamed in the clear light.
“Good to see you,” Gentle said.
Pie started to untie the belt that bound them, while Gentle turned his gaze on the Dominion. They were standing close to the summit of a hill, a quarter of a mile from the perimeters of a sprawling shantytown, from which a din of activity rose. It spread beyond the foot of the hill and halfway across a flat and treeless plain of ocher earth, crossed by a thronged highway that led his eye to the domes and spires of a glittering city.
“Patashoqua?” he said.
“You were accurate, then.”
“More than I dared hope. The hill we’re standing on is supposed to be the place where Hapexamendios first rested when He came through from the Fifth. It’s called the Mount of Upper Bayak. Don’t ask me why.”
“Is the city under siege?” Gentle said.
“I don’t think so. The gates look open to me.”
Gentle scanned the distant walls, and indeed the gates were open wide. “So who are all these people? Refugees?”
“We’ll ask in a while,” Pie said.
The knot had come undone. Gentle rubbed his wrist, which was indented by the belt, staring down the hill as he did so. Moving between the makeshift dwellings below he glimpsed forms of being that didn’t much resemble humanity. And, mingling freely with them, many who did. It wouldn’t be difficult to pass as a local, at least.
“You’re going to have to teach me, Pie,” he said. “I need to know who’s who and what’s what. Do they speak English here?”
“It used to be quite a popular language,” Pie replied. “I can’t believe it’s fallen out of fashion. But before we go any farther, I think you should know what you’re traveling with. The way people respond to me may confound you otherwise.”
“Tell me as we go,” Gentle said, eager to see the strangers below up close.
“As you wish.” They began to descend. “I’m a mystif; my name’s Pie ‘oh’ pah. That much you know. My gender you don’t.”
“I’ve made a guess,” Gentle said.
“Oh?” said Pie, smiling. “And what’s your guess?”
“You’re an androgyne. Am I right?”
“That’s part of it, certainly.”
“But you’ve got a talent for illusion. I saw that in New York.”
“I don’t like the word illusion. It makes me a guiser, and I’m not that”
“In New York you wanted Judith, and that’s what you saw. It was your invention, not mine.”
“But you played along.”
“Because I wanted to be with you.”
“And are you playing along now?”
“I’m not deceiving you, if that’s what you mean. What you see is what I am, to you.”
“But to other people?”
“I may be something different. A man sometimes. A woman others.”
“Could you be white?”
“I might manage it for a moment or two. But if I’d tried to come to your bed in daylight, you’d have known I wasn’t Judith. Or if you’d been in love with an eight-year-old, or a dog. I couldn’t have accommodated that, except..,”—the creature glanced around at him—”… under very particular circumstances.”
Gentle wrestled with this notion, questions biological, philosophical, and libidinous filling his head. He stopped walking for a moment and turned to Pie.
“Let me tell you what I see,” he said. “Just so you know.”
“If I passed you on the street I believe I’d think you were a woman”—he cocked his head—”though maybe not. I suppose it’d depend on the light, and how fast you were walking.” He laughed. “Oh, shit,” he said. “The more I look at you the more I see, and the more I see—”
“The less you know.”
“That’s right. You’re not a man. That’s plain enough. But then…” He shook his head. “Am I seeing you the way you really are? I mean, is this the final version?”
“Of course not. There’s stranger sights inside us both. You know that.”
“Not until now.”
“We can’t go too naked in the world. We’d bum out each other’s eyes.”
“But this is you.”
“For the time being.”
“For what it’s worth, I like it,” Gentle said. “I don’t know what I’d call you if I saw you in the street, but I’d turn my head. How’s that?”
“What more could I ask for?”
“Will I meet others like you?”
“A few, maybe,” Pie said. “But mystifs aren’t common. When one is born, it’s an occasion for great celebration among my people.”
“Who are your people?”
“Will they be here?” Gentle said, nodding towards the throng below.
“I doubt it. But in Yzordderrex, certainly. They have a Kesparate there.”
“What’s a Kesparate?”
“A district. My people have a city within the city. Or at least they had one. It’s two hundred and twenty-one years since I was there.”
“My God. How old are you?”
“Half that again. I know that sounds like an extraordinary span, but time works slowly on flesh touched by feits.”
“Magical workings. Feits, wantons, sways. They work their miracles even on a whore like me.”
“Whoa!” said Gentle.
“Oh, yes. That’s something else you should know about me. I was told—a long time ago—that I should spend my life as a whore or an assassin, and that’s what I’ve done.”
“Until now, maybe. But that’s over.”
“What will I be from now on?”
“My friend,” Gentle said, without hesitation.
The mystif smiled. “Thank you for that.”
The round of questions ended there, and side by side they wandered on down the slope.
“Don’t make your interest too apparent,” Pie advised as they approached the edge of this makeshift conurbation. “Pretend you see this sort of sight daily.”
“That’s going to be difficult,” Gentle predicted.
So it was. Walking through the narrow spaces between the shanties was like passing through a country in which the very air had evolutionary ambition, and to breathe was to change. A hundred kinds of eye gazed out at them from doorways and windows, while a hundred forms of limb got about the business of the day—cooking, nursing, Grafting, conniving, making fires and deals and love—and all glimpsed so briefly that after a few paces Gentle was obliged to look away, to study the muddy gutter they were walking in, lest his mind be overwhelmed by the sheer profusion of sights. Smells, too: aromatic, sickly, sour and sweet; and sounds that made his skull shake and his gut quiver.
There had been nothing in his life to date, either waking or sleeping, to prepare him for this. He’d studied the mas-terworks of great imaginers—he’d painted a passable Goya, once, and sold an Ensor for a little fortune—but the difference between paint and reality was vasts a gap whose scale he could not by definition have known until now, when he had around him the other half of the equation. This wasn’t an invented place, its inhabitants variations on experienced phenomena. It was independent of his terms of reference: a place unto and of itself.
When he looked up again, daring the assault of the strange, he was grateful that he and Pie were now in a quarter occupied by more human entities, though even here there were surprises. What seemed to be a three-legged child skipped across their path only to look back with a face wizened as a desert corpse, its third leg a tail. A woman sitting in a doorway, her hair being combed by her consort, drew her robes around her as Gentle looked her way, but not fast enough to conceal the fact that a second consort, with the skin of a herring and an eye that ran all the way around its skull, was kneeling in front of her, inscribing hieroglyphics on her belly with the sharpened heel of its hand. He heard a range of tongues being spoken, but English seemed to be the commonest parlance, albeit heavily accented or corrupted by the labial anatomy of the speaker. Some seemed to sing their speech; some almost to vomit it up.
But the voice that called to them from one of the crowded alleyways off to their right might have been heard on any street in London: a lisping, pompous holler demanding they halt in their tracks. They looked in its direction. The throng had divided to allow the speaker and his party of three easy passage.
“Play dumb,” Pie muttered to Gentle as the lisper, an overfed gargoyle, bald but for an absurd wreath of oiled kiss curls, approached.
He was finely dressed, his high black boots polished and his canary yellow jacket densely embroidered after what Gentle would come to know as the present Patashoquan fashion. A man much less showily garbed followed, an eye covered by a patch that trailed the tail feathers of a scarlet bird as if echoing the moment of his mutilation. On his shoulders he carried a woman in black, with silvery scales for skin and a cane in her tiny hands with which she tapped her mount’s head to speed him on his way. Still farther behind came the oddest of the four.
“A Nullianac,” Gentle heard Pie murmur.
He didn’t need to ask if this was good news or bad. The creature was its own best advertisement, and it was selling harm. Its head resembled nothing so much as praying hands, the thumbs leading and tipped with lobster’s eyes, the gap between the palms wide enough for the sky to be seen through it, but flickering, as arcs of energy passed from side to side. It was without question the ugliest living thing Gentle had ever seen. If Pie had not suggested they obey the edict and halt, Gentle would have taken to his heels there and then, rather than let the Nullianac get one stride closer to them.
The lisper had halted and now addressed them afresh. “What business have you in Vanaeph?” he wanted to know.
“We’re just passing through,” Pie said, a reply somewhat lacking in invention, Gentle thought.
“Who are you?” the man demanded.
“Who are you?” Gentle returned.
The patch-eyed mount guffawed and got his head slapped for his troubles.
“Loitus Hammeryock,” the lisper replied.
“My name’s Zacharias,” Gentle said, “and this is—”
“Casanova,” Pie said, which earned him a quizzical glance from Gentle.
“Zooical!” the woman said. “D’yee speakat te gloss?”
“Sure,” said Gentle, “I speakat te gloss.”
“Be careful,” Pie whispered at his side.
“Bone! Bone!” the woman went on, and proceeded to tell them, in a language which was two parts English, or a variant thereof, one part Latin, and one part some Fourth Dominion dialect that consisted of tongue clicks and teeth tappings, that all strangers to this town, Neo Vanaeph, had to register their origins and intentions before they were allowed access: or, indeed, the right to depart. For all its ramshackle appearance, Vanaeph was no lawless stew, it appeared, but a tightly policed township, and this woman— who introduced herself in this flurry of lexicons as Pontiff Farrow—was a significant authority here.
When she’d finished, Gentle cast a confounded look in Pie’s direction. This was proving more difficult terrain by the moment. Unconcealed in the Pontiffs speech was threat of summary execution if they failed to answer their inquiries satisfactorily. The executioner among this party was not hard to spot: he of the prayerful head—the Nul-lianac—waiting in the rear for his instructions.
“So,” said Hammeryock. “We need some identification.”
“I don’t have any,” Gentle said.
“And you?” he asked the mystif, which also shook its head.
“Spies,” the Pontiff hissed.
“No, we’re just… tourists,” Gentle said.
“Tourists?” said Hammeryock.
“We’ve come to see the sights of Patashoqua.” He turned to Pie for support. “Whatever they are.”
“The tombs of the Vehement Loki Lobb,” Pie said, clearly scratching around for the glories Patashoqua had to offer, “and the Merrow Ti’ Ti’.”
That sounded pretty to Gentle’s ears. He faked a broad smile of enthusiasm. “The Merrow Ti’ Ti’!” he said. “Absolutely! I wouldn’t miss the Merrow Ti’ Ti’ for all the tea in China.”
“China?” said Hammeryock.
“Did I say China?”
“Fifth Dominion,” the Pontiff muttered. “Spiatits from the Fifth Dominion.”
“I object strongly to that accusation,” said Pie ‘oh’ pah.
“And so,” said a voice behind the accused, “do I.”
Both Pie and Gentle turned to take in the sight of a scabrous, bearded individual, dressed in what might generously have been described as motley and less generously as rags, standing on one leg and scraping shit off the heel of his other foot with a stick.
“It’s the hypocrisy that turns my stomach, Hammeryock,” he said, his expression a maze of wiles. “You two pontificate,” he went on, eyeing his pun’s target as he spoke, “about keeping the streets free from undesirables, but you do nothing about the dog shite!”
“This isn’t your business, Tick Raw,” Hammeryock said.
“Oh, but it is. These are my friends, and you’ve insulted them with your slurs and your suspicions.”
“Friends, sayat?” the Pontiff murmured.
“Yes, ma’am. Friends. Some of us still know the difference between conversation and diatribe. I have friends, with whom I talk and exchange ideas. Remember ideas? They’re what make life worth living.”
Hammeryock could not disguise his unease, hearing his mistress thus addressed, but whoever Tick Raw was he wielded sufficient authority to silence any further objection.
“My dearlings,” he said to Gentle and Pie, “shall we repair to my home?”
As a parting gesture he lobbed the stick in Ham-meryock’s direction. It landed in the mud between the man’s legs.
“Clean up, Loitus,” Tick Raw said. “We don’t want the Autarch’s heel sliding in shite, now, do we?”
The two parties then went their separate ways, Tick Raw leading Pie and Gentle off through the labyrinth.
“We want to thank you,” Gentle said.
“What for?” Tick Raw asked him, aiming a kick at a goat that wandered across his path.
“Talking us out of trouble,” Gentle replied. “We’ll be on our way now.”
“But you’ve got to come back with me,” Tick Raw said.
“There’s no need.”
“Need? There’s every need! Have I got this right?” he said to Pie. “Is there need or isn’t there?”
“We’d certainly like the benefit of your insights,” Pie said. “We’re strangers here. Both of us.” The mystif spoke in an oddly stilted fashion, as if it wanted to say more, but couldn’t. “We need reeducating,” it said.
“Oh?” said Tick Raw. “Really?”
“Who is this Autarch?” Gentle asked.
“He rules the Reconciled Dominions, from Yzordder-rex. He’s the greatest power in the Imajica.”
“And he’s coming here?”
“That’s the rumor. He’s losing his grip in the Fourth, and he knows it. So he’s decided to put in a personal appearance. Officially, he’s visiting Patashoqua, but this is where the trouble’s brewing.”
“Do you think he’ll definitely come?” Pie asked.
“If he doesn’t, the whole of the Imajica’s going to know he’s afraid to show his face. Of course that’s always been a part of his fascination, hasn’t it? All these years he’s ruled the Dominions without anybody really knowing what he looks like. But the glamour’s worn off. If he wants to avoid revolution he’s going to have to prove he’s a charismatic.”
“Are you going to get blamed for telling Hammeryock we were your friends?” Gentle asked.
“Probably, but I’ve been accused of worse. Besides, it’s almost true. Any stranger here’s a friend of mine.” He cast a glance at Pie. “Even a mystif,” he said. “The people in this dung heap have no poetry in them. I know I should be more sympathetic. They’re refugees, most of them. They’ve lost their lands, their houses, their tribes. But they’re so concerned with their itsy-bitsy little sorrows they don’t see the broader picture.”
“And what is the broader picture?” Gentle asked.
“I think that’s better discussed behind closed doors,” Tick Raw said, and would not be drawn any further on the subject until they were secure in his hut.
It was spartan in the extreme. Blankets on a board for a bed; another board for a table; some moth-eaten pillows to squat on.
“This is what I’m reduced to,” Tick Raw said to Pie, as though the mystif understood, perhaps even shared, his sense of humiliation. “If I’d moved on it might have been different. But I couldn’t, of course.”
“Why not?” Gentle asked.
Tick Raw gave him a quizzical look, glancing over at Pie, then looking back at Gentle again.
“I’d have thought that was obvious,” he said. “I’ve kept my post. I’m here until a better day dawns.”
“And when will that be?” Gentle inquired.
“You tell me,” Tick Raw replied, a certain bitterness entering his voice. “Tomorrow wouldn’t be too soon. This is no frigging life for a great sway-worker. I mean, look at it!” He cast his eyes around the room. “And let me tell you, this is the lap of luxury compared with some of the hovels I could show you. People living in their own excrement, grubbing around for food. And all in sight of one of the richest cities in the Dominions. It’s obscene. At least I’ve got food in my belly. And I get some respect, you know. Nobody crosses me. They know I’m an evocator, and they keep their distance. Even Hammeryock. He hates me with a passion, but he’d never dare send the Nullianac to kill me, in case it failed and I came after him. Which I would. Oh, yes. Gladly. Pompous little fuck.”
“You should just leave,” Gentle said. “Go and live in Patashoqua.”
“Please,” Tick Raw said, his tone vaguely pained. “Must we play games? Haven’t I proved my integrity? I saved your lives.”
“And we’re grateful,” Gentle said.
“I don’t want gratitude,” Tick Raw said.
“What do you want then? Money?”
At this, Tick Raw rose from his cushion, his face reddening, not with blushes but with rage.
“I don’t deserve this,” he said.
“Deserve what?” said Gentle.
“I’ve lived in shite,” Tick Raw said, “but I’m damned if I’m going to eat it! All right, so I’m not a great Maestro. I wish I were! I wish Uter Musky was still alive, and he could have waited here all these years instead of me. But he’s gone, and I’m all that’s left! Take me or leave me!”
The outburst completely befuddled Gentle. He glanced across at Pie, looking for some guidance, but the mystif had hung its head.
“Maybe we’d better leave,” Gentle said.
“Yes! Why don’t you do that?” Tick Raw yelled. “Get the fuck out of here. Maybe you can find Musky’s grave and resurrect him. He’s out there on the mount. I buried him with these two hands!” His voice was close to cracking now. There was grief in it as well as rage. “You can dig him up the same way!”
Gentle started to get to his feet, sensing that any further words from him would only push Tick Raw closer to an eruption or a breakdown, neither of which he wanted to witness. But the mystif reached up and took hold of Gentle’s arm.
“Wait,” Pie said.
“The man wants us out,” Gentle replied.
“Let me talk to Tick for a few moments,” Pie said.
The evocator glared fiercely at the mystif.
“I’m in no mood for seductions,” he warned.
The mystif shook its head, glancing at Gentle. “Neither am I.”
“You want me out of here?” he said.
“Not for long.”
Gentle shrugged, though he felt rather less easy with the idea of leaving Pie in Tick Raw’s company than his manner suggested. There was something about the way the two of them stared and studied each other that made him think there was some hidden agenda here. If so, it was surely sexual, despite their denials.
“I’ll be outside,” Gentle said, and left them to their debate.
He’d no sooner closed the door than he heard the two begin to talk inside. There was a good deal of din from the shack opposite—a baby bawling, a mother attempting to hush it with an off-key lullaby—but he caught fragments of the exchange. Tick Raw was still in a fury.
“Is this some kind of punishment?” he demanded at one point; then, a few moments later: “Patient? How much more frigging patient do I have to be?”
The lullaby blotted out much of what followed, and when it quieted again, the conversation inside Raw’s shack had taken another turn entirely.
“We’ve got a long way to go,” Gentle heard Pie saying, “and a lot to learn.” Tick Raw made some inaudible reply, to which Pie said, “He’s a stranger here.”
Again Tick murmured something.
“I can’t do that,” Pie replied. “He’s my responsibility.”
Now Tick Raw’s persuasions grew loud enough for Gentle to hear.
“You’re wasting your time,” the evocator said. “Stay here with me. I miss a warm body at night.”
At this Pie’s voice dropped to a whisper. Gentle took a half step back towards the door and managed to catch a few of the mystif’s words. It said heartbroken, he was sure; then something about faith. But the rest was a murmur too soft to be interpreted. Deciding he’d given the two of them long enough alone, he announced that he was coming back in and entered. Both looked up at him: somewhat guiltily, he thought.
“I want to get out of here,” he announced.
Tick Raw’s hand was at Pie’s neck and remained there, like a staked claim.
“If you go,” Tick told the mystif, “I can’t guarantee your safety. Hammeryock will be wanting your blood.”
“We can defend ourselves,” Gentle said, somewhat surprised by his own certainty.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be quite so hasty,” Pie put in.
“We’ve got a journey to make,” Gentle replied.
“Let her make up her own mind,” Tick Raw suggested. “She’s not your property.”
At this remark, a curious look crossed Pie ‘oh’ pah’s face. Not guilt now, but a troubled expression, softening into resignation. The mystif’s hand went up to its neck and brushed off Tick Raw’s hold.
“He’s right,” it said to Tick. “We do have a journey ahead of us.”
The evocator pursed his lips, as if making up his mind whether to pursue this business any further or not. Then he said, “Well then. You’d better go.”
He turned a sour eye on Gentle.
“May everything be as it seems, stranger.”
“Thank you,” said Gentle, and escorted Pie out of the hut into the mud and flurry of Vanaeph.
“Strange thing to say,” Gentle observed as they trudged away from Tick Raw’s hut. “May everything be as it seems.”
“It’s the profoundest curse a sway-worker knows,” Pie replied.
“On the contrary,” Pie said, “I don’t think you see very much.”
There was a note of accusation in Pie’s words which Gentle rose to.
“I certainly saw what you were up to,” he said. “You had half a mind to stay with him. Batting your eyes like a—” He stopped himself.
“Go on,” Pie replied. “Say it. Like a whore.”
“That wasn’t what I meant.”
“No, please.” Pie went on, bitterly. “You can lay on the insults. Why not? It can be very arousing.”
Gentle shot Pie a look of disgust.
“You said you wanted education, Gentle. Well, let’s start with May everything be as it seems. It’s a curse, because if that were the case we’d all be living just to die, and mud would be king of the Dominions.”
“I get it,” Gentle said. “And you’d be just a whore.”
“And you’d be just a faker, working for—”
Before the rest of the sentence was out of his mouth, a pack of animals ran out between two of the dwellings, squealing like pigs, though they looked more like tiny llamas. Gentle looked in the direction from which they’d come, and saw—advancing between the shanties—a sight to bring shudders.
“I see it!”Piesaid.
As the executioner approached, the praying hands of its head opened and closed, as though kindling the energies between the palms to a lethal heat. There were cries of alarm from the houses around. Doors slammed. Shutters closed. A child was snatched from a step, bawling as it went. Gentle had time to see the executioner draw two weapons, with blades that caught the livid light of the arcs; then he was obeying Pie’s instruction to run, the mystif leading the way.
The street they’d been on was no more than a narrow gutter, but it was a well-lit highway by comparison with the narrow alley they ducked into. Pie was light-footed; Gentle was not. Twice the mystif made a turn and Gentle overshot it. The second time he lost Pie entirely in the murk and dirt and was about to retrace his steps when he heard the executioner’s blade slice through something behind him and glanced back to see one of the frailer houses folding up in a cloud of dust and screams, its demolisher’s shape, lightning-headed, appearing from the chaos and fixing its gaze upon him. Its target sighted, it advanced with a sudden speed, and Gentle darted for cover at the first turn, a route that took him into a swamp of sewage which he barely crossed without falling, and thence into even narrower passages.
It would only be a matter of time before he chanced upon a cul-de-sac, he knew. When he did, the game would be up. He felt an itch at the nape of his neck, as though the blades were already there. This wasn’t right! He’d barely been out of the Fifth an hour and he was seconds from death. He glanced back. The Nullianac had closed the distance between them. He picked up his pace, pitching himself around a corner and into a tunnel of corrugated iron, with no way out at the other end.
“Shite!” he said, taking Tick Raw’s favorite word for his complaint. “Furie, you’ve killed yourself!”
The walls of the cul-de-sac were slick with filth, and high. Knowing he’d never scale them, he ran to the far end and threw himself against the wall there, hoping it might crack. But its builders (damn them!) had been better craftsmen than most in the vicinity. The wall rocked, and pieces of its fetid mortar fell about him, but all his efforts did was bring the NuUianac straight to him, drawn by the sound of his effort.
Seeing his executioner approaching, he pitched his body against the wall afresh, hoping for some last-minute reprieve. But all he got was bruises. The itch at his nape was an ache now, but through its pain he formed the despairing thought that this was surely the most ignominious of deaths, to be sliced up amid sewage. What had he done to deserve it? He asked it aloud.
“What have I done? What the fuck have I done?”
The question went unanswered; or did it? As his yells ceased he found himself raising his hand to his face, not knowing—even as he did so—why. There was simply an inner compulsion to open his palm and spit upon it. The spittle felt cold, or else his palm was hot. Now a yard away, the NuUianac raised its twin blades above its head. Gentle made a fist, lightly, and put it to his mouth. As the blades reached the top of their arc, he exhaled.
He felt his breath blaze against his palm, and in the instant before the blades reached his head the pneuma went from his fist like a bullet. It struck the NuUianac in the neck with such force it was thrown backwards, a livid spurt of energy breaking from the gap in its head and rising like earth-born lightning into the sky. The creature feU in the filth, its hands dropping the blades to reach for the wound. They never touched the place. Its life went out of it in a spasm, and its prayerful head was permanently silenced.
At least as shaken by the other’s death as by the proximity of his own, Gentle got to his feet, his gaze going from the body hi the dirt to his fist. He opened it. The spittle had gone, transformed into some lethal dart. A seam of discoloration ran from the baU of his thumb to the other side of his hand. That was the only sign of the pneuma’s passing.
“Holy shite,” he said.
A small crowd had already gathered at the end of the cul-de-sac, and heads appeared over the wall behind him. From every side came an agitated buzz that wouldn’t, he guessed, take long to reach Hammeryock and Pontiff Farrow. It would be naive to suppose they ruled Vanaeph with only one executioner in their squad. There’d be others; and here, soon. He stepped over the body, not caring to look too closely at the damage he’d done, but aware with only a passing glance that it was substantial.
The crowd, seeing the conquerer approach, parted. Some bowed, others fled. One said, “Bravo!” and tried to kiss his hand. He pressed his admirer away and scanned the alleys in every direction, hoping for some sign of Pie ‘oh’ pah. Finding none, he debated his options. Where would Pie go? Not to the top of the mount. Though that was a visible rendezvous, their enemies would spot them there. Where else? The gates of Patashoqua, perhaps, that the mystif had pointed out when they’d first arrived? It was as good a place as any, he thought, and started off, down through teeming Vanaeph towards the glorious city.
His worst expectations—that news of his crime had reached the Pontiff and her league—were soon confirmed. He was almost at the edge of the township, and within sight of the open ground that lay between its borders and the walls of Patashoqua, when a hue and cry from the streets behind announced a pursuing party. In his Fifth Dominion garb, jeans and shirt, he would be easily recognized if he started towards the gates, but if he attempted to stay within the confines of Vanaeph it would be only a matter of time before he was hunted down. Better to take the chance of running now, he decided, while he stiU had a lead. Even if he didn’t make it to the gates before they came after him, they surely wouldn’t dispatch him within sight of Pata-shoqua’s gleaming walls.
He put on a fair turn of speed and was out of the township in less than a minute, the commotion behind him gathering volume. Though it was difficult to judge the distance to the gates in a light that lent such iridescence to the ground between, it was certainly no less than a mile; perhaps twice that. He’d not got far when the first of his pursuers appeared from the outskirts of Vanaeph, runners fresher and lighter than he, who rapidly closed the distance between them. There were plenty of travelers coming and going along the straight road to the gates. Some pedestrians, most in groups and dressed like pilgrims; other, finer figures, mounted on horses whose flanks and heads were painted with gaudy designs; still others riding on shaggy derivatives of the mule. Most envied however, and most rare, were those in motor vehicles, which, though they basically resembled their equivalents in the Fifth—a chassis riding on wheels—were in every other regard fresh inventions. Some were as elaborate as baroque altarpieces, every inch of their bodywork chased and filigreed. Others, with spindly wheels twice the height of their roofs, had the preposterous delicacy of tropical insects. Still others, mounted on a dozen or more tiny wheels, their exhausts giving off a dense, bitter fume, looked like speeding wreckage, asymmetrical and inelegant farragoes of glass and metalwork. Risking death by hoof and wheel, Gentle joined the traffic and put on a new spurt as he dodged between the vehicles. The leaders of the pack behind him had also reached the road. They were armed, he saw, and had no compunction about displaying their weapons. His belief that they wouldn’t attempt to kill him among witnesses suddenly seemed frail. Perhaps the law of Vanaeph was good to the very gates of Patashoqua. If so, he was dead. They would overtake him long before he reached sanctuary.
But now, above the din of the highway, another sound reached him, and he dared a glance off to his left, to see a small, plain vehicle, its engine badly tuned, careering in his direction. It was open-topped, its driver visible: Pie ‘oh’ pah, God love him, driving like a man—or mystif—possessed. Gentle changed direction instantly, veering off the road and dividing a herd of pilgrims as he did so, and raced towards Pie’s noisy chariot.
A chorus of whoops at his back told him the pursuers had also changed direction, but the sight of Pie had given heat to Gentle’s heels. His turn of speed was wasted, however. Rather than slowing to let Gentle aboard, Pie drove on past, heading towards the hunters. The leaders scattered as the vehicle bore down upon them, but it was a figure Gentle had missed, being carried in a sedan chair, who was Pie’s true target. Hammeryock, sitting on high, ready to watch the execution, was suddenly a target in his turn. He yelled to his bearers to retreat, but in their panic they failed to agree on a direction. Two pulled left, two right. One of the chair’s arms splintered, and Hammeryock was pitched out, hitting the ground hard. He didn’t get up. The sedan chair was discarded, and its bearers fled, leaving Pie to veer around and head back towards Gentle. With their leader felled, the scattered pursuers, most likely coerced into serving the Pontiffs in the first place, had lost heart. They were not sufficiently inspired to risk Hammeryock’s fate and so kept their distance, while Pie drove back and picked up his gasping passenger.
“I thought maybe you’d gone back to Tick Raw,” Gentle said, once he was aboard.
“He wouldn’t have wanted me,” Pie said. “I’ve had congress with a murderer.”
“You, my friend, you! We’re both assassins now.”
“I suppose we are.”
“And not much welcome in this region, I think.”
“Where did you find the vehicle?”
“There’s a few of them parked on the outskirts. They’ll be in them soon enough, and after us.”
“The sooner we’re in the city the better, then.”
“I don’t think we’d be safe there for long,” the mystif replied.
It had maneuvered the vehicle so that its snub nose faced the highway. The choice lay before them. Left, to the gates of Patashoqua. Right, down a highway which ran on past the Mount of Lipper Bayak to a horizon that rose, at the farthest limit of the eye, to a mountain range.
“It’s up to you,” Pie said.
Gentle looked longingly towards the city, tempted by its spires. But he knew there was wisdom in Pie’s advice.
“We’ll come back someday, won’t we?” he said.
“Certainly, if that’s what you want.”
“Then let’s head the other way.”
The mystif turned the vehicle onto the highway, against the predominant flow of traffic, and with the city behind them they soon picked up speed.
“So much for Patashoqua,” Gentle said as the walls became a mirage.
“No great loss,” Pie remarked.
“But I wanted to see the Merrow Ti’ TV,” Gentle said.
“No chance,” Pie returned.
“It was pure invention,” Pie said. “Like all my favorite things, including myself. Pure invention!”