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Thursday

Bloodbeast 004: An edge to things




There is an edge to things, a place where the flickering light gives way to shadows, a point where an arc becomes a precipice and drops you down. Above the palace I found such a place for myself, and there I crouched. One motion forward, and I would hurtle down through the smoke and dark to the hard, stone streets below. One shift backwards and I would be bent across the arc with my gaze launched into the hard, bright stars above.


There I waited. Echoes rang through the stone, some hollow, as if calling through empty spaces, others shouting, the words muffled as in a room filled with many people. The room beneath my feet, for instance, the Fountain Hall. That was a place built for secrets. In the palace were many secrets and when they had to be spoken softly the people went there and murmured in each others' ears, letting the song of the water cover the words they spoke. As if eyes could not see them there together, as if the observant could not fathom what they spoke of.


That night there was shouting in the Fountain Hall. The plainsking was there, and he was shouting. Other voices shouted back. It was hard to make out who they were, but they could only be those who would dare argue with him. Champions, perhaps. The champions had to be somewhere in the City, and they had to be doing something to stop whatever evil the plainsking might be plotting. Or perhaps it was leaders. If leaders had come to the City to see the starmen, they might be greeted in the Fountain Hall which, aside from its acoustic trickery, was very beautiful, and among the leaders were people who would not only dare argue with the plainsking but insist on it. It was probably leaders.


The sounds of shouting rose and fell. 

The stars looked down out of the dark. Within the circle of the palace the White Arena was still and lightless. Beyond it rose the Tower of Healing, and that, too, was in darkness. No glow shone in its windows, and that was strange because there was always someone there in need of warmth and light. That night it was like the other towers, just another blackness in the dark.


A warm hand touched my shoulder. Startled, I nearly fell from the height, but she caught me.
“Poet man.”

“Bassei.” I held her tight. She smelled of the forest and of our daughters who rode her back, hanging tight to her shoulders, and pressed their faces into her mane. “Bassei,” I whispered, and babbled. “I thought, he has to think you are dead. He must not use that weapon again, I thought. All those people. He has to think you are dead. And so I sang it. Was I right?”

“You were right.”

I sighed.

“Come.”

“Where?” I asked.

“We must find the astronomer.”

“Must we?”

“He will tell us what he knows.”

“That’s the trouble.” I tried to laugh. “He always tells everything he knows.”

“He knows about the starman. And he’s in trouble. We will find him in the Tower of Night.”

“Within the palace? You want to go right into the palace where the plainsking has got lightning to throw at you, to fetch the old astronomer? Bassei, you were nearly killed just now.”

She turned back to me, looked at me, the gold mark in her forehead like a third eye gleaming from beneath the fringes of her mane, and she took my hand. For a moment then, it crossed my mind wildly, improbably, that my song, my call for her as I had crouched over her smouldering cloak, had shaken her. She did not speak of it, though, and I let the thought flit away like a breeze before the onslaught of a storm.

“Come.” And she ran.

Under stars and over stone we moved and caught the winds of the high places in our hair before we dropped down to a place nearer the streets and halted beside darkenned windows.Below us were the campfires of the crowds remaining around the palace, those who had crept back to see what the lightning had done. There was much shouting and singing, little voices floating up to us with brag stories, as if they had not just now brought the Cruentauri, the heroes of the gold mark, to fight their battles and die for them. As far as they knew, Bassei was dead. Laughter sounded like the patter of rain about us.

One camp was quiet, though. They sat with their cloaks wrapped about them and took no notice of the singing and shouting, or even of the hands that brought them food or drink, or the voices that urged them to leave.

These were the old tribal mothers, scary old women, especially by firelight with their dried skin tight over their faces like skulls, and their brittle bones and their overlong claws. These were the true rulers of Recart. These were the women who had survived and who knew how to make the tribes survive. These were the ones who chose the Truthspeaker and sent her to the city. They were the ones who let the Truthspeaker choose a plainsking from among her children, and they could take these titles away.

Now they sat beneath her rooms and would not leave.

They had a quarrel with Bassei, too, these old women. They thought Bassei should breed more. Another time they might discuss it. For now, I turned.

Finding a familiar window, I slid my knife between the shutters and soon had the catch undone, but not before one of those women looked up again, old eyes puzzled by the shadows.

Dropping in over the sill, I let Bassei slide in beside me and closed the shutters quick. Not quickly enough, though. The voices below were now speaking of ghosts.

“Where is everyone?” I asked, stepping in. The Truthspeaker was not there, but I had guessed that. If she had been in her rooms she would never have left the old Mothers waiting on the pavement below. What troubled me was that even the children were gone. “What has happened?” I pushed aside a veil. There was a strange scent in the rooms. It was not something I could name, and it was not even like anything I knew of.

“Hist.” I called for Bassei's attention, softly. The door that should have opened into the palace corridors was barred. It was barred on the inside, but there was no one in here to have barred it.

Bassei reached past me, debating nothing. She unbolted it, slid it open, and stepped quietly through.

The corridor here was very quiet and empty except for the curtains of cloth the Truthspeaker loved so much and had caused to be hung in the palace. The pale stone carried sounds. Their stories murmured around me, but there was nothing about the Truthspeaker and her children. There was a murmur of water, and sometimes a throb that must have been shouting. There was an eerie sobbing, “I didn’t. I didn’t.” It was not the Truthspeaker. It was a man, and I thought of the plainsking, for in my heart I wished him tears.

Bassei waved me to keep back. Peering past her, I saw that the small door that lead up into the Tower of Night was locked, and there was a guard before it. He looked very young to be a guard. Catching no sign of us, he went on standing with his spear before the door

Bassei moved. The youngster barely had time to notice a swirl of shadows rushing at him before he was slumped in her arms, asleep. Gently she lowered him down so that he sat against the wall, and she turned his helmet to cover his eyes. When he woke, he would be confused by the darkness. Such was her humour.

Softly, we took the catch off the door and made our way up the stairs. Maffwos was not in the little room he used for sleeping. The blankets were cold and had not been slept in all day. We climbed higher to the next door. It had no lock, for Maffwos was the kind of person who could not keep keys. It opened at our touch.

“Who is there?” a querulous old voice called to us. “Someone's there, I know it!”

“Only us,” I answered, surprised that he had noticed our coming, for he usually never noticed anything except his stars.

“I know you're there,” he called out. “I can hear you! And I've got a big- I've got a very big- I've got an evil lens!”

To stop his shouting I called back simply, but only as loudly as I dared, “Bassei is here.”

“Bassei?” There was a rumbling up in his machine, a thumping among his cogs and levers. “Bassei!”

“Quiet,” I answered. “You'll wake the guard up.”

“The guards are always so noisy. Clump, clump, they go.”

There was a thump and a clunking as his dais began to wind down along its screw towards the floor. He did not wait for it to finish descending, though, but tried to stand and leap down as a young man might. His robe trailed behind him and got caught in the cogs. Tottering, he grabbed at a lever to stop his fall. Falling, his full weight shifted the lever down a few notches. His robe, still caught in the moving cogs above, ripped. His feet dangled and nearly caught in the mechanism. There was a thunk. The lever dropped down another notch and became so tilted that he slid along, and might have broken a leg as he hit the but for Bassei who caught him and swung him out of the way of the still descending dais that now crashed to the floor barely missing his head and all because he was in such a hurry to reach her.

“Bassei! Bassei,” he cried, as she ducked away and moved him to a safer spot. “I thought I heard someone calling out your name a while ago, and I thought, 'that's odd' because I thought you were in the Strangerlands. Everyone said you'd gone back to the Strangerlands.”

“We weren't so far away,” I said, while he smothered Bassei in his robes, his version of hugging. “We got your message.”

"Oh, Bassei, I sent you a message. I tried to. I didn't get very far with it before they locked me in. They've locked me in, Bassei," he explained.

"We've unlocked the door below," I told him.

“But you got through the door, Bassei. I thought you would come through the roof, so I waited up there. But you were always full of surprises, Bassei. Always doing the unexpected. Still, you're here.” He patted her arm as if it might not be real. “None of my other students came. Maybe they're afraid of those starmen. Yes, that must be it. Two got killed, you know. They ran in, oh, it must have been about sunup, because I was down there to send a message about the new light in the sky. It wasn't a comet, and it wasn't a falling star, and it passed across the sky over and over, always the same path. I thought it very odd.”

Deaths, I wanted to ask, but Bassei's glance warned me not to just yet. For now, she would let him ramble on about his stars.

“You can see for yourselves,” he went on, “when the timer dings again. I've been timing it tonight and it's always the same, and I thought, if only my students were here, and I'd set them to using the information to confirm our theories about the size of the world. I've been putting it into my maps, you see.”

He had a bench on which sat various paraphenalia and empty plates and leaves of gold. It was a pity that the plates were empty, for I had eaten little that day. Then again, perhaps it was for the best since it was clear he didn't bother too much about keeping the gold separate from his food.

He spread the gold leaves out, and took one up.

“Look,” he said, showing Bassei. “Oh, you've missed so much, Bassei. Perhaps you didn't know. There was a youngster, you see, and he brought an evil lens to the City. It was his gilding gift, you see. Old Gilel, of course, got an idea it might be useful to me. And so here we are. It magnifies the starlight, you see. We put it there in the apparatus, and, lo, star tracks.”

We stared at him.

“Tracks made by the stars,” he explained.

Bassei looked up at the ceiling, but there were no tracks there that I could see.

“Look, look Bassei, I'll show you. See, here,” his hands pushed a clutter of glass and metal around a table. I winced, but nothing broke. He pulled out a gold sheet. “Look here,” he said. We tried to look, but he was waving the sheet in his excitement and anything on it was just a blur. Finally Bassei took it from his hands and began to read while he rambled on. “Star tracks. Look, this one we know is Deep Orb. That's the key, you see. Deep Orb makes a deep track. A strong track. That's that one, there.”

“There's smudges on the gold,” I said, trying to get a look at the leaf as their heads were bent over it. “And Deep Orb is a bright, shiny star,” I added. “Not a line.”

“It's a bright, shiny star,” he retorted into my ears, “that moves across the sky. What you see here is its track. This smudge is Ram's Hair. The gold shows it as many, many stars all close together. You can feel their tracks in the gold, even when you can't see them. We haven't counted them yet. That's another thing my students should be doing. But they're not here.

“Here,” he pointed a claw at one of the lines, “that's the new light. It came up last night, and it always follows the same path, so after passing over several times it's made a firmer line in the gold.”

“How do you know it's the same light every time?” I asked. “It could be different ones all following the same path.”

“Yes. It goes across the sky like the sun. Over the horizon it goes, and comes back over the opposite one. Every time. Of course, it could be different ones. But if it was, then where do they go? They would have to go somewhere, maybe off at a tangent, but there's no tracks for that. It goes around us, as we go round the sun.”

I pitied him.

“Or the sun goes around us,” I pointed out, because whatever people said about the maths of Ram and her children, what I saw every day was the sun passing across my sky.

He saw my shaking head, the gesture of my hands. He pitied me.

“Of course, there are people who do not see. All their lives they walk under the sun and never look at its arc, how low it swings in winter, how high it rises in summer. At night they point at Deep Orb and say how pretty, but they don’t see its path among the stars. They just don’t think.”

It was too much. I’d gathered up the songs of the plains and recorded those of the navigators, and now he said I did not think.

“But how can you say you know anything! You always said there were no starmen! You said it was too cold up there, you said there was no air. You reasoned that it was impossible. But now you say they’re here. So what do you know, old man? How do you know you know anything?”

Bassei looked at me, looked into my heart, where the morning winds had blown a whole straight through. My hand still bore the wounds from when I had clutched that little tile with its words. “Starmen. Men from the stars.”

The timer dinged. Five times it made its din.

“Ah,” said Maffos, “I believe that was the dinger. Now, if we go up, we can see it. At least, those of us who are not blind can see it.”

With Bassei to guide him onto the dais and work the lever, we managed to ascend without accident, and came to stand above the Towers of Night in the silence and the cold.

“Why aren't you wearing a cloak, Bassei? In fact, why aren't you wearing the armour Gilel made you?”

Neither she nor I bothered trying to tell him the story of the last five years. If he hadn't noticed the battle between Bassei and the plainsking's army, or heard of her banishment, then none of it was going to get through to him now.

Bassei and I positioned ourselves where our figures might be mistaken for part of the apparatus should anyone be looking our way. Bassei was already turning to that part of the sky marked by the guiding stars she had seen on the map. After a time, she nudged my arm and pointed it out.

It was hard to make out at first, but it was moving and, once seen, was easily followed, one star shooting, falling across the world, but so far off it would never come down except, maybe, in the Strangerlands. Far, far away it was. And yet it passed across the face of the other stars, making its way across the white arc of Ram's hair, and so I knew it must be nearer than they were.

“It never comes nearer?” I asked.

“It's always the same. ”

If only Elurd had been there. He would have understood it in a moment. If Ramedd had been there, she would have thought of a way to use it. A regular light to mark the gold, somehow she would have had it turning cogs. Uram would have understood that it signified something else, maybe something about the nature of stars themselves. And everything they saw would have seemed obvious once they said it.

Bassei watched the light steadily, head lifted, her gaze straining towards it.

“Awful,” Maffos was saying. “He became five, I think it was five, and they, they were men, or like men. They were like him, anyway. Then two guards, just young ones, just pups, ran in, and they stared at the strangers, and you know what pups are. They are not cautious. They ran up to the strangers and the strangers pointed, and there was lightning, lightning, Bassei, all about the room, and when it was gone the pups were dead. They were shrivelled. Burned. There was no life left. Then the plainsking came. He stopped at once. With his guard behind him.” His pale old eyes were seeing it again. “He stopped. Then he and the strangers were looking at each other. And I thought, I have to get my message out. These strangers must be from that star, and I should tell the navigators about it, the new thing in the sky. But I had barely begun when the guards came and locked me up in the room. Locked me up, Bassei. I wasn't the one who hurt those pups.”

“Who were they?” I asked. “Those pups, what tribes did they come from?”

But he only blinked at me with is pale, watery eyes.

“Take him,” Bassei told me. “Get him down to the river. Find a junk that will take him away. Get him to safety.”

“Where are you going?” I asked her. She was turning away, already moving, but she must have heard something in my voice for she turned, pausing to answer.

“So much is wrong here.”

“Yes.” The children were missing from the Truthspeaker’s rooms. Where were they? Where were the champions of the law, the Tensilae, where were they all? And how was it that the Way of Knowledge was shut and they allowed it?

An answer welled in my heart, and I quelled it. The only glimmer of it that I allowed myself was of the lightning that the plainsking now wielded. The starman had given it to him, and there was no telling what that lightning might have been used for. The thought was too awful to think. I pushed it aside.

With a nod, she turned and went up and into the shadows, climbing over the tower, towards the arena. And she was gone again.