Iain M. Banks

Matter


Prologue

<p>Prologue</p>

A light breeze produced a dry rattling sound from some nearby bushes. It lifted delicate little veils of dust from a few sandy patches nearby and shifted a lock of dark hair across the forehead of the woman sitting on the wood and canvas camp chair which was perched, not quite level, on a patch of bare rock near the edge of a low ridge looking out over the scrub and sand of the desert. In the distance, trembling through the heat haze, was the straight line of the road. Some scrawny trees, few taller than one man standing on another’s shoulders, marked the course of the dusty highway. Further away, tens of kilometres beyond the road, a line of dark, jagged mountains shimmered in the baking air.

By most human standards the woman was tall, slim and well muscled. Her hair was short and straight and dark and her skin was the colour of pale agate. There was nobody of her specific kind within several thousand light years of where she sat, though if there had been they might have said that she was somewhere between being a young woman and one at the very start of middle age. They would, however, have thought she looked somewhat short and bulky. She was dressed in a pair of wide, loose-fitting pants and a thin, cool-looking jacket, both the same shade as the sand. She wore a wide black hat to shade her from the late morning sun, which showed as a harsh white point high in the cloudless, pale green sky. She raised a pair of very old and worn-looking binoculars to her night-dark eyes and looked out towards the point where the desert road met the horizon to the west. There was a folding table to her right holding a glass and a bottle of chilled water. A small backpack lay underneath. She reached out with her free hand and lifted the glass from the table, sipping at the water while still looking through the ancient field glasses.

“They’re about an hour away,” said the machine floating to her left. The machine looked like a scruffy metal suitcase. It moved a little in the air, rotating and tipping as though looking up at the seated woman. “And anyway,” it continued, “you won’t see much at all with those museum pieces.”

She put the glass down on the table again and lowered the binoculars. “They were my father’s,” she said.

“Really.” The drone made a sound that might have been a sigh.

A screen flicked into existence a couple of metres in front of the woman, filling half her field of view. It showed, from a point a hundred metres above and in front of its leading edge, an army of men — some mounted, most on foot — marching along another section of the desert highway, all raising dust which piled into the air and drifted slowly away to the south-east. Sunlight glittered off the edges of raised spears and pikes. Banners, flags and pennants swayed above. The army filled the road for a couple of kilometres behind the mounted men at its head. Bringing up the rear were baggage carts, covered and open wagons, wheeled catapults and trebuchets and a variety of lumbering wooden siege engines, all pulled by dark, powerful-looking animals whose sweating shoulders towered over the men walking at their sides.

The woman tutted. “Put that away.”

“Yes, ma’am,” the machine said. The screen vanished.

The woman looked through the binoculars again, using both hands this time. “I can see their dust,” she announced. “And another couple of scouts, I think.”

“Astounding,” the drone said.

She placed the field glasses on the table, pulled the brim of her hat down over her eyes and settled back in the camp seat, folding her arms and stretching her booted feet out, crossed at the ankle. “Having a snooze,” she told the drone from beneath the hat. “Wake me when it’s time.”

“Just you make yourself comfortable there,” the drone told her.

“Mm-hmm.”

Turminder Xuss (drone, offensive) watched the woman Djan Seriy Anaplian for a few minutes, monitoring her slowing breathing and her gradually relaxing muscle-state until it knew she was genuinely asleep.

“Sweet dreams, princess,” it said quietly. Reviewing its words immediately, the drone was completely unable to determine whether a disinterested observer would have detected any trace of sarcasm or not.

It checked round its half-dozen previously deployed scout and secondary knife missiles, using their sensors to watch the still distant approaching army draw slowly closer and to monitor the various small patrols and individual scouts the army had sent out ahead of it.

For a while, it watched the army move. From a certain perspective it looked like a single great organism inching darkly across the tawny sweep of desert; something segmented, hesitant — bits of it would come to a stop for no obvious reason for long moments, before starting off again, so that it seemed to shuffle rather than flow en masse — but determined, unarguably fixed in its onward purpose. And all on their way to war, the drone thought sourly, to take and burn and loot and rape and raze. What sullen application these humans devoted to destruction.

About half an hour later, when the front of the army was hazily visible on the desert highway a couple of kilometres to the west, a single mounted scout came riding along the top of the ridge, straight towards where the drone kept vigil and the woman slept. The man showed no sign of having seen through the camouflage field surrounding their little encampment, but unless he changed course he was going to ride right into them.

The drone made a tutting noise very similar to the one the woman had made earlier and told its nearest knife missile to spook the mount. The pencil-thin shape came darting in, effectively invisible, and jabbed the beast in one flank so that it screamed and jerked, nearly unseating its rider as it veered away down the shallow slope of ridge towards the road.

The scout shouted and swore at his animal, reining it in and turning its broad snout back towards the ridge, some distance beyond the woman and the drone. They galloped away, leaving a thin trail of dust hanging in the near-still air.

Djan Seriy Anaplian stirred, sat up a little and looked out from under her hat. “What was all that?” she asked drowsily.

“Nothing. Go back to sleep.”

“Hmm.” She relaxed again and a minute later was quietly snoring.

The drone woke her when the head of the army was almost level with them. It bobbed its front at the body of men and animals a kilometre distant while Anaplian was still yawning and stretching. “The boys are all here,” it told her.

“Indeed they are.” She lifted the binoculars and focused on the very front of the army, where a group of men rode mounted on especially tall, colourfully caparisoned animals. These men wore high plumed helmets and their polished armour glittered brightly in the glare. “They’re all very parade ground,” Anaplian said. “It’s like they’re expecting to bump into somebody out here they need to impress.”

“God?” the drone suggested.

The woman was silent for a moment. “Hmm,” she said eventually. She put the field glasses down and looked at the drone. “Shall we?”

“Merely say the word.”

Anaplian looked back at the army, took a deep breath and said, “Very well. Let us do this.”

The drone made a little dipping motion like a nod. A small hatch opened in its side. A cylinder perhaps four centimetres wide and twenty-five long, shaped like a sort of conical knife, rolled lazily into the air then darted away, keeping close to the ground and accelerating quickly towards the rear of the column of men, animals and machines. It left a trail of dust for a moment before it adjusted its altitude. Anaplian lost sight of its camouflaged shape almost immediately.

The drone’s aura field, invisible until now, glowed rosily for a moment or two. “This,” it said, “should be fun.”

The woman looked at it dubiously. “There aren’t going to be any mistakes this time, are there?”

“Certainly not,” the machine said crisply. “Want to watch?” it asked her. “I mean properly, not through those antique opera glasses.”

Anaplian looked at the machine through narrowed eyes for a little, then said, slowly, “All right.”

The screen blinked into existence just to one side of them this time, so that Anaplian could still see the army in the distance with the naked eye. The screen view was from some distance behind the great column now, and much lower than before. Dust drifted across the view. “That’s from the trailing scout missile,” Turminder Xuss said. Another screen flickered next to the first. “This is from the knife missile itself.” The camera in the knife missile registered the tiny machine scudding past the army in a blur of men, uniforms and weapons, then showed the tall shapes of the wagons, war machines and siege engines before banking sharply after the tail end of the army was passed. The rushing missile stooped, taking up a position a kilometre behind the rear of the army and a metre or so above the road surface. Its speed had dropped from near-supersonic to something close to that of a swiftly flying bird. It was closing rapidly with the rear of the column.

“I’ll synch the scout to the knife, follow it in behind,” the drone said. In moments, the flat circular base of the knife missile appeared as a dot in the centre of the scout missile’s view, then expanded until it looked like the smaller machine was only a metre behind the larger one. “There go the warps!” Xuss said, sounding excited. “See?”

Two arrowhead shapes, one on either side, detached from the knife missile’s body, swung out and disappeared. The mono-filament wires which still attached each of the little warps to the knife missile were invisible. The view changed as the scout missile pulled back and up, showing almost the whole of the army ahead.

“I’ll get the knife to buzz the wires,” the drone said.

“What does that mean?”

“Vibrates them, so that whatever the monofils go through, it’ll be like getting sliced by an implausibly sharp battleaxe rather than the world’s keenest razor,” the drone said helpfully.

The screen displaying what the scout missile could see showed a tree a hundred metres behind the last, trundling wagon. The tree jerked and the top three-quarters slid at a steep angle down the sloped stump that was the bottom quarter before toppling to the dust. “That took a flick,” the drone said, glowing briefly rosy again and sounding amused. The wagons and siege engines filled the view coming from the knife missile. “The first bit’s actually the trickiest…”

The fabric roofs of the covered wagons rose into the air like released birds; tensed hoops of wood — cut — sprang apart. The giant, solid wheels of the catapults, trebuchets and siege engines shed their top sections on the next revolution and the great wooden structures thudded to a halt, the top halves of some of them, also cut through, jumping forward with the shock. Arm-thick lengths of rope, wound rock-tight a moment earlier, burst like released springs then flopped like string. The scout missile swung between the felled and wrecked machines as the men in and around the wagons and siege engines started to react. The knife missile powered onwards, towards the foot soldiers immediately ahead. It plunged into the mass of spears, pikes, pennant poles, banners and flags, scything through them in a welter of sliced wood, falling blades and flapping fabric.

Anaplian caught glimpses of a couple of men slashed or skewered by falling pikeheads.

“Bound to be a few casualties,” the drone muttered.

“Bound to be,” the woman said.

The knife missile was catching glimpses of confused faces as men heard the shouts of those behind them and turned to look. The missile was a half-second away from the rear of the mass of mounted men and roughly level with their necks when the drone sent.

— Are you sure we can’t…?

— Positive, Anaplian replied, inserting a sigh into what was an entirely non-verbal exchange. — Just stick to the plan.

The tiny machine nudged up a half-metre or so and tore above the mounted men, catching their plumed helmets and chopping the gaudy decorations off like a harvest of motley stalks. It leapt over the head of the column, leaving consternation and fluttering plumage in its wake. Then it zoomed, heading skywards. The following scout missile registered the monofil warps clicking back into place in the knife missile’s body before it swivelled, rose and slowed, to look back at the whole army again.

It was, Anaplian thought, a scene of entirely satisfactory chaos, outrage and confusion. She smiled. This was an event of such rarity that Turminder Xuss recorded the moment.

The screens hanging in the air disappeared. The knife missile reappeared and swung into the offered hatchway in the side of the drone.

Anaplian looked out over the plain to the road and the halted army. “Many casualties?” she asked, smile disappearing.

“Sixteen or so,” the drone told her. “About half will likely prove fatal, in time.”

She nodded, still watching the distant column of men and machines. “Oh well.”

“Indeed,” Turminder Xuss agreed. The scout missile floated up to the drone and also entered via a side panel. “Still,” the drone said, sounding weary, “we should have done more.”

“Should we.”

“Yes. You ought to have let me do a proper decapitation.”

“No,” Anaplian said.

“Just the nobles,” the drone said. “The guys right at the front. The ones who came up with their spiffing war plans in the first place.”

“No,” the woman said again, rising from her seat and, turning, folding it. She held it in one hand. With the other she lifted the old pair of binoculars from the table. “Module coming?”

“Overhead,” the drone told her. It moved round her and picked up the camp table, placing the glass and water bottle inside the backpack beneath. “Just the two nasty dukes? And the King?”

Anaplian held on to her hat as she looked straight up, squinting briefly in the sunlight until her eyes adjusted. “No.”

“This is not, I trust, some kind of transferred familial sentimentality,” the drone said with half-pretended distaste.

“No,” the woman said, watching the shape of the module ripple in the air a few metres away.

Turminder Xuss moved towards the module as its rear door hinged open. “And are you going to stop saying ‘no’ to me all the time?”

Anaplian looked at it, expressionless.

“Never mind,” the drone said, sighing. It bob-nodded towards the open module door. “After you.”


The Expeditionary

1. Factory

2. Palace

3. Folly

4. In Transit

5. Platform

6. Scholastery

7. Reception

8. Tower

9. One-finger Man

<p>The Expeditionary</p>
<p>1. Factory</p>

The place had to be some sort of old factory or workshop or something. There were big toothed metal wheels half buried in the wooden floors or hanging by giant spindles from the network of iron beams overhead. Canvas belts were strung all over the dark spaces connecting smaller, smooth wheels and a host of long, complicated machines he thought might be something to do with weaving or knitting. It was all very dusty and grimy-looking. And yet this had been that modern thing; a factory! How quickly things decayed and became useless.

Normally he would never have considered going anywhere near some place so filthy. It might not even be safe, he thought, even with all the machinery stilled; one gable wall was partially collapsed, bricks tumbled, planks splintered, rafters hanging disjointed from above. He didn’t know if this was old damage from deterioration and lack of repair, or something that had happened today, during the battle. In the end, though, he hadn’t cared what the place was or had been; it was somewhere to escape to, a place to hide.

Well, to regroup, to recover and collect himself. That put a better gloss on it. Not running away, he told himself; just staging a strategical retreat, or whatever you called it.

Outside, the Rollstar Pentrl having passed over the horizon a few minutes earlier, it was slowly getting dark. Through the breach in the wall he could see sporadic flashes and hear the thunder of artillery, the crump and bellowing report of shells landing uncomfortably close by and the sharp, busy rattle of small arms fire. He wondered how the battle was going. They were supposed to be winning, but it was all so confusing. For all he knew they were on the brink of complete victory or utter defeat.

He didn’t understand warfare, and having now experienced its practice first hand, had no idea how people kept their wits about them in a battle. A big explosion nearby made the whole building tremble; he whimpered as he crouched down, pressing himself still further into the dark corner he had found on the first floor, drawing his thick cloak over his head. He heard himself make that pathetic, weak little sound and hated himself for it. Breathing under the cloak, he caught a faint odour of dried blood and faeces, and hated that too.

He was Ferbin otz Aelsh-Hausk’r, a prince of the House of Hausk, son of King Hausk the Conqueror. And while he was his father’s son, he had not been raised to be like him. His father gloried in war and battle and dispute, had spent his entire life aggressively expanding the influence of his throne and his people, always in the name of the WorldGod and with half an eye on history. The King had raised his eldest son to be like him, but that son had been killed by the very people they were fighting, perhaps for the last time, today. His second son, Ferbin, had been schooled in the arts not of war but of diplomacy; his natural place was supposed to be in the court, not the parade ground, fencing stage or firing range, still less the battlefield.

His father had known this and, even if he had never been as proud of Ferbin as he had of Elime, his murdered first son, he had accepted that Ferbin’s skill — you might even term it his calling, Ferbin had thought more than once — lay in the arts of politicking, not soldiering. It was, anyway, what his father had wanted. The King had been looking forward to a time when the martial heroics he had had to undertake to bring this new age about would be seen for the rude necessities they had been; he had wanted at least one of his sons to fit easily into a coming era of peace, prosperity and contentment, where the turning of a pretty phrase would have more telling effect than the twisting of a sword.

It was not his fault, Ferbin told himself, that he was not cut out for war. It was certainly not his fault that, realising he might be about to die at any moment, he had felt so terrified earlier. And even less to his discredit that he had lost control of his bowels when that Yilim chap — he had been a major or a general or something — had been obliterated by the cannon shot. Dear God, the man had been talking to him when he was just… gone! Cut in half!

Their small group had ridden up to a low rise for a better look at the battle. This was a modestly insane thing to do in the first place, Ferbin had thought at the time, exposing them to enemy spotters and hence to still greater risk than that from a random artillery shell. For one thing, he’d chosen a particularly outstanding mersicor charger as his mount that morning from the abroad-tents of the royal stables; a pure white beast with a high and proud aspect which he thought he would look well on. Only to discover that General-Major Yilim’s choice of mount obviously pitched in the same direction, for he rode a similar charger. Now he thought about it — and, oh! the number of times he’d had cause to use that phrase or one of its cousins at the start of some explanation in the aftermath of yet another embarrassment — Ferbin wondered at the wisdom of riding on to an exposed ridge with two such conspicuous beasts.

He had wanted to say this, but then decided he didn’t know enough about the procedures to be followed in such matters actually to speak his mind, and anyway he hadn’t wanted to sound like a coward. Perhaps Major-General or General-Major Yilim had felt insulted that he’d been left out of the front-line forces and asked instead to look after Ferbin, keeping him close enough to the action so that he’d later be able to claim that he’d been there at the battle, but not so close that he risked actually getting involved with any fighting.

From the rise, when they achieved it, they could see the whole sweep of the battleground, from the great Tower ahead in the distance, over the downland spreading out from the kilometres-wide cylinder and up towards their position on the first fold of the low hills that carried the road to Pourl itself. The Sarl capital city lay behind them, barely visible in the misty haze, a short-day’s ride away.

This was the ancient county of Xilisk and these were the old playgrounds of Ferbin and his siblings, long depopulated lands turned into royal parks and hunting grounds, filled with overgrown villages and thick forests. Now, all about, their crumpled, riven geography sparkled with the fire of uncounted thousands of guns, the land itself seemed to move and flow where troop concentrations and fleets of war craft manoeuvred, and great sloped stems of steam and smoke lifted into the air above it all, casting massive wedged shadows across the ground.

Here and there, beneath the spread of risen mists and lowering cloud, dots and small winged shapes moved above the great battle as caude and lyge — the great venerable warbeasts of the sky — spotted for artillery and carried intelligence and signals from place to place. None seemed mobbed by clouds of lesser avians, so most likely they were all friendly. Poor fare compared to the days of old, though, when flocks, squadrons, whole clouds of the great beasts had contended in the battles of the ancients. Well, if the old stories and ancient paintings were to be believed. Ferbin suspected they were exaggerated, and his younger half-brother, Oramen, who claimed to study such matters, had said well of course they were exaggerated, though, being Oramen, only after shaking his head at Ferbin’s ignorance.

Choubris Holse, his servant, had been to his left on the ridge, digging into a saddle bag and muttering about requiring some fresh supplies from the nearest village behind them. Major — or General — Yilim had been on his right, holding forth about the coming campaign on the next level down, taking the fight to their enemies in their own domain. Ferbin had ignored his servant and turned to Yilim out of politeness. Then, mid-word, with a sort of tearing rush of sound, the elderly officer — portly, a little flushed of face and inclined to wheeze when laughing — was gone, just gone. His legs and lower torso still sat in the saddle, but the rest of him was all ripped about and scattered; half of him seemed to have thrown itself over Ferbin, covering him in blood and greasily unknowable bits of body parts. Ferbin had stared at the remains still sitting in the saddle as he wiped some of the gore off his face, gagging with the stink and the warm, steaming feel of it. His lunch had left his belly and mouth like something was pursuing it. He’d coughed, then wiped his face with a gore-slicked hand.

“Fucking hell,” he’d heard Choubris Holse say, voice breaking.

Yilim’s mount — the tall, pale mersicor charger which Yilim had spoken to more kindly than to any of his men — as though suddenly realising what had just happened, screamed, reared and fled, dumping what was left of the man’s body on to the torn-up ground. Another shell or ball or whatever these ghastly things were landed nearby, felling another two of their group in a shrieking tangle of men and animals. His servant had gone too, now, Ferbin realised; mount toppled, falling on top of him. Choubris Holse yelled with fright and pain, pinned beneath the animal.

“Sir!” one of the junior officers shouted at him, suddenly in front of him, pulling his own mount round. “Ride! Away from here!”

He was still wiping blood from his face.

He’d filled his britches, he realised. He whipped his mount and followed the younger man, until the young officer and his mount disappeared in a sudden thick spray of dark earth. The air seemed to be full of screeches and fire; deafening, blinding. Ferbin heard himself whimper. He pressed himself against his mount, wrapping his arms round its neck and closing his eyes, letting the pounding animal find its own way over and around whatever obstacles were in its path, not daring to raise his head and look where they were going. The jarring, rattling, terrifying ride had seemed to last for ever. He heard himself whimpering again.

The panting, heaving mersicor slowed eventually.

Ferbin opened his eyes to see they were on a dark wooded track by the side of a small river; booms and flashes came from every side but sounded a little further away than they had. Something burned further up the stream, as though overhanging trees were on fire. A tall building, half ruined, loomed in the late afternoon light as the labouring, panting mount slowed still further. He pulled it to a stop outside the place, and dismounted. He’d let go of the reins. The animal startled at another loud explosion, then went wailing off down the track at a canter. He might have given chase if his pants hadn’t been full of his own excrement.

Instead he waddled into the building through a door wedged open by sagging hinges, looking for water and somewhere to clean himself. His servant would have known just what to do. Choubris Holse would have cleaned him up quick as you like, with much muttering and many grumblings, but efficiently, and without a sly sneer. And now, Ferbin realised, he was unarmed. The mersicor had made off with his rifle and ceremonial sword. Plus, the pistol he’d been given by his father, and which he had sworn would never leave his side while the war was waged, was no longer in its holster.

He found some water and ancient rags and cleaned himself as best he could. He still had his wine flask, though it was empty. He filled the flask from a long trough of deep, flowing water cut into the floor and rinsed his mouth, then drank. He tried to catch his reflection in the dark length of water but failed. He dipped his hands in the trough and pushed his fingers through his long fair hair, then washed his face. Appearances had to be maintained, after all. Of King Hausk’s three sons he had always been the one who most resembled their father; tall, fair and handsome, with a proud, manly bearing (so people said, apparently — he did not really trouble himself with such matters).

The battle raged on beyond the dark, abandoned building as the light of Pentrl faded from the sky. He found that he could not stop shaking. He still smelled of blood and shit. It was unthinkable that anyone should find him like this. And the noise! He’d been told the battle would be quick and they would win easily, but it was still going on. Maybe they were losing. If they were, it might be better that he hid. If his father had been killed in the fighting he would, he supposed, be the new king. That was too great a responsibility; he couldn’t risk showing himself until he knew they had won. He found a place on the floor above to lie down and tried to sleep, but could not; all he could see was General Yilim, bursting right in front of him, gobbets of flesh flying towards him. He retched once more, then drank from the flask.

Just lying there, then sitting, his cloak pulled tight around him, made him feel a little better. It would all be all right, he told himself. He’d take a little while away from things, just a moment or two, to collect his wits and calm down. Then he’d see how things were. They would have won, and his father would still be alive. He wasn’t ready to be king. He enjoyed being a prince. Being a prince was fun; being a king looked like hard work. Besides, his father had always entirely given everybody who’d ever met him the strong impression that he would most assuredly live for ever.

Ferbin must have nodded off. There was noise down below; clamour, voices. In his jangled, still half-drowsy state, he thought he recognised some of them. He was instantly terrified that he would be discovered, captured by the enemy or shamed in front of his father’s own troops. How low he had fallen in so short a time! To be as mortally afraid of his own side as of the enemy! Steel-shod feet clattered on the steps. He was going to be discovered!

“Nobody in the floors above,” a voice said.

“Good. There. Lay him there. Doctor…” (There was some speech that Ferbin didn’t catch. He was still working out that he’d escaped detection while he’d been asleep.) “Well, you must do whatever you can. Bleye! Tohonlo! Ride for help, as I’ve asked.”

“Sir.”

“At once.”

“Priest; attend.”

“The Exaltine, sir—”

“Will be with us in due course, I’m sure. For now the duty’s yours.”

“Of course, sir.”

“The rest of you, out. Give us some air to breathe here.”

He did know that voice. He was sure he did. The man giving the orders sounded like — in fact must be — tyl Loesp.

Mertis tyl Loesp was his father’s closest friend and most trusted adviser. What was going on? There was much movement. Lanterns cast shadows from below on to the dark ceiling above him. He shifted towards a chink of light coming from the floor nearby where a broad canvas belt, descending from a giant wheel above, disappeared through the planking to some machinery on the ground floor. Shifting, he could peer through the slit in the floor to see what was happening beneath.

Dear God of the World, it was his father!

King Hausk lay, face slack, eyes closed, on a broad wooden door resting on makeshift trestles immediately beneath. His armour was pierced and buckled over the left side of his chest, and blood was seeping through some flag or banner wrapped around him. He looked dead, or close to death.

Ferbin felt his eyes go wide.

Dr Gillews, the Royal Physician, was quickly opening bags and small portable cabinets. An assistant fussed beside him. A priest Ferbin recognised but did not know the name of stood by his father’s head, his white robes soiled with blood or mud. He was reading from some holy work. Mertis tyl Loesp — tall and partially stooped, still dressed in armour, his helmet held in one hand, his white hair matted — paced to and fro, armour glinting in the lanternlight. The only others present that he could see were a couple of knights, standing, rifles held ready, by the door. The angle was wrong to see further up than the chest of the tall knight on the right side of the door but Ferbin recognised the one whose face he could see; Bower or Brower or something.

He should reveal himself, he thought. He should let them know he was here. He might be about to become king, after all. It would be aberrant, perverse not to make himself known.

He would wait just a moment longer, all the same. He felt this like an instinct, he told himself, and his instinct had been right about not riding up on to the ridge, earlier.

His father’s eyes flickered open. He grimaced with pain, one arm moving towards his injured side. The doctor looked at his assistant, who went to hold the King’s hand, perhaps to comfort him, but certainly preventing him from probing his injury. The doctor joined his assistant, holding scissors and pliers. He cut cloth, pulled at armour.

“Mertis,” the King said weakly, ignoring the doctor and holding his other hand out. His voice, usually so stern and strong, sounded like a child’s.

“Here,” tyl Loesp said, coming to the King’s side. He took his hand.

“Do we prevail, Mertis?”

The other man looked round at the others present. Then he said, “We prevail, sir. The battle is won. The Deldeyn have surrendered and ask our terms. They conditioned only that their massacre cease and they be treated honourably. Which we have allowed, so far. The Ninth and all that it holds lies open to us.”

The King smiled. Ferbin felt relieved. It sounded like things had gone well. He supposed he really ought to make his entrance now. He took a breath to speak, let them know he was there.

“And Ferbin?” the King asked. Ferbin froze. What about him?

“Dead,” tyl Loesp said. It was said, Ferbin thought, with somewhat insufficient grief or pity. Almost, a chap less charitable than himself might have thought, with relish.

“Dead?” his father wailed, and Ferbin felt his eyes moisten. Now. Now he needed to let his father know that his eldest surviving son still lived, whether he smelled of shit or not.

“Yes,” tyl Loesp said, leaning over the King. “The vain, silly, spoiled little brat was blown to bits on Cherien ridge, some time after midday. A sad loss to his tailors, jewellers and creditors, I dare say. As to anyone of consequence, well…”

The King made a spluttering noise, then said, “Loesp? What are you—?”

“We are all of one mind here, are we not?” tyl Loesp said smoothly, ignoring the King — ignoring the King! — and looking round everybody present.

A chorus of low, muttered voices gave what must have been assent. “Not you, priest, but no matter,” tyl Loesp told the holy man. “Continue with the reading, if you would.” The priest did as he was instructed, eyes now wide. The doctor’s assistant stared at the King, then glanced at the doctor, who was looking back at him.

“Loesp!” the King cried, something of his old authority back in his voice. “What do you mean by this insult? And to my dead child? What monstrosity of—”

“Oh, do be quiet.” Tyl Loesp laid his helmet at his feet and leaned further forward, putting his knuckles to his cheeks and resting his mailed elbows on the King’s armoured chest; an act of such unprecedented disrespect that Ferbin found it almost more shocking than anything he’d heard. The King winced, breath wheezing out of him. Ferbin thought he heard something bubbling. The doctor had finished exposing the wound in the King’s side.

“I mean the cowardly little cunt is dead, you old cretin,” tyl Loesp said, addressing his only lord and master as though he was a beggar. “And if by some miracle he’s not, he soon will be. The younger boy I think I’ll keep alive for now, in my capacity as regent. Though — I’m afraid — poor, quiet, studious little Oramen may not live to the point of accession. They say the boy’s interested in mathematics. I am not — save, like yourself, for its trajectorial role in the fall of shot — however I’d compute his chances of seeing his next birthday and hence majority grow less substantial the closer the event creeps.”

“What?” the King gasped, labouring. “Loesp! Loesp, for all pity—”

“No,” tyl Loesp said, leaning more heavily on the blood-bright curve of armour, causing the King to moan. “No pity, my dear, dim old warrior. You’ve done your bit, you’ve won your war. That’s monument and epitaph enough and your time is past. But no pity, sir, no. I shall order all the prisoners of today killed with the utmost dispatch and the Ninth invaded with every possible severity, so that gutters, rivers — heavens, water wheels too, for all I care — run with blood, and the shrieking will, I dare say, be terrible to hear. All in your name, brave prince. For vengeance. For your idiot sons too, if you like.” Tyl Loesp put his face very close to that of the King and shouted at him, “The game is over, my old stump! It was always greater than you knew!” He pushed himself back off the King’s chest, making the prone man cry out again. Tyl Loesp nodded at the doctor, who, visibly gulping, reached out with some metal instrument, plunging it into the wound in the King’s side, making him shudder and scream.

“You traitors, you treacherous bastards!” the King wept, as the doctor took a step back, instrument dripping blood, face grey. “Will no one help me? Bastards all! You murder your king!”

Tyl Loesp shook his head, staring first at the writhing King, then at the doctor. “You ply your given trade too well, medic.” He moved round to the other side of the King, who flailed weakly at him. As tyl Loesp passed, the priest stuck out a hand, clutching at the nobleman’s sleeve. Tyl Loesp looked calmly down at the hand on his forearm. The priest said hoarsely, “Sir, this is too much, it’s — it’s wrong.”

Tyl Loesp looked at his eyes, then back at his clutching hand, until the priest released him. “You stray your brief, mumbler,” tyl Loesp told him. “Get back to your words.” The priest swallowed, then lowered his gaze to the book again. His lips began to move once more, though no sound issued from his mouth.

Tyl Loesp moved round the broken door, shoving the doctor back, until he stood by the King’s other flank. He crouched a little, inspecting. “A mortal wound indeed, my lord,” he said, shaking his head. “You should have accepted the magic potions our friend Hyrlis offered. I would have.” He plunged one hand into the King’s side, arm disappearing almost to the elbow. The King shrieked.

“Why,” tyl Loesp said, “here’s the very heart of it.” He grunted, twisting and pulling inside the man’s chest. The King gave one final scream, arched his back and then collapsed. The body jerked a few more times, and some sound came from his lips, but nothing intelligible, and soon they too were still.

Ferbin stared down. He felt frozen, immobilised, like something trapped in ice or baked to solidity. Nothing he had seen or heard or ever known had prepared him for this. Nothing.

There was a sharp crack. The priest fell like a sack of rocks. Tyl Loesp lowered his pistol. The hand holding it dripped blood.

The doctor cleared his throat, stepped away from his assistant. “Ah, the boy, too,” he told tyl Loesp, looking away from the lad. He shook his head and shrugged. “He worked for the King’s people as well as us, I’m sure.”

“Master! I—!” the youth had time to say, before tyl Loesp shot him as well; in the belly first, folding him, then in the head. The doctor looked quite convinced that tyl Loesp was about to shoot him, too, but tyl Loesp merely smiled at him and then at the two knights at the door. He stooped, took a towel from the waistband of the murdered assistant, wiped his pistol and his hand with it, then dabbed a little blood from his arm and sleeve.

He looked round the others. “This had to be done, as we all know,” he told them. He looked distastefully at the body of the King, as a surgeon might at a patient who has had the temerity to die on him. “Kings are usually the first to talk, and at some length, of overarching destiny and the necessity of fulfilling greater purposes,” he said, still wiping and dabbing. “So let’s take all that billowy rhetoric as heard, shall we? We are left with this: the King died of his wounds, most honourably incurred, but not before swearing bloody vengeance on his enemies. The prancing prince is dead and the younger one is in my charge. These two here fell prey to a sniper. And we’ll burn down this old place, just for good measure. Now, come; all our fine prizes await.”

He threw the bloodied towel down on to the face of the felled assistant and then said, with an encouraging smile, “I believe we are concluded here.”

<p>2. Palace</p>

Oramen was in a round room in the shade wing of the royal palace in Pourl when they came to tell him that his father and his elder brother were dead and he would, in time, be king. He had always liked this room because its walls described an almost perfect circle and, if you stood at its very centre, you could hear your own voice reflected back at you from the chamber’s circumference in a most singular and interesting fashion.

He looked up from his papers at the breathless earl who’d burst into the room and broken the news. The earl’s name was Droffo, from Shilda, if Oramen was not mistaken. Meanwhile a couple of the palace servants piled into the room behind the nobleman, also breathing hard and looking flushed. Oramen sat back in his seat. He noticed it was dark outside. A servant must have lit the room’s lamps.

“Dead?” he said. “Both of them? Are you sure?”

“If all reports are to be believed, sir. From the army command and from tyl Loesp himself. The King is — the King’s body is returning on a gun carriage, sir,” Droffo told him. “Sir, I’m sorry. It’s said poor Ferbin was cut in half by a shell. I am so sorry, sir, sorry beyond words. They are gone.”

Oramen nodded thoughtfully. “But I am not king?”

The earl, who to Oramen looked dressed half for court and half for war, looked confused for a moment. “No, sir. Not until your next birthday. Tyl Loesp will rule in your name. As I understand it.”

“I see.”

Oramen took a couple of deep breaths. Well, now. He had not prepared himself for this eventuality. He wasn’t sure what to think. He looked at Droffo. “What am I supposed to do? What is my duty?”

This, too, seemed to flummox the good earl, just for an instant. “Sir,” he said, “you might ride out to meet the King’s bier.”

Oramen nodded. “I might indeed.”

“It is safe, sir; the battle is won.”

“Yes,” Oramen said, “of course.” He rose, and looked beyond Droffo to one of the servants. “Puisil. The steam car, if you would.”

“Take a little while to get steam up,” Puisil said. “Sir.”

“Then don’t delay,” Oramen told him reasonably. The servant turned to go just as Fanthile, the palace secretary appeared. “A moment,” Fanthile told the servant, causing Puisil to hesitate, his gaze flicking between the young prince and the elderly palace secretary.

“A charger might be the better choice, sir,” Fanthile told Oramen. He smiled and bowed to Droffo, who nodded back at the older man. Fanthile was balding and his face was heavily lined, but he was still tall and carried his thin frame proudly.

“You think?” Oramen said. “The car will be quicker, surely.”

“The mount would be more immediate, sir,” Fanthile said. “And more fitting. One is more public on a mount. The people will need to see you.”

One can stand up in the back of my father’s steam car, Oramen considered saying. But he saw the sense in what was being proposed.

“Also,” Fanthile continued, seeing the prince hesitate and deciding to press, “the road may be crowded. A mount will slip through spaces—”

“Yes, of course,” Oramen said. “Very well. Puisil, if you would.”

“Sir.” The servant left.

Oramen sighed and boxed his papers. His day had largely been taken up with working on a novel form of musical notation. He had been kept, with the rest of the household, in the cellars of the palace during the early morning, when the Deldeyn had first been expected to break out from the nearby Tower, in case things went badly and they had to flee through subterranean tunnels to a fleet of steam vehicles waiting ready in the city’s lower reaches, but then they had been allowed out when, as expected, the enemy had been met with such prepared force they had soon ceased to be a threat to the city and their attention became focused instead on their own survival.

Mid-morning, he’d been persuaded to climb to a balustraded roof with Shir Rocasse, his tutor, to look out over the stepped palace grounds and the higher reaches of the hilltop city towards the Xiliskine Tower and the battleground that — telegraph reports now stated — stretched almost all around it.

But there had been little to see. Even the sky had appeared entirely devoid of action. The great battle-flocks of caude and lyge that had filled the ancient airs and made the battles of yesteryear seem so romantic were largely gone now; consigned — reduced — to scout patrols, messengering, artillery spotting, and raids that were little better than brigandry. Here on the Eighth such flying warbeasts were widely held to have no significant part to play in modern ground battles, largely due to the machinery and accompanying tactics King Hausk himself had introduced.

There had been rumours that the Deldeyn had steam-powered flying machines, but if these had been present today they must have been in small numbers or had little obvious effect. Oramen had been mildly disappointed, though he thought the better of saying so to his old tutor, who was as patriotic, race-conscious and WorldGodly as any might wish. They came down from the roof, for what were supposed to be lessons.

Shir Rocasse was nearing retirement but had anyway realised during the last short-year that he had little to teach Oramen now, unless it was by rote straight out of a book. These days, the prince preferred to use the palace library unmediated, though he still listened to the old scholar’s advice, not entirely out of sentimentality. He had left Rocasse in the library, wrapt by some dusty set of scrolls, and made his way here, to the round room, where he was even less likely to be disturbed. Well, until now.

“Oramen!” Renneque ran in, darting past Droffo and Fanthile and flinging herself at his feet in a derangement of torn clothing. “I just heard! It can’t be true!” Renneque, the lady Silbe, hooked her arms round his feet, hugging tight. She looked up, her young face livid with tears and grief, brown hair spilling. “Say it’s not? Please? Not both. Not the King and Ferbin too! Not both. Not both. For anything, not both!”

Oramen leant down gently and pulled her up until she knelt before him, her eyes wide, her brows pulled in, her jaw working. He had always thought her rather attractive, and been envious of his elder brother, but now he thought she looked almost ugly in this surfeit of grief. Her hands, having been deprived of the patent reassurance of his feet, now clutched at a plump little World symbol on a thin chain round her neck, twisting it round and round in her fingers, the filigree of smaller shells inside the spherical outer casing all revolving, sliding back and forth, continually adjusting.

Oramen felt quite mature, even old, all of a sudden. “Now, Renneque,” he said, taking her hands and patting them. “We all have to die.”

The girl wailed, throwing herself to the floor again.

“Madam,” Fanthile said, sounding kindly but embarrassed and reaching down to her, then turning to see Mallarh, one of the ladies of court — also looking tearful and distracted — appear in the doorway. Mallarh, perhaps twice Renneque’s age, face pitted with the tiny scars of a childhood infection, bit her lip when she saw the younger woman weeping on the wooden floor. “Please,” Fanthile said to Mallarh, indicating Renneque.

Mallarh persuaded Renneque to rise, then to exit.

“Now, sir…” Fanthile said, before turning to see Harne, the lady Aelsh, the King’s present consort and mother to Ferbin, standing in the doorway, her eyes red, fair hair straggled and unkempt but clothing untorn, her face set and stance steady. Fanthile sighed. “Madam—” he began.

“Just confirm it, Fanthile,” the lady said. “Is it true? The two? Both of mine?”

Fanthile looked at the floor for a moment. “Yes, my lady. Both gone. The King most certainly, the prince by all accounts.”

The lady Aelsh seemed to sag, then slowly drew herself up. She nodded, then made as though to turn away, before stopping to look at Oramen. He looked straight back at her. He rose from his seat, still held by that gaze.

Though they had both sought to conceal it, their mutual dislike was no secret in the palace. His was based on his own mother having been banished in Harne’s favour, while hers was generally assumed to be caused by Oramen’s mere existence. Still, he wanted to say that he was sorry; he wanted to say (at least when he thought more clearly and logically about it later), that he felt for her double loss, that this was an unlooked-for and an unwanted promotion of his status, and that she would suffer no diminution of her own rank by any action or inaction of his either during the coming regency or following his own ascension. But her expression seemed to forbid him from speech, and perhaps even dared him to find anything that might be said that she would not find in some way objectionable.

He struggled against this feeling for some moments, thinking that it was better to say something rather than seem to insult her with silence, but then gave up. There was a saying: Wisdom is Silence. In the end, he simply bowed his head to the lady, saying nothing. He sensed as much as saw her turn and leave.

Oramen looked up again. Well, at least that was over.

“Come, sir,” Fanthile said, holding out one arm. “I’ll ride with you.”

“Will I be all right like this?” Oramen asked. He was dressed most informally, in pants and shirt.

“Throw on a good cloak, sir,” Fanthile suggested. He looked steadily at the younger man as he hesitated, patting the papers he had been working on as though not sure whether to take them with him or not. “You must be distraught, sir,” the palace secretary said levelly.

Oramen nodded. “Yes,” he said, tapping the papers. The topmost sheet was nothing to do with musical notation. As a prince, Oramen had of course been educated in the ways of the aliens who existed beyond his home level and outwith Sursamen itself and, idling earlier, he’d been doodling his name and then attempting to express it as those aliens might:

Oramen lin Blisk-Hausk’r yun Pourl, yun Dich.

Oramen-man, Prince (3/2), Pourlinebrac, 8/Su.

Human Oramen, prince of Pourl, house of Hausk, domain of Sarl, of the Eighth, Sursamen.

Meseriphine-Sursamen/8sa Oramen lin Blisk-Hausk’r dam Pourl.

He reordered the pages, picked up a paperweight and placed it on the pile. “Yes, I must, mustn’t I?”

* * *

Just hoisting oneself aboard a mersicor, it appeared, had become rather more complicated than it had ever been before. Oramen had hardly tarried since hearing the news, but even so a considerable fuss had already accrued in the lantern-lit mounting yard by the time he got there.

Accompanied — harried might have been as fit a term — by Fanthile, Oramen had visited his apartments to grab a voluminous riding cloak, suffered Fanthile pulling a comb through his auburn hair and then been rushed down the steps towards the yard, taking care to nod at the various grave faces and sets of wringing hands en route. He had only been held up once, by the Oct ambassador.

The ambassador looked like some sort of giant crab. Its upright, ovoid body — about the size of a child’s torso — was coloured deep blue and covered with tiny bright green growths that were either thin spikes or thick hairs. Its thrice-segmented limbs — four hanging like legs, four seemingly taking the part of arms — were an almost incandescent red, and each terminated in small double claws which were the same blue as the main body. The limbs protruded, not quite symmetrically, in broken-looking Z-shapes from four black stubs which for some reason always reminded Oramen of fleshy cannon mouths.

The creature was supported from the rear and sides by a frame of mirror-finished metal, with bulkier additions behind it which apparently housed the means it used to hover soundlessly in mid-air, occasionally leaking small amounts of strangely scented liquid. A set of tubes led from another cylinder to what was assumed to be its face, set in the middle of its main body and covered with a sort of mask through which tiny bubbles could occasionally be seen to move. Its whole body glistened, and when you looked very closely — and Oramen had — you could see that a very thin membrane of liquid seemed to enclose every part of it, with the possible exception of its little green hairs and the blue claws. The Oct diplomatic mission was housed in an old ballroom in the palace’s sun wing, and was, apparently, completely full of water.

The ambassador and two escorting Oct, one slightly smaller and one a little larger than it, floated over the corridor tiles towards Oramen and Fanthile as they reached the final turn in the stairs. Fanthile stopped when he saw the creatures. Oramen thought better of not doing likewise. He heard the palace secretary sigh.

“Oramen-man, Prince,” Ambassador Kiu-to-Pourl said. Its voice was that of dry leaves rustling, or a small fire starting in tinder. “That who gave that you might be given unto life is no more, as our ancestors, the blessed Involucra, who are no more, to us are. Grief is to be experienced, thereto related emotions, and much. I am unable to share, being. Nevertheless. And forbearance I commend unto you. One assumes. Likely, too, assumption takes place. Fruitions. Energy transfers, like inheritance, and so we share. You; we. As though in the way of pressure, in subtle conduits we do not map well.”

Oramen stared at the thing, wondering what he was supposed to make of this apparent nonsense. In his experience the ambassador’s tangential utterances could be made to represent some sort of twisted sense if you thought about them long enough — preferably after writing them down — but he didn’t really have the time just now.

“Thank you for your kind words,” he blurted, nodding and backing towards the stairs.

The ambassador drew back a fraction, leaving a tiny pool of moisture glistening on the tiles. “Keep you. Go to that which you go to. Take that which I would give you. Knowing of alike-ness. Oct — Inheritors — descend from Veil, inherit. You, inherit. Also, is pity.”

“With your leave, sir,” Fanthile said to the ambassador, then he and Oramen bowed, turned and went clattering down the last flight of stairs towards ground level.

The fuss in the mounting yard mostly involved a whole blaring coven of dukes, earls and knights disputing loudly over who ought to ride with the Prince Regent on the short journey he was about to make to meet the body of the returning king.

Oramen hung back in the shadows, arms folded, waiting for his mount to be brought before him. He stepped backwards into a pile of dung near the yard’s tall rear wall and tutted, shaking some of the shit from his boot and attempting to scrape off the rest on the wall. The dung pile was still steaming. He wondered if you could tell what sort of animal had left the turd from its appearance and consistency. Probably, he imagined.

He looked straight up at the sky. There, still visible over the lanterns illuminating the mounting yard from the ensquaring walls, a dull red line marked the cooling course incised by the Rollstar Pentrl, many hours set and many days away from returning. He looked to the nearpole, where Domity would rise next, but this was a relatively long night, and even the Rollstar’s forelight was still some hours away. He thought he could see just a suggestion of the Keande-yiine Tower, stretching into the darkness above — the lower extent of the Xiliskine, though nearer, was hidden by a tall tower of the palace — but he was not sure. Xiliskine. Or 213tower52. That was the name their mentors, the Oct, would give it. He supposed he ought to prefer Xiliskine.

He returned his attention to the yard. So many nobles. He’d assumed they’d all be out fighting the Deldeyn. But then, his father had long since drawn a firm distinction between those nobles who brought grace and emollience to a court and those who were capable of successfully fighting a modern war. The levied troops, magnificently motley, led by their lords, still had their place, but the New Army was part full-time professional and part well-trained people’s militias, all of it commanded by captains, majors, colonels and generals, not knights, lords, earls and dukes. He spotted some senior priests and a few parliamentarians in the mixture too, pressing their suit for inclusion. He had fondly imagined riding out alone, or with one or two attendants. Instead it looked like he would be leading out a small army of his own.

Oramen had been advised not to have anything to do with the battle taking place out over the plains that day, and anyway had no real interest in it, given that they had all been most severely assured it was quite certain to go their way by Werreber, one of his father’s most forbidding generals, just the night before. It was a pity, in a way. Only a couple of years ago he’d have been fascinated with the machinery of war and all the careful dispositioning of forces involved. The intense numericality of its planning and the extreme functionality of its cruel workings would have consumed him.

Somehow, though, since then he’d lost interest in things martial. They seemed, even as they were in the process of securing it, profoundly inimical to the modern age they’d help usher in. War itself was becoming old-fashioned and outmoded. Inefficient, wasteful, fundamentally destructive, it would have no part in the glitteringly pragmatic future the greatest minds of the kingdom foresaw.

Only people like his father would mourn such a passing. He would celebrate it.

“My prince,” murmured a voice beside him.

Oramen turned. “Tove!” he said, clapping the other young man on the back. Tove Lomma had been his best friend almost since nursery. He was an army officer nowadays and wore the uniform of the old Flying Corps. “You’re here! I thought you’d be fighting! How good to see you!”

“They’ve had me in one of the lyge towers the last few days, with a squadron of the beasts. Light guns. In case there was an aerial attack. Listen.” He put one hand on Oramen’s arm. “This is so bad about your father and Ferbin. The stars would weep, Oramen. I can’t tell you. All the men of the flight… Well, we want you to know we’re at your command.”

“Rather, at Loesp’s.”

“He is your champion in this, Oramen. He’ll serve you well, I’m sure.”

“As am I.”

“Your father, though; our dear king, our every—” Tove’s voice broke. He shook his head and looked away, biting his lip and sniffing hard.

Oramen felt he had to comfort his old friend. “Well, he died happy, I imagine,” he said. “In battle, and victorious, as he’d have wished. As we’d all have wished. Anyway.” He took a quick look round the mêlée in the yard. The contesting nobles seemed to be gathering themselves into some sort of order but there was still no sign of his charger. He’d have been quicker in the steam car after all. “It is a shock,” he continued. Tove was still looking away. “I shall miss him. Miss him… well, terribly. Obviously.” Tove looked back at him. Oramen smiled broadly and blinked quickly. “Truth be told, I think I’m like a half-stunned beast, still walking around, but eyes crossed as wits. I fully expect to wake up at any moment. I’d do so now, if it was in my power.”

When Tove looked back, his eyes were bright. “I’ve heard that when the troops learned their beloved king was dead, they fell upon their captives and killed every one.”

“I hope not,” Oramen said. “That was not my father’s policy.”

“They killed him, Oramen! Those beasts! I wish I’d been there too, to take my own revenge.”

“Well, neither of us were. We must hope what’s been done in our name brings only honour.”

Tove nodded slowly, clutching Oramen’s arm once more. “You must be strong, Oramen,” he said.

Oramen gazed at his old friend. Strong, indeed. This was quite the most vapid thing Tove had ever said to him. Death obviously had an odd effect on people.

“So,” Tove said, with a sly, tentative smile, “do we call you sire or majesty or something yet?”

“Not yet…” Oramen began, then was led away by an earl and assisted to his mount by dukes.

* * *

On the Xilisk road, near the small town of Evingreath, the cortège bearing the body of King Nerieth Hausk back to his capital met with the barely smaller procession led by the prince Oramen. Immediately he saw the Prince Regent, lit by hissing travel lanterns and the slow-increasing forelight of the Rollstar Domity, still some hours from its dawn, Mertis tyl Loesp, who all the world knew had been like a third hand to the King for almost all his life, dismounted and, pulling himself with heavy steps to the prince’s charger, went down on one knee on the muddied road, head bowed, so that his silvery hair — spiked and wild from the tearings of grief — and his distraught face — still dark with powder smoke and streaked by hot, unceasing tears — were level with the stirruped foot of the prince. Then he raised his head and said these words:

“Sir, our beloved master, the King, who was your father and my friend, and was friend and father to all his people, comes back to his throne in triumph, but also in death. Our victory has been great, and complete, and our gain and new advantage immeasurable. Only our loss exceeds such vast accomplishment, but it does so by a ratio beyond calculation. Beside that hateful cost, for all its furious glory, our triumph these last hours now looks like nothing. Your father was full occasion for both; one would not have been but for his matchless leadership and steady purpose, the other was invoked by his untimely, unwanted, undeserved death.

“And so, it is fallen to me, and is my great, if ever-unlooked-for privilege, to rule for the short interval between this most loathsome day and the glorious one of your accession. I beseech you, sir; believe me that whatever I do in your name, my lord, will be for you and the people of Sarl, and always in the name of the WorldGod. Your father would expect no less, and in this cause, so great to us, I might begin to start some small repayment of the honour he did me. I honour you as I honoured him, sir — utterly, with all my being, with my every thought and every action, now and for as long as it is my duty so to do.

“I have today lost the best friend a man ever had, sir; a true light, a constant star whose fixity outshone, outstared any mere celestial lamp. The Sarl have lost the greatest commander they have ever known, a name fit to be clamoured down the aeons till time’s end and echo loud as that of any hero of the distant ancients amongst the unseen stars. We can never hope to be a tenth as great as he, but I take respite in only this: the truly great are strong beyond death itself, my lord, and, like the fading streak of light and heat a great star leaves behind it once its own true brilliance has been obscured, a legacy of power and wisdom remains from which we may draw strength, by its focus magnifying our own small allotment of fortitude and will.

“Sir, if I seem to express myself inelegantly, or without the due respect I would give your station and your self, forgive me. My eyes are blinded, my ears stopped and my mouth made numb by all that’s taken place today. To gain more than we thought possible, then lose an infinity more than even that, would have shattered any man, save only the one unmatched soul it is our sad, abhorrent duty to bring before you here.”

Tyl Loesp fell silent. Oramen knew he was expected to say something in return. He’d been doing his best to ignore the prattling dukes around him for the last half-hour, after Fanthile had briefly made it through the press of bodies, animal and human, surrounding him, to warn him he might need to give a speech. The palace secretary had barely had time to impart even this morsel of advice before he and his mount were nudged and jostled out of the way, back to what the more splendid nobles obviously regarded as his proper place amongst the minor nobility, the dutifully wailing priests and dour-looking parliamentarians. Since then Oramen had been trying to come up with something suitable. But what was he supposed to say, or do?

He glanced at the various resplendent nobles around him, all of whom, from their grave, almost exaggerated nods and mutterings, seemed to approve quite mightily of Mertis tyl Loesp’s speech. Oramen twisted briefly in his saddle to glimpse Fanthile — now still further back in the crush of junior nobles, priests and representatives — signalling, with jerks of his head and jagged flaps of his hand that he ought to dismount.

He did so. Already a small crowd of dismounted men and people presumably from the nearby town and countryside had gathered around them, filling the broad way and jostling for position on the roadside banks. The growing forelight, pre-dawn under a sky of scattered clouds, silhouetted some folk climbing nearby trees for a better view. He still had no idea what to say in return, though he suddenly thought what a fine subject for a painting such a scene might make. Oramen took tyl Loesp by one hand and got him to stand before him.

“Thank you for all you’ve said and done, dear tyl Loesp,” he told the older man. He was very aware of the contrast between the two of them; he the slight prince, barely out of childish clothes and dressed beneath his thrown-back cloak as though preparing for bed, the other the all-powerful conquering warrior, still in his battle armour — flecked here and there with all the marks of war — three times his age and barely any younger or less impressive than the lately killed king.

Harsh-breathing, stern-faced, still stinking of blood and smoke, bearing all the signs of mortal combat and unbearable grief, tyl Loesp towered over him. The drama of the scene was not lost on Oramen. This would make a good painting, he thought, especially by one of the old masters — say Dilucherre, or Sordic. Perhaps even Omoulldeo. And almost at the same moment, he knew what to do; he’d steal.

Not from a painting, of course, but from a play. There were enough old tragedies with like scenes and suitable speeches for him to welcome back a dozen dead dads and doughty combateers; the choice was more daunting than the task it might relieve. He’d recall, pick, edit, join and extemporise his way through the moment.

“This is indeed our saddest day,” Oramen said, raising his voice, and his head. “If any energies of yours could bring our father back, I know you’d devote them to that cause without stint. That vigour instead will be turned to the good interest of all our people. You bring us sorrow and joy at once, my good tyl Loesp, but for all the misery we feel now, and for all the time we must rightly hence devote to the mourning of our incomparable fallen, the satisfaction of this great victory will still shine brightly when that rite has been most fully observed, and my father would surely want it so.

“The sum of his most glorious life was cause for fervent celebration well before the great triumph of this day, and the weight of that result has grown only more majestic with the exploits of all who fought for him before the Xiliskine Tower.” Oramen looked round the gathered people for a moment at this point, and attempted to raise his voice still further. “My father took one son to war today, and left one, myself, at home. I have lost both a father and a brother, as well as my king and his loved and rightful heir. They outshine me in death as they did in life, and Mertis tyl Loesp, though having no lack of other responsibilities, must stand in place of both for me. I tell you, I can think of no one more fitted to the task.” Oramen nodded towards the grim-faced warrior in front of him, then he took a breath, and, still addressing the assembled mass, said, “I know I have no share of this day’s glory — I think my boyish shoulders would fail beneath the smallest part of such a load — but I am proud to stand with all the Sarl people, to celebrate and to honour the great deeds done and pay the fullest respect to one who taught us celebration, encouraged us to honour and exemplified respect.”

This fetched a cheer, which rose raggedly then with increasing strength from the congregation of people gathered around them. Oramen heard shields being struck by swords, mailed fists beating on armoured chests and, like a modern comment on such flowery antiquity, the loud crack of small arms fire, rounds spent into the air like some inverted hail.

Mertis tyl Loesp, who had kept a stony face during Oramen’s reply, looked very briefly surprised — even alarmed — at its end, but that briefest of impressions — which might so easily have been the result of the uncertain light cast by the carried travel lanterns and the wan glow of a still unrisen minor star — was close to uncapturably short-lived, and easily dismissible.

“May I see my father, sir?” Oramen asked. He found that his heart was beating hard and his breath was quick; still he did his best to maintain a calm and dignified demeanour, as he gathered was expected. Nevertheless, if he was expected to wail and scream and tear out his hair when he saw the body, this impromptu audience was going to be disappointed.

“He is here, sir,” tyl Loesp said, indicating the long carriage pulled by hefters behind him.

They walked to the carriage, the crowd of men, mostly armed, many with all the appearance of great distress, parting for them. Oramen saw the tall, spare frame of General Werreber, who’d briefed them at the palace about the battle just the night before, and the Exaltine Chasque, the chief of priests. Both nodded to him. Werreber looked old and tired and somehow — despite his height — shrunken inside his crumpled uniform. He nodded, then cast his gaze downwards. Chasque, resplendent in rich vestments over gleaming armour, formed the sort of clenched, encouraging half-smile people sometimes did when they wanted to tell you to be brave or strong.

They climbed on to the platform where Oramen’s father lay. The body was attended by a couple of priests in appropriately torn vestments and lit from above by a single hissing, sputtering travel lamp casting a white, caustic light over the bier. His father’s face looked grey and still and drawn-down somehow, as though he was pondering — eyes shut, jaws set — some overwhelmingly demanding problem. A silvery sheet embroidered with gold covered his body from the neck down.

Oramen stood looking at him for a while. In time he said, “In life, by choice, his deeds spoke for him. In death, I must be as mute as all his undone undertakings.” He clapped tyl Loesp on the arm. “I’ll sit with him while we return to the city.” He looked behind the gun carriage. A mersicor, a great charger, dis-armoured though in full regalia, was tied to its rear, saddle empty. “Is that…?” he began, then made a show of clearing his throat. “That’s my father’s mount,” he said.

“It is,” tyl Loesp confirmed.

“And my brother’s?”

“Unfound, sir.”

“Let my mount be tied to the end of the carriage too, behind my father’s.”

He went to sit at his father’s head, then, imagining Fanthile’s face, thought that might be held inappropriate, and repositioned himself at the foot of the bier.

He sat there at the trailing edge of the carriage, cross-legged, looking down, while the two mersicors loped along just behind, breath steaming in the increasingly misty air. The whole aggregated column of men, animals and wagons made the rest of the journey to the city in a silence broken only by the creak of wheel and axle, the snap of whip and the snort and clop of beast. The morning mists obscured the rising star of the new day almost until the walls of Pourl itself, then lifted slowly to become a layer of overcast that hid the higher city and the palace.

On the approaches to the Nearpole Gate, where a conglomeration of small factories and what was effectively a new town had sprung up within Oramen’s lifetime, the temporary sun shone only for a little while, then was gone again behind the clouds.

<p>3. Folly</p>

Choubris Holse found his master in the eighth of the distinct places where he thought he might actually be, which was, of course, a significant and most propitious location to discover somebody or something a person was looking for. It was also the last place he knew of to look with any purpose beyond simply wandering randomly; indeed, with this in mind, he had left it to the afternoon of his second day of searching specifically with the hope that this might finally be where Ferbin had fetched up.

The folly looked like a small castle poised on a low cliff overlooking a turn in the river Feyrla. It was just a hollow round of walls, really, with crenellations, and had been built, pre-ruined, as it were, to improve the view from a hunting lodge a little further down the valley. It had been a place, Choubris Holse knew, where the King’s children had played while their father — on one of his infrequent spells at home from his various Wars of Unity — went hunting.

Choubris tethered his rowel by the single low door to the ruin and left it noisily cropping moss from the wall. The mersicor trailing behind the rowel, brought in case he found his master mountless, nibbled daintily at some flowers. Holse preferred rowels to mersicors — they were less skittish and harder working. He might have taken a flying beast, he supposed, but he trusted those even less. Royal servants above a certain rank were expected to be able to fly, and he had suffered the instruction — and the instructors, who had not spared him their opinion that such honour was wasted upon one so coarse — but had not enjoyed the learning.

A proper searching, like so many things, was best done on foot, from the ground. Hurling oneself grandly across the sky was all very well and certainly gave the impression of lordly oversight and superiority, but what it really did was give you the opportunity to miss all details at once, rather than one at a time, which was the ration for decent folk. Plus, as a rule — a most fixed and strict rule, it had long struck Choubris — it was the people who had to make things work on the ground who ended up paying for such sweepingly overgeneralised judgementing. This principle seemed to apply to high-ups of all distinctions, whether their height was literal or metaphorical.

“Sir?” he called into the hollow round of stones. His voice echoed. The masonry was ill-dressed, worse within than without. The lower tier of piercings — much too wide for any real fortification — gave out on to pleasant views of hill and forest. The Xiliskine Tower rose pale and vast in the distance, disappearing beyond the clouds into the heavens. Plumes of smoke and wisps of steam were scattered across the landscape like missed stalks after a harvest, all leaning away from the backing wind.

He limped further into the folly. His left leg still hurt from where that seed-brained mersicor had fallen on him the day before. He was getting too old for such shenanigans; he was in his middle years now and starting to fill out nicely and become distinguished (or develop a paunch and become grey and grizzled, by his wife’s less forgiving measure). His whole side, every rib, pained him when he took a deep breath, or tried to laugh. Not that there’d been much laughing.

Choubris had seen many signs of battle while he’d been riding round the area: whole wastelands of torn-up fields and shattered forests, the land raddled with a pox of craters; entire woods and brush forests still on fire, smoke walling the sky, other fires only just exhausted or extinguished, leaving vast black tracts of razed ground, seeping wispy fumes; the wrecks of smashed war machines lying crippled like enormous broken insects with tracks unrolled behind them, a few still leaking steam; some great dead battle beasts, spread crumpled and forlorn — uoxantch, chunsels and ossesyi, plus a couple of types he didn’t recognise.

He’d seen bands of wounded troops, walking in lines or borne on carts and wagons, groups of soldiers dashing about importantly on mersicors, a few airborne men on caude, slowly crisscrossing, dipping and wheeling when searching for any still surviving enemy or stray fallen, or making straight and fast if bearing messages. He’d passed engineers rigging or repairing telegraph lines, and thrice he’d pulled off roads and tracks to let hissing, spitting, smoke-belching steam vehicles past. He’d patted and comforted the old rowel, even though she’d seemed unbothered.

He’d come, too, upon numerous details digging charnel pits for the enemy dead, of which there seemed a great many. The Deldeyn, Holse thought, looked much like normal folk. Perhaps a little darker, though that might have been the effect of death itself.

He’d stopped and talked to anybody willing to spare the time, pretty much regardless of rank, partly to enquire about missing nobles on white chargers, mostly because, as he would freely admit, he enjoyed flapping his jaw. He took a little crile root with the captain of one company, shared a pipe of unge with a sergeant from another and was grateful to a quartermaster-lieutenant for a bottle of strong wine. Most of the soldiers were more than happy to talk about their part in the battle, though not all. The mass-burial men, in particular, tended to the taciturn, even surly. He heard a few interesting things, as any fellow open to easy discourse was bound to.

“Prince?” he yelled, louder, voice echoing off the rough stones inside the folly. “Sir? Are you here?” He frowned and shook his head beneath the open crown of the empty tower. “Ferbin?” he shouted.

He ought not to call his master by his name like that, but then it looked like the prince wasn’t here after all, and there was a thrill to be had from such address. Roundly insulting one’s superiors behind their backs was one of the perks of being inferior, Choubris held. Besides, he’d been told often enough that he could use the familiar term, though such licence was only ever offered when Ferbin was very drunk. The offer was never renewed in sobriety so Choubris had thought the better of acting on the privilege.

He wasn’t here. Maybe he wasn’t anywhere, alive. Maybe the gaudy dope had accorded himself war hero status by mistake, riding neck-clutch like a terrified child wherever his idiot mount had taken him, to be shot by one side or other or fall off a cliff. Knowing Ferbin, he’d probably thought to raise his head again just as he went charging under an overhanging bough.

Choubris sighed. That was it, then. There was nowhere obvious left to look. He could wander the great battlefield pretending to search for his lost master, skipping through triage pens, inhabiting field hospitals and haunting morgue piles all he liked, but, unless the WorldGod took a most unlikely personal interest in his quest, he’d never find the blighter. At this rate he’d be forced to return to his wife and children, in the littler though hardly less savage battlefield that was their apartment in the palace barracks.

And now who’d have him? He’d lost a prince (if you wanted to take an uncharitable view of the matter, and he knew plenty that would); what were the chances he’d get to serve any other quality again, with that recorded against him? The King was dead and tyl Loesp was in charge, at least until the boy prince came of age. Choubris had a feeling in his gut that a lot of things — things that had seemed settled and comfortable and pleasantly just-so for honest, respectable, hard-working people — would change from here onwards. And the chances of a proven prince-misplacer bettering himself under any regime were unlikely to be good. He shook his head, sighed to himself. “What a sorry mess,” he muttered. He turned to go.

“Choubris? Is it you?”

He turned back. “Hello?” he said, unable to see where the voice had come from. A sudden feeling inside his belly informed him, somewhat to his surprise, that he must have a degree of genuine human fondness for Prince Ferbin after all. Or perhaps he was just glad not, in fact, to be a prince-loser.

There was movement up on one wall, at the base of one of the impractically wide windows on the second tier; a man, crawling out of a fissure in the rough stonework that was mostly hidden by a rustling tangle of wallcreep. Choubris hadn’t even noticed the hidey-hole. Ferbin completed his emergence, crawled to the edge of the window ledge, rubbed his eyes and looked down at his servant.

“Choubris!” he said, in a sort of loud whisper. He glanced around, as though afraid. “It is you! Thank God!”

“I already have, sir. And you might thank me, for such diligence in the looking.”

“Is there anybody with you?” the prince hissed.

“Only the aforesaid deity, sir, if the more insistent priests are to be believed.”

Ferbin looked most unkempt, and unslept, too. He glanced about the place again. “Nobody else?”

“An old though dependable rowel, sir. And for yourself—”

“Choubris! I am in the most terrible danger!”

Choubris scratched behind one ear. “Ah. With respect, sir, you might not be aware; we did win the battle.”

“I know that, Choubris! I’m not an idiot!”

Choubris frowned, but remained silent.

“You’re absolutely sure there’s nobody else about?”

Choubris looked back to the small door, then up at the sky. “Well, there are lots of people about, sir; half the Greater Army is tidying up or licking its wounds after our famous victory.” It was beginning to dawn on Choubris that he might have the ticklish job of telling the prince that his father was dead. This ought to mean, of course, that Ferbin was effectively king, but Choubris knew people could be funny regarding that whole good news/bad news business. “I am alone, sir,” he told Ferbin. “I don’t know what else to tell you. Perhaps you’d best get down from there.”

“Yes! I can’t stay here for ever.” The drop was easily jumpable, but Ferbin made to turn round and lower himself half way to the earthen floor of the folly. Choubris sighed and stood by the wall to help. “Choubris, have you anything to drink or eat?” Ferbin asked. “I’m parched and famished!”

“Wine, water, bread and saltmeat, sir,” Choubris said, forming a stirrup with his hands, back against the wall. “My saddle bags are like a travelling victualler’s.”

Ferbin lowered one boot to his servant’s hands, narrowly avoiding scarring him with his spur. “Wine? What sort?”

“Fortified, sir. Better so than this place.” Choubris took the prince’s weight in his cupped hands and grunted in pain as he lowered him.

“Are you all right?” Ferbin asked when he was on the ground. He looked frightened, grey with worry or shock or something or other. His clothes were filthy and his long fair hair all tangled and matted. Also, he smelled of smoke. Choubris had never seen him look so distressed. He was crouched, too; Choubris was used to looking up to his prince, but they were of a level now.

“No, sir, I’m not all right. I had a beast fall on me in the confusion yesterday.”

“Of course! Yes, I saw. Quick, let’s crouch down here.” Ferbin pulled Choubris to one side, by a tall bush. “No, wait; fetch me something to eat and drink. If you see anybody, don’t tell them I’m here!”

“Sir,” Choubris said, deciding to humour the fellow for now. Probably all he needed was something in his belly.

* * *

As the traitors and regicides set to burn the old building, having taken themselves and the bodies of the murdered outside, Ferbin had started looking for a way out.

He felt dazed, stunned, half dead himself. His vision seemed to have shrunk, or his eyes would not move properly in their orbits, because he seemed only able to see straight ahead. His ears appeared to think he was near a great waterfall or in a high tower in a storm, for he could hear a terrible roaring noise all about him that he knew was not really there, as if the WorldGod, even the World itself, was shrieking in horror at the foulness of what had been done in that awful ruin.

He’d waited for people loyal to the King to come rushing in when they heard the shots that killed the priest and the young medic, but nobody did. Others had appeared, but they seemed calm and unconcerned and merely helped move the bodies and bring some kindling and lampstone to start the fire. They were all traitors here, he thought; to reveal himself now would be to die like the others.

He’d crept away, sick and weak with the shock of it, barely able to stand. He climbed to the next highest floor by steps set against the building’s rear wall, as they lit the fires below. Smoke came up quickly, initially grey then turning black, filling the already shadowy spaces of the antique factory with still greater darkness and making him choke. At first most of the fumes made for the great hole in the gable wall, but then they thickened around him, stinging in his nose and throat. Had the sound of crackling and roaring below not been so loud, he’d have feared being heard outside as he hacked and coughed. He looked for windows on the side of the building where he’d crawled and climbed, but could see nothing.

He found more steps, leading him still further up, into what must be the building’s loft and felt along the wall with his fingers, coughing now with every breath, until he found what appeared to be a window. He pulled at a shutter, pushed at some already broken glass, and it gave. Smoke surged out around him. He stuck his head forward, gulping in cool clear air.

But he was too high up! Even if there was nobody on this side to see him, he’d never survive the fall uninjured. He looked out, dipping his head beneath the current of smoke and heat exiting around and above him. He expected to see a track or yard, four storeys below. Instead he stung himself on a rain-sticky brattle bush. He felt down and his hand closed on damp earth. In the vague red afterlight of a long-set sun, he saw that he was, incredibly, somehow back to ground level. The building was situated on a river bank so steep that one side was fully four floors high while the other, pressed against the valley’s steep side, was barely one.

He pulled himself out, still coughing, and crawled away across rain-wet, glutinously muddy ground to wait beneath some nearby bushes while the abandoned building burned.

* * *

“All due respect and such, sir, but have you gone mad?”

“Choubris, I swear on the WorldGod, on my dead father’s body, it’s just as I’ve said.”

Choubris Holse had noticed earlier, while his master was swallowing wine from the upended bottle and tearing off lumps of bread with his teeth — it seemed that take away the table and you took away the accompanying manners — that Prince Ferbin was unarmed while he, of course, still had his trusty short-knife on his belt, not to mention an army pistol issued a couple of days ago he seemed to have forgotten to return and which was tucked into his waistband by the small of his back. Not to mention — and he rarely did — a small but exceedingly sharp emergency knife reassuringly scabbarded down one boot. These facts had, he judged, just gone from being of barely passing interest to moderately important, given that it now appeared he was dealing with a bizarrely deluded madman.

Ferbin put the bottle down and let the end of the bread drop to his lap, setting his head back against the wall of the ruin, as though looking up through the foliage of the bush he’d insisted they hide beneath before he’d been prepared to break his fast. “Even you don’t believe me!” he cried, despairing. He put his head in his hands and wept.

Choubris was taken aback. He’d never seen the prince weep like this, not sober (everybody knew that to drink was to increase the hydrographical pressure within a body, thus expressing the relevant fluids from all available bodily orifices, so that didn’t count).

He ought to try to comfort him somehow. Perhaps he’d misunderstood. He’d try to get the matter clear.

“Sir, are you really saying that,” he began, then he too looked round as though afraid of being overheard, “that tyl Loesp, your father’s best friend; the glove to his hand, the very edge of his sword and all that, murdered your father?” He spoke the word in a whisper.

Ferbin looked at him with a face of such desperate fury and despair that Choubris felt himself flinch at the sight of it. “Plunged his filthy fist into my father’s chest and wrung the living force out of his beating heart!” Ferbin said, his voice sounding like it never had; all gasped and rough and wild. He sucked in a terrible, faltering breath, as though each atom of air hesitated in his mouth before being hauled howling to his lungs. “I saw it clear as I see you now, Choubris.” He shook his head, his eyes filling with tears and his lips curling back. “And if trying to think it away, if trying to persuade myself I was in any way mistaken, or drugged, or hallucinating, or dreaming could make it so, then by God I’d jump at that, I’d welcome that with both arms, both legs and a kiss. A million times over I’d rather be safely mad having imagined what I saw than know my only derangement is the grief of having seen what did take place!” That last phrase he roared into his servant’s face, one hand grasping the collar at Choubris’ throat.

Choubris put one hand behind his back, partly to steady himself so that he did not fall over backwards and partly to bring the army pistol within quick reach. Then his master’s face went slack and he seemed to crumple in on himself. He put one hand on each of Choubris’ shoulders and let his head fall to his servant’s chest, wailing, “Oh, Choubris! If you don’t believe me, who will?”

Choubris felt the heat of the other man’s face upon his breast, and a dampness spread across his shirt. He lifted his hand to pat the prince’s head, but that seemed too much like the action one would take with a woman or a child, and he let his hand fall back again. He felt shaken. Even at his most raucously or self-pityingly drunken, the prince had never seemed so moved, so affected, so distressed, by anything; not the death of his elder brother, not losing a beloved mount to a wager, not realising his father thought him a dolt and a wastrel — nothing.

“Sir,” Choubris said, taking the prince by his shoulders and setting him upright again. “This is too much for me to absorb at the single sitting. I too would rather think my own dear master mad than entertain the possibility that what he says is true, for if it’s so then — by God — we are all halfway to madness and the heavens themselves might fall upon us now and cause no increase in disaster or disbelief.” Ferbin was biting both his quivering lips together, like a child trying not to cry. Choubris reached out and patted one of his hands. “Let me tell you what I’ve heard, various but consistent from a mixture of guileless strapping military types, and seen on an army news sheet, too; what is the official and authorised version, as you might say. Perhaps hearing this will make a compromise in your poor head with the fever possessing you.”

Ferbin laughed bitterly, putting his head back again and sobbing even while he seemed to smile. He raised the wine bottle to his lips, then let it fall aside, dropping it to the bare ground. “Pass me the water; I’ll pray some dead cur upstream polluted it, so I may poison myself by mouth as you pour it in at my ear. A job worth doing!”

Choubris cleared his throat to hide his astonishment. This was unprecedented; Ferbin putting aside a bottle unfinished. He was mad with something all right. “Well, sir. They say the King died of his wound — a small-cannon shot to his right side.”

“So much half accurate. The wound was to his right.”

“His death was easy, if solemn, and witnessed, not an hour’s ride from here, in an old manufactury, since burned.”

“By them. They burned it.” Ferbin sniffed at one sleeve. “And nearly me.” He shook his head. “I almost would they had,” he finished, though this collided with:

“His death was witnessed by tyl Loesp, the Exaltine Chasque, the General—”

“What?” Ferbin protested angrily. “Chasque wasn’t there! A lowly road-priest was all he had — and even he tyl Loesp killed! Blew his brains out!”

“And also by the doctors Gillews and Tareah and—”

“Gillews,” Ferbin broke in. “Gillews alone, save for his assistant — another casualty of tyl Loesp’s pistol.”

“Also the General — begging your pardon, now the Field Marshal — Werreber and several of his sta—”

“Lies! Lies upon lies! They weren’t there!”

“It’s said they were, sir. And that the King ordered the killing of all the Deldeyn captured. Though, to admit the difference, others say the troops themselves embarked upon this sorry course on hearing of your father’s death, in a fury of deadly vengeance. I grant this does not seem settled yet.”

“And when it is, it will be to the advantage of tyl Loesp and his filthy accomplices.” Ferbin shook his head. “My father ordered no such crime. This does him no honour. This is made to sap his reputation before he’s even laid to rest. Lies, Choubris. Lies.” He shook his head again. “All lies.”

“The whole army believes it true, sir. As does the palace, I’d guess, and all who can read or hear, in Pourl and in the full throughoutness of the land, as fast as wire or beast or whatever other inferiority of messaging can carry the news.”

“Still,” Ferbin said bitterly, “even if I were alone in knowing what happened, I know it still.”

Choubris scratched behind one ear. “If the whole world thinks differently, sir, is that even wise?”

Ferbin looked at his servant with an unsettling straightness. “And you’d have me do what, Choubris?”

“Eh? Why — well — sir, come back with me to the palace, and be the King!”

“And not be shot as an imposter?”

“An imposter, sir?”

“Enlighten me; what is my status according to this established version of how things are?”

“Well, yes, you’re correct in that you have been ascribed dead, but — surely — on sight of your good self…”

“I’d not be killed on the instant of being seen?”

“Why killed at all?”

“Because I don’t know the all of who is and who is not part of this treachery! Those I saw at the death, yes; guilty beyond guilt. The others? Chasque? Werreber? Did they know? Did they just claim to be present at this fictitious, easy death, to help support whatever circumstance they were presented with by those who’d wrought the crime? Do they suspect nothing? Something? All? Were they part of it from the beginning, every one? Tyl Loesp is culprit, and no one was closer to my father. Who else might not be guilty? Tell me: have you not heard warnings against spies, snipers, saboteurs and guerrillas?”

“Some, sir.”

“Were there any orders of particular strictness you heard of regarding those who suddenly appeared, within the greater battlefield, resembling authority?”

“Well, just latterly, yes, sir, but—”

“Which means that I’ll be held, then shot. In the back, I don’t doubt, so they can say I was trying to escape. Or d’you think such things never happen, in army or militia?”

“They—”

“And if I did get as far as the palace, the same applies. How long might I survive? Long enough to tell the truth in front of a quorate sufficient to carry the day? I think not. Long enough to challenge tyl Loesp, or confront the wretch? Beyond doubt? Beyond the grave, I’d say.” He shook his head. “No, I have thought long about this over the last day, and can see quite clearly the merits of the contending courses, but also I know my instincts, and they have proved unfailingly trustworthy in the past.” This was true; Ferbin’s instincts had always told him to flee trouble or potential conflict — rowdies, creditors, angry fathers of shamed daughters — and, whether escaping to the shelter of an obscure bawdy house, a congenially distant hunting lodge or indeed the palace itself, this intuition had invariably proved itself sound.

“Either way, sir, you can’t hide here for ever.”

“I know that. And I am besides not the one to enter into any such contention with the tyl Loesps of this world. I know they have the guile on me, and the easy turn to brute.”

“Well, God knows, I’m not such a one either, sir.”

“I must escape, Choubris.”

“Escape, sir?”

“Oh, indeed; escape. Escape far, far away, and seek sanctuary with or find a champion in one of two people I never imagined I’d have to trouble for so demeaning a favour. I suppose I ought to be thankful I have any sort of choice, or just two chances.”

“And they would be, sir?”

“First we must get ourselves to a Tower fitted out for travel — I have an idea for obtaining the necessary documents,” Ferbin said, almost as though talking to himself. “Then we shall have ourselves transported to the Surface and take ship away across the stars, to Xide Hyrlis, who generals for the Nariscene now and who may take up our cause for the love of my dead father, and if he is unable to do so, then at least he might signpost the route… To Djan,” Ferbin told Holse with what sounded like sudden weariness. “Anaplia’s daughter. Who was raised to be fit to marry a prince and then found herself dowried to the mongrel alien empire that calls itself the Culture.”

<p>4. In Transit</p>

Utaltifuhl, the Grand Zamerin of Sursamen-Nariscene, in charge of all Nariscene interests on the planet and its accompanying solar system and therefore — by the terms of the mandate the Nariscene held under the auspices of the Galactic General Council — as close as one might get to overall ruler of both, was just beginning the long journey to the 3044th Great Spawning of the Everlasting Queen on the far-distant home planet of his kind when he met the director general of the Morthanveld Strategic Mission to the Tertiary Hulian Spine — paying a courtesy call to the modest but of course influential Morthanveld embassy on Sursamen — in the Third Equatorial Transit Facility high above Sursamen’s dark, green-blue pocked Surface.

The Nariscene were insectile; the Zamerin was six-limbed and keratin-covered. His dark, quintuply segmented body, a little under a metre and a half long (excluding stalks, mandibles retracted), was studded with implanted jewels, inlaid veins of precious metals, additional sensory apparatus, numerous tiny holo-projectors displaying the many medals, honours, distinctions and decorations that had come his way over the years and a smattering of light weaponry, mostly ceremonial.

The Grand Zamerin was accompanied by a bevy of his kind, all rather less impressively dressed and slightly smaller than he. They were, additionally, if that was the right word, neuters. They tended to move through the cavernous, web-filled spaces of the transit facility in an arrowhead formation, with the Grand Zamerin forming its tip.

The Morthanveld were spiniform waterworlders. The director general was a milky-looking sphere a metre or so in diameter surrounded by hundreds of spiny protrusions of varying thicknesses and in a broad spectrum of pastel colours. Her spines were mostly either curled up or gathered back at the moment, giving her a compact, streamlined appearance. She carried her environment around with her in a glistening wrap of silvery blue, membranes and fields containing her own little sample of oceanic fluids. She wore a few small spine torques, bracelets and rings. She was accompanied by a trio of more stoutly built assistants toting so much equipment they looked armoured.

The transit facility was a micro-gravity environment and lightly pressured with a gently warmed gaseous nitrogen-oxygen mix; the web of life-support strands that infested it were coded by colour, scent, texture and various other markers to make them obvious to those who might need to use them. One identified the right strand in the web and hooked into it to receive that which one needed to survive; oxygen, chlorine, salty water or whatever. The system couldn’t accommodate every known life form without requiring them to protect themselves in a suit or mask, but it represented the best compromise its Nariscene builders had been prepared to come up with.

“DG Shoum! My good friend! I am glad it was possible for our paths to cross!” The Grand Zamerin’s language consisted of mandible clicks and, occasionally, directed pheromones; the director general understood Nariscene reasonably well without artificial aids, but still relied on a neurologically hard-wired translator ring to be sure of what was being said. The Grand Zamerin, on the other hand, like most Nariscene, eschewed alien languages as a matter of both principle and convenience, and so would depend entirely on his own translation units to understand the director general’s reply.

“Grand Zamerin, always a pleasure.”

Formal squirts of scent and packeted water molecules were exchanged; members of their respective entourages carefully gathered the greeting messages, as much out of politeness as for archival purposes. “Utli,” Director General Shoum said, reverting to the familiar and floating up to the Nariscene. She extended a maniple spine.

The Grand Zamerin clicked his mandibles in delight and took the offered limb in his foreleg. He twisted his head and told his assistants, “Amuse yourselves, children.” He sprayed a little cloud of his scent towards them, mixed to indicate reassurance and affection. A flush of colour across Shoum’s spines gave a similar instruction to her escorts. She set her communications torque to privacy, though with a medium-level interrupt.

The two officials floated slowly away through the web of environmental support strands, heading for a massive circular window which looked out to the planet’s Surface.

“I find you well?” Shoum asked.

“Extraordinarily!” the Grand Zamerin replied. “We are filled with delight to be called to attend the Great Spawning of our dear Everlasting Queen.”

“How wonderful. Do you contend for mating rights?”

“Us? Me? Contend for mating rights?” The Grand Zamerin’s mandibles clicked so fast they nearly hummed, signalling hilarity. “Gracious! No! The preferred specification…” (glitch/sorry! signalled the translator, then hurried to catch up), “the preferred genotype-spread called for by the Imperial Procreational College was far outside our bias. I don’t believe our family even submitted a tender. And anyway, on this occasion there was generous lead-time; if we had been in the running we’d have bred some braw and brawny hunk especially for our dear Queen. No, no; the honour is in the witnessing.”

“And the lucky father dies, I understand.”

“Of course! Now that is a distinction.” They were drifting closer to a great porthole on the underside of the facility, showing Sursamen in all its dark glory. The Grand Zamerin bristled his antennae as though lost in wonder at the view, which he wasn’t. “We had such prominence once,” he said, and the translator, if not Shoum’s own processes, picked up a note of sadness in amongst the pride. Utli waved at one of his little holo-baubles. “This, you see? Indicates that our family contributed a species-Father sometime in the last thirty-six birth-generations. However, that was thirty-six birth-generations ago and, sadly, short of a miracle, I shall lose this decoration in less than a standard year from now, when the next generation is hatched.”

“You might still hope.”

“Hope is all. The tenor of the times drifts from my family’s mode of being. We are downwinded. Other scents outsmell ours.” The translator signalled an imperfect image.

“And you are compelled to attend?”

Utli’s head made a shrugging gesture. “Technically. We fail to accept the invitation on pain of death, but that is for form’s sake, really.” He paused. “Not that it is never carried out; it is. But on such occasions it is generally used as an excuse. Court politics; quite hideous.” The Grand Zamerin laughed.

“You will be gone long?” Shoum asked as they arrived at the great window. They were still politely holding limbs.

“Standard year or so. Better hang around the court for a while, lest they forget who we are. Let the family scent sink in, you know? Also, taking some consecutive leave to visit the old family warrens. Some boundaries needing redrawn; maybe an upstart toiler or two to fight and eat.”

“It sounds eventful.”

“Horribly boring! Only the Spawning thing dragging us back.”

“I suppose it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

End-of-a-lifetime experience for the father! Ha ha!”

“Well, you will be missed, I’m sure.”

“So am I. Some dully competent relations of mine will be in charge during our absence; the clan Girgetioni. I say dully competent; that may flatter them. My family has always been firmly of the opinion that if it is absolutely necessary to take leave of one’s responsibilities for a while, always be sure to leave surrogates in charge who will ensure your welcome on return will be both genuine and enthusiastic. Ha ha.” Utli’s eye stalks waggled as though in a strong wind, indicating humour. “But this is to jest. The Girgetioni clan are a credit to the Nariscene species. I have personally placed my least incompetent nephew in the position of acting Zamerin. I have the highest possible confidence in him and them.”

“And how are things?” Shoum asked. “Within Sursamen, I mean.”

“Quiet.”

“Just ‘quiet’?” Shoum asked, amused.

“Generally. Not a peep, not a molecule from the God-beast in the basement, for centuries.”

“Always reassuring.”

“Always reassuring,” Utli agreed. “Oh, the awful saga of the Third Level, Future Use Committee proceedings rumbles on like cosmic background, though at least that might be swept away in some future cataclysm or Big Concluding Event, whereas said committee might plausibly go on far, far beyond that and redefine the meaning of the term In Perpetuity for any entities having the ghastly misfortune still to be around at the time.” The Grand Zamerin’s body shape and scents signalled exasperation. “The Baskers still wish it to be theirs, the Cumuloforms still claim it as already long promised to them. Each side has come heartily to despise the other, though not, we’d life-stake, a sixth as much as we have come to despise both of them.

“The L12 Swimmers, perhaps inspired by the japes the Cumuloforms and Baskers are having with their dispute, have waved a scent-trace to the wide winds regarding the vague possibility of one day, perhaps, if we wouldn’t mind, if nobody else would object, taking over Fourteen.

“The Vesiculars of…” Utli paused as he checked elsewhere, “Eleven announced some time ago that they wished to migrate, en masse, to Jiluence, which is somewhere in the Kuertile Pinch and, they allege, an ancestral homeworld of theirs. That was some gross of days ago, though, and we’ve heard nothing since. A passing fancy, probably. Or art. They confuse such terms. They confuse us, too. It may be deliberate. Possibly too long an association with the Oct, who are most adept at lateral thinking but seemingly incapable of anything but lateral expression, too; were there a prize for least-translatable galactic species, the Oct would win every cycle, though of course their acceptance speeches would be pure gibberish. What else?” Utli’s demeanour indicated resignation and amusement, then went back to exasperation again, mixed with annoyance.

“Oh yes, talking of the Oct, who call themselves the Inheritors; they have managed to antagonise the Aultridia — of ill repute, et cetera — through some inebriate machination or other. We listened to their petitions before leaving, but it all sounds lamentably trivial. Tribal wars amongst the natives of some cuspid wastelevels. The Oct may well have been interfering; it has been my curse to command the one world where the local Oct seem unable to leave well, ill or indeed indifferent alone. However, as they don’t appear actually to have transferred any technology to the protégé barbarians concerned, we are without immediate excuse to step in. Ineffably tiresome. They — meaning the Oct and the ghastly squirmiforms — wouldn’t listen to our initial attempts to mediate and frankly we were too taken up with our leaving preparations to have the patience to persist. Storm in an egg sac. If you’d like to take a sniff at the problem, do feel free. They might listen to you. Emphasis ‘might’, though. Be prepared fully to deploy your masochistic tendencies.”

The director general allowed a flush of amusement to spread across her body. “So, then; you will miss Sursamen?”

“Like a lost limb,” the Grand Zamerin agreed. He pointed his eye stalks at the porthole. They both looked down at the planet for some moments, then he said, “And you? You and your family, group, whatever — are they well?”

“All well.”

“And are you staying long here?”

“As long as I can without unduly upsetting our embassy here,” the director general replied. “I keep telling them I just enjoy visiting Sursamen but I believe they think I have an ulterior motive, and their preferred candidate is a determination on my part to find something wrong in their conduct.” She indicated amusement, then formality. “This is a courtesy call, no more, Utli. However, I shall certainly seek whatever excuses I can to stay longer than the polite minimum, simply to enjoy being in this wonderful place.”

“It has its own sort of blotchy, deeply buried beauty, we might be persuaded to concede,” Utli said grudgingly, with a small cloud of scent that indicated guarded affection.

Director General Morthanveld Shoum, free-child of Meast, nest of Zuevelous, domain of T’leish, of Gavantille Prime, Pliyr, looked out over the mighty, mostly dark, still slightly mysterious world filling the view beneath the transit facility.

Sursamen was a Shellworld.

Shellworld. It was a name that even now brought a thrill to the very core of her being.

“Sursamen — an Arithmetic Shellworld orbiting the star Meseriphine in the Tertiary Hulian Spine.” She could still see the glyphs rippling across the surface of her school teaching mat.

She had worked hard to be here, dedicated her life — through study, application, diligence and no small amount of applied psychology — to one day making Sursamen an important part of her existence. In a sense, any Shellworld would have done, but this was the place that had initiated her enchantment, and so for her it had a significance beyond itself. Ironically, the very force of that drive somehow to make herself part of Sursamen’s fate had caused her to overshoot her mark; her ambition had carried her too far, so that now she had oversight of Morthanveld interests within the whole long river-system of stars called the Tertiary Hulian Spine, rather than just the Meseriphine system containing the enigmatic wonder that was Sursamen, with the result that she spent less time here than she would have considered ideal.

The dim green glow of the Gazan-g’ya Crater lit up her body and that of the Grand Zamerin, the gentle light slowly increasing as Sursamen turned and presented more of the vast pockmark of the crater to the rays of the star Meseriphine.

Sursamen collected adjectives the way ordinary planets collected moons. It was Arithmetic, it was Mottled, it was Disputed, it was Multiply Inhabited, it was Multi-million-year Safe, and it was Godded.

Shellworlds themselves had accreted alternative names over the aeons: Shield Worlds, Hollow Worlds, Machine Worlds, Veil Worlds. Slaughter Worlds.

The Shellworlds had been built by a species called the Involucra, or Veil, the best part of a billion years earlier. All were in orbits around stable main-series suns, at varying distances from their star according to the disposition of the system’s naturally formed planets, though usually lying between two and five hundred million kilometres out. Long disused and fallen into disrepair, they had, with their stars, drifted out of their long-ago allotted positions. There had been about four thousand Shellworlds originally; 4096 was the commonly assumed exact number as it was a power of two and therefore — by general though not universal assent — as round a figure as figures ever got. No one really knew for sure, though. You couldn’t ask the builders, the Involucra, as they had disappeared less than a million years after they’d completed the last of the Shellworlds.

The colossal artificial planets had been spaced regularly about the outskirts of the galaxy, forming a dotted net round the great whirlpool of stars. Almost a billion years of gravitational swirling had scattered them seemingly randomly across and through the skies ever since: some had been ejected from the galaxy altogether while others had swung into the centre, some to stay there, some to be flung back out again and some to be swallowed by black holes, but using a decent dynamic star chart, you could feed in the current positions of those which were still extant, backtrack eight hundred million years and see where they had all started out.

That four-thousand-plus figure had been reduced to a little over twelve hundred now, mostly because a species called the Iln had spent several million years destroying the Shellworlds wherever they could find them and nobody had been willing or able to prevent them. Exactly why, nobody was entirely sure and, again, the Iln were not around to ask; they too had vanished from the galactic stage, their only lasting monument a set of vast, slowly expanding debris clouds scattered throughout the galaxy and — where their devastation had been less than complete — Shellworlds that had been shattered and collapsed into barbed and fractured wrecks, shrunken compressed husks of what they had once been.

The Shellworlds were mostly hollow. Each had a solid metallic core fourteen hundred kilometres in diameter. Beyond that, a concentric succession of spherical shells, supported by over a million massive, gently tapering towers never less than fourteen hundred metres in diameter, layered out to the final Surface. Even the material they were made from had remained an enigma — to many of the galaxy’s Involved civilisations at least — for over half a billion years, before its properties were fully worked out. From the start, though, it had been obvious that it was immensely strong and completely opaque to all radiation.

In an Arithmetic Shellworld, the levels were regularly spaced at fourteen-hundred-kilometre intervals. Exponential or Incremental Shellworlds had more levels close to the core and fewer further out as the distance between each successive shell increased according to one of a handful of logarithm-based ratios. Arithmetic Shellworlds invariably held fifteen interior surfaces and were forty-five thousand kilometres in external diameter. Incremental Shellworlds, forming about twelve per cent of the surviving population, varied. The largest class was nearly eighty thousand kilometres across.

They had been machines. In fact, they had all been part of the same vast mechanism. Their hollowness had been filled, or perhaps had been going to be filled (again, nobody could be certain this had actually been done), with some sort of exotic superfluid, turning each of them into a colossal field projector, with the aim, when they were all working in concert, of throwing a force field or shield round the entire galaxy.

Precisely why this had been thought necessary or even desirable was also unknown, though speculation on the matter had preoccupied scholars and experts over the aeons.

With their original builders gone, the people who had attacked the worlds seemingly also permanently missing and the fabled superfluid equally absent, leaving those vast internal spaces linked by the supporting Towers — themselves mostly hollow, though containing twisted webs of structurally reinforcing material, and punctured with portals of various sizes giving access to each of the levels — it had taken almost no time at all for a variety of enterprising species to work out that a derelict Shellworld would make a vast, ready-made and near-invulnerable habitat, after just a few relatively minor modifications.

Gases, fluids — especially water — and solids could be pumped or carried in to fill all or some of the spaces between the levels, and artificial interior ‘stars’ might be fashioned to hang from the ceilings of each level like gigantic lamps. The various venturesome species set about exploring the Shellworlds closest to them, and almost immediately encountered the problem that would bedevil, frustrate and delay the development of the worlds profoundly for the next few million years and, intermittently, beyond; the Shellworlds could be deadly.

It remained unclear to this day whether the defence mechanisms that kept killing the explorers and destroying their ships had been left behind by the worlds’ original builders or those who appeared to have dedicated their entire existence to the task of destroying the great artefacts, but whether it had been the Veil or the Iln — or, as it was now generally agreed, both — who had left this lethal legacy behind, the principal factor limiting the use of the Shellworlds as living spaces was simply the difficulty of making them safe.

Many people died developing the techniques by which a Shellworld might be so secured, and the same lessons generally had to be learned afresh by each competing civilisation, because the power and influence which accrued to a grouping capable of successful Shellworld exploitation meant that such techniques remained fiercely guarded secrets. It had taken an Altruist civilisation — exasperated and appalled at such a selfish waste of life — to come along, develop some of the techniques, steal others and then broadcast the whole to everybody else.

They had, of course, been roundly vilified for such unsporting behaviour. Nevertheless, their actions and stance had, in time, been ratified and even rewarded by various galactic bodies, and the Culture, although far remote in time from these now long-Sublimed people, had always claimed a sort of kinship by example with them.

The civilisations which specialised in making Shellworlds safe and who effectively took part-ownership of their interiors became known as Conducers. Sursamen was unusual in that two species — the Oct (who claimed direct descent from the long-departed Involucra and so also called themselves the Inheritors) and the Aultridia (a species with what might be termed a poorly perceived provenance) — had arrived at the same time and begun their work. It had also been unusual in that neither species ever got a decisive upper hand in the ensuing conflict which, in the only positive aspect of the dispute, at least remained localised to Sursamen. In time the situation within the world had been formalised when the two species were awarded joint protective custody of Sursamen’s access Towers by the then newly formed Galactic General Council, though, importantly, without any stipulation that the two could not contend for increased influence in the future.

The Nariscene were granted full inhabitory rights to the planet’s Surface and overall control of the world, formalising their long-held claim to it, though even they had to defer ultimately to the Morthanveld, in whose volume of influence the system and the world lay.

So Sursamen had been colonised, making it Inhabited, and by a variety of species, hence the Multiply- prefix. The holes in the supporting Towers that might have let gases or liquids vent to lower levels were sealed; some effectively permanently, others with lock complexes that permitted safe entry and exit, while transport mechanisms were installed inside the great hollow Towers to allow movement between the various levels and to and from the Surface. Material in gaseous, liquid and solid form had been moved in over the many millions of years of the planet’s occupation, and beings, peoples, species, species groups and whole ecosystems had been imported by the Oct and the Aultridia, usually for a consideration of some sort or another, sometimes at the behest of the peoples concerned, more often at the request of others.

Interior stars had been emplaced; these were thermonuclear power sources like tiny suns, but with the useful distinction of being anti-gravitative, so that they pressed upwards against the ceiling above any given level. They subdivided into Fixstars and Rollstars, the former stationary, the latter moving across the skies on predetermined routes and on regular, if sometimes — when there were many, of different periodicities — complicated schedules.

The deaths continued, too; long after a given Shellworld had been apparently de-weaponed and made safe, hidden defence systems could wake up centuries, millennia and decieons later, resulting in gigadeaths, teradeaths, effective civicides and near-extinctions as interior stars fell, levels were flooded from above or drained — often with the result that oceans met interior stars, resulting in clouds of plasma and superheated steam — atmospheres were infested by unknown wide-species-spectra pathogens or were turned inexorably into poisonous environments by unseen mechanisms nobody could stop, or intense bursts of gamma radiation emanating from the floor/ceiling structure itself flooded either individual levels or the whole world.

These were the events that gave them the name Slaughter Worlds. At the point that Director General Shoum gazed down upon the dark, colour-spotted face of Sursamen, no mass deaths had been caused by the Shellworlds themselves for nearly four million years, so the term Slaughter World had long since slipped into disuse, save amongst those cultures with exceptionally long memories.

Nevertheless, on a grand enough scale the morbidity of any habitat type could be roughly judged by the proportion that had become Dra’Azon Planets of the Dead over time. Planets of the Dead were preserved, forbidden monuments to globe-encompassing carnage and destruction which were overseen — and usually kept in a pristine, just post-catastrophe state — by the Dra’Azon, one of the galactic community’s more reclusive semi-Sublimed Elder civilisations with attributes and powers sufficiently close to god-like for the distinction to be irrelevant. Out of the four-thousand-plus Shellworlds originally existing and the 1332 unequivocally remaining — 110 in a collapsed state — fully eighty-six were Planets of the Dead. This was generally agreed to be an alarmingly high proportion, all things considered.

Even some of the Shellworlds lacking the morbid interest of the Dra’Azon had a kind of semi-divine investment. There was a species called the Xinthian Tensile Aeronathaurs, an Airworld people of enormous antiquity and — according to fable — once of enormous power. They were the second or third largest airborne species in the galaxy and, for reasons known solely to themselves, sometimes one of them would take up solitary residence in the machine core of a Shellworld. Though once widespread and common, the Xinthia had become a rare species and were regarded as Developmentally Inherently, Pervasively and Permanently Senile — in the unforgiving language of Galactic taxonomy — by those who bothered to concern themselves with such anachronisms at all.

For as long as anybody could remember, almost all the Xinthia had been gathered together in one place; a necklace of Airworlds ringing the star Chone in the Lesser Yattlian Spray. Only a dozen or so were known to exist anywhere else, and seemingly they were all at the cores of individual Shellworlds. These Xinthians were presumed to have been exiled for some transgression, or to be solitude-craving hermits. Presumption was all anybody had to go on here too, as even though the Xinthia, unlike the long-departed Veil or Iln, were still around to ask, they were, even by the standards of the galaxy’s Taciturn cultures, quite determinedly uncommunicative.

Hence the Godded part of Sursamen’s full description; there was a Xinthian Tensile Aeronathaur at its core, called by some of the world’s inhabitants the WorldGod.

Invariably inside the great worlds and sometimes on their exteriors, the shells were adorned with massive vanes, whorls, ridges, bulges and bowls of the same material that made up both the levels themselves and the supporting Towers. Where such structures appeared on the Surface of a Shellworld, the bowl-shaped features had usually been filled with mixtures of atmospheres, oceans and/or terrain suitable for one or more of the many Involved species; the shallower examples of these — somewhat perversely called Craters — were roofed, the deeper usually not.

Sursamen was one such example of a Mottled Shellworld. Most of its Surface was smooth, dark grey and dusty — all the result of being lightly covered with nearly an aeon’s worth of impact debris after systemic and galactic bodies of various compositions, sizes and relative velocities had impacted with that unforgiving, adamantine skin. About fifteen per cent of its external shell was pocked with the covered and open bowls people called Craters and it was the greeny-blue reflected light of one of those, the Gazan-g’ya Crater, that shone through the porthole in the transit facility and gently lit up the bodies of the Grand Zamerin and the director general.

“You are always glad to arrive, to see Sursamen, or any Shellworld, are you not?” Utli asked Shoum.

“Of course,” she said, turning to him a little.

“Whereas, personally,” the Grand Zamerin said, swivelling away from the view, “it’s only duty keeps me here; I’m always relieved to see the back of the place.” There was a tiny warble and one of his eye stalks flicked briefly over to look at what appeared to be a jewel embedded in his thorax. “Which we’re informed occurs very shortly; our ship is ready.”

Shoum’s comms torque woke to tell her the same thing, then went back to its privacy setting.

“Relieved? Really?” the director general asked as they floated back through the web towards their respective entourages and the docking chutes that gave access to the ships.

“We shall never understand why you are not, Shoum. These are still dangerous places.”

“It’s been a very long time since any Shellworld turned on its inhabitants, Utli.”

“Ah, but still; the intervals, dear DG.”

The Grand Zamerin was referring to the distribution of Shellworld-induced mass die-offs through time. Plotted out, they implied only a slow dying away of such titanic murderousness, not yet a final end. The graphed shape of attacks approached zero, but did so along a curve that implied there might be one or two more yet to come, probably some time in the next few thousand years. If, of course, that was really the way these things worked. The implied threat of future cataclysms might be the result of coincidence, nothing more.

“Well then,” Shoum said, “to be blunt, we would have to hope it does not happen during our tenure, or if does, it does not happen in Sursamen.”

“It’s just a matter of time,” the Grand Zamerin told her gloomily. “These things turn killer, or disappear. And nobody knows why.”

“Yet, Utli,” the director general said, signalling mischievousness, “do you not find it in any sense romantic somehow — even in a sense reassuring — that there are still such mysteries and imponderables in our polished, cultivated times?”

“No,” the Grand Zamerin said emphatically, expelling an emission named Doubting the sanity of one’s companion, with barely a trace of humour.

“Not even in the abstract?”

“Not even in the abstract.”

“Oh, well. Still, I wouldn’t worry, if I were you,” Shoum told Utaltifuhl as they approached their attendants. “I suspect Sursamen will still be here when you get back.”

“You think its disappearance is unlikely?” Utli said, now expressing mock seriousness.

“Vanishingly,” Shoum said, but the joke didn’t translate.

“Indeed. And of course. However, it has struck us that so wonderful and enjoyable is the life we lead that a disaster of equal but opposite proportions must always be a threat. The higher you build your Tower, the more tempting a target for fate it becomes.”

“Well, at least you are vacating your Tower for the next year. I trust the trip home is rewarding and I shall look forward with pleasure to seeing you again, Grand Zamerin.”

“And I you, Director General,” Utaltifuhl told her, and performed the most respectful and delicate of formal mandible-nips on her outstretched maniple spine. Shoum blushed appropriately.

They had reached their respective entourages and a giant window that looked out the other side of the transit facility, to a small fleet of docked ships. Utaltifuhl looked out at the star craft and emoted dubiety. “Hmm,” he said. “And interstellar travel is also not without its risks.”

<p>5. Platform</p>

Djan Seriy Anaplian, who had been born a princess of the house of Hausk, a dynasty from a wide-spectrum pan-human species lately from a median level of the Shellworld Sursamen and whose middle name basically meant fit-to-be-married-to-a-prince, stood alone on a tall cliff looking out over a rust desert deep within the continent of Lalance on the planet Prasadal. A strong wind lashed at her long coat and tore at her clothes. She still wore her dark, wide-brimmed hat and its stiff material was caught and tugged at by the gusting wind as though it was trying to tear it off her head. The hat, secured by well-tied ribbons, was unlikely to come off, but it meant that the wind made her head shake and nod and jerk as though with palsy. The wind carried dust and sand in small dry flurries that came beating up from the desert floor beneath and curling over the serrated edge of the cliff, stinging her cheeks where they were exposed between the scarf that covered her mouth and nose and the goggles that protected her eyes.

She put one gloved hand to the goggles, pulling them away from her face a fraction to let a little moisture out from the base of the frames. The sparse liquid ran down her cheeks, leaving streaks, but soon dried in the dusty force of air. She took a deep breath through the protecting scarf as the clouds of dust parted like a dry mist, allowing her an uninterrupted view of the distant city and the forces that had been besieging it.

The city was burning. Siege engines taller than its own towers buttressed its walls like gigantic calipers. The desert around it, until recently dark with the besieging army, was clearing as they poured into the stricken city, exposing sand the colour of drying blood. Smoke tried to rise from the wreckage of the shattered buildings in great curling bundles of darkness but was struck down by the force of the gale, flattened and whirled away from the various conflagrations, dipping down and back towards the desert to come rearing up again as it met the cliff so that it went billowing over Anaplian’s head in a ragged, fast-moving overcast.

The wind increased in strength. Out over the plain, a wall of dust was forming between her and the city as half the desert seemed to lift into the air, gradually dimming and wiping away the view, silhouetting a series of rocky outcrops for a few moments until they too were swept under the hem of the advancing dust storm. She turned and walked a little way back to where a contraption like a cross between a skeleton and a sculpture sat poised on all fours on the exposed rock. She gathered the coat about her and stepped backwards on to the feet of the strange machine. The seatrider came alive instantly, swinging up fluidly and fitting itself about her, clasps closing round ankles, thighs, waist, neck and upper arms, nestling its thin form around her like a lover. She took the offered control grip as it swung out to her hand and pulled it upwards, sending the machine and her flying into the sky, then pushed forward so that she went racing through the storm of dust and smoke to the beleaguered city.

She rose through the haze into clearer air as she built up speed, leaving the fields down at first and letting the slipstream buffet her, the wind making her coat tails snap like whips and forcing the hat’s brim to fold itself away, then she clicked the streamline field on and rode in a delta-shaped bubble of quiet air towards the city.

She dropped and slowed as she crossed over the walls and turned the streamline field off again. She flew between wind-twisted columns of smoke, watching the besieging forces as they swept into the spaces of the city, saw defenders falling back and inhabitants fleeing, observed arrows fly and a last few rocks and fire barrels land in the city’s upper reaches. She smelled the smoke and heard the clash of blades and the crack and rattle of burning and the rumble of falling masonry and the ululating battle cries and war trumpets of the victorious invaders and the wails and screams of the defeated. She saw a few tiny figures pointing at her, and a couple of arrows arced towards her then fell away again. She was knocked to one side and almost thought herself hit with the violence of the action as the seatrider dodged a fire barrel; it went past with a great roar and a stench of burning oil, looping downwards to crash into the roof of a temple in the upper city, splashing flame.

She turned the full panoply of fields back on, hiding her and the machine and enclosing herself in the still bubble of protected air again. She had been heading for the centre of the city, for what she assumed would be the citadel and the palace, but then changed her mind and flew around one side of the city, level with its middle reaches, watching the general influx of invaders and the chaotic retreat of defenders and civilians while also trying to observe the slighter struggles of small groups and individuals.

Eventually she alighted on the flat, low-walled roof of a modest building where a rape was in progress and a small child cowered in a corner. The four soldiers waiting their turn gazed at her with annoyance when she appeared seemingly from thin air, stepping off the seatrider. Their frowns were beginning to turn into appreciative if unpleasant smiles when she drew a sleek chunk of a gun from a shoulder holster and, smiling thinly back, set about punching head-sized holes in each of their torsos. The first three men went flying backwards off the roof to the street below in frothy detonations of blood and tissue. The fourth man had time to react and — as he ducked and started to dive away — a tiny part of Anaplian’s combat wiring kicked in, flicking the gun more quickly than her conscious mind could have ordered the action and simultaneously communicating with the weapon itself to adjust its emission pattern and beam-spread. The fourth soldier erupted across the roof in a long slithering torrent of guts. A sort of bubbling gasp escaped his lips as he died.

The man raping the woman was looking up at Anaplian, mouth open. She walked round a few paces to get a clear shot at him without endangering the woman, then blew his head off. She glanced at the child, who was staring at the dead soldier and the form lying underneath the spasming, blood-spouting body. She made what she hoped was a calming motion with her hand. “Just wait,” she said in what ought to be the child’s own language. She kicked the soldier’s body off the woman, but she was already dead. They’d stuffed a rag into her mouth, perhaps to stop her screams, and she had choked on it.

Djan Seriy Anaplian let her head down for a moment, and cursed quickly in a selection of languages, at least one of which had its home many thousands of light years away, then turned back to the child. It was a boy. His eyes were wide and his dirty face was streaked with tears. He was naked except for a cloth and she wondered if he had been due to be next, or just marked to be thrown from the roof. Maybe they’d have left him. Maybe they hadn’t meant to kill the woman.

She felt she ought to be shaking. Doubtless without the combat wiring she would be. She glanded quickcalm to take the edge off the internal shock.

She put the gun away — though even now the boy probably didn’t understand it was a weapon — and walked over to him, crouching down and hunkering as she got up close to him. She tried to look friendly and encouraging, but did not know what to say. The sound of running footsteps rang from the open stairwell on the opposite corner of the roof.

She lifted the boy by both armpits. He didn’t struggle, though he tried to keep his legs up and his arms round his knees, retaining the ball shape she’d first seen him in. He was very light and smelled of sweat and urine. She turned him round and held him to her chest as she stepped into the seatrider. It closed around her again, offering the control grip as its sliding, clicking components fastened her and it together.

A soldier wielding a crossbow arrived clattering at the top of the steps. She took the gun out and pointed it at him as he took aim at her, but then shook her head, breathed, “Oh, just fuck off,” flicked the controls and zoomed into the air, still holding the child. The bolt made a thunking noise as it skittered off the machine’s lower field enclosure.

* * *

“And what exactly do you intend to do with it?” the drone Turminder Xuss asked. They were on a tall stump of rock at least as far downwind from Anaplian’s earlier clifftop vantage point as that had been from the city. The child — he was called Toark — had been told not to go near the edge of the great rock column, but was anyway being watched by a scout missile. Turminder Xuss had, in addition, given the boy its oldest and least capable knife missile to play with because the weapon was articulated; its stubby sections snicked and turned in the child’s hands. He was making delighted, cooing noises. So far, the knife missile had suffered this treatment without complaint.

“I have no idea,” Anaplian admitted.

“Release him into the wild?” the drone suggested. “Send him back to the city?”

“No,” Anaplian said, sighing. “He keeps asking when Mummy’s going to wake up,” she added, voice barely above a whisper.

“You have introduced a Special Circumstances apprenticeship scheme on your own initiative,” the drone suggested.

Anaplian ignored this. “We’ll look for somewhere safe to leave him, find a family that can raise him,” she told the machine. She was sitting on her haunches, her coat spread around her.

“You should have left him where he was,” the drone said above the still strong wind, lowering the tone of its voice and slowing its delivery as it tried to sound reasonable rather than sarcastic.

“I know. That didn’t feel like an option at the time.”

“Your seatrider tells me you — how shall I put this? — appeared to the attackers and defenders of the city like some demented if largely ineffectual angel before you swooped in and carried little Toark away.”

Anaplian glared at the seatrider, not that the obedient but utterly unintelligent machine would have had any choice but to surrender its memories to the drone when it had been asked.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” she asked Xuss.

She’d asked to be left alone for the day to watch the fall of the city. It had been her fault, after all; it had come about due to actions she had taken and indeed helped plan, and though it was by no means what had been desired, its sacking represented a risk that she, amongst others, had judged worth taking. It was demonstrably not the worst that might have happened, but it was still an abomination, an atrocity, and she had had a hand in it. That had been enough for her to feel that she could not just ignore it, that she needed to bear witness to such horror. The next time — if there was a next time, if she wasn’t thrown out for her irrational, overly sentimental actions — she would weigh the potential for massacre a deal more heavily.

“We have been summoned,” the machine said. “We need to get to the Quonber; Jerle Batra awaits.” Its fields flashed a frosty blue. “I brought the module.”

Anaplian looked confused. “That was quick.”

“Not to slap your wrist for disturbing the war or rescuing adorable waifs. The summons pre-dates such eccentricities.”

“Batra wants to see me personally?” Anaplian frowned.

“I know. Not like him.” It dipped left-right in its equivalent of a shrug. “It.”

Anaplian rose, dusting her hands. “Let’s go then.” She called to the boy, who was still trying to twist the uncomplaining knife missile apart. The module shimmered into view at the cliff edge.

“Do you know what his name means?” the drone asked as the child came walking shyly towards them.

“No,” the woman said. She lifted her head a little. She thought she’d caught a hint of the smell of distant burning.

“‘Toark’,” the drone said as the boy came up to them, politely handing back the knife missile. “In what they call the Old Tongue—”

“Lady, when does my mother wake?” the boy asked.

Anaplian gave what she was sure was a not particularly convincing smile. “I can’t tell you,” she admitted. She held out one hand to guide the child into the module’s softly gleaming interior.

“It means ‘Lucky’,” the drone finished.

* * *

The module trajectoried itself from the warm winds of the desert through thinning gases into space, then fell back into the atmosphere half a world away before Toark had finished marvelling at how clean he had become, and how quickly. Anaplian had told him to stand still, close his eyes and ignore any tickling sensation, then plonked a blob of cleaner gel on his head. It torused down over him, unrolling like liquid and making him squirm when a couple of smaller circles formed round his fingers and rolled back up to his armpits and back down. She’d cleaned his little loincloth with another blob but he wanted that gone and chose a sort of baggy shirt from a holo-display instead. He was most impressed when this immediately popped out of a drawer.

Meanwhile the woman and the drone argued about the degree of eye-averting that ought to be applied to her rule-breaking flight over the city. She was not quite yet at the level where the Minds that oversaw this sort of mission just gave her an objective and let her get on with it. She was still in the last stages of training and so her behaviour was more managed, her strategy and tactics more circumscribed and her initiative given less free rein than that of the most experienced and skilled practitioners of that ultimately dark art of always well-meaning, sometimes risky and just occasionally catastrophic interference in the affairs of other civilisations.

They agreed the drone wouldn’t volunteer any information or opinion. It would all come out in the end — everything came out in the end — but by then, hopefully, it wouldn’t seem so important. Part of the training of a Special Circumstances agent was learning a) that the rules were supposed to be broken sometimes, b) just how to go about breaking the rules, and c) how to get away with it, whether the rule-breaking had led to a successful outcome or not.

They landed on the platform Quonber, a flat slab of hangar space and accommodation units that looked like a small, squashed cruise liner, albeit one perfectly disguised by a camoufield. It floated smoothly in the warm air just over the altitude where a few puffy clouds drifted, their shadows spotting the surface of the pale green ocean a couple of thousand metres below. Directly beneath the platform lay the salt lagoons of an uninhabited island near the planet’s equator.

The platform was home to another eleven SC human staff, all charged with attempting to alter the development of the various species on Prasadal. The planet was unusual in having five quite different sentient expansionist/aggressive species all hitting their civilisational stride at the same time. In all recorded history, every other time this had happened without some outside influence taking a hand in matters, at least three and usually four of the contending species were simply destroyed by the victorious grouping. The Culture’s notoriously highly detailed and allegedly extremely reliable simulations confirmed that this was just the way things worked out for your average aggressive species, unless you interfered.

When the module arrived everybody else was either on the ground or busy, so they saw nobody else as one of the Quonber’s own slaved drones escorted them along the open side-deck towards the rear of the platform. Toark stared goggle-eyed through the drop of air towards the salt lagoons far below.

“Shouldn’t you at least hide the boy?” the drone suggested.

“What would be the point?” Anaplian asked it.

The slave-drone showed them into the presence of Anaplian’s control and mentor, Jerle Batra, who was taking the air on the wide balcony that curved round the rear portion of the module’s third deck.

Jerle Batra had been born male. He had, as was common in the Culture, changed sex a while, and had borne a child. Later, for his own reasons, he had spent some time in Storage, passing a dreamless millennium and more in the closest thing the Culture knew to death from which it was still possible to wake.

And when he had awoken, and still felt the pain of being a human in human form, he had had his brain and central nervous system transferred sequentially into a variety of different forms, ending, for now at least, with the body type he now inhabited and which he had retained for the last hundred years or so — certainly for the decade or more that Anaplian had known him, that of an Aciculate; his shape was bush-like.

His still human brain, plus its accompanying biological but non-human support systems, was housed in a small central pod from which sixteen thick limbs protruded; these quickly branched and rebranched to form smaller and smaller limblets, maniples and sensor stalks, the most delicate of which were hair-thin. In his normal, everyday state he looked just like a small, rootless, spherical bush made from tubes and wires. Compressed, he was little larger than the helmet of an old-fashioned human spacesuit. Fully extended, he could stretch for twenty metres in any given direction, which gave him what he liked to term a high contortionality factor. He had, in all his forms, always worshipped order, efficiency and fitness, and in the Aciculate form felt he had found something that epitomised such values.

Aciculacy was not the furthest one could stray from what the Culture regarded as human basic. Other ex-humans who looked superficially a lot like Jerle Batra had had their entire consciousness transcribed from the biological substrate that was their brain into a purely non-biological form, so that, usually, an Aciculate of that type would have its intelligence and being distributed throughout its physical structure rather than having a central hub. Their contortionality factor could be off the scale compared to Batra’s.

Other people had assumed the shapes of almost anything mobile imaginable, from the relatively ordinary (fish, birds, other oxygen-breathing animals) to the more exotic, via alien life-forms — again, including those which were not normally in the habit of supporting a conscious mind — all the way to the truly unusual, such as taking the form of the cooling and circulatory fluid within a Tueriellian Maieutic seed-sail, or the spore-wisp of a stellar field-liner. These last two, though, were both extreme and one-way; there was a whole category of Amendations that were hard to do and impossible to undo. Nothing sanely transcribable had ever been shifted back from something resembling a stellar field-liner into a human brain.

A few genuine eccentrics had even taken the form of drones and knife missiles, though this was generally considered to be somewhat insulting to both machine- and human-kind.

“Djan Seriy Anaplian,” Batra said in a very human-sounding voice. “Good day. Oh. Do I congratulate?”

“This is Toark,” Anaplian said. “He is not mine.”

“Indeed. I thought I might have heard.”

Anaplian glanced at the drone. “I’m sure you would have.”

“And Handrataler Turminder Xuss. Good day to you too.”

“Delightful as ever,” muttered the drone.

“Turminder, this does not involve you initially. Would you excuse Djan Seriy and me? You might entertain our young friend.”

“I am becoming an accomplished child-minder. My skills grow with every passing hour. I shall hone them.”

The drone escorted the boy from the balcony. Anaplian glanced up at the overhanging bulk of the accommodation deck and took her hat off, throwing it into one suspended seat and herself into another. A drinks tray floated up.

Batra drifted nearer, a greyly skeletal bush about head-height. “You are at home here,” he stated.

Anaplian suspected she was being gently rebuked. Had she been overcasual in her hat-throwing and her seat-collapsing-into? Perhaps Batra was chiding her for not showing him sufficient deference. He was her superior, to the extent that this wilfully unhierarchic civilisation understood the idea of superiors and inferiors. He could have her thrown out of SC if he wanted to — or at the very least, make her restart the whole process — however, he wasn’t usually so sensitive regarding matters of etiquette.

“It serves,” she said.

Batra floated across the deck and settled into another of the seats hanging from the ceiling, resting in it like a sort of fuzzy, vaguely metallic ball. He had formed part of the side facing Anaplian into a kind of simulated face, so that his visual sensors were where the eyes should be and his voice came from where a human mouth would have been. It was disconcerting. Just having a fuzzy ball talking to you would have been much less alarming, Anaplian thought.

“I understand that events have not ended as well as they might with the Zeloy/Nuersotise situation.”

“A year ago we disabled and turned back an army on its way to sack a city,” Anaplian said wearily. “Today the would-be attackers became the attacked. The more progressive tendency, as we would put it, ought now to prevail. Though at a cost.” She pursed her lips briefly. “Part of which I have just witnessed.”

“I have seen some of this.” The image of the face suggested by Batra’s mass of steely-looking tendrils expressed a frown, then closed its eyes, politely indicating that he was reviewing data from elsewhere. Anaplian wondered if he was watching general views of the siege and sacking of the city, or something that included her unwarranted excursion on the seatrider.

Batra’s eyes opened again. “The knowledge that so much worse happens where we do nothing, and always has, long before we came along — and that so much worse might happen here were we to do nothing — seems of very little significance when one is confronted with the grisly reality of aggression we have failed to prevent. All the more so when we had a hand in allowing or even enabling it.” He sounded genuinely affected. Anaplian, who was innately suspicious of perfectly one hundred per cent natural, utterly unamended human-basic humans, wondered whether Batra — this bizarre, many-times-alien, two-thousand-year-old creature that still thought of itself as “he” — was expressing sincere emotion, or simply acting. She wondered this very briefly, having realised long ago the exercise was pointless.

“Well,” she said, “it is done.”

“And much more remains to be done,” Batra said.

“That’ll get done too,” Anaplian said, beginning to lose patience. She was short on patience. She had been told this was a fault. “I imagine,” she added.

The metallic bush rolled back a little, and the face on its surface seemed to nod. “Djan Seriy, I have news,” Batra said.

Something about the way the creature said this made her quail. “Really?” she said, feeling herself battening down, shrinking inward.

“Djan Seriy, I have to tell you that your father is dead and your brother Ferbin may also be deceased. I am sorry. Both for the news itself and to be the one who bears it.”

She sat back. She drew her feet up so that she was quite enclosed in the gently swinging egg of the suspended seat. She took a deep breath and then unfolded herself deliberately. “Well,” she said. “Well.” She looked away.

It was, of course, something she had tried to prepare herself for. Her father was a warrior. He had lived with war and battle all his adult life and he usually led from the front. He was also a politician, though that was a trade he’d had to train himself to do well rather than one that he had taken to entirely naturally and excelled at. She had always known he was likely to die before old age took him. Throughout the first year when she had come to live amongst these strange people that called themselves the Culture she had half expected to hear he was dead and she was required to return for his funeral.

Gradually, as the years had passed, she had stopped worrying about this. And, also gradually, she had started to believe that even when she did hear he was dead it would mean relatively little to her.

You had to study a lot of history before you could become part of Contact, and even more before you were allowed to join Special Circumstances. The more she’d learned of the ways that societies and civilisations tended to develop, and the more examples of other great leaders were presented to her, the less, in many ways, she had thought of her father.

She had realised that he was just another strong man, in one of those societies, at one of those stages, in which it was easier to be the strong man than it was to be truly courageous. Might, fury, decisive force, the willingness to smite; how her father had loved such terms and ideas, and how shallow they began to look when you saw them played out time and time again over the centuries and millennia by a thousand different species.

This is how power works, how force and authority assert themselves, this is how people are persuaded to behave in ways that are not objectively in their best interests, this is the kind of thing you need to make people believe in, this is how the unequal distribution of scarcity comes into play, at this moment and this, and this…

These were lessons anybody born into the Culture grew up with and accepted as being as natural and obvious as the progression of a star along the Main Sequence, or evolution itself. For somebody like her, coming in from outside, with a set of assumptions built up in a society that was both profoundly different and frankly inferior, such understanding arrived in a more compressed time frame, and with the impact of a blow.

And Ferbin dead too, perhaps. That she had not expected. They had joked before she’d left that he might die before his father, in a knife fight over a gambling game or at the hand of a cuckolded husband, but that had been the sort of thing one said superstitiously, inoculating the future with a weakened strain of afflictive fate.

Poor Ferbin, who had never wanted to be king.

“Do you need time to grieve?” Batra asked.

“No,” she said, shaking her head fiercely.

“Are you sure?”

“Positive,” she said. “My father. Did he die in battle?”

“Apparently so. Not on the battlefield, but of his wounds, shortly after, before he could receive full medical attention.”

“He’d rather have died on the field itself,” she told Batra. “He must have hated having to settle for second best.” She found that she was both crying a little, and smiling. “When did it happen?” she asked.

“Eleven days ago.” Batra made a bristling motion. “Even news of such importance travels slowly out of a Shellworld.”

“I suppose,” Anaplian said, her expression thoughtful. “And Ferbin?”

“Missing, on the same battlefield.”

Anaplian knew what that meant. The vast majority of those labelled missing in battles either never reappeared at all, or turned up dead. And what had Ferbin being doing anywhere near a battle in the first place? “Do you know where?” she asked. “Exactly how far-flung a province was it?”

“Near the Xiliskine Tower.”

She stared at him. “What?”

“Near the Xiliskine Tower,” Batra repeated. “Within sight of Pourl — that is the capital, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Anaplian said. Her mouth was suddenly quite dry. Dear God, it had all fallen away, then. It had all crumbled and gone. She felt a sorrow she barely understood.

“So was this some… Excuse me.” She cleared her throat. “Was this a final stand, in that case?”

And why hadn’t she heard? Why had no one told her things had reached a point of such awful desperation? Were they afraid she’d try to return and use her new-found skills and powers to intercede? Were they worried she’d try to join the fray, was that it? How could they?

“Now, Djan Seriy,” Batra said, “while I have been briefed in this, I cannot claim to have immediate access to an expert database. However, I understand that it was the result of what was expected to be a surprise attack by the Deldeyn.”

“What? From where?” Anaplian said, not even trying to hide her alarm.

“From this Xiliskine Tower.”

“But there’s no way out of…” she began, then put one hand to her mouth, pursing her lips and frowning as she stared at the floor. “They must have opened a new…” she said, more to herself than to Batra. She looked up again. “So, is the Xiliskine controlled by the Aultridia now, or…?”

“First, let me assure you that as I understand it, Pourl and your father’s people are not under threat. The Deldeyn are the ones facing disaster.”

Anaplian’s frown deepened, even as the rest of her body showed signs of relaxing. “How so?”

“Your father had effectively completed his Wars of Unity, as he termed them.”

“Really?” She felt a surge of relief and a perverse urge to laugh. “He did keep busy.”

“The Deldeyn would appear to have assumed that they’d be his next target. They therefore staged what they hoped would be a decisive, pre-emptive surprise attack on your father’s capital city, having been convinced by the — Oct? Inheritors?”

“Synonyms.” Anaplian flapped one hand again. “Either.”

“That they, the Oct, would deliver the Deldeyn forces in secret to where a new portal would be opened in the Xiliskine Tower through which they might effect such an attack, taking the city. This was a ruse, and one which the Sarl were party to. Your father’s forces were waiting for the Deldeyn and destroyed them.”

Anaplian looked confused. “Why were the Oct deceiving the Deldeyn?”

“This is still a matter for conjecture, apparently.”

“And the Aultridia?”

“The other Conducer species. They have backed the Deldeyn in the past. They are believed to be considering military and diplomatic action against the Oct.”

“Hmm. So why…?” Anaplian shook her head once more. “What is going on back there?” she asked. Again, Jerle Batra suspected this question was not really directed at him. He let her continue. “So, Ferbin’s in charge — no, of course, he’s probably dead too. Oramen, then?” she asked, looking worried and sceptical at once.

“No; your younger brother is deemed too young to inherit all your father’s power immediately. A man called Mertis tyl Loesp is regent until your brother’s next birthday.”

“Tyl Loesp,” Anaplian said thoughtfully. She nodded. “At least he’s still around. He should be all right.”

“Your younger brother won’t be in any danger, will he?”

“Danger?”

Batra’s impersonated face configured a weak smile. “It has been my understanding that, like wicked stepmothers, ambitious regents do not usually come out well from such contexts. Perhaps that is only in tales.”

“No,” Anaplian said with what sounded like relief. She wiped her eyes. “Tyl Loesp’s been my father’s best friend since they were children. He’s always been loyal, fastened his ambitions to my father’s. God knows, they were grand enough for two. Grand enough for a host.” Anaplian looked away to one side, where the bright, tropic air of this place that she had almost come to think of as home over the last two years now seemed as far away as it had when she’d first arrived. “Though what do I know? It’s been fifteen years.”

She wondered how much Ferbin had changed in that time, and Oramen. Her father, she strongly suspected, would hardly have changed at all — he had been the same forbidding, occasionally sentimental, rarely tender, utterly focused individual for as long as she’d known him. Utterly focused, yet with one eye always on history, on his legacy.

Had she ever known him? Most of the time he wasn’t there to be known in the first place, always away fighting his distant wars. But even when he had returned to Pourl, his palace, concubines and children, he had been more interested in the three boys, especially Elime, the eldest and by far the most like him in character. Second in age, her gender and the circumstances of her birth had fixed the King’s only daughter firmly last in his affections.

“Should I leave you, Djan Seriy?” Batra asked.

“Hmm?” She looked back at him.

“I thought you may need time alone. Or do you need to talk? Either is—”

“I need you to talk to me,” she told him. “What is the situation now?”

“On what is called the Eighth? Stable. The King is mourned with all due—”

“Has he been buried?”

“He was due to be, seven days ago. My information is eight or nine days old.”

“I see. Sorry. Go on.”

“The great victory is celebrated. Preparations for the invasion of the Deldeyn continue apace. The invasion is widely expected to take place between ten and twenty days from now. The Oct have been censured by their Nariscene mentors, though they have blamed everybody else for what has happened, including elements within their own people. The Aultridia have, as I have said, threatened retaliation. The Nariscene are trying to keep the peace. The Morthanveld are so far not involved, though they have been kept informed.”

She pinched her lower lip with her fingers. She took a breath and said, “How long would it take for me to get back to Sursamen?”

“A moment, please,” Batra said, falling silent for a moment while, she imagined, he consulted the course schedules of whole networks of distant ships. She had time to wonder why he hadn’t already memorised or at least accessed this information, and whether this possibly deliberate hesitation implied a criticism of her for even thinking of abandoning her post here.

“Between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and sixty days,” Batra told her. “The uncertainty comes from the changeover to Morthanveld space.”

Morthanveld space. The Morthanveld were the highest-level Involved species around Sursamen. As part of her training Anaplian had studied, and been suitably stunned by, the full three-dimensional map of all the various species that inhabited the galaxy and had spread sufficiently far from their homes to discover that they were profoundly Not Alone.

The standard star chart detailing the influence of the better-travelled players was fabulously complex and even it only showed major civilisations; those with just a few solar systems to their name didn’t really show up, even with the holo-map filling one’s entire field of vision. Generally overlapping, often deeply interconnected, slowly shifting, subject to continual gradual and very occasionally quite sudden change, the result looked like something committed by a madman let loose in a paint factory.

The Morthanveld held sway over vast regions of space, one tiny pocket of which happened to include the star around which her home planet orbited. They had been there, or spreading slowly out in that direction, for longer than the Culture had existed, and the two civilisations had long since settled into a comfortable and peaceful co-existence, though the Morthanveld did expect all but the most pressing business crossing their sphere of influence to be conducted using their own spacecraft.

Having immersed herself in the politics, geography, technology and mythology of Prasadal for over two intense, demanding years, and having almost ignored outside events for the same amount of time, Anaplian realised she had half forgotten that the Culture was not somehow the totality of the galactic community — that it was, indeed, a relatively small part, even if it was a powerful and almost defiantly widespread one.

“Would I be excused here?” she asked Batra.

“Djan Seriy,” the metallic bush said, and for the first time something other than its pretended face moved, its sides expanding in a gesture that looked a lot like a human spreading their arms, “you are a free agent. Nothing keeps you here but you. You may go at any time.”

“But would I be welcome back? Would I still have a place in SC if I did return home? Could I come back here, to Prasadal?”

“None of that is for me finally to decide.”

The creature was being evasive. It would have a say, even if the final decision might be made by some tiny clique of ship Minds spread throughout the Culture and across the galaxy.

Anaplian arched one eyebrow. “Take a guess.”

“SC, I’d imagine, yes. Here? I can only imagine. How long would you be going for, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Anaplian admitted.

“And neither would we. It is unlikely you would start any return journey within a few days of arriving. You might be gone a standard year, all told. Perhaps longer; who can say? We would have to replace you here.”

There was a degree of margin in the system here, of course. Her colleagues could fill in for her, for a while at least. Leeb Scoperin especially knew what Anaplian had been doing in her part of the planet and seemed to have the sort of natural understanding of her aims and techniques that would let him take over her role with as little turbulence as possible, plus he was one of those training an assistant, so the overall burden wouldn’t be too great. But that sort of arrangement would not do for ever. A little slack was one thing, but leaving people feeling useless for extended amounts of time was pointless and wasteful, so the platform was not overstaffed for the task in hand. Batra was right; they’d have to replace her.

“You could give me a ship,” Anaplian said. That would get her there and back quicker.

“Ah,” Batra said. “That is problematical.” This was one of his several ways of saying no.

The Culture was being especially careful not to offend the Morthanveld at the moment. The reason was officially moot, though there had been some interesting suggestions and one in particular that had become the default explanation.

Anaplian sighed. “I see.”

Or she could just stay here, she supposed. What good, after all, could she do back home? Avenge her father? That was not a daughter’s duty, the way the Sarl saw things, and anyway it sounded like the Deldeyn were about to have more than sufficient vengeance visited upon them long before she would be able to get there. Her father would have been the aggressor in all this, anyway; she had no doubt that the pre-emptive attack the Deldeyn had launched was anything other than just that — an attempt to stop the Sarl under King Hausk invading them.

Perhaps she would just make a bad situation worse if she went back; things would be in turmoil enough without her suddenly reappearing. She had been away too long, she thought. People would have forgotten about her, and everything would have changed. Anyway, she was female. After fifteen years living in the Culture, it was sometimes hard to recall just how misogynist her birth-society had been. She might go back and try to affect things only to be laughed at, scorned, ignored. Oramen was clever if still young. He’d be all right, wouldn’t he? Tyl Loesp would take care of him.

Her duty, arguably, lay here. This was what she had taken on, this was what she had to do, what she was expected to finish. She knew that could affect the course of history on Prasadal. It might not always go as she’d wish, and it could be bloody, but her influence was in no doubt and she knew that she was good at what she did. On the Eighth — and the Ninth, given that the Deldeyn had been forced into the matter — she might effect nothing, or only harm.

That was not what she was being trained to do.

Her father had sent her to the Culture as payment, if you wished to be brutal about it. She was here as the result of a debt of honour. She had not been banked far away from Sursamen as some sort of insurance, neither was it assumed she would be educated further and returned an even more fit bride for some foreign prince, to cement an alliance or tie-in a far away conquerance. Her duty, in perpetuity, was to serve the Culture to repay it for the help — through the man called Xide Hyrlis — it had given her father and the Sarl people. King Hausk had made it perfectly clear that he did not expect ever to see his only daughter again.

Well, he had been right about that.

When this bargain had first been suggested, she had struggled with the competing emotions of pride at being asked to play such an important role, and anguish at experiencing a rejection even more final and complete than all the other rejections her father had made her suffer. At the same time there had been a kind of triumph coursing through her that had been stronger still than either feeling.

At last! At last she would be free of this idiot backwater, at last she could develop as she wished, not as her father and this female-fearing, woman-demeaning society demanded. She was accepting an obligation she might spend the rest of her life fulfilling, but it was one that would take her away from the Eighth, away from the Sarl and the constrictions of the life she had gradually realised — with increasing dismay through her girlhood — she would otherwise have been expected to lead. She would still be going into service, but it was service in faraway exotic places, service in a greater cause and perhaps even one that actually involved action, not simply the requirement to please a man and produce a litter of petty royals.

Her father had thought the Culture representatives effeminate fools for being more interested in her than in her brothers when he’d insisted on sending one of his children into their employ. Even his respect for Xide Hyrlis had suffered, when he too had suggested little Djan should be the one to go, and Anaplian didn’t know of anyone, save perhaps tyl Loesp, that her father had thought as highly of as Hyrlis.

Her father had barely pretended to be sorry that they had chosen his troublesome, discontented, discounted daughter rather than one of his precious sons. If, of course, she wished to go; the Culture’s representatives made it very clear that they had no desire to coerce her into their employ. Naturally, as soon as they’d asked she’d had no choice — her father had been convinced he’d been presented with an absolute bargain, and hurried her departure before the Culture could see sense and change its mind — but it was precisely what she would have chosen anyway.

She had pretended. She had pretended — to her father and the rest of the court — to be reluctant to go to the Culture, in just the way that a girl chosen to be a bride was expected to pretend to be reluctant to go to her new home and husband, and she had trusted that the Culture people would see that this was an act, for appearances’ sake, to observe the niceties. They had, and she’d duly gone with them when the time came. She had never regretted it for a moment.

There had been times, many of them, when she’d missed her home and her brothers and even her father, times when she’d cried herself to sleep for many nights at a time, but not once, not even for an instant, had she thought that she might have made the wrong choice.

Her duty was here, then. Her father had said so. The Culture — Special Circumstances, no less — assumed so, and was relying on her to remain here. No one on the Eighth would expect her to return. And if she did, there was probably nothing useful she could do.

Yet what was duty? What was obligation?

She had to go, and knew it in her bones.

She had been silent just a few moments. She did something she only ever did with reluctance, and clicked into her neural lace and through it into the vast, bludgeoningly vivid meta-existence that was the SC version of the Culture’s dataverse.

A clamorous, phantasmagoric scape opened instantly in front of her and flicked all around. Confronting, pervading Anaplian in this mind-dazzling, seemingly frozen blink of time was a collection of inputs using every amended-range sense available; this barely graspable riot of sensory overload presented itself initially as a sort of implied surrounding sphere, along with the bizarre but perfectly convincing sensation that you could see every part of it at once, and in more colours than even the augmented eye possessed. The immediately appreciable surface of this vast enclosing globe was less than tissue thin, yet seemed to connect with senses deep inside her as the colossal but intricate simulation suffused into what felt like every fragment of her being. You thought through to an apparent infinitude of further membranes, each with its own sensory harmonics, like a lens adjusting to bring different depths within its field of vision into focus.

It was a given that this perceptual frenzy was as close as a human, or anything like a human, could get to knowing what it was like to be a Mind. Only politeness prevented most Minds pointing out that this was the drastically coarsened, savagely cut-down, vastly inferior, well-below-nursery-level version of what they themselves were immersed within throughout every moment of their existence.

Even without consciously thinking about it, she was there with a diagrammatic and data-ended representation of this section of the galaxy. The stars were shown as exaggerated points of their true colour, their solar systems implied in log-scaled plunge-foci and their civilisational flavour defined by musical note-groups (the influence of the Culture was signalled by a chord sequence constructed from mathematically pure whole-tone scales reaching forever down and up). An overlay showed the course schedules of all relevant ships and a choice of routes was already laid out for her, colour-coded in order of speed, strand thickness standing for ship size and schedule certainty shown by hue intensity, with comfort and general amenability characterised as sets of smells. Patterns on the strands — making them look braided, like rope — indicated to whom the ships belonged.

Circles and ellipses, mostly, confronted her. A few supplementally more complicated shapes squiggled through the view where ships anticipated describing more eccentric courses between the stars over the next few tens and hundreds of standard days.

Seemingly unbidden, another line formed in the overlay, almost perfectly straight, showing her how quickly the nearest available unit of the Culture’s fleet of Very Fast Pickets could get her there. Crude flight time was a little over a dozen days, though it would take almost as long for the ship to get to Prasadal to pick her up in the first place. Other ships could have made the journey in even less time, though they were too far away. There was a degree of favourable uncertainty in the projection; it applied only to Culture vessels that were currently making their whereabouts known. It was entirely possible that another ship of the Rapid Asset fleet not currently bothering to circulate its location was even closer and would respond positively to a broadcast request.

But that wasn’t going to happen — Batra had made that clear. She wiped the offending overlay from the view. She would have to take the prescribed route, and be passed like a baton from ship to ship. It looked complicated.

A lot of very clever processing had already gone on in her neural lace to predict what she’d want to look at effectively before she knew herself, and — fabulously convenient and highly technically impressive though this might be — it was this aspect of lace-use that most disturbed Anaplian and caused her to keep its application to a minimum. In the end, she didn’t even need to pull out any data-ends to check the raw figures; there was one fairly obvious route through this tangled scribble from Prasadal to Sursamen, and it would indeed take at least one hundred and twenty-nine and a bit days if she left any time within the next two days, assuming that the Morthanveld end of things went as fortuitously as it might. A lot seemed to depend on whether the Morthanveld Great Ship Inspiral, Coalescence, Ringdown decided to take in the Nestworld Syaung-un on its way from one globular cluster to another.

She was about to click out when a barely formed thought regarding exactly what a Morthanveld Great Ship and a Nestworld actually were started to blossom into a whole hierarchy of increasingly complicated explanations as the lace raced to retrieve and present the relevant information with all the desperate enthusiasm of an overenthusiastic child asked to perform a party piece. She shut it down with a sort of inward slam and clicked out again with the usual sense of relief and vague guilt. The last vestige of the lace’s presence informed her that her heart was still completing the beat it had been beginning when she’d first clicked in.

It was like waking up, though from a dream world where everything was more detailed, vivid, splendid and even plausible than reality, not less. That was another reason she didn’t like using the lace. She wondered briefly how Jerle Batra’s normality compared to hers.

“I’m sorry. I think I have to go,” she told him.

“Think, Djan Seriy?” Batra asked, sounding sad.

“I am going,” she said. “I must.”

“I see.” Now the man who looked like a fuzzy little bush sounded apologetic. “There will be a cost, Djan Seriy.”

“I know.”

<p>6. Scholastery</p>

Ferbin otz Aelsh-Hausk’r and his servant Choubris Holse were riding along an ill-kept road through a forest of cloud trees towards the Xiliskine-Anjrinh Scholastery. They had chosen to travel through the long half-night of the Rollstar Guime, which showed as a sullen red glow spread like a rosy bruise across the farpole horizon. They had pulled off the road only twice so far, once to avoid a troop of mounted Ichteuen and once when a steam truck had appeared in the far distance. The prince no longer looked like himself; Holse had close-cut his scalp, his facial hair was growing quickly (darker than his head hair; nearly brown, which peeved him disproportionately), he had removed all his rings and other regal jewellery and he was dressed in clothes Holse had obtained from the battlefield.

“From a corpse?” Ferbin had spluttered, staring down at himself wide-eyed. Holse had thought to inform the prince of the provenance of his new-to-him civvies only after he’d put them on.

“One with no obvious wounds, sir,” Holse had assured him reasonably. “Just a little bleeding from the ears and nose. Dead a good two or three days, too, so any fleas would assuredly have caught cold and jumped ship. And he was a gentleman, too, I might add. An army private provisioner, unless I’m mistaken.”

“That’s not a gentleman,” Ferbin had told his servant patiently. “That’s a merchant.” He’d pulled at his sleeves, held out his hands and shaken his head.

If there had been any aerial activity — unlikely in the near darkness — they didn’t see it. At any rate, nobody came swooping down to inspect them as they trudged on, Holse on his rowel and Ferbin on the mersicor his servant had brought to the folly overlooking the river four days earlier. Holse had dug a couple of wads of crile root from a saddle bag to help keep them awake as they rode, and they chewed on this while they talked. It gave their conversation what Holse felt was a rather comical, munchy sort of quality, though he thought better of mentioning this to Ferbin.

“Choubris Holse, it is your duty to accompany me to wherever I might choose to go.”

“I’d beg to differ, sir.”

“There’s no differing involved. Duty is duty. Yours is to me.”

“Within the kingdom, and within the rule of the king’s law, I’d not argue with you, sir. It is my duty beyond that reach I might think to question.”

“Holse! You are a servant! I am a prince! You’d be best advised to do as you’re damn well told even were I some lowly gent with no more than a tumbledown fort, a flea-bitten nag and too many children to his name. As servant to a prince — the senior prince, I might add — of the royal house of Hausk…” Ferbin broke off, choking on his own amazement and disgust at encountering such obduracy in a servant. “My father would have you thrashed for this, Holse, I tell you! Or worse! Damn it, man, I am the rightful king!”

“Sir, I am with you now, and intend to stay with you until the varsity and thence to whatever conveyance you might find beyond that which they are able to recommend you to. To that very point I shall be at your side, as faithful as ever.”

“And there you damn well have to stay! Wherever I go!”

“Sir, pleasing your pardon, my allegiance — at the bottom of the pot, after all reduction, as it were — is to the throne rather than to your good self. Once you remove yourself from the furthest extent of your father’s conquests, it is my understanding that I am bound to return to the seat of authority — which I would take to be the royal palace in Pourl, all other matters being in normal balance — there to take fresh instruction from, well, whomsoever—”

“Holse! Are you a lawyer?”

“Dear God forbid, sir!”

“Then shut up. Your duty is to stay with me. That’s the all and end of it.”

“My duty, begging your pardon, sir, is to the king.”

“But I am the king! Haven’t you been telling me for the last four days that I’m the rightful heir to the throne?”

“Sir, excuse my bluntness, but you are an uncrowned king who is riding most determinedly away from his throne.”

“Yes! Yes, to save my life! To seek help so that I may return to claim that throne, if the WorldGod lets. And, I would point out, in doing so I am following the highest precedents; does not the WorldGod find its own sanctuary from cares here at the core of our blessed world? Did not the Sarl people themselves flee persecution on their homeworld, escaping here to our own dear Sursamen?”

“Still, sir. Being a king has its expectations. One is letting people know you’re alive.”

“Is it really? Well, well,” Ferbin said, deciding to be witheringly sarcastic. “Do you tell me that now? And what else, might one ask?”

“Well, sir, acting in a kingly manner regarding the taking up of the reins of power, by dispute if needs be, rather than leaving them to fall to—”

“Choubris Holse, you will not lecture me in the art of kingcraft or my regal obligations and responsibilities!”

“Indeed not, sir. I agree most completely. Lecturing is the province of the scholastic monk types towards which we make our way. No argument there from me, sir.”

Holse’s rowel snored as though in agreement. Their animals were bred to night-walk and could literally walk in their sleep, though they needed the odd prod to keep them on the road.

“I decide my duty, Holse, not you! And my duty is not to let myself be murdered by those who have already killed one king and would not flinch from adding another — that is, me — to their score!”

Holse looked up at the near-unGodly vastness of the Hicturean Tower, rising to their left like fate. The sky-supporting stem was skirted with grassed and forested slopes, their steepness increasing as they approached the topmost edge where, piled up against the smooth, uncanny surface of the Tower, the ground and foliage broke like a dark green wave against the trunk’s vast pale roundness, glowing in the low red light like the bone of some long-dead god.

Holse cleared his throat. “These documents we go in search of, sir. They don’t work the other way, do they?”

“The other way? What do you mean, Holse?”

“Well, would they let you travel downwards, to the Core, to see the WorldGod, sir?” Holse had no idea how these things worked; he had never really bothered with religion, though he had always paid lip-service to the church for the sake of an easy life. He had long suspected that the WorldGod was just another convenient semi-fiction supporting the whole structure that sustained the rich and powerful in their privilege. “To see if its Divineness might help you?” He shrugged. “It would save all the bother of travelling to the Surface and then to the external stars, sir.”

“That is impossible, Holse,” Ferbin said patiently, trying not to lose his temper at such childish drivel. “The Oct and — thank God — the Aultridia are forbidden from interfering with the WorldGod; they may not descend to the Core. Therefore neither may we.” He might have replied at greater length, but — following an inopportune partial inhaling of a well-chewed wad of crile root — he was struck by an attack of coughing, and spent much of the next few minutes wheezing and spluttering and refusing Holse’s repeated offers to administer a forceful slap on the back.

* * *

The Hicturean-Anjrinh Scholastery sat on a low hill a day’s ride from the Hicturean Tower in the direction of nearpole, so that the great column was almost directly between it and Pourl. Like most Scholasteries, the place was forbidding-looking, even if technically it was unfortified. It looked like a long, low castle with its curtain wall removed. It had two turrets, but they housed telescopes rather than guns. The visible walls actually looked quite jolly, painted in all sorts of different colours, but it still appeared somehow grim to Ferbin. He had always been rather in awe of such places and the people who inhabited them. To give yourself up to a life of study, thought and contemplation seemed like, well, such a waste. He tipped continually between contempt for anyone who could cut themself off from so much that made life fun just to pursue this abstraction they called learning, and something close to reverence, deeply impressed that seriously clever people would willingly choose such an abstemious existence.

It was to one of these places that he knew Djan Seriy would have wanted to go, had she been free to choose. She hadn’t been, of course, and anyway the Culture had made off with her. Some of her letters home to her family after she had gone with them had spoken of places of learning that sounded a lot like Scholasteries. Ferbin had formed the impression that she’d learned a great deal. (Far too much, in the snorting estimation of their father.) Later letters seemed to hint that she had become some sort of warrior, almost a champion. They had worried about her sanity at first, but woman warriors were not unknown. Everybody had thought they belonged firmly in the past, but — well — who knew? The ways of the aliens — the superior, mentor and Optimae races, and who could say what others — were beyond knowing. So much of life went in great circles, in wheels of good and ill fortune; maybe woman warriors were part of some utterly strange and incomprehensible future.

Ferbin hoped she was a warrior. If he could get to her, or at least get word to her, Djan Seriy might be able to help him.

The Rollstar Obor was spreading a slow, reluctant dawn to their right as they approached. They passed apprentice scholars leaving the Scholastery compound to work in the fields, orchards and streams around the jumble of gaily painted buildings. They nodded, helloed, waved hats. Ferbin thought they looked almost happy.

An increasing number of the cities of the Sarl were becoming host to something like a Scholastery, though these urban institutions offered more practical instruction than the ancient, usually remote and rural Scholasteries. Many merchants and even some nobles were starting to send their sons to such modern varsities, and Ferbin had heard of one in Reshigue that accepted only girls. (Though that was Reshigue, and everybody knew the people of that thankfully distant city were mad.)

“No telegraph connection that I can see,” Holse pointed out, casting his gaze about the jumble of buildings. “That may be to the good. We’ll see.”

“Hmm?” Ferbin said.

* * *

Ferbin rarely prayed. It was a failing, he knew, but then a noble one, he’d always told himself. Even Gods, he felt sure, must have limited patience and even attention. By not praying he was leaving the floor of the divine court that little bit less crowded and so free for more deserving, less fortunate people whose own prayers would therefore stand by that same increment more likely to be heard above whatever hubbub must surely fill said assembly. In fact, he took comfort in the fact that, being a prince, his entreaties would of course have been given priority in the WorldGod’s petitionary court — he would have had a naturally louder voice, as it were — and so by his modest, self-effacing absence, he did far more good than a fellow of more limited importance would have done by such an act of self-sacrifice.

Still, the WorldGod was there, and — while going to see it, as Holse had suggested, was patently ridiculous — prayers were assuredly listened to. Sometimes, indeed, the WorldGod was said to intervene in the affairs of people, taking up the cause of the good and just and punishing those who had sinned. It would, therefore, positively be dereliction of princely duty not to entreat the deity. Even if it did — as it surely would — already know of the terrible events that had befallen Ferbin and which might be about to befall the Sarl people as a whole with a usurper in their midst and indeed in charge, the WorldGod might not feel able to act until it had received a sort of formal request from him, the rightful king. He wasn’t sure exactly how these things worked, never having paid attention in Divinity classes, but he had a feeling it might be something like that.

“Dear God, God of the World. Support me in my cause, let me escape my pursuers, if, ah, assuming there are pursuers. If not, then let there continue not to be any. Aid my getting out of the World and finding Xide Hyrlis and my dear sister Djan, that she may succour me. Let her be not turned away from her brother by the luxuries and, umm, luxuriances of the Culture people. Please, God, visit the most terrible and disgusting tribulations and humiliations upon the filthy usurper tyl Loesp, who killed my father. There is a foul fiend indeed, God! There is a monster in the form of man! You must have seen what happened, God, and if not, look into my memory and see it seared in there like a brand, burned and fixed for ever — what more awful crime has there ever been? What ghastliness committed between your skies can outdo that atrocity?”

Ferbin found he was growing breathless, and had to stop to collect himself. “God, if you punish him most severely, I shall rejoice. If not, then I shall take it as a sure and certain sign that you grant him not even the honour of divine retribution but leave his punishment for human hand. That hand may not be my own — I am, as your good self knows, more of a man of peace than of action — but it will be at my instigation, I swear, and it will be a sorry tower of anguish and despair that bastard suffers beneath. And the others, all who helped him; all them too. I do swear this, on the violated body of my own dearly loved father!” Ferbin swallowed, coughed. “You know I ask this for my people, not for myself, God; I never wanted to be king, though I will accept this burden when it falls to me. Elime; he should have been the king. Or Oramen might make a good king one day. I… I’m not sure I’d be very good at it. I never have been sure. But, sir, duty is duty.”

Ferbin wiped some tears away from his tightly closed eyes. “Thank you for this, my God. Oh; also, I would ask you to make my idiot servant see where his true duty lies and get him to stay with me. I have no skill negotiating the base vulgarities of life, whereas he has and, argumentative wretch though he may be, he makes progress the smoother for me. I’ve hardly dared let him out of my sight since I began to worry he might run off and I cannot think how daunting my way would be without him. Please also let the Head Scholar here, one Seltis, be well disposed to me and not remember that it was I who put the tack on his seat that time, or the maggot into his pie on that other occasion. Actually, twice, come to think of it. Anyway, let him have a Tower travel warrant thing that he doesn’t mind letting me have so that I can get away from here. Grant me all of this, WorldGod, and on my father’s life I swear I shall build a temple to your greatness, mercy and wisdom that will challenge the Towers themselves! Umm… Right. With all my — ah, well, that’s all.” Ferbin sat back, opening his eyes, then closed them and went on one knee again. “Oh, and ah, thank you.”

He had been given a small cell in the Scholastery after they’d arrived and announced themselves as a gentleman traveller and his assistant (a title — a promotion, even — that Holse had insisted upon) who had need of an audience with the Head Scholar. Ferbin found it strange to be treated like an ordinary person. In a way it was almost fun, but it was also a little shaming and even annoying, despite the fact it was this disguise of ordinariness that might well be all that was keeping him alive. Being asked to wait while anybody other than his father found time to see him was a novel experience, too. Well, not that novel, perhaps; certain ladies of his knowledge were prone to such tactics too. But that was a delicious sort of waiting, even if, at the time, seemingly intolerable. This was not delicious at all, this was frustrating.

He sat on the small sleeping platform in the little room, looked round the bare, sparsely furnished space and briefly took in the view towards the Hicturean Tower — most Scholastery windows looked towards Towers if they could. He looked down at his clothes, stolen from a dead man. He shivered, and was hugging himself when the door was struck loudly and almost before he could say, “Enter,” Choubris Holse had swung into the room, looking unsteady, his face flushed.

“Sir!” Holse said, then seemed to collect himself, drawing himself up and producing a nod that might have been the remnants of a bow. He smelled of smoke. “The Head Scholar will see you now, sir.”

“I shall be there directly, Holse,” Ferbin said, then, recalling that the WorldGod allegedly helped those most given to helping themselves — a treatise Holse himself most obviously lived by — he added, “Thank you.”

Holse frowned and looked confused.

* * *

“Seltis! My dear old friend! It is I!” Ferbin entered the office of the Head Scholar of Hicturean-Anjrinh Scholastery and held his arms open. The elderly man in slightly worn-looking scholastic robes sat on the far side of a broad, paper-littered desk, blinking behind small round glasses.

“That you are you, sir, is one of life’s great undeniables,” he replied. “Do you apply for position by stating such truisms and claiming them profound?”

Ferbin looked round to make sure the door had been closed from outside by the serving scholar who had let him in. He smiled and approached the Head Scholar’s desk, arms still outspread. “No, Seltis, I mean, it is I!” He lowered his voice. “Ferbin. Who once was your most exasperating yet still I hope most loved pupil. You must pardon my disguise, and I am glad that it is so effective, but it is most assuredly me. Hello, old friend and most wise tutor!”

Seltis rose, an expression of some wonder and uncertainty on his withered face. He made a small bow. “By God, I do believe it might be, too.” His gaze searched Ferbin’s face. “How are you, boy?”

“No longer a boy, Seltis,” Ferbin said, taking a comfortable seat to one side of the desk, in a small bay window. Seltis remained at his desk, looking over a small cart full of books at his former pupil. Ferbin let a serious, even tormented expression take over his features. “Rather a young man, old friend, and a happy, carefree one at that, until a few days ago. Dear Seltis, I saw my own father murdered in the most obscene circumstance—”

Seltis looked alarmed and held up one hand. He turned away from Ferbin and said, “Munhreo, leave us, please.”

“Yes, Head Scholar,” said another voice, and, somewhat to Ferbin’s horror, a young man dressed in the robes of a junior scholar rose from a small, paper-piled desk set in one alcove of the room and — with a fascinated glance at Ferbin — went to leave the room.

“Munhreo,” the Head Scholar said to the youth as he was opening the door. The young scholar turned round. “You heard nothing, do you understand?”

The young scholar made a small bow. “Indeed, sir.”

“Ah. He must study the art of hiding, that one, eh?” Ferbin said awkwardly after the door had closed.

“He is trustworthy, I believe,” Seltis said. He drew his own seat over and sat by Ferbin, still studying his face. “Remind me; my assistant at the palace — who would that have been?”

Ferbin frowned, blew out his cheeks. “Oh. I don’t know. Youngish chap. Can’t recall his name.” He grinned. “Sorry.”

“And did I ever implant the name of the capital of Voette sufficiently well for it to take root?”

“Ah. Voette. Knew an ambassador’s daughter from there once. Lovely girl. She was from… Nottle? Gottle? Dottle? Something like that. That right?”

“The capital of Voette is Wiriniti, Ferbin,” Seltis said wearily. “And I truly do believe you are who you say.”

“Excellent!”

“Welcome, sir. I have to say, though, we had been informed that you were killed, prince.”

“And if the wishes of that murderous, scheming turd tyl Loesp made such things so, I would be, old friend.”

Seltis looked alarmed. “The new regent? What’s the cause of this hatred?”

Ferbin related the fundamentals of his story since the moment he and his party had crested the Cherien ridge and looked out over the great battlefield. Seltis sighed, polished his glasses twice, sat back, sat forward again, stood up at one point, walked round his seat, looked out through the window and sat back down again. He shook his head a few times.

“And so myself and my unreliable servant are here to ask for your help, dear Seltis, firstly in getting a message to Oramen and also in getting me away from the Eighth and from the great World itself. I have to warn my brother and seek my sister. I am that reduced. My sister has been with these Optimae the Culture for many years and has, by her own account, learned such things that even you might find impressive. She may even have become a sort of female warrior, as I understand it. In any event, she might have — or can call upon — powers and influences that I myself cannot. Help me make my way to her, Seltis, and help me warn my brother, and my gratitude, I swear, will be great. I am the rightful king even if I am not the anointed monarch; my formal ascension lies in the future, as must your reward. Even so, one as wise and learned as yourself no doubt understands even better than I the duty a subject owes to their sovereign. I trust you see that I ask for no more than I have every right to expect.”

“Well, Ferbin,” the old scholar said, sitting back in his seat and taking his glasses off again to inspect them, “I don’t know which would be the more confounding; that all you say is true, or that your skills in fictive composition have suddenly improved a million-fold.” He placed his glasses back on his nose. “Truthfully, I would rather that what you say is not so. I would rather believe that you did not have to witness what you did, that your father was not murdered, and our regent is not a monster, but I think I have to believe that all you claim is true. I am sorry for your loss, Ferbin, beyond words. But in any case, I hope you see that it is as well I attempt to restrict your stay here to a minimum. I will certainly do all I can to assist you on your way and I shall depute one of my senior tutors to take a message to your brother.”

“Thank you, old friend,” Ferbin said, relieved.

“However. You should know that there are rumours against you, Ferbin. They say that you deserted the battlefield shortly before your death, and that many other crimes, large and small, domestic and social, are being piled against you, now that you are thought safely dead.”

What?” Ferbin shouted.

“As I say,” Seltis said. “They seek, by the sound of it, to make you ill-missed and, perhaps — if they suspect you are not dead — to make it the more likely that you will be betrayed by anyone you reveal yourself to. Take all care, young man that was boy, and prince that hopes to be king.”

“Inequity upon infamy,” Ferbin breathed, his mouth drying as he spoke. “Injustice piled upon outrage. Intolerable. Intolerable.” A terrible anger built within him, causing his hands to shake. He stared at his trembling fingers, marvelling at such a physical effect. He swallowed, looking at his old tutor with tears in his eyes. “I tell you, Seltis, at every point at which I feel my rage cannot conceivably grow any further, having reached the outermost extremity of that possible for a man to bear, I am propelled further into indecent fury by the next action of that unspeakable puddle of excrement tyl Loesp.”

“Taking account of all you say,” Seltis said, rising, “that is hardly to be wondered at.” He went to a sash hanging by the wall behind his desk. “Will you have something to drink?”

“Some respectable wine would not go amiss,” Ferbin said, brightening. “My servant favours stuff you’d hesitate to rinse a rowel’s arse with.”

Seltis pulled on the sash. A gong rang distantly. He came and sat down with the prince again.

“I take it you wish me to recommend you to the Oct, for enTowerment, for transportation to the Surface.”

“Whatever you call it,” Ferbin said eagerly, sitting forward. “Yes. Naturally there are, in theory, royal prerogatives I might use, but that would amount to suicide. With a pass from you, I might hope to evade tyl Loesp’s spies and informants.”

“Rather more than just spies and informants; in potential, at least, the whole of the army, and even all of the people,” Seltis said. “Everyone, thinking themselves loyal, will be turned against the one they ought to be loyal to.”

“Indeed,” Ferbin said. “I must trust to my own wits and those of my irritating but wily servant.”

Seltis looked concerned, Ferbin thought.

A servant came to the door and wine was ordered. When the door was closed again, Ferbin leant forward and said solemnly, “I have prayed to the WorldGod, good Seltis.”

“That can do no harm,” the Head Scholar said, looking no less concerned.

Someone rapped loudly on the door. “Enter!” Seltis called. “The kitchens are not usually so—”

Choubris Holse lunged into the room, nodded briefly at the Head Scholar and to Ferbin said, “Sir; I fear we are discovered.”

Ferbin leapt to his feet. “What? How?”

Holse looked uncertainly at Seltis. “Little scholar fellow on the roof, sir; heliographed a passing patrol. Three knights on caude just coming in to land.”

“Munhreo,” the Head Scholar said, also standing.

“Maybe they’re just… visiting?” Ferbin suggested.

“In the circumstances, assume the worst,” Seltis told him, moving to his desk. “You’d best get going. I’ll try to detain them as long as I can.”

“We’ll never outrun them on mounts!” Ferbin protested. “Seltis, do you have any flying beasts?”

“No, Ferbin. We do not.” He took a small key from a drawer, kicked a rug behind his desk against the wall and, grunting, knelt on the boards, opening a small hatch in the floor and taking out two thick, heavy grey envelopes stoutly secured with thin metal bands. He opened a flap in each package and quickly wrote their names, then stamped the Scholastery seal on them. “Here,” he said, handing the envelopes to Ferbin. “The D’neng-oal Tower. The Towermaster is one Aiaik.”

“Ake,” Ferbin said.

Seltis tutted and spelled the name for him.

“Aiaik,” Ferbin said. “Thank you, Seltis.” He turned to his servant. “Holse, what are we going to do?”

Holse looked pained. “I have, reluctantly, had an idea, sir.”

* * *

The three caude were tied to a hitching ring on the flat roof of the Scholastery’s main building. A small crowd of mostly young scholars and servants had gathered to gape at the great air beasts, which had settled on their haunches on the roof and were munching on whatever was in their nose bags, giving every impression of ignoring the crowd around them with a degree of disdain. A warm, gusting wind ruffled their crests and made the gaudy coverings under their saddles flap. Ferbin and Holse hurried up the steps and crossed the roof.

“Make way!” Holse shouted, striding through the crowd. Ferbin drew himself up to his full height and strode manfully too, affecting an expression of hauteur.

“Yes! Out of my way!” he yelled.

Holse moved a couple of youthful scholars aside with the flat of his hand and then pointed at another. “You! Untie the beasts. Just two. Now!”

“I was told to guard them, by their riders,” the youth protested.

“And I’m telling you to untie them,” Holse said drawing his short-sword.

What a sheltered life they must lead here, Ferbin thought as the youngster’s eyes went wide and he started fumbling with the reins of one of the beasts. Amazed at the sight of caude and impressed by a drawn sword!

“You!” Holse shouted at another youth. “Help him.”

Ferbin felt rather proud of Holse, if a little envious too. Even resentful, he admitted to himself. He wished he could do something dynamic, or at least useful. He looked at the twenty or so faces confronting him, trying to remember what the scholar called Munhreo had looked like.

“Is Munhreo here?” he said loudly, cutting through a dozen muttered conversations.

“Sir, he went with the knights,” said one voice. The various conversations resumed. Ferbin glanced back at the stairs that led to the roof. “Who’s most senior here?” he barked.

Looks were exchanged. In a moment, one tall scholar stepped forward. “I am.”

“You are aware what these are?” Ferbin asked, pulling the two fat envelopes from his jacket. More wide eyes, and some nodding. “If you are loyal to your Head Scholar and your rightful king, guard that stairway with your life. Make sure nobody else comes up it, and stop anybody from leaving the roof too, until we’ve gone.”

“Sir.” The tall scholar looked initially doubtful, but he took a couple of his peers and went to stand by the steps.

“The rest of you, kindly stand over there,” Ferbin said, indicating the far corner of the roof. There was some muttering, but the scholars complied. He turned back. Holse was removing the nose bag from one of the caude. He emptied the bag with a flick while the creature was mewling in protest, turned the caude round to face towards the nearest edge of the roof and then quickly threw the emptied bag over the beast’s head. “Do the same with the other one, would you, sir?” he asked Ferbin, and moved to the caude which was still tied up. “Make sure it points the same way as that one.”

Ferbin did as he’d been asked, starting to understand why. He felt sick. The two caude with the nose bags over their heads laid their heads obediently on the surface of the roof and might already have been asleep.

Holse gentled the third caude, patting its nose and murmuring to it even as he brought the short-sword to its long neck. He slashed its throat, deep and hard, and the creature jerked back, snapped its tied reins and fell over backwards, wings half extending then folding back again, long legs kicking, then — to the shocked cries of several of the scholars — it went still, dark blood pooling on the roof’s dusty paving.

Holse flicked blood from his sword, sheathed it and strode past Ferbin. He whipped the nose bags off the two surviving caude; their heads rose and deep grumbling noises issued from their wide mouths. “Jump on, sir,” he said. “Try and keep it from seeing the dead one.”

Ferbin mounted the nearest caude, fitting himself into the deep saddle and drawing its belt over while Holse was doing the same. Ferbin was buttoning his jacket tight when his caude bent its long leathery neck back and looked at him with what might have been a puzzled expression, possibly registering the fact that it had a rider different from the one it was used to.

Caude were fabulously stupid animals; the intelligence had been bred out of them as obedience and stamina had been bred in. Ferbin had never heard of one being trained to accept just one rider. He patted the beast’s face and sorted its reins, then kicked its sides and got it to rise on its great long legs and half open its wings with a dry, rustling sound. Suddenly he was towering over the collection of startled, shocked-looking scholars.

“Ready?” Holse shouted.

“Ready!” Ferbin yelled.

They kicked the caude forward to the edge of the roof; the animals jumped on to the parapet and in the same heart-stopping movement launched themselves into the air just as shouts from the stairway end of the roof rang out. Ferbin whooped, half in fear and half in excitement, as the great wings opened with a snap and he and the caude started to fall towards a flagstoned courtyard half a dozen storeys below, the air roaring in his ears. The caude began pulling out of its dive, heavying him into the saddle; the wind screamed about him and he caught a glimpse of Holse to his side, grim-faced, hands clenched round the reins as they levelled out and the giant beasts took their first flap at the air. Distant popping noises behind them might have been gunfire. Something whizzed past between his caude and Holse’s, but then they were beating out away from the Scholastery over the fields and streams.

<p>7. Reception</p>

A reception was held in a grand drawing room of the palace after the state funeral of the late king and his internment in the Hausk family mausoleum, which lay some distance outside the farpole edge of the city walls. It had rained since morning and the day was still dark beyond the tall windows of the great room. Hundreds of candles burned by mirrored walls; the King had recently had installed lights which consumed lampstone, and others which arced electricity to make light, but both had proved problematic in operation and Oramen was glad to see the candles. They gave a softer light and the room didn’t stink of the noxious gases the other types of lamp gave off.

“Fanthile!” Oramen said, seeing the palace secretary.

“Sir.” Fanthile, in his most formal court clothes, all trimmed with mourning red, bowed deeply to the prince. “This is the sorriest of days, sir. We must hope it marks the end of the very sorriest of times.”

“My father would have wanted it no other way.” Oramen saw a couple of Fanthile’s assistants waiting behind him, as good as hopping from foot to foot like children in need of the toilet. He smiled. “I believe you’re needed, Fanthile.”

“With your leave, sir.”

“Of course,” Oramen said, and let Fanthile go to arrange whatever needed to be arranged. He supposed it was a busy time for the fellow. Personally he was quite content to stand and watch.

The atmosphere in the echoing great space, it seemed to Oramen, was one almost of relief. He had only recently developed a feeling for things like the atmosphere of a room. Amazingly, this was something Ferbin had purposefully taught him. Before, Oramen had tended to dismiss talk of such abstracts as ‘atmosphere’ as somehow unimportant; stuff adults talked about for want of anything actually worth discussing. Now he knew better and, by measuring his own submerged mood, he could attempt to gauge the emotional tenor of a gathering like this.

Over the years, Oramen had learned much from his older brother — mostly things like how to behave so as to avoid beatings, tutors tearing their hair out, scandalised lenders petitioning one’s father for funds to pay gambling debts, outraged fathers and husbands demanding satisfaction, that sort of thing — but this was an instance when Ferbin had had a proper lesson he could actually teach his younger brother, rather than simply exemplifying the bad example.

Ferbin had taught Oramen to listen to his own feelings in such situations. This had not been so easy; Oramen often felt overwhelmed in complicated social environments and had come to believe that he felt every emotion there was to feel at such times (so that they all cancelled each other out), or none at all. Eitherly, the result was that he would just stand there, or sit there, or at rate just be there, at whatever ceremony or gathering he was present at, seemingly near catatonic, feeling thoroughly detached and declutched, a waste to himself and an embarrassment to others. He had never suffered especially as a result of this mild social disability — one could get away with almost anything being the son of the King, as Ferbin seemed to have spent most of his life attempting to prove — however, such incidents had come to annoy him, and he’d known that they would only increase as he grew older and — even as the younger prince — he’d be expected to start taking a fuller part in the ceremonial and social workings of the court.

Gradually, under Ferbin’s admittedly casual tutelage, he had learned to seek a sort of calmness in himself and then amplify what feeling was still there, and use that as his marker. So that if, after a little immersion in a social grouping, he still felt tense when he had no particular reason to, then the shared feeling amongst that group must be something similar. If he felt at ease, then that meant the general atmosphere was also placid.

There was, here, he thought — standing looking out over the people collecting in the great drawing room — genuine sadness as well as an undercurrent of apprehension regarding what would happen now with the great king gone (his father’s stature had risen all the higher with his death, as if he was already passing into legend), but there was too a kind of excitement; everyone knew that the preparations for the attack on what was thought to be the now near-defenceless Deldeyn were being stepped up and the war — perhaps, as the late king had believed, the last ever war — was therefore approaching its conclusion.

The Sarl would achieve a goal they had been pursuing for almost all the life of their departed king, the Deldeyn would be defeated, the loathsome and hated Aultridia would be confounded, the WorldGod would be protected — who knew? even saved — and the Oct, the long-term allies of the Sarl, would be grateful, one might even say beholden. The New Age of peace, contentment and progress that King Hausk had talked so much about would finally come to pass. The Sarl would have proved themselves as a people and would, as they grew in power and influence within the greater World and eventually within the alien-inhabited skies beyond, take their rightful place as one of the In-Play, as an Involved species and civilisation, a people fit — perhaps, one day, no doubt still some long way in the future — to treat even the Optimae of the galaxy (the Morthanvelds, the Cultures, and who knew what alien others) as their equals.

That had always been his father’s ultimate aim, Oramen knew, though Hausk had known that he’d never see that day — neither would Oramen, or any children he would ever have — but it was enough to know that one had done one’s bit to further that albeit distant goal, that one’s efforts had formed some sturdy part of the foundations for that great tower of ambition and achievement.

The stage is small but the audience is great, had been one of King Hausk’s favourite sayings. To some degree he meant that the WorldGod watched and hopefully somehow appreciated what they were doing on its behalf, but there was also the implication that although the Sarl were primitive and their civilisation almost comically undeveloped by the standards of, say, the Oct (never mind the Nariscene, still less the Morthanveld and the other Optimae), nevertheless, greatness lay in doing the best you could with what you were given, and that greatness, that fixity of purpose, strength of resolve and decisiveness of action would be watched and noted by those far more powerful peoples and judged not on an absolute scale (on which it would barely register) but on one relative to the comparatively primitive resources the Sarl had available to them.

In a sense, his father had told him once — his contemplative moods were rare, so memorable — the Sarl and people like them had more power than the ungraspably supreme Optimae peoples with their millions of artificial worlds circling in the sky, their thinking machines that put mere mortals to shame and their billions of starships that sailed the spaces between the stars the way an iron warship cruised the waves. Oramen had found this claim remarkable, to put it kindly.

His father had explained that the very sophistication the Optimae and their like enjoyed acted as binds upon them. For all the legendary size of the great island of stars that existed beyond their own world of Sursamen, the galaxy was a crowded, settled, much-lived-in place. The Optimae — the Morthanveld, the Culture and so on — were self-consciously well-behaved and civilised peoples, and existed hip-by-hip with their fellow inhabitants of the great lens. Their realms and fields of influence — and to a degree their histories, cultures and achievements — tended to intermingle and overlap, reducing their cohesiveness as societies and making a defensive war difficult.

Similarly, there was little or nothing they ever needed to compete for and so might come to arms over. Instead, they were bound by numerous treaties, agreements, accords, conventions and even never fully articulated understandings, all designed to keep the peace, to avoid friction between those who were entirely alien in form to one another, but entirely alike in having reached the plateau of civilisational development where further progress could only take one away from the real life of the galaxy altogether.

The result was that while their individuals had what appeared to be complete freedom within their societies, the societies themselves had very little freedom of movement at all, certainly not that seemingly implied by their colossal martial potential. There was simply not much left for them to do on any grand scale. There were no — or at least very few — great wars at this level, no vast tusslings for position and power except by the slowest and most subtle of manoeuvrings. The last great, or at least fairly substantial conflict had been a millennium of Eighth short-years ago, when the Culture had fought the Idirans, and that had been, bizarrely, over principle, at least on the Culture side. (Oramen suspected that if it had not been Xide Hyrlis himself who had confirmed the truth of this, his father would never have believed anything that seemed to him so decadently preposterous.)

The Optimae had no kings to move a whole people to a single purpose at once, they had no real enemies they felt they had no choice but to fight, and they had nothing they valued that they could not somehow produce, seemingly at will, cheaply and in whatever quantities they chose, so there were no resources to fight over either.

But they, the Sarl, the people of the Eighth, this little race of men, they and their like were free to pander to their natures and indulge in their disputes untrammelled. They could do, in effect, and within the limits of their technologies, as they liked! Was that not a fine feeling? Some of the treaties the Optimae indulged in amongst themselves were framed so as to allow people like the Sarl to behave like this, unfettered, in the name of non-interference and resisting cultural imperialism. Was this not rich? Their licence to fight and lie and cheat their way to power and influence was guaranteed by space-alien statute!

The King had found this thoroughly amusing. The stage is small but the audience is great, he had repeated. But never forget, he had told Oramen, that you might be in more of a theatre than you thought. The abilities of the Optimae easily encompassed watching all that was going on amongst people as defenceless to such technologies as the Sarl. It was one of the ways that the Optimae refreshed their jaded palates and reminded themselves what a more barbarous life was like; they watched, for all the world like gods, and while various agreements and treaties were supposed to control and restrict such spying, they were not always observed.

Decadent it might be, but it was the price a people like the Sarl had to pay, perhaps, for their sanction to behave in ways that the Optimae might otherwise find too distasteful to allow. But never mind; maybe one day the descendants of the Sarl would spend their time flying between the stars and watching their own mentored primitives dispute! Happily, by then, his father had informed the youthful Oramen, they would both be long and safely dead.

Who knew to what extent the Sarl were observed? Oramen looked about the great room and wondered. Maybe alien eyes were watching this great mass of people all dressed in their deep red clothes. Maybe they were watching him, right now.

“Oramen, my sweet young prince,” the lady Renneque said, suddenly at his side. “You must not just stand there! People will think you a statue! Come, be my escort to the grieving widow, we’ll pay what respects are due together. What do you say?”

Oramen smiled and took the lady’s offered hand. Renneque was radiantly beautiful in her crimson gown. Her night-dark hair was not quite perfectly contained in a scarlet mourning cap; ringlets and curls had sprung out here and there, framing her perfectly smooth and flawless face.

“You are right,” Oramen said. “I should go to see that lady, and say the right things.”

They walked together through the crowd, which had greatly increased in size since Oramen had last paid proper attention to it as more mourners had been delivered by their carriages. There were hundreds of people here now, all dressed in a hundred shades of red. Only the Urletine mercenaries’ emissary and the knight commander of the Ichteuen Godwarriors seemed to have been excused, and even they had made an effort; the emissary had removed almost all the dried enemy body-parts from his clothing and donned a brown cap that no doubt appeared red to him, while the knight commander had concealed his most shocking facial scars with a crimson veil. And not just humanity was represented; he could smell the presence of the Oct ambassador, Kiu.

In amongst this, the animals of the court: ynt, like ankle-high furry waves slinking sinuously across the floor, always sniffing, happily trailing vermilion ribbons; ryre, tiptoeing decorously, usually by walls, thinly knee-high, ever-charmed by their own reflection, watchful, barely tolerating crimson collars; choups, bouncing and skittering on the polished-to-a-gleam wood tiles, bumping into people’s thighs and waists, alarmed at any alienness, proudly sporting little saddles for children, flanks tied-over with red to indicate mourning like full-size mounts throughout the kingdom on this day, all caparisoned in scarlet.

Moving through the crowd in Renneque’s rustlingly red wake, Oramen gave many small smiles to many slightly anxious faces trying to hit on the right combination of regretful grief and encouraging friendliness. Renneque kept her face modestly down, yet seemed to appreciate every glance cast her way and to be energised by the attention. “You have grown, Oramen,” she told him, slipping back to his side. “It seems that only yesterday I could look down on you, but no more. You’re taller than me now, practically a man.”

“I trust I grow rather than you shrink.”

“What? Oh!” Renneque said, and squeezed his hand with every appearance of bashfulness. She glanced up. “So many people, Oramen! All would be your friends now.”

“I did not think I lacked for friends before, but I suppose I must accept I was wrong.”

“Will you go with the army, Oramen, down into the Ninth, to fight the dreadful Deldeyn?”

“I don’t know. It’s not really for me to decide.”

Renneque looked down at her fine red gown being kicked out ahead of her with every step. “Perhaps it should be.”

“Perhaps.”

“I hope the victory is quick! I want to see the great Falls at Hyeng-zhar and the Nameless City.”

“I have heard they are most spectacular.”

“My friend Xidia — she’s older than me, of course, but still — she saw them once, in more peaceful times. Her father was ambassador to the Deldeyn. He took her. She says they are like nothing else. A whole city! Imagine that! I should like to see them.”

“I’m sure you shall.”

They arrived at where Harne, the lady Aelsh, was seated, surrounded by her own ladies, many clutching handkerchiefs and still dabbing at their eyes. Harne herself looked dry-eyed, though grim.

Oramen’s late father had never taken any lady to be his queen, thinking it best to leave that position free in case he needed to use it as a method of securing a troublesome or much-required territory. It was said that King Hausk had come close to marrying several times; certainly the subject had been raised amongst the ambassadors and diplomats of the court often enough, and if you believed every rumour he had been nearly married to almost every eligible princess of the Eighth and at least one from the Ninth. In the event his feats of arms had done all the securing required without recourse to a diplomatic or strategic marriage and instead he had chosen to make a series of more tactical alliances within the nobility of his own kingdom through a judicious choice of honoured concubines.

Oramen’s own mother, Aclyn, the lady Blisk — who had also birthed his elder brother, the late and still sorely lamented Elime — had been banished shortly after Oramen had been born, allegedly at the insistence of Harne, who, being older, it was said had felt threatened. Or perhaps there had been a falling-out between the two women — versions varied according to whom within the palace you listened to. Oramen had no memories of his mother, only of nurses and servants and an occasionally visiting father who somehow contrived to seem more remote than his utterly absent mother. She had been banished to a place called Kheretesuhr, an archipelagic province in the Vilamian Ocean, towards the far side of the world from Pourl. One of Oramen’s goals, now that he was at least approaching the true seat of power, was to secure her return to the court. He had never expressed this desire to anyone, yet he had always felt that somehow Harne must know this.

The final link in this unhappily expansive family had been Vaime, the lady Anaplia. Always frail, she had collapsed when heavily pregnant. The doctors had told the King he could save the mother or the child, but not both. He chose to save the child, expecting a boy. Instead he was presented with a tiny premature dot of a girl. He was so appalled at this disaster that the infant wasn’t even named for a month. Eventually she was called Djan. Over the years, the King had made no secret, least of all towards Djan herself, that had he known her gender before birth, she would have been sacrificed for the good of her mother. His only solace had been that he might marry the girl off one day for diplomatic profit.

The King had lately taken another couple of junior concubines, though these were kept in a smaller palace in another part of the city — again, at the insistence of Harne, according to palace gossip — however, it was Harne that was recognised as his widow in all but name. The two younger concubines had not even been present at the service or internment, nor had they been invited here.

“Madam, good lady,” Oramen said, bowing deeply to Harne. “It is only in you that I feel my sense of loss is matched, even outweighed. I beg you accept my most sincere condolences. If we may take one ray of light from this dark time, let it be that you and I grow closer than we have been; my father’s death, and that of your son, giving birth to a more affectionate relationship between us than that which has existed in the past. The King always sought harmony, even if through initial conflict, and Ferbin was the very soul of sociability. We might honour both their memories by seeking our own concord.”

He’d had this little speech, this careful formed set of words, prepared for some days now. He had meant to say “the King’s death”, but it had come out otherwise; he had no idea why. He felt annoyed at himself.

The lady Aelsh kept her strict expression, but made a small inclination of her head. “Thank you for your words, prince. I’m sure they would both be pleased if all could be in agreement within the court. We might all take pains to celebrate them so.”

And that, Oramen thought — as Renneque fell to Harne’s side and took the older woman’s hands in hers and shook them as she told her how awful was her own grief — will just have to do. It was not outright rejection, but neither was it quite what he’d been hoping for. He caught Harne’s gaze briefly while Renneque talked on. He bowed and turned away.

* * *

“How go our preparations, Field Marshal?” Oramen asked the gauntly forbidding form of the army’s newly promoted chief. Werreber was standing, drink in hand, gazing out at the rain falling over the city. He turned and looked down at Oramen.

“Satisfactorily, sir,” he said gravely.

“The rumours say we attack within ten days.”

“I have heard as much myself, sir.”

Oramen smiled. “My father would have loved to have been at the head of our forces.”

“He would indeed, sir.”

“We will not suffer by his lack? I mean, sufficiently for there to be any doubting the outcome.”

“He is a great loss, sir,” Werreber said. “However, he left the army in its best deportment. And there is, of course, an urge amongst the men to avenge his death.”

“Hmm,” Oramen said, frowning. “I heard that the Deldeyn prisoners were slaughtered after his death.”

“There was killing, sir. It was a battle.”

“After the battle, though. When by every other standard and practice of my father, prisoners are meant to be treated as we would want any of our own taken.”

“There was killing then too, sir. It is to be regretted. Doubtless the men were blinded by grief.”

“I have heard it said that my father ordered the slaughter.”

“I am sorry you have heard that, sir.”

“You were there with him when he died, dear Werreber. Do you remember such an order?”

The field marshal drew back and up a little, and appeared positively discomfited. “Prince,” he said, looking down his great long nose at him, “it is sad, but there are times when the less that is said about certain matters the better it is for all. A clean wound’s best left. Only pain comes from poking and prodding at it.”

“Oh, Werreber, I could not be there at my father’s death. I have a need — natural to any son — to know quite how it was. Can you not help fix it in my mind so that, secured, it’s easier to leave it finally alone? Otherwise I must imagine the scene, the words, the actions, and all these things shift because they are not established for me. So it becomes a wound I cannot help but return to.”

The field marshal looked as uncomfortable as Oramen had ever seen him. “I was not present throughout the incident of your father’s dying,” he said. “I was with the Exaltine, on our way having been summoned, or for some long time outside the building, not wishing to make a crowd while efforts to save the King’s life continued. I heard no such order given by your father regarding the prisoners, but that does not mean it was not given. It hardly matters, sir. Done to order or in an excess of grief, the enemy concerned remain dead.”

“So I’d not dispute,” Oramen said. “It was more the reputation of my father I was thinking of.”

“He must have been in great pain and distress, sir. A fever can afflict men in such circumstances. They become other than themselves and say things they would never say otherwise. Even the bravest. It is often not an edifying spectacle. I repeat, sir; it is all best left alone.”

“Are you saying that at the very end he did not die as he had lived? He would think that a severe charge.”

“No, sir, I am not. In any event, I did not see the very end.” Werreber paused, as if unsure quite how to express himself. “Your father was the bravest man I ever knew. I cannot imagine he met death with anything other than the fierce composure with which he faced its threat so many times during life. Also, though, he was never one to dwell excessively on the past. Even having made a mistake, he took what he might learn from it and then dismissed it. We must do as he would have done, and turn our attention to the future. Now, sir, might I be excused? I believe I am needed at Headquarters. There is much still to be planned.”

“Of course, Werreber,” Oramen said, sipping his drink. “I did not mean to detain you, or unduly press on any wound.”

“Sir.” The field marshal bowed and departed.

* * *

Oramen counted himself privileged to have got so much from Werreber, who was known as a man of few words. This was a description unsuited to the Exaltine Chasque, the next figure he approached seeking detail of his father’s death. The Exaltine was rotund in body and face and his dark red robes bulked him out still further. He blustered over his own part in the deathbed scene, claiming his eyes had been too full of tears and his ears brimming with the lamentations of all around to recall much clearly.

“And so, do your studies progress, young prince?” the Exaltine asked, as though returning to the more important subject. “Eh? Do you continue to sup at the well of learning? Hmm?”

Oramen smiled. He was used to adults asking about favourite school subjects when they could think of nothing else to talk of or wished to get off an awkward subject, so he replied perfunctorily and made his escape.

* * *

“They say the dead look back at us from mirrors, don’t they, Gillews?”

The royal physician turned round with a startled expression on his face, and then staggered and nearly fell over. “Your — that is, Prince Oramen.”

The doctor was a small, tense, nervous-looking man at the best of times. He seemed now positively abuzz with energy. Also, from his continued swaying and the glassy look about his eyes, quite drunk too. He had been staring at his reflection in one of the mirrors that covered half the walls of the drawing room. Oramen had been looking for him, moving amongst the throng, accepting sympathies, dispensing solemn pleasantries and trying to look — and be — grieving, brave, calm and dignified all at once.

“Did you see my father, Gillews?” Oramen asked, nodding to the mirror. “Was he in there, looking down on us?”

“What’s that?” the doctor asked. His breath smelled of wine and some unsluiced foodstuff. Then he seemed to catch up with what was going on and turned, swaying again, to look into the tall mirror. “What? The dead? No, I see no one, saw nobody. Indeed not, prince, no.”

“My father’s death must have affected you deeply, good doctor.”

“How could it not?” the little fellow asked. He wore a doctor’s skullcap, but it had slipped to one side and come forward, too, so that it was starting to droop over his right eye. Wispy white hairs protruded. He looked down into his near-empty glass and said, “How could it not?” again.

“I’m glad I found you, Gillews,” Oramen told him. “I have wanted to talk to you since my father was killed.”

The doctor closed one eye and squinted at him. “Uh?” he said.

Oramen had grown up with adults getting drunk around him. He didn’t really enjoy drinking — the sensation of being dizzy, as though you were about to be sick, seemed an odd state to pursue with such determination — but he quite liked being with drunk people, having learned that they often gave away the true natures they otherwise contrived to hide, or just let slip some item of information or gossip they would not have parted with so casually when sober. He already suspected he had got to Dr Gillews too late, but he’d give it a try anyway. “You were with my father when he died, obviously.”

“It was a most obvious death, sir, true,” the doctor said, and, strangely, attempted a smile. This dissolved quickly into an expression of some despair, then he dropped his head so that his expression was unreadable and started muttering what sounded like, “Well, not obvious, why obvious? Gillews, you idiot…”

“Doctor. I’d know how my father was in those last minutes. This is a matter of some importance to me. I feel I can’t put him fully to rest in my mind until I know. Please — can you recall?”

“To rest?” Gillews said. “What rest? What rest is there? Rest is… rest is beneficial. Renews the frame, redefines the nerves, resupplies the muscles and allows the mechanical stresses on the greater bodily organs to abate. Yes, that is rest, and crave it we might. Death is not rest, no; death is the end of rest. Death is decay and rotting down, not building up! Don’t talk to me of rest! What rest is there? Tell me that! What rest? Where, when our king lies heavy in his grave? For whom? Eh? I thought not!”

Oramen had taken a step back as the doctor raved at him. He could only wonder at the depths of emotion the poor man must be feeling. How he must have loved his king, and how devastating it must have been for him to lose him, to be unable to save him. The doctor’s two principal assistants moved in on either side to take Gillews’ arms, supporting him. One took his glass and pushed it into a pocket. The other looked at Oramen, smiled nervously and shrugged. He mumbled something apologetic-sounding that ended in “sir”.

“What?” Gillews said, head tipping from side to side as though his neck was half broken, eyes rolling as he tried to focus on the two young men. “My pall-bearers, already? Is it to a council of my peers? An arraignment before the shades of physicians past? Throw me in the mirror. Let me reflect…” He pitched his head back and wailed, “Oh, my king, my king!” then slumped in the grip of the two men, weeping.

The assistants took Gillews stumbling away.

“Dear Oramen,” tyl Loesp said, appearing at Oramen’s side. He looked after the departing figures of Gillews and his two helpers. “The doctor may have enjoyed his drink too much.”

“He enjoys nothing else,” Oramen said. “I feel outdone in unkiltered grief.”

“There is appropriate grief, and inappropriate grief, don’t you think?” tyl Loesp said, standing close to Oramen, towering over him, white hair shining in the candlelight. His dark red trous and long jacket contrived to make him look no less massive than he’d looked in full armour, the evening he’d brought the King’s body back from the battlefield. Oramen was growing tired of being polite.

“Did my father die well, in the end, tyl Loesp?” he asked. “Tell me. Please.”

Tyl Loesp had been bending over Oramen a little. Now he drew himself back and up. “Like a king should, sir. I was never more proud of him, nor held him in greater esteem, as at that moment.”

Oramen put his hand on the tall warrior’s arm. “Thank you, Loesp.”

“It is my pleasure and my duty, young prince. I am but the stake to support a sapling.”

“You have supported me well in this, and I am in your debt.”

“Never so, sir. Never so.” Tyl Loesp smiled at Oramen for a moment or two, then his gaze flicked to somewhere behind the prince and he said, “Here, sir. Look; a more welcome face.”

“My prince,” said a voice behind Oramen.

He turned to find his old friend Tove Lomma standing there, smiling.

“Tove!” Oramen said.

“Equerry Tove, if you’ll have me, Prince Regent.”

“Equerry?” Oramen asked. “To me? Of mine?”

“I’d hope! Nobody else would have me.”

“In fact, a most able young man,” tyl Loesp said, clapping both Lomma and Oramen on the shoulders. “Remember merely that he is meant to keep you out of mischief, not lay a course towards it.” Tyl Loesp smiled at Oramen. “I’ll leave you two to plot much good behaviour.” He bowed shortly and left.

Tove looked rueful. “Not a day for mischief, prince. Not this one. But we must hope there will be many in the future.”

“We’ll share none if you don’t call me by my name, Tove.”

“Tyl Loesp instructed me most strictly that you were the Prince Regent, nothing more familiar,” Tove said, and pretended to frown.

“Consider that order rescinded, by me.”

“Duly agreed, Oramen. Let’s have a drink.”

<p>8. Tower</p>

“Fate, I tell you, if not the hand of the WorldGod itself… or whatever manipulatory appendage WorldGods possess. Anyway, the hand, metaphorically, of the WorldGod. Possibly.”

“I think you underguess the workings of blind chance, sir.”

“Blind chance that took me to that dreadful place?”

“Unarguably, sir: your startled mount ran cross-country until it found a track; naturally it then took the levelled road rather than the coarse ground and of course it took the easier, downhill route. Then that old mill appeared, on the first place where the road widens and levels out. Natural place for it to stop.”

Ferbin looked across at the prone form of his servant, lying on the ground a couple of strides away across the leaf-littered ground with a large blue leaf poised over his head. Choubris Holse looked calmly back.

* * *

They had flown straight out from the Scholastery until hidden from it by a line of low hills, then set down on a sloped heath above the limit of cultivated land.

“I think I’ve heard of the D’neng-oal Tower,” Ferbin said, while they inspected the two grumbling, huffing caude, “but I’m damned if I know which way it is.”

“Same here, sir,” said Holse. He opened up one of the saddle bags on his beast. “Though with any luck there’ll be a map in here. Let me just have a quick furtle.” He dug his hand elbow-deep into the bag.

The saddle bags yielded maps, some food, a little water, a telescope, a heliograph, two hefty pocket chronometers, one barometer/altimeter, some rifle and pistol ammunition but no weapons, four small bomblets like smooth hand grenades with cruciform flights, padded jackets, gauntlets, one small blanket each and the usual paraphernalia of tack associated with caude, including a good supply of the krisk nuts they found so stimulating. Holse popped one in the mouth of each animal; they mewed and whinnied appreciatively. “Ever tried these things, sir?” Holse asked, holding up the bag of krisk.

“No,” Ferbin lied. “Of course not.”

“Bloody horrible. Bitter as a scold’s piss.” He put the bag away, fastened the saddle bags and adjusted his saddle. “And these bastard knights that came to the Scholastery must be ascetics or something, for there’s no sign of any of the little niceties that make life bearable for the common man, sir. Like wine, or unge, or crile. Bloody fliers.” Holse shook his head at such lack of consideration.

“No goggles or masks either,” Ferbin pointed out.

“Must have carried them with them.”

Holse was checking one of the pistol rounds they’d discovered in the saddle bags against one from his own gun. “Let’s have a quick look, and then be off, eh, sir?” he said, then shook his head and dumped all the ammunition on the heath.

They consulted the maps, one of which was of sufficient scale to show the land for nearly ten days’ flying around Pourl, depicting hundreds upon hundreds of the great Towers as well as the shade limits and periods of the various Rollstars.

“There it is,” Ferbin said, tapping on the map.

“What would you say, sir? Four short-days’ flying?”

“More like three,” Ferbin said, glad to have found a practical subject he knew so much more of than his servant. “Five Towers along and one down, four times over, then three and one. Away from Pourl, which is to the good.” He glanced up at Obor. Its red-tinged bulk was still barely above the horizon as it rose upon its slow and settled course. “It’s a long-day today. We shall have to let the beasts day-sleep, but we should achieve the tower before dusk.”

“Could do with a snooze myself,” Holse yawned. He looked disparagingly at his mount, which had tucked its long neck under its massive body to lick its genitals. “Rather hoped I’d seen the last of these things this close, I do confess, sir.” Holse’s caude removed its head from between its legs, though only long enough for it to fart long and loud, as though to confirm its new rider’s poor opinion.

“You are not enamoured of the beasts of the air, Holse?”

“Indeed not, sir. If the gods had meant us to fly they’d have given us the wings and the caude the pox.”

“If they hadn’t meant us to fly, gravity would be stronger,” Ferbin replied.

“I wasn’t aware it was adjustable, sir.”

Ferbin smiled tolerantly. He realised that his servant might not be versed in the kind of alien lore that would insist that what he and Holse had known all their lives as normal gravity was about half Standard, whatever that really meant.

“However,” Holse said. “Let’s get moving, eh?” They both went to saddle up.

“Best put these jackets on,” Ferbin said. “It’ll be cold up there.” He gestured upwards. “Clouds are clearing so we’ll be able to go high.”

Holse sighed. “If we must, sir.”

“I’ll work the clock, shall I?” Ferbin held up the chronometer.

“That necessary, sir?”

Ferbin, who had got lost while flying too many times, mistakenly thinking that you could never miscount things as big as Towers — or fall asleep in the saddle, for that matter — said, “I think it advisable.”

* * *

They had flown without incident at the altitude best for caude cruising stamina. They had seen other fliers far in the distance, but had not been approached. The landscape moved slowly beneath them, changing from tiny fields to stretches of waste and heath that were low hills, then back to fields, small towns, and great glaring areas of bright green that marked the roasoaril plantations whose fruits went to feed the refineries which produced the fuel to power the steam engines of the modern age.

Slowly over the horizon appeared a handful of long fingers of shining water that were the Quoluk Lakes. Ferbin recognised the island that held the Hausk family estate of Moiliou. The river Quoline gathered water from all the lakes and then wound away towards the distant equator, vanishing in the haze. Canals blinked, reflecting sunlight like thin threads of silver, spearing straight over level areas and describing curving contours about raised ground.

Even in the jacket, Ferbin shivered. His knees, covered only in hose and trous, were especially cold. Not having goggles or a mask meant his eyes were watering all the time. He’d wrapped his collar scarf round his lower face, but it was all still most uncomfortable. He kept an eye on the chronometer clipped to the tall front edge of his saddle and used a waterproof pad and wax crayon also attached to the saddle to mark down the passing of each great Tower as it loomed and then slid slowly past to their right.

The Towers, as ever, were a source of a kind of odd comfort. From this height more of them were visible than one saw from the ground and one was able to form a proper impression of their numbers and regular spacing. Only from this sort of altitude, Ferbin thought, did one fully appreciate that one lived within a greater world, a world of levels, of regularly spaced floors and ceilings, with the Towers holding one above the other. They rose like vast spars of pale luminescence, masts of a celestial ship of infinite grace and absolute, inconceivable power. High above, just visible, the laciness of Filigree showed where the Towers’ splayed summits — still fourteen hundred kilometres over his and Holse’s heads, for all their chilly altitude — fluted out like an impossibly fine network of branches from a succession of vast trees.

A million Towers held the world up. The collapse of just one might destroy everything, not just on this level, their own dear Eighth, but on and in all the others too; the WorldGod itself might not be beyond harm. But then it was said that the Towers were near invulnerable, and Sursamen had been here for a thousand times a million years. Whether this meant their own short-years or long-years or so-called Standard years, he didn’t know — with such a number it hardly mattered.

Ferbin wiped his eyes free of tears and looked carefully around, taking time to let his gaze rest on a succession of distant points the better to catch any movement. He wondered how long it would take for word to get back to Pourl of what had happened at the Scholastery. Riding there would take five days or so, but — using the heliograph — perhaps another patrol would be attracted, and in reality the knights who’d lost their mounts only needed to get to the nearest telegraph station. Plus, the patrol would be missed when it didn’t return; search parties would be sent out and would no doubt be signalled from the Scholastery. Seltis would surely be questioned; would they stoop to torture? What if he told them about the documents and the D’neng-oal Tower?

Well, he and Holse had little choice. They would make the best time they could. The rest was up to luck and the WorldGod.

Their beasts started to show signs of fatigue. Ferbin checked the chronometer. They had been in the air nearly ten hours and must have flown over six hundred thousand strides — six hundred kilometres. They had passed twelve Towers to their right, and flown left by one tower every five. Obor, a slow, orange Rollstar, was just approaching its noon. They were about halfway.

They descended, found an island at the edge of a vast Bowlsea with a rich crop of fat bald-head fruit, and landed in a small clearing. The caude swallowed fruit until they looked fit to burst. They started farting again, then promptly fell asleep in the nearest shade, still expelling gas. Ferbin and Holse tethered the beasts, also had something to eat, then found another patch of deep shade and cut down a giant leaf each to shield their eyes still further from the light while they slept. This was where Ferbin chose to share his thoughts with his servant on the course of events recently, and why ideas like predestination, destiny and fate had been much on his mind during the long, cold and painful hours in the saddle.

* * *

“Oh. I see,” Ferbin said. “You are familiar with the disposition of that ancient manufactury?”

“All I’m saying, sir, is that it was about the only intact building for half a day’s ride around. Even the old hunting lodge, which was, as it were, the cause of every other building in the area having as useful a roof as that stupidity I found you in—”

“Folly.”

“ — that folly I found you in, was smashed to buggery. It had been artilleried. But anyway, sir, your mount getting you there was no great surprise.”

“Very well,” Ferbin said, determined to show his reasonableness by making a concession. “My arriving might not have been due to the hand of fate. The traitors taking my father there — that was. Destiny was taking a hand. Perhaps even the WorldGod. My father’s fate was sealed, it would seem, and he could not be saved, but at least his son might be allowed to witness the despicable crime and set vengeance in train.”

“I’m sure it seemed and seems so to you, sir. However, with no buildings about the place, in the heat of a battle, and a dirt-rain starting, taking a wounded man to a place with a roof only makes sense. If dirt-rain gets into a wound, it turns cut-rot and infection from a bad risk to a perfect certainty.”

Ferbin had to think back. He recalled that when he’d crawled out of the burning building into the damp, cloying leaves and branches it had, indeed, been a dirty rain that had been falling. That was why it had all felt so sticky and grainy and horrible. “But they wanted him dead!” he protested.

“And where would you rather do that, sir? In full view of who-knows-who, in the open, or under a roof, between walls?”

Ferbin frowned, pulled his big blue leaf down over his face and from underneath said grumpily, “Still, for all your cynicism, Holse, it was fate.”

“As you say, sir,” Holse said, sighing, and pulled his own leaf over his face. “Good sleep, sir.”

He was answered with a snore.

* * *

When they awoke it was to colder, darker, windier conditions. The Obor-lit long-day was still in its early afternoon, but the weather had changed. Small grey clouds sailed raggedly across the sky beneath a high overcast and the air smelled damp. The caude were slow to wake and spent much of the next half-hour defecating noisily and voluminously. Ferbin and Holse took their small breakfast some distance upwind.

“That wind’s against us,” Ferbin said, looking out from the edge of the plantation across the quick-chopping waves of the Bowlsea. A dark horizon in the direction they would be heading looked ominous.

“As well we made good distance yesterday,” Holse said, chewing on some air-dried meat.

They secured their few belongings, checked the map, took a few of the bald-head fruit with them — for the caude; the fruit was indigestible to humans — then took off into a freshening breeze. The wind added to the sensation of cold, even though they were flying much lower than earlier due to the great banks and drifts of dark grey cloud striating the sky. They skirted the bigger clouds and flew through only the smallest. Caude were reluctant to fly through thick cloud anyway, though they would do so if they were forced. Once inside cloud the animals were as bad as humans at gauging whether they were upright and flying straight and level, or describing a banked circle and about to crash into some nearby Tower. Caude were the rowels of the air, reliable work beasts rather than thoroughbred racing creatures like lyge, and so only flew at about fifty or sixty kilometres per hour. Even so, hitting a Tower at that speed was usually enough to kill both beast and rider, and if not, then the subsequent fall to the ground tended to do the trick.

Ferbin was still keeping an eye on the chronometer and marking the passage of the Towers to their right — they were flying closer to them now, only a few kilometres off each one, so they didn’t miss any, something Ferbin knew from experience it was all too easy to do — however, he found himself thinking back to a dream he’d had the night before and — via that — to his one journey to the Surface, back when he’d been a youth.

That, too, was like a dream to him now.

He had walked on strange ground beneath no lid or ceiling save that of the atmosphere itself, held contained by a far circle of walls and by nothing else but gravity; a place with no Towers, where the curve of the earth beneath one’s feet just went on, uninterrupted, unbroken, unsupported, unbelievable.

He had watched the stars wheel and, in each of the half-dozen days he had been there, had marvelled at the tiny, blinding dot that was Meseriphine, the Unseen Sun, the distant, connected yet unconnected pivot that great Sursamen itself spun slow about. There was a remorselessness about those Surface days; one sun, one source of light, one regular set of days and nights, always the same, seemingly unchanging, while everything he’d ever known was far below — entire levels that were themselves worlds beneath him, and only nothing above; a dark true-nothingness, sprinkled with a rash of faint points of light that he was told were other suns.

His father had been meant to be there but had had to call off at the last moment. Ferbin had gone with his older brother Elime, who had been there before but had wanted to go again. They were very privileged to be treated so. Their father could command the Oct to take people to other levels including the Surface, as could some other rulers and the Head Scholars of Scholasteries, but any other person travelled at the whim of the Oct, and they granted almost no such wishes.

They had taken a couple of friends and a few old servants. The great Crater they’d stayed within for most of their visit was green with vast meadows and tall trees. The air smelled of unidentifiable perfumes. It was thick and at once fresh and heady; they had felt energised, almost drugged.

They had lived within an underground complex in the face of a tall cliff looking out over a vast network of hexagonal lakes bounded by thin strips of land; this pattern stretched to the horizon. They had met some Nariscene and even one Morthanveld. Ferbin had already seen his first Oct, in the scendship that had taken them up the Tower to the Surface. This had been before the Oct embassy had been opened in the palace at Pourl and Ferbin had the same superstitious dread of the Oct as most people. There were legends, rumours and uncorroborated reports that the Oct issued from their Towers in the dead of night to steal people from their beds. Sometimes whole families or even villages disappeared. The Oct took the captured back to their Towers and experimented upon them, or ate them, or transported them to another level for sport and devilment.

The result was that the common mass of people dreaded both the Oct themselves and the very idea of being taken to and transported within a Tower. Ferbin had long been told these were nonsense tales, but he’d still been nervous. It had been a relief to discover the Oct were so small and delicate-looking.

The Oct in the scendship had been most insistent that they were the true Inheritors and direct descendants of the Involucra, the original builders of the Shellworlds. He had been highly impressed with this, and had felt a vicarious outrage that this fact was not more widely accepted.

He’d been in awe of the Oct’s casual familiarity with and easy control of this vessel that could rise within a Tower, past level after unglimpsed level, to the very outside of all things. It was control of the world, he realised. It seemed more real, more relevant and somehow even more important and impressive than control of the infinitude of ungraspable space beyond the world itself. This, he’d thought, was power.

Then he’d watched how the Oct and the Nariscene treated each other, and realised that the Nariscene were the masters here; they were the superiors, who merely indulged this strange species that to his people, to the Sarl, had near-magical powers. How lowly the Sarl must be, to be mere cargo, simple primitives to the Oct, who were themselves treated like little more than children by their Nariscene mentors!

Seeing, furthermore, how the Nariscene and the Morthanveld interacted was almost dismaying, because the Morthanveld in turn seemed to regard the Nariscene as something like children and treated them with amused indulgence. Another level, and another; all beyond his, above his people’s heads.

In some ways, they were the lowest of the low, he realised. Was this why so few of his people were ever invited here?

Perhaps if everybody saw what he, his brother and their friends were seeing, the Sarl might sink into a state of apathy and depression, for they would know how little their lives really counted within the ever-expanding hierarchies of alien powers beyond them. This had been Elime’s opinion. He also believed that it was a deliberate scheme of their mentors to encourage those who were in power, or who would one day assume power, to witness the wonders that they were now being shown, so that they would never be tempted to get above themselves, so that they would always know that no matter how magnificent they appeared to themselves or those around them and regardless of what they achieved, it was all within the context of this greater, more powerful, sophisticated and ultimately far superior reality.

“They try to break us!” Elime had told Ferbin. Elime was a big, burly, energetic young man, always full of enthusiasm and opinions and tirelessly keen to hunt or drink or fight or fuck. “They try to put a little voice in our heads that will always say, ‘You don’t matter. What you do means nothing!’”

Elime, like their father, was having none of this. So the aliens could sail within the Towers and cruise between the stars and construct whole worlds — so what? There were powers beyond them that they didn’t fully understand. Perhaps this nesting, this shell-after-shell-beyond-what-you-knew principle went on for ever! Did the aliens give up and do nothing? No! They had their disputes and contentions, their disagreements and alliances, their wins and losses, even if they were somehow more oblique and rarefied than the wars, victories and defeats that the Sarl both enjoyed and suffered. The stratagems and power-plays, the satisfactions and disillusions that the Sarl experienced mattered as much to them as those of the aliens did to their own over-weeningly cosmopolitan and civilised souls.

You lived within your level and accepted that you did; you played by the rules within that level, and therein lay the measure of your worth. All was relative, and by refusing to accept the lesson the aliens were implicitly trying to teach here — behave, accept, bow down, conform — a hairy-arsed bunch of primitives like the Sarl could score their own kind of victory against the most overarching sophisticates the galaxy had to offer.

Elime had been wildly excited. This visit had reinforced what he’d seen during his first time at the Surface and had made sense of all the things their father had been telling them since they were old enough to understand. Ferbin had been amazed; Elime was positively glowing with joy at the prospect of returning to their own level with a kind of civilisational mandate to carry on his father’s work of unifying the Eighth — and who knew, perhaps beyond.

At the time, Ferbin, who was just starting to take an interest in such things, had been more concerned with the fact that his beautiful second cousin Truffe, who was a little older than he and with whom he’d started to think he might be falling in love, had succumbed — with frightening, indecent ease — to Elime’s bluff charms during the visit to the Surface. That was the sort of conquering Ferbin was starting to take an interest in, thank you, and Elime had already beaten him to it.

They had returned to the Eighth, Elime with a messianic gleam in his eye, Ferbin with a melancholic feeling that, now Truffe was forever denied him — he couldn’t imagine she’d settle for him after his brother, and besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted her any more anyway — his young life was already over. He also felt that — in some strange, roundabout way — the aliens had succeeded in lowering his expectations by the same degree they had inadvertently raised Elime’s.

* * *

He realised he had drifted off in this reverie when he heard Holse shouting at him. He looked about. Had he missed a Tower? He saw what looked like a new Tower some distance off to his right and forward. It looked oddly bright in its paleness. This was because of the great wall of darkness filling the sky ahead. He was damp all over; they must have flown through a cloud. The last he recalled they had been flying just under the surface of some long grey mass of vapour with hazy tendrils stretching down like forest creepers all around them.

“…grit-cloud!” he heard Holse yell.

He looked up at the cliff of darkness ahead and realised it was indeed a silse cloud; a mass of sticky rain it would be dangerous and possibly fatal to try and fly through. Even the caude he was riding seemed to have realised things weren’t quite right; it shivered beneath him and he could hear it making moaning, whining noises. Ferbin looked to either side. There was no way round the great dark cloud and it was far too tall for them to go over the top. The cloud was loosing its gritty cargo of rain, too; great dragged veils of darkness swept back along the ground beneath it.

They’d have to land and sit it out. He signalled to Holse and they wheeled right round, back the way they’d come, descending fast towards the nearest forest on the side of a tall hill bound on three sides by the loop of a broad river. Drops of moisture tickled Ferbin’s face and he could smell something like dung.

They landed on the broad, boggy summit of the hill near a rough-edged pool of dark, brackish water and squelched through a quaking mire of shaking ground, leading the grumbling caude down to the tree line. They persuaded the caude to trample down a few springy saplings so they could all shoulder their way far enough in. They sheltered under the trees while the whole day darkened until it was like night. The caude promptly fell asleep.

The grit-rain whispered in the branches high above, growing slowly louder. The view of the hill’s top and a line of remaining brightness in the sky beyond disappeared.

“What I wouldn’t give for a pipe of good unge leaf,” Holse said, sighing. “Bloody nuisance, eh, sir?”

Ferbin could barely make out his servant’s face in the gloom, though he was almost within touching distance. “Yes,” he said. He squinted at the chronometer, which he was keeping inside his jacket. “We won’t get there in daylight now,” he said.

A few leaf-filtered drops of the dirty rain plopped down about them; one landed on Ferbin’s nose and trickled to his mouth. He spat.

“My old dad lost a whole crop of xirze to one of these buggering silse storms once,” Holse said.

“Well, they destroy but they build up too,” Ferbin said.

“I have heard them compared to kings, in that regard,” Holse said. “Sir.”

“We need them, both.”

“I’ve heard that too, sir.”

“In other worlds, they have no silse, no sticky rain. So I’ve been told.”

“Really? Doesn’t the land just wear away to nothing?”

“Apparently not.”

“Not even eventually, sir? Don’t these places have rain and such — ordinary rain, I mean, obviously — that would wear the hills down and carry them all away to lakes and seas and oceans?”

“They generally do. Seemingly they also have such hydrological systems that can build up land from beneath.”

“From beneath,” Holse said, sounding unconvinced.

“I remember one lesson where it sounded like they had oceans of rock so hot it was liquid, and not only flowed like rivers but also could flow uphill, to issue from the summits of mountains,” Ferbin said.

“Really, sir.” Holse sounded like he thought Ferbin was trying to fool him into believing the sort of preposterous nonsense a child would dismiss with derision.

“These effects serve to build up land,” Ferbin said. “Oh, and the mountains float and can grow upwards wholesale, apparently. Entire countries crash into each other, raising hills. There was more, but I rather missed the start of that lesson and it does all sound a bit far-fetched.”

“I think they were having you on, sir. Trying to see how gullible you might be.” Holse might have sounded hurt.

“I thought that, I have to say.” Ferbin shrugged, unseen. “Oh, I probably got it wrong, Choubris. I wouldn’t quote me on this, frankly.”

“I shall take care not to, sir,” Holse said.

“Anyway, that is why they don’t need silse rain.”

“If a tenth of all that stuff’s true, sir, I think we have the better side of the bargain.”

“So do I.”

Silse rebuilt land. As Ferbin understood it, tiny animalcules in the seas and oceans each grabbed a particle of silt and then made some sort of gas that hoisted creature and particle to the surface, where they leapt into the air to become clouds which then drifted over the land and dropped the lot in the form of dirty, sticky rain. Silse clouds were relatively rare, which was just as well; a big one could drown a farm, a village or even a county as efficiently as a small flood, smothering crops with knee-deep mud, tearing down trees or leaving them stripped of branches, breaking roofs of too shallow a pitch, paving over meadows, blanketing roads and damming rivers — usually only temporarily, swiftly resulting in real floods.

The gritty rain was dripping on to them even under the cover of the trees as it found its way through the now heavy, drooping branches.

From all directions around them, a sporadic series of loud cracks rang out above the sound of the silse storm, each followed by a rushing, tearing, crashing noise concluding in a great thump.

“If you hear that right above us, sir,” Holse said, “best jump.”

“I most certainly shall,” Ferbin said, trying to uncloy his eyes from the gritty stuff falling on them. The silse stank like something from the bottom of a latrine trench. “Though right now, death does not seem so unattractive.”

The cloud passed eventually, the day brightened again and a strong wind veered about the hilltop. They squelched out on to the doubly treacherous summit. The newly dumped silse mud covering the already unstable surface of the bog pulled at their feet and those of the caude, both of which showed signs of distress at being forced to walk in such conditions. The mud reeked like manure. Ferbin and Holse brushed as much as they could from their skin and clothes before it caked.

“Could do with a shower of nice clean rain now, eh, sir?”

“What about that sort of pool thing up there?” Ferbin asked.

“Good idea, sir,” Holse said, leading the caude to the shallow, now overbrimming tarn near the summit of the hill. The caude whinnied and resisted, but eventually were persuaded to enter the water, which came to halfway up their bellies.

The two men cleaned the beasts and themselves as best they could. The caude were still unhappy, and their slipping, sliding take-off run only just got them above the trees in time. They flew on into the late afternoon.

* * *

They kept flying even as the dusk slowly descended, though the caude were whining almost constantly now and continually tried to descend, dropping down and answering only slowly and with much grumbling to each up-pulling of the reins. On the landscape below must be farms, villages and towns, but they could see no sign of them. The wind was to their left side, constantly trying to push them towards the Towers they needed to keep to their right. The clouds had settled back to a high overcast and another ragged layer at about half a kilometre; they kept beneath this, knowing that getting lost in night cloud might easily be the end of them.

Eventually they saw what they thought must be the D’neng-oal Tower, a broad, pale presence rising across an extensive marsh still just about reflecting the slow-fading embers that Obor had left on the under-surface of the sky high above.

The D’neng-oal Tower was what was known as a Pierced Tower; one through which access might be gained to its interior and so to the network of thoroughfares in which the Oct — and the Aultridia — sailed their scendships. This was at least the popular understanding; Ferbin knew that all the Towers had been pierced originally, and in a sense still were.

Every Tower, where it fluted out at its base on each level, contained hundreds of portals designed to transport the fluid which it was alleged the Involucra had planned to fill the World with. On the Eighth the portals were, in any case, all buried under at least a hundred metres of earth and water, but in almost every Tower the portals had all long since been firmly sealed by the Oct and Aultridia. There were rumours — which the Oct did nothing to deny — that other peoples, other rulers, had sunk mines down to where the sealed portals were and had tried to open them, only to find that they were utterly impenetrable to anybody without the kind of technology that let one sail the stars, never mind the interior of Towers, and also that even attempting to meddle with them inevitably brought down the wrath of the Oct; those rulers had been killed and those peoples scattered, often across other, less forgiving levels.

Only one Tower in a thousand still had a single portal which gave access to the interior, at least at any useful height — telescopes had revealed what might be portals high above the atmosphere, hundreds of kilometres above ground level — and the usual sign of a Pierced Tower was a much smaller — though still by human standards substantial — access tower sited nearby.

The D’neng-oal’s access tower proved surprisingly difficult to spot in the gloom. They flew round the Tower once, under the thickening layer of cloud, feeling pressed between the mists rising from the ground below and the lowering carpet of darkness directly above. Ferbin was worried first that they might crash into the lesser tower in the darkness — they were being forced to fly at only a hundred metres above the ground, and that was about the usual altitude for the top of an access tower — and then that they had chosen the wrong Tower in the first place. The map they’d looked at earlier had shown the Tower was pierced, but not exactly where its accompanying access tower was. It also showed a fair-sized town, Dengroal, situated very close to the nearpole base of the main Tower, but there was no sign of the settlement. He hoped it was just lost in the mists.

The access tower lit up in front of them as the top twenty metres of the cylinder suddenly flashed in a series of giant, tower-encircling hoops so bright they dazzled the eye. It was less than a hundred strides in front of them and its summit was a little above their present level, almost in the clouds; the blue light picked out their gauzy under-surface like some strange, inverted landscape. He and Holse pulled up and banked and then, with gestures, agreed to land on the top. The caude were so tired they hardly bothered to complain as they were asked to climb one more time.

The summit of the access tower was fifty strides across; a concentric series of blue hoops of light was set into its surface like a vast target. The light pulsed slowly from dim to bright, like the beat of some vast and alien heart.

They landed on the tower’s nearest edge; the startled caude scrambled and beat their wings with one last frantic effort as the smooth surface under their grasping feet failed to bring them to a halt as quickly as ground or even stone would have, but then their scraping claws found some purchase, their wingbeats pulled them up and finally, with a great whistling sigh that sounded entirely like relief, they were stopped. They each settled down, quivering slightly, wings half outstretched with exhaustion, heads lying on the surface of the tower, panting. Blue light shone up around their bodies. The vapour of their breath drifted across the flat, blue-lit summit of the tower, dissipating slowly.

Ferbin dismounted, joints creaking and complaining like an old man’s. He stretched his back and walked over to where Holse was standing rubbing at the leg he’d hurt when the mersicor had fallen on top of him.

“Well, Holse, we got here.”

“And a strange old here it is, sir,” Holse said, looking around the broad circular top of the tower. It appeared to be perfectly flat and symmetrical. The only visible features were the hoops of blue light. These issued from hand-wide strips set flush with whatever smooth material made up the tower’s summit. They were standing about halfway between the centre of the surface and the edge. The blue light waxed about them, giving them and their beasts a ghostly, otherworldly appearance. Ferbin shivered, though it was not especially cold. He looked about them. There was nothing visible beyond the circles of blue. Above, the slow-moving layer of cloud looked almost close enough to touch. The wind picked up for a moment, then fell back to a breeze.

“At least there’s nobody else here,” he said.

“Thankful for that, sir,” Holse agreed. “Though if there is anybody watching, and they can see through the mist, they’ll know we’re here. Anyway. What happens now?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Ferbin admitted. He couldn’t recall what one had to do to gain access to one of these things. On the occasion when he’d gone to the Surface with Elime and the others he’d been too distracted by everything that was happening to take note of exactly what the procedure was; some servant had done it all. He caught Holse’s expression of annoyance and looked around again, gaze settling on the centre of the tower’s surface. “Perhaps…” he started to say. As he’d spoken, he’d pointed at the glowing dot at the focus of the pulsing blue hoops, so they were both looking right at it when it rose slowly, smoothly into the air.

A cylinder about a foot across extended like a section of telescope from the dead centre of the tower’s summit, rising to around head height. Its top surface pulsed blue in time with the widening circles radiating out from it.

“That might be useful,” Ferbin said.

“As a hitching post for the beasts, if nothing else, sir,” Holse said. “There’s bugger all else to tie them to up here.”

“I’ll take a look,” Ferbin said. He didn’t want to show Holse he felt frightened.

“I’ll hold the reins.”

Ferbin walked over to the slim cylinder. As he approached, an octagon of grey light seemed to swivel into place, facing him, level with his own face. It showed a stylised Oct in silhouette. The cylinder’s surface beaded with moisture as a light rain began to fall.

“Repetition,” said a voice like rustling leaves. Before Ferbin could say anything in reply, the voice went on, “Patterns, yes. For, periodicity. As the Veil become the Oct, so one iteration becomes another. Spacing is the signal, so creates. Yet, also, repetition shows lack of learning. Again, be on your way. Signal that is no signal, simply power, follows. Unrepeats.” The octagonal patch showing the silhouetted Oct shape faded and the cylinder started to sink silently back into the surface.

“Wait!” Ferbin shouted, and grabbed at the smooth round shape, putting both arms round it and attempting to prevent it disappearing. It felt cold and seemed to be made of metal; it would have been slick enough anyway but the drizzle made it more so and it slid imperturbably downwards as though his efforts to retrain it were having no effect whatsoever.

Then it seemed to hesitate. It drew to a stop and rose back to its earlier height. The grey octagonal shape — some sort of screen, Ferbin realised — glowed into existence on the surface again. Before it could say anything, he shouted, “I am Ferbin, prince of the house of Hausk, with documents to support my right to warranted travel under the protection of our esteemed allies the Oct! I would speak with the Towermaster, Aiaik.”

“Denigration is—” the cylinder had started to say, then the voice cut off. “Documents?” the voice said after a few moments.

Ferbin unbuttoned his jacket and took out the finger-thick grey envelopes, brandishing them in front of the screen. “By the authority of Seltis, Head Scholar of the Anjrinh Scholastery,” Ferbin said. “Of the Eighth,” he added, partly in case there was any confusion and partly to show he was familiar with the realities of the World and not some coarse-bonce bumpkin who’d somehow achieved the summit of the tower for a bet.

“To wait,” said the leaf-rustling voice. The screen faded again but this time the cylinder stayed where it was.

“Sir?” Holse called from where he stood holding the reins of the now soundly sleeping caude.

“Yes?” Ferbin said.

“Just wondering what’s happening, sir.”

“I believe we’ve established some sort of rapport.” He frowned, thinking back to what the voice had said when it had first spoken to him. “But I think we’re not the first here, not recently. Perhaps.” He shrugged at the worried-looking Holse. “I don’t know.” Ferbin swivelled, looking all about, trying to see through the glowing blue mist created by the drizzle. He saw something dark moving in the air to one side of Holse and the caude; a huge shadow, heading straight for them. “Holse!” he cried, pointing at the apparition.

Holse glanced round, already starting to drop. The great shape tore through the air just above the two slumped mounts, missing Holse’s head by no more than the span of a hand; the sound of massive wings beating whumped through the air. It looked like a lyge, Ferbin thought, with a rider on its back. A sharp crack and a tiny fountain of yellow sparks announced Holse firing his pistol at the departing, wheeling beast.

The lyge rose, stalled and turned, catching itself on a single great beat of its massive wings as it landed on the far edge of the tower. A slight figure jumped from its back holding a long gun; the flier dropped to one knee and took aim at Holse, who was slapping his pistol with his free hand and cursing. Holse dived for cover between the caude, both of which had raised their heads at the sound of the shot and were looking sleepily about them. The rifle spoke again and the caude nearest the shooter jerked and screamed. It started trying to rise from the surface, beating one wing and scraping one leg back and forth. Its fellow raised its head high and let out a terrified wail. The flier from the lyge levered another round into the rifle.

“Small detonations,” said the Oct voice just above Ferbis’ head. He hadn’t even realised he’d ducked down, just his head showing round the side of the cylinder so he could still see the flier attacking them. “Celebratory actions inappropriate,” the voice continued. “Betokening the undesired. To cease.”

“Let us in!” Ferbin said in a hoarse whisper. Behind the figure with the rifle, the lyge hunkered down. The wounded caude near Holse screamed and thrashed its wings against the surface of the tower. Its companion keened, shifting and shuffling away, stretching its own wings. The flier took aim again and shouted, “Show yourself! Surrender!”

“Fuck off!” Holse yelled back. Ferbin could barely hear him over the screaming caude. The creature was moving slowly backwards over the surface of the tower as it beat its wings and shrieked. The second caude rose suddenly on its legs and seemed to realise only then that it was unrestrained. It turned, hopped once to the edge of the tower, spread its wings and launched itself into the darkness with a miserable wail, disappearing immediately.

“Please!” Ferbin said, knocking on the cylinder’s surface with his knuckles. “Let us in!”

“The cessation of childishness,” the cylinder’s voice announced. “Necessary if not sufficient.”

The wounded caude rolled half to one side as though stretching itself, its screams fading as its voice became hoarse.

“And you!” the lyge flier yelled, turning to point the rifle at Ferbin. “Both of you. Out. I’ll not shoot if you surrender now. The hunt’s finished. I’m just a scout. There are twenty more behind me. All regent’s men. It’s over. Surrender. You’ll not be harmed.”

Ferbin heard a fizzing sound between the desperate shrieks of the wounded caude, and a hint of yellow light seemed to illuminate the surface just behind the screaming animal.

“All right!” Holse shouted. “I surrender!” Something flew up from behind the wounded caude, lobbed over its beating wings on an arc of orange sparks. The flier with the rifle started back, rifle barrel flicking upwards.

The finned grenade landed three strides in front of the lyge flier. As the bomblet bounced, the caude Holse had been sheltering behind gave a final great thrash of its wings and one last scream before overbalancing and falling over the edge of the tower in a despairing tangle of wings, revealing Holse lying on the surface. The creature’s wails faded slowly as it fell.

The grenade landed and rolled round, pivoting about its cruciform tail, then its fuse gave a little puff of orange smoke and went out even as the lyge flier was scrambling backwards away from it. In the relative silence following the departure of the caude, Ferbin could hear Holse trying to fire his pistol; the click, click, click noise sounded more hopeless than had the wounded caude’s cries. The lyge flier went down on one knee again and took aim at the now utterly exposed Holse, who shook his head.

“Well, you can still fuck off!” he shouted.

The chronometer smacked the lyge flier across the bridge of the nose. The rifle pointed fractionally upwards as it fired, sending the shot a foot or so above Holse. He was up and running at the dazed figure on the far side of the roof before the chronometer Ferbin had thrown got to the edge of the tower’s summit and vanished into the drizzle. The lyge looked down at the rolling, disconnected-looking figure in front of it and appeared merely puzzled as Holse threw himself forward and on to its rider.

“Fuck me, sir, you’re a better shot than him,” Holse said as he knelt on the flier’s back and prised the rifle out of his fingers. Ferbin had started to think their assailant was a woman, but it was just a small-built man. Lyge were faster than caude but they could carry less weight; their fliers were usually chosen for their small frame.

Ferbin could see dark blood on the glowing blue band beneath the fallen flier. Holse checked the rifle and reloaded it, still with one knee pressing on the back of the struggling lyge flier.

“Thank you, Holse,” Ferbin said. He looked up at the thin, dark, puzzled face of the lyge, which rose up a little and gave a single great beat of its wings before settling back down again. The pulse of air rolled over them. “What should we do with—”

The grenade fizzed into life again. They scrambled away on all fours, Holse making an attempt to pull the lyge flier with him. They rolled and clattered across the hard surface, and Ferbin had time to think that at least if he died here it would be on the Eighth, not somewhere lost and unholy between the stars. The grenade exploded with a terrific smacking noise that seemed to take Ferbin by the ears and slap him somewhere in between them. He heard a ringing sound and lay where he was.

When he collected his scattered senses and looked about him, he saw Holse a couple of strides away looking back at him, the lyge flier lying still a few strides further back, and that was all.

The lyge had gone; whether killed or wounded by the grenade or just startled by it, it was impossible to know.

Holse’s mouth moved as if he was saying something, but Ferbin couldn’t hear a damn thing.

A broad cylinder, a good fifteen strides across, rose up in the centre of the tower’s summit, swallowing the thin tube that Ferbin had been talking to. This fresh extrusion climbed five metres into the air and stopped. A door big enough to accept three mounted men side by side slid open and a grey-blue light spilled out.

Around the tower, a number of great dark shapes started to appear, circling.

Ferbin and Holse got up and ran for the doorway.

His ears were still ringing, so Ferbin never heard the shot that hit him.

<p>9. One-finger Man</p>

Mertis tyl Loesp sat in his withdrawing chamber, high in the royal palace of Pourl. The room had started to seem overly modest to him recently; however, he’d thought it best to leave it a short-year or so before moving into any of the King’s apartments. He was listening to two of his most trusted knights report.

“Your boy knew the old fellow’s hiding place, in a secret room behind a cupboard. We hauled him out and persuaded him to tell us the truth of earlier events.” Vollird, who had been one of those guarding the door when the late king had met his end in the old factory, smiled.

“The gentleman was a one-finger man,” the other knight, Baerth, said. He too had been there when the King had died. He used both hands to mime breaking a small twig. A twitch about his lips might also have been a smile.

“Yes, thank you for the demonstration,” tyl Loesp said to Baerth, then frowned at Vollird. “And then you found it necessary to kill the Head Scholar. Against my orders.”

“We did,” Vollird said, uncowed. “I reckoned the risk of bringing him to a barracks and oublietting him too great.”

“Kindly explain,” tyl Loesp said smoothly, sitting back.

Vollird was a tall, thin, darkly intense fellow with a look that could, as now, verge on insolent. He usually regarded the world with his head tipped downwards, eyes peering out from beneath his brow. It was by no means a shy or modest aspect; rather it seemed a little wary and distrusting, certainly, but mostly mocking, sly and calculating, and as though those eyes were keeping carefully under the cover of that sheltering brow, quietly evaluating weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and the best time to strike.

Baerth was a contrast; fair, small and bulky with muscle, he looked almost childish at times, though of the two he could be the most unrestrained when his blood was up.

Both would do tyl Loesp’s bidding, which was all that mattered. Though on this occasion, of course, they had not. He had asked them to perform various disappearances, intimidations and other delicate commissions for him over the past few years and they had proved reliable and trustworthy, never failing him yet; however, he was worried they might have developed a taste for murder above obedience. A principal strand of this concern centred on who he could find to dispose of these two if they did prove in sum more liabilitous than advantageous to him; he had various options in that regard, but the most ruthless tended to be the least trustworthy and the least criminal the most tentative.

“Mr. Seltis’ confession was most comprehensive,” Vollird said, “and included the fact that the gentleman who had been there earlier had specifically demanded that the Head Scholar get word to said gentleman’s brother here in the palace, regarding the manner of their father’s death and the danger the younger brother might therefore be in. There had been no time for the Head Scholar to begin effecting such warning; however, he seemed most tearfully regretful at this and I formed the distinct impression he would do what he could to pass this information on should he have the chance, to whatever barracksman, militia or army he happened to encounter. So we took him to the roof on excuse of visiting the place where the fleeing gentlemen had absconded and threw him to his death. We told those in the Scholastery that he had jumped, and assumed our most shocked expressions.”

Baerth glanced at the other knight. “I said we might have kept him alive as we were told and just torn out his tongue.”

Vollird sighed. “Then he would have written out a warning message.”

Baerth looked unconvinced. “We could have broken the rest of his fingers.”

“He’d have written using a pen stuck in his mouth,” Vollird said, exasperated.

“We might—”

“Then he’d have shoved the pen up his arse,” Vollird said loudly. “Or found some sort of way, if he was desperate enough, which I judged him to be.” He looked at tyl Loesp. “At any rate, dead is what he is.”

Tyl Loesp thought. “Well,” he said, “I will concede that was well enough done, in the circumstances. However, I worry that we now have a Scholastery full of offended scholars.”

“They’d be easy enough to cull too, sir,” Vollird said. “There’s a lot of them, but they’re all nicely gathered and guarded, and they’re all soft as a babe’s head, I swear.”

“Again, true, but they’ll have parents, brothers, connections. It would be better if we can persuade a new Head Scholar to keep them in order and say no more of what occurred.”

Vollird looked unconvinced. “There’s no better way of ensuring a tongue’s held than stilling it for good, sir.”

Tyl Loesp gazed at Vollird. “You are very good at pieces of the truth, Vollird, aren’t you?”

“Only as needs be, tyl Loesp,” the other man replied, holding his gaze. “Not to a fault.”

Tyl Loesp felt sure the two knights were convinced that killing all the scholars at Anjrinh would end the problem that they might have seen Ferbin, alive and on the run.

Ferbin, alive. How entirely like that fatuous, lucky idiot to stumble through a battle unscathed and evade all attempts at capture. All the same, tyl Loesp doubted that even Ferbin’s luck would be entirely sufficient for that; he suspected the servant, one Choubris Holse, was providing the cunning the prince so evidently lacked.

Vollird and Baerth both imagined that simply excising those who’d seen the prince would put an end to the matter; it was the obvious, soldierly way to think. Neither could see that all such surgery had its own further complications and ensuences. This present problem was like a small boil on the hand; lancing it would be quick and immediately satisfying, but a cautious doctor would know that this approach might lead to an even worse affliction that could infectively paralyse the whole arm and even threaten the body’s life itself. Sometimes the most prudent course was just to apply some healing oils or cooling poultice and let things subside. It might be the slower treatment but it carried fewer risks, left no scars and could be more effective in the end.

“Well,” tyl Loesp told the knights, “there is one tongue I’d have stilled as you propose, though it must look as though the gentleman has been careless with his own life, rather than had it surgeried from him. However, the scholars will be left alone. The family of the spy who alerted us will be rewarded. The family, though, not the boy. He will already be jealoused and despised quite sufficiently already, if the others truly suspect who was there.”

“If it was who we think it might have been. We still cannot be sure,” Vollird said.

“I have not the luxury of thinking otherwise,” tyl Loesp told him.

“And the fugitive himself?” Baerth asked.

“Lost, for the moment.” Tyl Loesp glanced at the telegraphed report he’d received that morning from the captain of the lyge squadron who had come so close to capturing or killing Ferbin and his servant — assuming it was them — at the D’neng-oal Tower just the night before. One of their quarry wounded, possibly, the report said. Too many possibles and probables for his liking. “However,” he said, smiling broadly at the two knights, “I too now have the documents to get people to the Surface. The fugitive and his helper are running away; that is the second best thing they can do, after dying.” He smiled. “Vollird, I imagine you and Baerth would like to see the Surface and the eternal stars again, would you not?”

The two knights exchanged looks.

“I think we’d rather ride with the army against the Deldeyn,” Vollird said. The main part of the army had already left the day before to form up before the Tower through which they would attack the Ninth. Tyl Loesp would leave to join them tomorrow for the descent.

Baerth nodded. “Aye, there’s honour in that.”

“Perhaps we’ve killed enough just for you, tyl Loesp,” Vollird suggested. “We grow tired of murdering with every second glance directed over our backs. Might it not be time for us to serve Sarl less obliquely, on the battlefield, against an enemy all recognise?”

To serve me is to serve the Sarl; I am the state, tyl Loesp wanted to say, but did not, not even to these two. Instead he frowned and pursed his lips momentarily. “Let us three agree a compact, shall we? I shall forgive you for being obtuse, disloyal and selfish if you two forgive me for seeming to have expressed my orders by way of a question, with the implication that there is any choice whatsoever on your part. What d’you say?”


1. Factory

<p>1. Factory</p>

The place had to be some sort of old factory or workshop or something. There were big toothed metal wheels half buried in the wooden floors or hanging by giant spindles from the network of iron beams overhead. Canvas belts were strung all over the dark spaces connecting smaller, smooth wheels and a host of long, complicated machines he thought might be something to do with weaving or knitting. It was all very dusty and grimy-looking. And yet this had been that modern thing; a factory! How quickly things decayed and became useless.

Normally he would never have considered going anywhere near some place so filthy. It might not even be safe, he thought, even with all the machinery stilled; one gable wall was partially collapsed, bricks tumbled, planks splintered, rafters hanging disjointed from above. He didn’t know if this was old damage from deterioration and lack of repair, or something that had happened today, during the battle. In the end, though, he hadn’t cared what the place was or had been; it was somewhere to escape to, a place to hide.

Well, to regroup, to recover and collect himself. That put a better gloss on it. Not running away, he told himself; just staging a strategical retreat, or whatever you called it.

Outside, the Rollstar Pentrl having passed over the horizon a few minutes earlier, it was slowly getting dark. Through the breach in the wall he could see sporadic flashes and hear the thunder of artillery, the crump and bellowing report of shells landing uncomfortably close by and the sharp, busy rattle of small arms fire. He wondered how the battle was going. They were supposed to be winning, but it was all so confusing. For all he knew they were on the brink of complete victory or utter defeat.

He didn’t understand warfare, and having now experienced its practice first hand, had no idea how people kept their wits about them in a battle. A big explosion nearby made the whole building tremble; he whimpered as he crouched down, pressing himself still further into the dark corner he had found on the first floor, drawing his thick cloak over his head. He heard himself make that pathetic, weak little sound and hated himself for it. Breathing under the cloak, he caught a faint odour of dried blood and faeces, and hated that too.

He was Ferbin otz Aelsh-Hausk’r, a prince of the House of Hausk, son of King Hausk the Conqueror. And while he was his father’s son, he had not been raised to be like him. His father gloried in war and battle and dispute, had spent his entire life aggressively expanding the influence of his throne and his people, always in the name of the WorldGod and with half an eye on history. The King had raised his eldest son to be like him, but that son had been killed by the very people they were fighting, perhaps for the last time, today. His second son, Ferbin, had been schooled in the arts not of war but of diplomacy; his natural place was supposed to be in the court, not the parade ground, fencing stage or firing range, still less the battlefield.

His father had known this and, even if he had never been as proud of Ferbin as he had of Elime, his murdered first son, he had accepted that Ferbin’s skill — you might even term it his calling, Ferbin had thought more than once — lay in the arts of politicking, not soldiering. It was, anyway, what his father had wanted. The King had been looking forward to a time when the martial heroics he had had to undertake to bring this new age about would be seen for the rude necessities they had been; he had wanted at least one of his sons to fit easily into a coming era of peace, prosperity and contentment, where the turning of a pretty phrase would have more telling effect than the twisting of a sword.

It was not his fault, Ferbin told himself, that he was not cut out for war. It was certainly not his fault that, realising he might be about to die at any moment, he had felt so terrified earlier. And even less to his discredit that he had lost control of his bowels when that Yilim chap — he had been a major or a general or something — had been obliterated by the cannon shot. Dear God, the man had been talking to him when he was just… gone! Cut in half!

Their small group had ridden up to a low rise for a better look at the battle. This was a modestly insane thing to do in the first place, Ferbin had thought at the time, exposing them to enemy spotters and hence to still greater risk than that from a random artillery shell. For one thing, he’d chosen a particularly outstanding mersicor charger as his mount that morning from the abroad-tents of the royal stables; a pure white beast with a high and proud aspect which he thought he would look well on. Only to discover that General-Major Yilim’s choice of mount obviously pitched in the same direction, for he rode a similar charger. Now he thought about it — and, oh! the number of times he’d had cause to use that phrase or one of its cousins at the start of some explanation in the aftermath of yet another embarrassment — Ferbin wondered at the wisdom of riding on to an exposed ridge with two such conspicuous beasts.

He had wanted to say this, but then decided he didn’t know enough about the procedures to be followed in such matters actually to speak his mind, and anyway he hadn’t wanted to sound like a coward. Perhaps Major-General or General-Major Yilim had felt insulted that he’d been left out of the front-line forces and asked instead to look after Ferbin, keeping him close enough to the action so that he’d later be able to claim that he’d been there at the battle, but not so close that he risked actually getting involved with any fighting.

From the rise, when they achieved it, they could see the whole sweep of the battleground, from the great Tower ahead in the distance, over the downland spreading out from the kilometres-wide cylinder and up towards their position on the first fold of the low hills that carried the road to Pourl itself. The Sarl capital city lay behind them, barely visible in the misty haze, a short-day’s ride away.

This was the ancient county of Xilisk and these were the old playgrounds of Ferbin and his siblings, long depopulated lands turned into royal parks and hunting grounds, filled with overgrown villages and thick forests. Now, all about, their crumpled, riven geography sparkled with the fire of uncounted thousands of guns, the land itself seemed to move and flow where troop concentrations and fleets of war craft manoeuvred, and great sloped stems of steam and smoke lifted into the air above it all, casting massive wedged shadows across the ground.

Here and there, beneath the spread of risen mists and lowering cloud, dots and small winged shapes moved above the great battle as caude and lyge — the great venerable warbeasts of the sky — spotted for artillery and carried intelligence and signals from place to place. None seemed mobbed by clouds of lesser avians, so most likely they were all friendly. Poor fare compared to the days of old, though, when flocks, squadrons, whole clouds of the great beasts had contended in the battles of the ancients. Well, if the old stories and ancient paintings were to be believed. Ferbin suspected they were exaggerated, and his younger half-brother, Oramen, who claimed to study such matters, had said well of course they were exaggerated, though, being Oramen, only after shaking his head at Ferbin’s ignorance.

Choubris Holse, his servant, had been to his left on the ridge, digging into a saddle bag and muttering about requiring some fresh supplies from the nearest village behind them. Major — or General — Yilim had been on his right, holding forth about the coming campaign on the next level down, taking the fight to their enemies in their own domain. Ferbin had ignored his servant and turned to Yilim out of politeness. Then, mid-word, with a sort of tearing rush of sound, the elderly officer — portly, a little flushed of face and inclined to wheeze when laughing — was gone, just gone. His legs and lower torso still sat in the saddle, but the rest of him was all ripped about and scattered; half of him seemed to have thrown itself over Ferbin, covering him in blood and greasily unknowable bits of body parts. Ferbin had stared at the remains still sitting in the saddle as he wiped some of the gore off his face, gagging with the stink and the warm, steaming feel of it. His lunch had left his belly and mouth like something was pursuing it. He’d coughed, then wiped his face with a gore-slicked hand.

“Fucking hell,” he’d heard Choubris Holse say, voice breaking.

Yilim’s mount — the tall, pale mersicor charger which Yilim had spoken to more kindly than to any of his men — as though suddenly realising what had just happened, screamed, reared and fled, dumping what was left of the man’s body on to the torn-up ground. Another shell or ball or whatever these ghastly things were landed nearby, felling another two of their group in a shrieking tangle of men and animals. His servant had gone too, now, Ferbin realised; mount toppled, falling on top of him. Choubris Holse yelled with fright and pain, pinned beneath the animal.

“Sir!” one of the junior officers shouted at him, suddenly in front of him, pulling his own mount round. “Ride! Away from here!”

He was still wiping blood from his face.

He’d filled his britches, he realised. He whipped his mount and followed the younger man, until the young officer and his mount disappeared in a sudden thick spray of dark earth. The air seemed to be full of screeches and fire; deafening, blinding. Ferbin heard himself whimper. He pressed himself against his mount, wrapping his arms round its neck and closing his eyes, letting the pounding animal find its own way over and around whatever obstacles were in its path, not daring to raise his head and look where they were going. The jarring, rattling, terrifying ride had seemed to last for ever. He heard himself whimpering again.

The panting, heaving mersicor slowed eventually.

Ferbin opened his eyes to see they were on a dark wooded track by the side of a small river; booms and flashes came from every side but sounded a little further away than they had. Something burned further up the stream, as though overhanging trees were on fire. A tall building, half ruined, loomed in the late afternoon light as the labouring, panting mount slowed still further. He pulled it to a stop outside the place, and dismounted. He’d let go of the reins. The animal startled at another loud explosion, then went wailing off down the track at a canter. He might have given chase if his pants hadn’t been full of his own excrement.

Instead he waddled into the building through a door wedged open by sagging hinges, looking for water and somewhere to clean himself. His servant would have known just what to do. Choubris Holse would have cleaned him up quick as you like, with much muttering and many grumblings, but efficiently, and without a sly sneer. And now, Ferbin realised, he was unarmed. The mersicor had made off with his rifle and ceremonial sword. Plus, the pistol he’d been given by his father, and which he had sworn would never leave his side while the war was waged, was no longer in its holster.

He found some water and ancient rags and cleaned himself as best he could. He still had his wine flask, though it was empty. He filled the flask from a long trough of deep, flowing water cut into the floor and rinsed his mouth, then drank. He tried to catch his reflection in the dark length of water but failed. He dipped his hands in the trough and pushed his fingers through his long fair hair, then washed his face. Appearances had to be maintained, after all. Of King Hausk’s three sons he had always been the one who most resembled their father; tall, fair and handsome, with a proud, manly bearing (so people said, apparently — he did not really trouble himself with such matters).

The battle raged on beyond the dark, abandoned building as the light of Pentrl faded from the sky. He found that he could not stop shaking. He still smelled of blood and shit. It was unthinkable that anyone should find him like this. And the noise! He’d been told the battle would be quick and they would win easily, but it was still going on. Maybe they were losing. If they were, it might be better that he hid. If his father had been killed in the fighting he would, he supposed, be the new king. That was too great a responsibility; he couldn’t risk showing himself until he knew they had won. He found a place on the floor above to lie down and tried to sleep, but could not; all he could see was General Yilim, bursting right in front of him, gobbets of flesh flying towards him. He retched once more, then drank from the flask.

Just lying there, then sitting, his cloak pulled tight around him, made him feel a little better. It would all be all right, he told himself. He’d take a little while away from things, just a moment or two, to collect his wits and calm down. Then he’d see how things were. They would have won, and his father would still be alive. He wasn’t ready to be king. He enjoyed being a prince. Being a prince was fun; being a king looked like hard work. Besides, his father had always entirely given everybody who’d ever met him the strong impression that he would most assuredly live for ever.

Ferbin must have nodded off. There was noise down below; clamour, voices. In his jangled, still half-drowsy state, he thought he recognised some of them. He was instantly terrified that he would be discovered, captured by the enemy or shamed in front of his father’s own troops. How low he had fallen in so short a time! To be as mortally afraid of his own side as of the enemy! Steel-shod feet clattered on the steps. He was going to be discovered!

“Nobody in the floors above,” a voice said.

“Good. There. Lay him there. Doctor…” (There was some speech that Ferbin didn’t catch. He was still working out that he’d escaped detection while he’d been asleep.) “Well, you must do whatever you can. Bleye! Tohonlo! Ride for help, as I’ve asked.”

“Sir.”

“At once.”

“Priest; attend.”

“The Exaltine, sir—”

“Will be with us in due course, I’m sure. For now the duty’s yours.”

“Of course, sir.”

“The rest of you, out. Give us some air to breathe here.”

He did know that voice. He was sure he did. The man giving the orders sounded like — in fact must be — tyl Loesp.

Mertis tyl Loesp was his father’s closest friend and most trusted adviser. What was going on? There was much movement. Lanterns cast shadows from below on to the dark ceiling above him. He shifted towards a chink of light coming from the floor nearby where a broad canvas belt, descending from a giant wheel above, disappeared through the planking to some machinery on the ground floor. Shifting, he could peer through the slit in the floor to see what was happening beneath.

Dear God of the World, it was his father!

King Hausk lay, face slack, eyes closed, on a broad wooden door resting on makeshift trestles immediately beneath. His armour was pierced and buckled over the left side of his chest, and blood was seeping through some flag or banner wrapped around him. He looked dead, or close to death.

Ferbin felt his eyes go wide.

Dr Gillews, the Royal Physician, was quickly opening bags and small portable cabinets. An assistant fussed beside him. A priest Ferbin recognised but did not know the name of stood by his father’s head, his white robes soiled with blood or mud. He was reading from some holy work. Mertis tyl Loesp — tall and partially stooped, still dressed in armour, his helmet held in one hand, his white hair matted — paced to and fro, armour glinting in the lanternlight. The only others present that he could see were a couple of knights, standing, rifles held ready, by the door. The angle was wrong to see further up than the chest of the tall knight on the right side of the door but Ferbin recognised the one whose face he could see; Bower or Brower or something.

He should reveal himself, he thought. He should let them know he was here. He might be about to become king, after all. It would be aberrant, perverse not to make himself known.

He would wait just a moment longer, all the same. He felt this like an instinct, he told himself, and his instinct had been right about not riding up on to the ridge, earlier.

His father’s eyes flickered open. He grimaced with pain, one arm moving towards his injured side. The doctor looked at his assistant, who went to hold the King’s hand, perhaps to comfort him, but certainly preventing him from probing his injury. The doctor joined his assistant, holding scissors and pliers. He cut cloth, pulled at armour.

“Mertis,” the King said weakly, ignoring the doctor and holding his other hand out. His voice, usually so stern and strong, sounded like a child’s.

“Here,” tyl Loesp said, coming to the King’s side. He took his hand.

“Do we prevail, Mertis?”

The other man looked round at the others present. Then he said, “We prevail, sir. The battle is won. The Deldeyn have surrendered and ask our terms. They conditioned only that their massacre cease and they be treated honourably. Which we have allowed, so far. The Ninth and all that it holds lies open to us.”

The King smiled. Ferbin felt relieved. It sounded like things had gone well. He supposed he really ought to make his entrance now. He took a breath to speak, let them know he was there.

“And Ferbin?” the King asked. Ferbin froze. What about him?

“Dead,” tyl Loesp said. It was said, Ferbin thought, with somewhat insufficient grief or pity. Almost, a chap less charitable than himself might have thought, with relish.

“Dead?” his father wailed, and Ferbin felt his eyes moisten. Now. Now he needed to let his father know that his eldest surviving son still lived, whether he smelled of shit or not.

“Yes,” tyl Loesp said, leaning over the King. “The vain, silly, spoiled little brat was blown to bits on Cherien ridge, some time after midday. A sad loss to his tailors, jewellers and creditors, I dare say. As to anyone of consequence, well…”

The King made a spluttering noise, then said, “Loesp? What are you—?”

“We are all of one mind here, are we not?” tyl Loesp said smoothly, ignoring the King — ignoring the King! — and looking round everybody present.

A chorus of low, muttered voices gave what must have been assent. “Not you, priest, but no matter,” tyl Loesp told the holy man. “Continue with the reading, if you would.” The priest did as he was instructed, eyes now wide. The doctor’s assistant stared at the King, then glanced at the doctor, who was looking back at him.

“Loesp!” the King cried, something of his old authority back in his voice. “What do you mean by this insult? And to my dead child? What monstrosity of—”

“Oh, do be quiet.” Tyl Loesp laid his helmet at his feet and leaned further forward, putting his knuckles to his cheeks and resting his mailed elbows on the King’s armoured chest; an act of such unprecedented disrespect that Ferbin found it almost more shocking than anything he’d heard. The King winced, breath wheezing out of him. Ferbin thought he heard something bubbling. The doctor had finished exposing the wound in the King’s side.

“I mean the cowardly little cunt is dead, you old cretin,” tyl Loesp said, addressing his only lord and master as though he was a beggar. “And if by some miracle he’s not, he soon will be. The younger boy I think I’ll keep alive for now, in my capacity as regent. Though — I’m afraid — poor, quiet, studious little Oramen may not live to the point of accession. They say the boy’s interested in mathematics. I am not — save, like yourself, for its trajectorial role in the fall of shot — however I’d compute his chances of seeing his next birthday and hence majority grow less substantial the closer the event creeps.”

“What?” the King gasped, labouring. “Loesp! Loesp, for all pity—”

“No,” tyl Loesp said, leaning more heavily on the blood-bright curve of armour, causing the King to moan. “No pity, my dear, dim old warrior. You’ve done your bit, you’ve won your war. That’s monument and epitaph enough and your time is past. But no pity, sir, no. I shall order all the prisoners of today killed with the utmost dispatch and the Ninth invaded with every possible severity, so that gutters, rivers — heavens, water wheels too, for all I care — run with blood, and the shrieking will, I dare say, be terrible to hear. All in your name, brave prince. For vengeance. For your idiot sons too, if you like.” Tyl Loesp put his face very close to that of the King and shouted at him, “The game is over, my old stump! It was always greater than you knew!” He pushed himself back off the King’s chest, making the prone man cry out again. Tyl Loesp nodded at the doctor, who, visibly gulping, reached out with some metal instrument, plunging it into the wound in the King’s side, making him shudder and scream.

“You traitors, you treacherous bastards!” the King wept, as the doctor took a step back, instrument dripping blood, face grey. “Will no one help me? Bastards all! You murder your king!”

Tyl Loesp shook his head, staring first at the writhing King, then at the doctor. “You ply your given trade too well, medic.” He moved round to the other side of the King, who flailed weakly at him. As tyl Loesp passed, the priest stuck out a hand, clutching at the nobleman’s sleeve. Tyl Loesp looked calmly down at the hand on his forearm. The priest said hoarsely, “Sir, this is too much, it’s — it’s wrong.”

Tyl Loesp looked at his eyes, then back at his clutching hand, until the priest released him. “You stray your brief, mumbler,” tyl Loesp told him. “Get back to your words.” The priest swallowed, then lowered his gaze to the book again. His lips began to move once more, though no sound issued from his mouth.

Tyl Loesp moved round the broken door, shoving the doctor back, until he stood by the King’s other flank. He crouched a little, inspecting. “A mortal wound indeed, my lord,” he said, shaking his head. “You should have accepted the magic potions our friend Hyrlis offered. I would have.” He plunged one hand into the King’s side, arm disappearing almost to the elbow. The King shrieked.

“Why,” tyl Loesp said, “here’s the very heart of it.” He grunted, twisting and pulling inside the man’s chest. The King gave one final scream, arched his back and then collapsed. The body jerked a few more times, and some sound came from his lips, but nothing intelligible, and soon they too were still.

Ferbin stared down. He felt frozen, immobilised, like something trapped in ice or baked to solidity. Nothing he had seen or heard or ever known had prepared him for this. Nothing.

There was a sharp crack. The priest fell like a sack of rocks. Tyl Loesp lowered his pistol. The hand holding it dripped blood.

The doctor cleared his throat, stepped away from his assistant. “Ah, the boy, too,” he told tyl Loesp, looking away from the lad. He shook his head and shrugged. “He worked for the King’s people as well as us, I’m sure.”

“Master! I—!” the youth had time to say, before tyl Loesp shot him as well; in the belly first, folding him, then in the head. The doctor looked quite convinced that tyl Loesp was about to shoot him, too, but tyl Loesp merely smiled at him and then at the two knights at the door. He stooped, took a towel from the waistband of the murdered assistant, wiped his pistol and his hand with it, then dabbed a little blood from his arm and sleeve.

He looked round the others. “This had to be done, as we all know,” he told them. He looked distastefully at the body of the King, as a surgeon might at a patient who has had the temerity to die on him. “Kings are usually the first to talk, and at some length, of overarching destiny and the necessity of fulfilling greater purposes,” he said, still wiping and dabbing. “So let’s take all that billowy rhetoric as heard, shall we? We are left with this: the King died of his wounds, most honourably incurred, but not before swearing bloody vengeance on his enemies. The prancing prince is dead and the younger one is in my charge. These two here fell prey to a sniper. And we’ll burn down this old place, just for good measure. Now, come; all our fine prizes await.”

He threw the bloodied towel down on to the face of the felled assistant and then said, with an encouraging smile, “I believe we are concluded here.”


2. Palace

<p>2. Palace</p>

Oramen was in a round room in the shade wing of the royal palace in Pourl when they came to tell him that his father and his elder brother were dead and he would, in time, be king. He had always liked this room because its walls described an almost perfect circle and, if you stood at its very centre, you could hear your own voice reflected back at you from the chamber’s circumference in a most singular and interesting fashion.

He looked up from his papers at the breathless earl who’d burst into the room and broken the news. The earl’s name was Droffo, from Shilda, if Oramen was not mistaken. Meanwhile a couple of the palace servants piled into the room behind the nobleman, also breathing hard and looking flushed. Oramen sat back in his seat. He noticed it was dark outside. A servant must have lit the room’s lamps.

“Dead?” he said. “Both of them? Are you sure?”

“If all reports are to be believed, sir. From the army command and from tyl Loesp himself. The King is — the King’s body is returning on a gun carriage, sir,” Droffo told him. “Sir, I’m sorry. It’s said poor Ferbin was cut in half by a shell. I am so sorry, sir, sorry beyond words. They are gone.”

Oramen nodded thoughtfully. “But I am not king?”

The earl, who to Oramen looked dressed half for court and half for war, looked confused for a moment. “No, sir. Not until your next birthday. Tyl Loesp will rule in your name. As I understand it.”

“I see.”

Oramen took a couple of deep breaths. Well, now. He had not prepared himself for this eventuality. He wasn’t sure what to think. He looked at Droffo. “What am I supposed to do? What is my duty?”

This, too, seemed to flummox the good earl, just for an instant. “Sir,” he said, “you might ride out to meet the King’s bier.”

Oramen nodded. “I might indeed.”

“It is safe, sir; the battle is won.”

“Yes,” Oramen said, “of course.” He rose, and looked beyond Droffo to one of the servants. “Puisil. The steam car, if you would.”

“Take a little while to get steam up,” Puisil said. “Sir.”

“Then don’t delay,” Oramen told him reasonably. The servant turned to go just as Fanthile, the palace secretary appeared. “A moment,” Fanthile told the servant, causing Puisil to hesitate, his gaze flicking between the young prince and the elderly palace secretary.

“A charger might be the better choice, sir,” Fanthile told Oramen. He smiled and bowed to Droffo, who nodded back at the older man. Fanthile was balding and his face was heavily lined, but he was still tall and carried his thin frame proudly.

“You think?” Oramen said. “The car will be quicker, surely.”

“The mount would be more immediate, sir,” Fanthile said. “And more fitting. One is more public on a mount. The people will need to see you.”

One can stand up in the back of my father’s steam car, Oramen considered saying. But he saw the sense in what was being proposed.

“Also,” Fanthile continued, seeing the prince hesitate and deciding to press, “the road may be crowded. A mount will slip through spaces—”

“Yes, of course,” Oramen said. “Very well. Puisil, if you would.”

“Sir.” The servant left.

Oramen sighed and boxed his papers. His day had largely been taken up with working on a novel form of musical notation. He had been kept, with the rest of the household, in the cellars of the palace during the early morning, when the Deldeyn had first been expected to break out from the nearby Tower, in case things went badly and they had to flee through subterranean tunnels to a fleet of steam vehicles waiting ready in the city’s lower reaches, but then they had been allowed out when, as expected, the enemy had been met with such prepared force they had soon ceased to be a threat to the city and their attention became focused instead on their own survival.

Mid-morning, he’d been persuaded to climb to a balustraded roof with Shir Rocasse, his tutor, to look out over the stepped palace grounds and the higher reaches of the hilltop city towards the Xiliskine Tower and the battleground that — telegraph reports now stated — stretched almost all around it.

But there had been little to see. Even the sky had appeared entirely devoid of action. The great battle-flocks of caude and lyge that had filled the ancient airs and made the battles of yesteryear seem so romantic were largely gone now; consigned — reduced — to scout patrols, messengering, artillery spotting, and raids that were little better than brigandry. Here on the Eighth such flying warbeasts were widely held to have no significant part to play in modern ground battles, largely due to the machinery and accompanying tactics King Hausk himself had introduced.

There had been rumours that the Deldeyn had steam-powered flying machines, but if these had been present today they must have been in small numbers or had little obvious effect. Oramen had been mildly disappointed, though he thought the better of saying so to his old tutor, who was as patriotic, race-conscious and WorldGodly as any might wish. They came down from the roof, for what were supposed to be lessons.

Shir Rocasse was nearing retirement but had anyway realised during the last short-year that he had little to teach Oramen now, unless it was by rote straight out of a book. These days, the prince preferred to use the palace library unmediated, though he still listened to the old scholar’s advice, not entirely out of sentimentality. He had left Rocasse in the library, wrapt by some dusty set of scrolls, and made his way here, to the round room, where he was even less likely to be disturbed. Well, until now.

“Oramen!” Renneque ran in, darting past Droffo and Fanthile and flinging herself at his feet in a derangement of torn clothing. “I just heard! It can’t be true!” Renneque, the lady Silbe, hooked her arms round his feet, hugging tight. She looked up, her young face livid with tears and grief, brown hair spilling. “Say it’s not? Please? Not both. Not the King and Ferbin too! Not both. Not both. For anything, not both!”

Oramen leant down gently and pulled her up until she knelt before him, her eyes wide, her brows pulled in, her jaw working. He had always thought her rather attractive, and been envious of his elder brother, but now he thought she looked almost ugly in this surfeit of grief. Her hands, having been deprived of the patent reassurance of his feet, now clutched at a plump little World symbol on a thin chain round her neck, twisting it round and round in her fingers, the filigree of smaller shells inside the spherical outer casing all revolving, sliding back and forth, continually adjusting.

Oramen felt quite mature, even old, all of a sudden. “Now, Renneque,” he said, taking her hands and patting them. “We all have to die.”

The girl wailed, throwing herself to the floor again.

“Madam,” Fanthile said, sounding kindly but embarrassed and reaching down to her, then turning to see Mallarh, one of the ladies of court — also looking tearful and distracted — appear in the doorway. Mallarh, perhaps twice Renneque’s age, face pitted with the tiny scars of a childhood infection, bit her lip when she saw the younger woman weeping on the wooden floor. “Please,” Fanthile said to Mallarh, indicating Renneque.

Mallarh persuaded Renneque to rise, then to exit.

“Now, sir…” Fanthile said, before turning to see Harne, the lady Aelsh, the King’s present consort and mother to Ferbin, standing in the doorway, her eyes red, fair hair straggled and unkempt but clothing untorn, her face set and stance steady. Fanthile sighed. “Madam—” he began.

“Just confirm it, Fanthile,” the lady said. “Is it true? The two? Both of mine?”

Fanthile looked at the floor for a moment. “Yes, my lady. Both gone. The King most certainly, the prince by all accounts.”

The lady Aelsh seemed to sag, then slowly drew herself up. She nodded, then made as though to turn away, before stopping to look at Oramen. He looked straight back at her. He rose from his seat, still held by that gaze.

Though they had both sought to conceal it, their mutual dislike was no secret in the palace. His was based on his own mother having been banished in Harne’s favour, while hers was generally assumed to be caused by Oramen’s mere existence. Still, he wanted to say that he was sorry; he wanted to say (at least when he thought more clearly and logically about it later), that he felt for her double loss, that this was an unlooked-for and an unwanted promotion of his status, and that she would suffer no diminution of her own rank by any action or inaction of his either during the coming regency or following his own ascension. But her expression seemed to forbid him from speech, and perhaps even dared him to find anything that might be said that she would not find in some way objectionable.

He struggled against this feeling for some moments, thinking that it was better to say something rather than seem to insult her with silence, but then gave up. There was a saying: Wisdom is Silence. In the end, he simply bowed his head to the lady, saying nothing. He sensed as much as saw her turn and leave.

Oramen looked up again. Well, at least that was over.

“Come, sir,” Fanthile said, holding out one arm. “I’ll ride with you.”

“Will I be all right like this?” Oramen asked. He was dressed most informally, in pants and shirt.

“Throw on a good cloak, sir,” Fanthile suggested. He looked steadily at the younger man as he hesitated, patting the papers he had been working on as though not sure whether to take them with him or not. “You must be distraught, sir,” the palace secretary said levelly.

Oramen nodded. “Yes,” he said, tapping the papers. The topmost sheet was nothing to do with musical notation. As a prince, Oramen had of course been educated in the ways of the aliens who existed beyond his home level and outwith Sursamen itself and, idling earlier, he’d been doodling his name and then attempting to express it as those aliens might:

Oramen lin Blisk-Hausk’r yun Pourl, yun Dich.

Oramen-man, Prince (3/2), Pourlinebrac, 8/Su.

Human Oramen, prince of Pourl, house of Hausk, domain of Sarl, of the Eighth, Sursamen.

Meseriphine-Sursamen/8sa Oramen lin Blisk-Hausk’r dam Pourl.

He reordered the pages, picked up a paperweight and placed it on the pile. “Yes, I must, mustn’t I?”

* * *

Just hoisting oneself aboard a mersicor, it appeared, had become rather more complicated than it had ever been before. Oramen had hardly tarried since hearing the news, but even so a considerable fuss had already accrued in the lantern-lit mounting yard by the time he got there.

Accompanied — harried might have been as fit a term — by Fanthile, Oramen had visited his apartments to grab a voluminous riding cloak, suffered Fanthile pulling a comb through his auburn hair and then been rushed down the steps towards the yard, taking care to nod at the various grave faces and sets of wringing hands en route. He had only been held up once, by the Oct ambassador.

The ambassador looked like some sort of giant crab. Its upright, ovoid body — about the size of a child’s torso — was coloured deep blue and covered with tiny bright green growths that were either thin spikes or thick hairs. Its thrice-segmented limbs — four hanging like legs, four seemingly taking the part of arms — were an almost incandescent red, and each terminated in small double claws which were the same blue as the main body. The limbs protruded, not quite symmetrically, in broken-looking Z-shapes from four black stubs which for some reason always reminded Oramen of fleshy cannon mouths.

The creature was supported from the rear and sides by a frame of mirror-finished metal, with bulkier additions behind it which apparently housed the means it used to hover soundlessly in mid-air, occasionally leaking small amounts of strangely scented liquid. A set of tubes led from another cylinder to what was assumed to be its face, set in the middle of its main body and covered with a sort of mask through which tiny bubbles could occasionally be seen to move. Its whole body glistened, and when you looked very closely — and Oramen had — you could see that a very thin membrane of liquid seemed to enclose every part of it, with the possible exception of its little green hairs and the blue claws. The Oct diplomatic mission was housed in an old ballroom in the palace’s sun wing, and was, apparently, completely full of water.

The ambassador and two escorting Oct, one slightly smaller and one a little larger than it, floated over the corridor tiles towards Oramen and Fanthile as they reached the final turn in the stairs. Fanthile stopped when he saw the creatures. Oramen thought better of not doing likewise. He heard the palace secretary sigh.

“Oramen-man, Prince,” Ambassador Kiu-to-Pourl said. Its voice was that of dry leaves rustling, or a small fire starting in tinder. “That who gave that you might be given unto life is no more, as our ancestors, the blessed Involucra, who are no more, to us are. Grief is to be experienced, thereto related emotions, and much. I am unable to share, being. Nevertheless. And forbearance I commend unto you. One assumes. Likely, too, assumption takes place. Fruitions. Energy transfers, like inheritance, and so we share. You; we. As though in the way of pressure, in subtle conduits we do not map well.”

Oramen stared at the thing, wondering what he was supposed to make of this apparent nonsense. In his experience the ambassador’s tangential utterances could be made to represent some sort of twisted sense if you thought about them long enough — preferably after writing them down — but he didn’t really have the time just now.

“Thank you for your kind words,” he blurted, nodding and backing towards the stairs.

The ambassador drew back a fraction, leaving a tiny pool of moisture glistening on the tiles. “Keep you. Go to that which you go to. Take that which I would give you. Knowing of alike-ness. Oct — Inheritors — descend from Veil, inherit. You, inherit. Also, is pity.”

“With your leave, sir,” Fanthile said to the ambassador, then he and Oramen bowed, turned and went clattering down the last flight of stairs towards ground level.

The fuss in the mounting yard mostly involved a whole blaring coven of dukes, earls and knights disputing loudly over who ought to ride with the Prince Regent on the short journey he was about to make to meet the body of the returning king.

Oramen hung back in the shadows, arms folded, waiting for his mount to be brought before him. He stepped backwards into a pile of dung near the yard’s tall rear wall and tutted, shaking some of the shit from his boot and attempting to scrape off the rest on the wall. The dung pile was still steaming. He wondered if you could tell what sort of animal had left the turd from its appearance and consistency. Probably, he imagined.

He looked straight up at the sky. There, still visible over the lanterns illuminating the mounting yard from the ensquaring walls, a dull red line marked the cooling course incised by the Rollstar Pentrl, many hours set and many days away from returning. He looked to the nearpole, where Domity would rise next, but this was a relatively long night, and even the Rollstar’s forelight was still some hours away. He thought he could see just a suggestion of the Keande-yiine Tower, stretching into the darkness above — the lower extent of the Xiliskine, though nearer, was hidden by a tall tower of the palace — but he was not sure. Xiliskine. Or 213tower52. That was the name their mentors, the Oct, would give it. He supposed he ought to prefer Xiliskine.

He returned his attention to the yard. So many nobles. He’d assumed they’d all be out fighting the Deldeyn. But then, his father had long since drawn a firm distinction between those nobles who brought grace and emollience to a court and those who were capable of successfully fighting a modern war. The levied troops, magnificently motley, led by their lords, still had their place, but the New Army was part full-time professional and part well-trained people’s militias, all of it commanded by captains, majors, colonels and generals, not knights, lords, earls and dukes. He spotted some senior priests and a few parliamentarians in the mixture too, pressing their suit for inclusion. He had fondly imagined riding out alone, or with one or two attendants. Instead it looked like he would be leading out a small army of his own.

Oramen had been advised not to have anything to do with the battle taking place out over the plains that day, and anyway had no real interest in it, given that they had all been most severely assured it was quite certain to go their way by Werreber, one of his father’s most forbidding generals, just the night before. It was a pity, in a way. Only a couple of years ago he’d have been fascinated with the machinery of war and all the careful dispositioning of forces involved. The intense numericality of its planning and the extreme functionality of its cruel workings would have consumed him.

Somehow, though, since then he’d lost interest in things martial. They seemed, even as they were in the process of securing it, profoundly inimical to the modern age they’d help usher in. War itself was becoming old-fashioned and outmoded. Inefficient, wasteful, fundamentally destructive, it would have no part in the glitteringly pragmatic future the greatest minds of the kingdom foresaw.

Only people like his father would mourn such a passing. He would celebrate it.

“My prince,” murmured a voice beside him.

Oramen turned. “Tove!” he said, clapping the other young man on the back. Tove Lomma had been his best friend almost since nursery. He was an army officer nowadays and wore the uniform of the old Flying Corps. “You’re here! I thought you’d be fighting! How good to see you!”

“They’ve had me in one of the lyge towers the last few days, with a squadron of the beasts. Light guns. In case there was an aerial attack. Listen.” He put one hand on Oramen’s arm. “This is so bad about your father and Ferbin. The stars would weep, Oramen. I can’t tell you. All the men of the flight… Well, we want you to know we’re at your command.”

“Rather, at Loesp’s.”

“He is your champion in this, Oramen. He’ll serve you well, I’m sure.”

“As am I.”

“Your father, though; our dear king, our every—” Tove’s voice broke. He shook his head and looked away, biting his lip and sniffing hard.

Oramen felt he had to comfort his old friend. “Well, he died happy, I imagine,” he said. “In battle, and victorious, as he’d have wished. As we’d all have wished. Anyway.” He took a quick look round the mêlée in the yard. The contesting nobles seemed to be gathering themselves into some sort of order but there was still no sign of his charger. He’d have been quicker in the steam car after all. “It is a shock,” he continued. Tove was still looking away. “I shall miss him. Miss him… well, terribly. Obviously.” Tove looked back at him. Oramen smiled broadly and blinked quickly. “Truth be told, I think I’m like a half-stunned beast, still walking around, but eyes crossed as wits. I fully expect to wake up at any moment. I’d do so now, if it was in my power.”

When Tove looked back, his eyes were bright. “I’ve heard that when the troops learned their beloved king was dead, they fell upon their captives and killed every one.”

“I hope not,” Oramen said. “That was not my father’s policy.”

“They killed him, Oramen! Those beasts! I wish I’d been there too, to take my own revenge.”

“Well, neither of us were. We must hope what’s been done in our name brings only honour.”

Tove nodded slowly, clutching Oramen’s arm once more. “You must be strong, Oramen,” he said.

Oramen gazed at his old friend. Strong, indeed. This was quite the most vapid thing Tove had ever said to him. Death obviously had an odd effect on people.

“So,” Tove said, with a sly, tentative smile, “do we call you sire or majesty or something yet?”

“Not yet…” Oramen began, then was led away by an earl and assisted to his mount by dukes.

* * *

On the Xilisk road, near the small town of Evingreath, the cortège bearing the body of King Nerieth Hausk back to his capital met with the barely smaller procession led by the prince Oramen. Immediately he saw the Prince Regent, lit by hissing travel lanterns and the slow-increasing forelight of the Rollstar Domity, still some hours from its dawn, Mertis tyl Loesp, who all the world knew had been like a third hand to the King for almost all his life, dismounted and, pulling himself with heavy steps to the prince’s charger, went down on one knee on the muddied road, head bowed, so that his silvery hair — spiked and wild from the tearings of grief — and his distraught face — still dark with powder smoke and streaked by hot, unceasing tears — were level with the stirruped foot of the prince. Then he raised his head and said these words:

“Sir, our beloved master, the King, who was your father and my friend, and was friend and father to all his people, comes back to his throne in triumph, but also in death. Our victory has been great, and complete, and our gain and new advantage immeasurable. Only our loss exceeds such vast accomplishment, but it does so by a ratio beyond calculation. Beside that hateful cost, for all its furious glory, our triumph these last hours now looks like nothing. Your father was full occasion for both; one would not have been but for his matchless leadership and steady purpose, the other was invoked by his untimely, unwanted, undeserved death.

“And so, it is fallen to me, and is my great, if ever-unlooked-for privilege, to rule for the short interval between this most loathsome day and the glorious one of your accession. I beseech you, sir; believe me that whatever I do in your name, my lord, will be for you and the people of Sarl, and always in the name of the WorldGod. Your father would expect no less, and in this cause, so great to us, I might begin to start some small repayment of the honour he did me. I honour you as I honoured him, sir — utterly, with all my being, with my every thought and every action, now and for as long as it is my duty so to do.

“I have today lost the best friend a man ever had, sir; a true light, a constant star whose fixity outshone, outstared any mere celestial lamp. The Sarl have lost the greatest commander they have ever known, a name fit to be clamoured down the aeons till time’s end and echo loud as that of any hero of the distant ancients amongst the unseen stars. We can never hope to be a tenth as great as he, but I take respite in only this: the truly great are strong beyond death itself, my lord, and, like the fading streak of light and heat a great star leaves behind it once its own true brilliance has been obscured, a legacy of power and wisdom remains from which we may draw strength, by its focus magnifying our own small allotment of fortitude and will.

“Sir, if I seem to express myself inelegantly, or without the due respect I would give your station and your self, forgive me. My eyes are blinded, my ears stopped and my mouth made numb by all that’s taken place today. To gain more than we thought possible, then lose an infinity more than even that, would have shattered any man, save only the one unmatched soul it is our sad, abhorrent duty to bring before you here.”

Tyl Loesp fell silent. Oramen knew he was expected to say something in return. He’d been doing his best to ignore the prattling dukes around him for the last half-hour, after Fanthile had briefly made it through the press of bodies, animal and human, surrounding him, to warn him he might need to give a speech. The palace secretary had barely had time to impart even this morsel of advice before he and his mount were nudged and jostled out of the way, back to what the more splendid nobles obviously regarded as his proper place amongst the minor nobility, the dutifully wailing priests and dour-looking parliamentarians. Since then Oramen had been trying to come up with something suitable. But what was he supposed to say, or do?

He glanced at the various resplendent nobles around him, all of whom, from their grave, almost exaggerated nods and mutterings, seemed to approve quite mightily of Mertis tyl Loesp’s speech. Oramen twisted briefly in his saddle to glimpse Fanthile — now still further back in the crush of junior nobles, priests and representatives — signalling, with jerks of his head and jagged flaps of his hand that he ought to dismount.

He did so. Already a small crowd of dismounted men and people presumably from the nearby town and countryside had gathered around them, filling the broad way and jostling for position on the roadside banks. The growing forelight, pre-dawn under a sky of scattered clouds, silhouetted some folk climbing nearby trees for a better view. He still had no idea what to say in return, though he suddenly thought what a fine subject for a painting such a scene might make. Oramen took tyl Loesp by one hand and got him to stand before him.

“Thank you for all you’ve said and done, dear tyl Loesp,” he told the older man. He was very aware of the contrast between the two of them; he the slight prince, barely out of childish clothes and dressed beneath his thrown-back cloak as though preparing for bed, the other the all-powerful conquering warrior, still in his battle armour — flecked here and there with all the marks of war — three times his age and barely any younger or less impressive than the lately killed king.

Harsh-breathing, stern-faced, still stinking of blood and smoke, bearing all the signs of mortal combat and unbearable grief, tyl Loesp towered over him. The drama of the scene was not lost on Oramen. This would make a good painting, he thought, especially by one of the old masters — say Dilucherre, or Sordic. Perhaps even Omoulldeo. And almost at the same moment, he knew what to do; he’d steal.

Not from a painting, of course, but from a play. There were enough old tragedies with like scenes and suitable speeches for him to welcome back a dozen dead dads and doughty combateers; the choice was more daunting than the task it might relieve. He’d recall, pick, edit, join and extemporise his way through the moment.

“This is indeed our saddest day,” Oramen said, raising his voice, and his head. “If any energies of yours could bring our father back, I know you’d devote them to that cause without stint. That vigour instead will be turned to the good interest of all our people. You bring us sorrow and joy at once, my good tyl Loesp, but for all the misery we feel now, and for all the time we must rightly hence devote to the mourning of our incomparable fallen, the satisfaction of this great victory will still shine brightly when that rite has been most fully observed, and my father would surely want it so.

“The sum of his most glorious life was cause for fervent celebration well before the great triumph of this day, and the weight of that result has grown only more majestic with the exploits of all who fought for him before the Xiliskine Tower.” Oramen looked round the gathered people for a moment at this point, and attempted to raise his voice still further. “My father took one son to war today, and left one, myself, at home. I have lost both a father and a brother, as well as my king and his loved and rightful heir. They outshine me in death as they did in life, and Mertis tyl Loesp, though having no lack of other responsibilities, must stand in place of both for me. I tell you, I can think of no one more fitted to the task.” Oramen nodded towards the grim-faced warrior in front of him, then he took a breath, and, still addressing the assembled mass, said, “I know I have no share of this day’s glory — I think my boyish shoulders would fail beneath the smallest part of such a load — but I am proud to stand with all the Sarl people, to celebrate and to honour the great deeds done and pay the fullest respect to one who taught us celebration, encouraged us to honour and exemplified respect.”

This fetched a cheer, which rose raggedly then with increasing strength from the congregation of people gathered around them. Oramen heard shields being struck by swords, mailed fists beating on armoured chests and, like a modern comment on such flowery antiquity, the loud crack of small arms fire, rounds spent into the air like some inverted hail.

Mertis tyl Loesp, who had kept a stony face during Oramen’s reply, looked very briefly surprised — even alarmed — at its end, but that briefest of impressions — which might so easily have been the result of the uncertain light cast by the carried travel lanterns and the wan glow of a still unrisen minor star — was close to uncapturably short-lived, and easily dismissible.

“May I see my father, sir?” Oramen asked. He found that his heart was beating hard and his breath was quick; still he did his best to maintain a calm and dignified demeanour, as he gathered was expected. Nevertheless, if he was expected to wail and scream and tear out his hair when he saw the body, this impromptu audience was going to be disappointed.

“He is here, sir,” tyl Loesp said, indicating the long carriage pulled by hefters behind him.

They walked to the carriage, the crowd of men, mostly armed, many with all the appearance of great distress, parting for them. Oramen saw the tall, spare frame of General Werreber, who’d briefed them at the palace about the battle just the night before, and the Exaltine Chasque, the chief of priests. Both nodded to him. Werreber looked old and tired and somehow — despite his height — shrunken inside his crumpled uniform. He nodded, then cast his gaze downwards. Chasque, resplendent in rich vestments over gleaming armour, formed the sort of clenched, encouraging half-smile people sometimes did when they wanted to tell you to be brave or strong.

They climbed on to the platform where Oramen’s father lay. The body was attended by a couple of priests in appropriately torn vestments and lit from above by a single hissing, sputtering travel lamp casting a white, caustic light over the bier. His father’s face looked grey and still and drawn-down somehow, as though he was pondering — eyes shut, jaws set — some overwhelmingly demanding problem. A silvery sheet embroidered with gold covered his body from the neck down.

Oramen stood looking at him for a while. In time he said, “In life, by choice, his deeds spoke for him. In death, I must be as mute as all his undone undertakings.” He clapped tyl Loesp on the arm. “I’ll sit with him while we return to the city.” He looked behind the gun carriage. A mersicor, a great charger, dis-armoured though in full regalia, was tied to its rear, saddle empty. “Is that…?” he began, then made a show of clearing his throat. “That’s my father’s mount,” he said.

“It is,” tyl Loesp confirmed.

“And my brother’s?”

“Unfound, sir.”

“Let my mount be tied to the end of the carriage too, behind my father’s.”

He went to sit at his father’s head, then, imagining Fanthile’s face, thought that might be held inappropriate, and repositioned himself at the foot of the bier.

He sat there at the trailing edge of the carriage, cross-legged, looking down, while the two mersicors loped along just behind, breath steaming in the increasingly misty air. The whole aggregated column of men, animals and wagons made the rest of the journey to the city in a silence broken only by the creak of wheel and axle, the snap of whip and the snort and clop of beast. The morning mists obscured the rising star of the new day almost until the walls of Pourl itself, then lifted slowly to become a layer of overcast that hid the higher city and the palace.

On the approaches to the Nearpole Gate, where a conglomeration of small factories and what was effectively a new town had sprung up within Oramen’s lifetime, the temporary sun shone only for a little while, then was gone again behind the clouds.


3. Folly

<p>3. Folly</p>

Choubris Holse found his master in the eighth of the distinct places where he thought he might actually be, which was, of course, a significant and most propitious location to discover somebody or something a person was looking for. It was also the last place he knew of to look with any purpose beyond simply wandering randomly; indeed, with this in mind, he had left it to the afternoon of his second day of searching specifically with the hope that this might finally be where Ferbin had fetched up.

The folly looked like a small castle poised on a low cliff overlooking a turn in the river Feyrla. It was just a hollow round of walls, really, with crenellations, and had been built, pre-ruined, as it were, to improve the view from a hunting lodge a little further down the valley. It had been a place, Choubris Holse knew, where the King’s children had played while their father — on one of his infrequent spells at home from his various Wars of Unity — went hunting.

Choubris tethered his rowel by the single low door to the ruin and left it noisily cropping moss from the wall. The mersicor trailing behind the rowel, brought in case he found his master mountless, nibbled daintily at some flowers. Holse preferred rowels to mersicors — they were less skittish and harder working. He might have taken a flying beast, he supposed, but he trusted those even less. Royal servants above a certain rank were expected to be able to fly, and he had suffered the instruction — and the instructors, who had not spared him their opinion that such honour was wasted upon one so coarse — but had not enjoyed the learning.

A proper searching, like so many things, was best done on foot, from the ground. Hurling oneself grandly across the sky was all very well and certainly gave the impression of lordly oversight and superiority, but what it really did was give you the opportunity to miss all details at once, rather than one at a time, which was the ration for decent folk. Plus, as a rule — a most fixed and strict rule, it had long struck Choubris — it was the people who had to make things work on the ground who ended up paying for such sweepingly overgeneralised judgementing. This principle seemed to apply to high-ups of all distinctions, whether their height was literal or metaphorical.

“Sir?” he called into the hollow round of stones. His voice echoed. The masonry was ill-dressed, worse within than without. The lower tier of piercings — much too wide for any real fortification — gave out on to pleasant views of hill and forest. The Xiliskine Tower rose pale and vast in the distance, disappearing beyond the clouds into the heavens. Plumes of smoke and wisps of steam were scattered across the landscape like missed stalks after a harvest, all leaning away from the backing wind.

He limped further into the folly. His left leg still hurt from where that seed-brained mersicor had fallen on him the day before. He was getting too old for such shenanigans; he was in his middle years now and starting to fill out nicely and become distinguished (or develop a paunch and become grey and grizzled, by his wife’s less forgiving measure). His whole side, every rib, pained him when he took a deep breath, or tried to laugh. Not that there’d been much laughing.

Choubris had seen many signs of battle while he’d been riding round the area: whole wastelands of torn-up fields and shattered forests, the land raddled with a pox of craters; entire woods and brush forests still on fire, smoke walling the sky, other fires only just exhausted or extinguished, leaving vast black tracts of razed ground, seeping wispy fumes; the wrecks of smashed war machines lying crippled like enormous broken insects with tracks unrolled behind them, a few still leaking steam; some great dead battle beasts, spread crumpled and forlorn — uoxantch, chunsels and ossesyi, plus a couple of types he didn’t recognise.

He’d seen bands of wounded troops, walking in lines or borne on carts and wagons, groups of soldiers dashing about importantly on mersicors, a few airborne men on caude, slowly crisscrossing, dipping and wheeling when searching for any still surviving enemy or stray fallen, or making straight and fast if bearing messages. He’d passed engineers rigging or repairing telegraph lines, and thrice he’d pulled off roads and tracks to let hissing, spitting, smoke-belching steam vehicles past. He’d patted and comforted the old rowel, even though she’d seemed unbothered.

He’d come, too, upon numerous details digging charnel pits for the enemy dead, of which there seemed a great many. The Deldeyn, Holse thought, looked much like normal folk. Perhaps a little darker, though that might have been the effect of death itself.

He’d stopped and talked to anybody willing to spare the time, pretty much regardless of rank, partly to enquire about missing nobles on white chargers, mostly because, as he would freely admit, he enjoyed flapping his jaw. He took a little crile root with the captain of one company, shared a pipe of unge with a sergeant from another and was grateful to a quartermaster-lieutenant for a bottle of strong wine. Most of the soldiers were more than happy to talk about their part in the battle, though not all. The mass-burial men, in particular, tended to the taciturn, even surly. He heard a few interesting things, as any fellow open to easy discourse was bound to.

“Prince?” he yelled, louder, voice echoing off the rough stones inside the folly. “Sir? Are you here?” He frowned and shook his head beneath the open crown of the empty tower. “Ferbin?” he shouted.

He ought not to call his master by his name like that, but then it looked like the prince wasn’t here after all, and there was a thrill to be had from such address. Roundly insulting one’s superiors behind their backs was one of the perks of being inferior, Choubris held. Besides, he’d been told often enough that he could use the familiar term, though such licence was only ever offered when Ferbin was very drunk. The offer was never renewed in sobriety so Choubris had thought the better of acting on the privilege.

He wasn’t here. Maybe he wasn’t anywhere, alive. Maybe the gaudy dope had accorded himself war hero status by mistake, riding neck-clutch like a terrified child wherever his idiot mount had taken him, to be shot by one side or other or fall off a cliff. Knowing Ferbin, he’d probably thought to raise his head again just as he went charging under an overhanging bough.

Choubris sighed. That was it, then. There was nowhere obvious left to look. He could wander the great battlefield pretending to search for his lost master, skipping through triage pens, inhabiting field hospitals and haunting morgue piles all he liked, but, unless the WorldGod took a most unlikely personal interest in his quest, he’d never find the blighter. At this rate he’d be forced to return to his wife and children, in the littler though hardly less savage battlefield that was their apartment in the palace barracks.

And now who’d have him? He’d lost a prince (if you wanted to take an uncharitable view of the matter, and he knew plenty that would); what were the chances he’d get to serve any other quality again, with that recorded against him? The King was dead and tyl Loesp was in charge, at least until the boy prince came of age. Choubris had a feeling in his gut that a lot of things — things that had seemed settled and comfortable and pleasantly just-so for honest, respectable, hard-working people — would change from here onwards. And the chances of a proven prince-misplacer bettering himself under any regime were unlikely to be good. He shook his head, sighed to himself. “What a sorry mess,” he muttered. He turned to go.

“Choubris? Is it you?”

He turned back. “Hello?” he said, unable to see where the voice had come from. A sudden feeling inside his belly informed him, somewhat to his surprise, that he must have a degree of genuine human fondness for Prince Ferbin after all. Or perhaps he was just glad not, in fact, to be a prince-loser.

There was movement up on one wall, at the base of one of the impractically wide windows on the second tier; a man, crawling out of a fissure in the rough stonework that was mostly hidden by a rustling tangle of wallcreep. Choubris hadn’t even noticed the hidey-hole. Ferbin completed his emergence, crawled to the edge of the window ledge, rubbed his eyes and looked down at his servant.

“Choubris!” he said, in a sort of loud whisper. He glanced around, as though afraid. “It is you! Thank God!”

“I already have, sir. And you might thank me, for such diligence in the looking.”

“Is there anybody with you?” the prince hissed.

“Only the aforesaid deity, sir, if the more insistent priests are to be believed.”

Ferbin looked most unkempt, and unslept, too. He glanced about the place again. “Nobody else?”

“An old though dependable rowel, sir. And for yourself—”

“Choubris! I am in the most terrible danger!”

Choubris scratched behind one ear. “Ah. With respect, sir, you might not be aware; we did win the battle.”

“I know that, Choubris! I’m not an idiot!”

Choubris frowned, but remained silent.

“You’re absolutely sure there’s nobody else about?”

Choubris looked back to the small door, then up at the sky. “Well, there are lots of people about, sir; half the Greater Army is tidying up or licking its wounds after our famous victory.” It was beginning to dawn on Choubris that he might have the ticklish job of telling the prince that his father was dead. This ought to mean, of course, that Ferbin was effectively king, but Choubris knew people could be funny regarding that whole good news/bad news business. “I am alone, sir,” he told Ferbin. “I don’t know what else to tell you. Perhaps you’d best get down from there.”

“Yes! I can’t stay here for ever.” The drop was easily jumpable, but Ferbin made to turn round and lower himself half way to the earthen floor of the folly. Choubris sighed and stood by the wall to help. “Choubris, have you anything to drink or eat?” Ferbin asked. “I’m parched and famished!”

“Wine, water, bread and saltmeat, sir,” Choubris said, forming a stirrup with his hands, back against the wall. “My saddle bags are like a travelling victualler’s.”

Ferbin lowered one boot to his servant’s hands, narrowly avoiding scarring him with his spur. “Wine? What sort?”

“Fortified, sir. Better so than this place.” Choubris took the prince’s weight in his cupped hands and grunted in pain as he lowered him.

“Are you all right?” Ferbin asked when he was on the ground. He looked frightened, grey with worry or shock or something or other. His clothes were filthy and his long fair hair all tangled and matted. Also, he smelled of smoke. Choubris had never seen him look so distressed. He was crouched, too; Choubris was used to looking up to his prince, but they were of a level now.

“No, sir, I’m not all right. I had a beast fall on me in the confusion yesterday.”

“Of course! Yes, I saw. Quick, let’s crouch down here.” Ferbin pulled Choubris to one side, by a tall bush. “No, wait; fetch me something to eat and drink. If you see anybody, don’t tell them I’m here!”

“Sir,” Choubris said, deciding to humour the fellow for now. Probably all he needed was something in his belly.

* * *

As the traitors and regicides set to burn the old building, having taken themselves and the bodies of the murdered outside, Ferbin had started looking for a way out.

He felt dazed, stunned, half dead himself. His vision seemed to have shrunk, or his eyes would not move properly in their orbits, because he seemed only able to see straight ahead. His ears appeared to think he was near a great waterfall or in a high tower in a storm, for he could hear a terrible roaring noise all about him that he knew was not really there, as if the WorldGod, even the World itself, was shrieking in horror at the foulness of what had been done in that awful ruin.

He’d waited for people loyal to the King to come rushing in when they heard the shots that killed the priest and the young medic, but nobody did. Others had appeared, but they seemed calm and unconcerned and merely helped move the bodies and bring some kindling and lampstone to start the fire. They were all traitors here, he thought; to reveal himself now would be to die like the others.

He’d crept away, sick and weak with the shock of it, barely able to stand. He climbed to the next highest floor by steps set against the building’s rear wall, as they lit the fires below. Smoke came up quickly, initially grey then turning black, filling the already shadowy spaces of the antique factory with still greater darkness and making him choke. At first most of the fumes made for the great hole in the gable wall, but then they thickened around him, stinging in his nose and throat. Had the sound of crackling and roaring below not been so loud, he’d have feared being heard outside as he hacked and coughed. He looked for windows on the side of the building where he’d crawled and climbed, but could see nothing.

He found more steps, leading him still further up, into what must be the building’s loft and felt along the wall with his fingers, coughing now with every breath, until he found what appeared to be a window. He pulled at a shutter, pushed at some already broken glass, and it gave. Smoke surged out around him. He stuck his head forward, gulping in cool clear air.

But he was too high up! Even if there was nobody on this side to see him, he’d never survive the fall uninjured. He looked out, dipping his head beneath the current of smoke and heat exiting around and above him. He expected to see a track or yard, four storeys below. Instead he stung himself on a rain-sticky brattle bush. He felt down and his hand closed on damp earth. In the vague red afterlight of a long-set sun, he saw that he was, incredibly, somehow back to ground level. The building was situated on a river bank so steep that one side was fully four floors high while the other, pressed against the valley’s steep side, was barely one.

He pulled himself out, still coughing, and crawled away across rain-wet, glutinously muddy ground to wait beneath some nearby bushes while the abandoned building burned.

* * *

“All due respect and such, sir, but have you gone mad?”

“Choubris, I swear on the WorldGod, on my dead father’s body, it’s just as I’ve said.”

Choubris Holse had noticed earlier, while his master was swallowing wine from the upended bottle and tearing off lumps of bread with his teeth — it seemed that take away the table and you took away the accompanying manners — that Prince Ferbin was unarmed while he, of course, still had his trusty short-knife on his belt, not to mention an army pistol issued a couple of days ago he seemed to have forgotten to return and which was tucked into his waistband by the small of his back. Not to mention — and he rarely did — a small but exceedingly sharp emergency knife reassuringly scabbarded down one boot. These facts had, he judged, just gone from being of barely passing interest to moderately important, given that it now appeared he was dealing with a bizarrely deluded madman.

Ferbin put the bottle down and let the end of the bread drop to his lap, setting his head back against the wall of the ruin, as though looking up through the foliage of the bush he’d insisted they hide beneath before he’d been prepared to break his fast. “Even you don’t believe me!” he cried, despairing. He put his head in his hands and wept.

Choubris was taken aback. He’d never seen the prince weep like this, not sober (everybody knew that to drink was to increase the hydrographical pressure within a body, thus expressing the relevant fluids from all available bodily orifices, so that didn’t count).

He ought to try to comfort him somehow. Perhaps he’d misunderstood. He’d try to get the matter clear.

“Sir, are you really saying that,” he began, then he too looked round as though afraid of being overheard, “that tyl Loesp, your father’s best friend; the glove to his hand, the very edge of his sword and all that, murdered your father?” He spoke the word in a whisper.

Ferbin looked at him with a face of such desperate fury and despair that Choubris felt himself flinch at the sight of it. “Plunged his filthy fist into my father’s chest and wrung the living force out of his beating heart!” Ferbin said, his voice sounding like it never had; all gasped and rough and wild. He sucked in a terrible, faltering breath, as though each atom of air hesitated in his mouth before being hauled howling to his lungs. “I saw it clear as I see you now, Choubris.” He shook his head, his eyes filling with tears and his lips curling back. “And if trying to think it away, if trying to persuade myself I was in any way mistaken, or drugged, or hallucinating, or dreaming could make it so, then by God I’d jump at that, I’d welcome that with both arms, both legs and a kiss. A million times over I’d rather be safely mad having imagined what I saw than know my only derangement is the grief of having seen what did take place!” That last phrase he roared into his servant’s face, one hand grasping the collar at Choubris’ throat.

Choubris put one hand behind his back, partly to steady himself so that he did not fall over backwards and partly to bring the army pistol within quick reach. Then his master’s face went slack and he seemed to crumple in on himself. He put one hand on each of Choubris’ shoulders and let his head fall to his servant’s chest, wailing, “Oh, Choubris! If you don’t believe me, who will?”

Choubris felt the heat of the other man’s face upon his breast, and a dampness spread across his shirt. He lifted his hand to pat the prince’s head, but that seemed too much like the action one would take with a woman or a child, and he let his hand fall back again. He felt shaken. Even at his most raucously or self-pityingly drunken, the prince had never seemed so moved, so affected, so distressed, by anything; not the death of his elder brother, not losing a beloved mount to a wager, not realising his father thought him a dolt and a wastrel — nothing.

“Sir,” Choubris said, taking the prince by his shoulders and setting him upright again. “This is too much for me to absorb at the single sitting. I too would rather think my own dear master mad than entertain the possibility that what he says is true, for if it’s so then — by God — we are all halfway to madness and the heavens themselves might fall upon us now and cause no increase in disaster or disbelief.” Ferbin was biting both his quivering lips together, like a child trying not to cry. Choubris reached out and patted one of his hands. “Let me tell you what I’ve heard, various but consistent from a mixture of guileless strapping military types, and seen on an army news sheet, too; what is the official and authorised version, as you might say. Perhaps hearing this will make a compromise in your poor head with the fever possessing you.”

Ferbin laughed bitterly, putting his head back again and sobbing even while he seemed to smile. He raised the wine bottle to his lips, then let it fall aside, dropping it to the bare ground. “Pass me the water; I’ll pray some dead cur upstream polluted it, so I may poison myself by mouth as you pour it in at my ear. A job worth doing!”

Choubris cleared his throat to hide his astonishment. This was unprecedented; Ferbin putting aside a bottle unfinished. He was mad with something all right. “Well, sir. They say the King died of his wound — a small-cannon shot to his right side.”

“So much half accurate. The wound was to his right.”

“His death was easy, if solemn, and witnessed, not an hour’s ride from here, in an old manufactury, since burned.”

“By them. They burned it.” Ferbin sniffed at one sleeve. “And nearly me.” He shook his head. “I almost would they had,” he finished, though this collided with:

“His death was witnessed by tyl Loesp, the Exaltine Chasque, the General—”

“What?” Ferbin protested angrily. “Chasque wasn’t there! A lowly road-priest was all he had — and even he tyl Loesp killed! Blew his brains out!”

“And also by the doctors Gillews and Tareah and—”

“Gillews,” Ferbin broke in. “Gillews alone, save for his assistant — another casualty of tyl Loesp’s pistol.”

“Also the General — begging your pardon, now the Field Marshal — Werreber and several of his sta—”

“Lies! Lies upon lies! They weren’t there!”

“It’s said they were, sir. And that the King ordered the killing of all the Deldeyn captured. Though, to admit the difference, others say the troops themselves embarked upon this sorry course on hearing of your father’s death, in a fury of deadly vengeance. I grant this does not seem settled yet.”

“And when it is, it will be to the advantage of tyl Loesp and his filthy accomplices.” Ferbin shook his head. “My father ordered no such crime. This does him no honour. This is made to sap his reputation before he’s even laid to rest. Lies, Choubris. Lies.” He shook his head again. “All lies.”

“The whole army believes it true, sir. As does the palace, I’d guess, and all who can read or hear, in Pourl and in the full throughoutness of the land, as fast as wire or beast or whatever other inferiority of messaging can carry the news.”

“Still,” Ferbin said bitterly, “even if I were alone in knowing what happened, I know it still.”

Choubris scratched behind one ear. “If the whole world thinks differently, sir, is that even wise?”

Ferbin looked at his servant with an unsettling straightness. “And you’d have me do what, Choubris?”

“Eh? Why — well — sir, come back with me to the palace, and be the King!”

“And not be shot as an imposter?”

“An imposter, sir?”

“Enlighten me; what is my status according to this established version of how things are?”

“Well, yes, you’re correct in that you have been ascribed dead, but — surely — on sight of your good self…”

“I’d not be killed on the instant of being seen?”

“Why killed at all?”

“Because I don’t know the all of who is and who is not part of this treachery! Those I saw at the death, yes; guilty beyond guilt. The others? Chasque? Werreber? Did they know? Did they just claim to be present at this fictitious, easy death, to help support whatever circumstance they were presented with by those who’d wrought the crime? Do they suspect nothing? Something? All? Were they part of it from the beginning, every one? Tyl Loesp is culprit, and no one was closer to my father. Who else might not be guilty? Tell me: have you not heard warnings against spies, snipers, saboteurs and guerrillas?”

“Some, sir.”

“Were there any orders of particular strictness you heard of regarding those who suddenly appeared, within the greater battlefield, resembling authority?”

“Well, just latterly, yes, sir, but—”

“Which means that I’ll be held, then shot. In the back, I don’t doubt, so they can say I was trying to escape. Or d’you think such things never happen, in army or militia?”

“They—”

“And if I did get as far as the palace, the same applies. How long might I survive? Long enough to tell the truth in front of a quorate sufficient to carry the day? I think not. Long enough to challenge tyl Loesp, or confront the wretch? Beyond doubt? Beyond the grave, I’d say.” He shook his head. “No, I have thought long about this over the last day, and can see quite clearly the merits of the contending courses, but also I know my instincts, and they have proved unfailingly trustworthy in the past.” This was true; Ferbin’s instincts had always told him to flee trouble or potential conflict — rowdies, creditors, angry fathers of shamed daughters — and, whether escaping to the shelter of an obscure bawdy house, a congenially distant hunting lodge or indeed the palace itself, this intuition had invariably proved itself sound.

“Either way, sir, you can’t hide here for ever.”

“I know that. And I am besides not the one to enter into any such contention with the tyl Loesps of this world. I know they have the guile on me, and the easy turn to brute.”

“Well, God knows, I’m not such a one either, sir.”

“I must escape, Choubris.”

“Escape, sir?”

“Oh, indeed; escape. Escape far, far away, and seek sanctuary with or find a champion in one of two people I never imagined I’d have to trouble for so demeaning a favour. I suppose I ought to be thankful I have any sort of choice, or just two chances.”

“And they would be, sir?”

“First we must get ourselves to a Tower fitted out for travel — I have an idea for obtaining the necessary documents,” Ferbin said, almost as though talking to himself. “Then we shall have ourselves transported to the Surface and take ship away across the stars, to Xide Hyrlis, who generals for the Nariscene now and who may take up our cause for the love of my dead father, and if he is unable to do so, then at least he might signpost the route… To Djan,” Ferbin told Holse with what sounded like sudden weariness. “Anaplia’s daughter. Who was raised to be fit to marry a prince and then found herself dowried to the mongrel alien empire that calls itself the Culture.”


4. In Transit

<p>4. In Transit</p>

Utaltifuhl, the Grand Zamerin of Sursamen-Nariscene, in charge of all Nariscene interests on the planet and its accompanying solar system and therefore — by the terms of the mandate the Nariscene held under the auspices of the Galactic General Council — as close as one might get to overall ruler of both, was just beginning the long journey to the 3044th Great Spawning of the Everlasting Queen on the far-distant home planet of his kind when he met the director general of the Morthanveld Strategic Mission to the Tertiary Hulian Spine — paying a courtesy call to the modest but of course influential Morthanveld embassy on Sursamen — in the Third Equatorial Transit Facility high above Sursamen’s dark, green-blue pocked Surface.

The Nariscene were insectile; the Zamerin was six-limbed and keratin-covered. His dark, quintuply segmented body, a little under a metre and a half long (excluding stalks, mandibles retracted), was studded with implanted jewels, inlaid veins of precious metals, additional sensory apparatus, numerous tiny holo-projectors displaying the many medals, honours, distinctions and decorations that had come his way over the years and a smattering of light weaponry, mostly ceremonial.

The Grand Zamerin was accompanied by a bevy of his kind, all rather less impressively dressed and slightly smaller than he. They were, additionally, if that was the right word, neuters. They tended to move through the cavernous, web-filled spaces of the transit facility in an arrowhead formation, with the Grand Zamerin forming its tip.

The Morthanveld were spiniform waterworlders. The director general was a milky-looking sphere a metre or so in diameter surrounded by hundreds of spiny protrusions of varying thicknesses and in a broad spectrum of pastel colours. Her spines were mostly either curled up or gathered back at the moment, giving her a compact, streamlined appearance. She carried her environment around with her in a glistening wrap of silvery blue, membranes and fields containing her own little sample of oceanic fluids. She wore a few small spine torques, bracelets and rings. She was accompanied by a trio of more stoutly built assistants toting so much equipment they looked armoured.

The transit facility was a micro-gravity environment and lightly pressured with a gently warmed gaseous nitrogen-oxygen mix; the web of life-support strands that infested it were coded by colour, scent, texture and various other markers to make them obvious to those who might need to use them. One identified the right strand in the web and hooked into it to receive that which one needed to survive; oxygen, chlorine, salty water or whatever. The system couldn’t accommodate every known life form without requiring them to protect themselves in a suit or mask, but it represented the best compromise its Nariscene builders had been prepared to come up with.

“DG Shoum! My good friend! I am glad it was possible for our paths to cross!” The Grand Zamerin’s language consisted of mandible clicks and, occasionally, directed pheromones; the director general understood Nariscene reasonably well without artificial aids, but still relied on a neurologically hard-wired translator ring to be sure of what was being said. The Grand Zamerin, on the other hand, like most Nariscene, eschewed alien languages as a matter of both principle and convenience, and so would depend entirely on his own translation units to understand the director general’s reply.

“Grand Zamerin, always a pleasure.”

Formal squirts of scent and packeted water molecules were exchanged; members of their respective entourages carefully gathered the greeting messages, as much out of politeness as for archival purposes. “Utli,” Director General Shoum said, reverting to the familiar and floating up to the Nariscene. She extended a maniple spine.

The Grand Zamerin clicked his mandibles in delight and took the offered limb in his foreleg. He twisted his head and told his assistants, “Amuse yourselves, children.” He sprayed a little cloud of his scent towards them, mixed to indicate reassurance and affection. A flush of colour across Shoum’s spines gave a similar instruction to her escorts. She set her communications torque to privacy, though with a medium-level interrupt.

The two officials floated slowly away through the web of environmental support strands, heading for a massive circular window which looked out to the planet’s Surface.

“I find you well?” Shoum asked.

“Extraordinarily!” the Grand Zamerin replied. “We are filled with delight to be called to attend the Great Spawning of our dear Everlasting Queen.”

“How wonderful. Do you contend for mating rights?”

“Us? Me? Contend for mating rights?” The Grand Zamerin’s mandibles clicked so fast they nearly hummed, signalling hilarity. “Gracious! No! The preferred specification…” (glitch/sorry! signalled the translator, then hurried to catch up), “the preferred genotype-spread called for by the Imperial Procreational College was far outside our bias. I don’t believe our family even submitted a tender. And anyway, on this occasion there was generous lead-time; if we had been in the running we’d have bred some braw and brawny hunk especially for our dear Queen. No, no; the honour is in the witnessing.”

“And the lucky father dies, I understand.”

“Of course! Now that is a distinction.” They were drifting closer to a great porthole on the underside of the facility, showing Sursamen in all its dark glory. The Grand Zamerin bristled his antennae as though lost in wonder at the view, which he wasn’t. “We had such prominence once,” he said, and the translator, if not Shoum’s own processes, picked up a note of sadness in amongst the pride. Utli waved at one of his little holo-baubles. “This, you see? Indicates that our family contributed a species-Father sometime in the last thirty-six birth-generations. However, that was thirty-six birth-generations ago and, sadly, short of a miracle, I shall lose this decoration in less than a standard year from now, when the next generation is hatched.”

“You might still hope.”

“Hope is all. The tenor of the times drifts from my family’s mode of being. We are downwinded. Other scents outsmell ours.” The translator signalled an imperfect image.

“And you are compelled to attend?”

Utli’s head made a shrugging gesture. “Technically. We fail to accept the invitation on pain of death, but that is for form’s sake, really.” He paused. “Not that it is never carried out; it is. But on such occasions it is generally used as an excuse. Court politics; quite hideous.” The Grand Zamerin laughed.

“You will be gone long?” Shoum asked as they arrived at the great window. They were still politely holding limbs.

“Standard year or so. Better hang around the court for a while, lest they forget who we are. Let the family scent sink in, you know? Also, taking some consecutive leave to visit the old family warrens. Some boundaries needing redrawn; maybe an upstart toiler or two to fight and eat.”

“It sounds eventful.”

“Horribly boring! Only the Spawning thing dragging us back.”

“I suppose it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

End-of-a-lifetime experience for the father! Ha ha!”

“Well, you will be missed, I’m sure.”

“So am I. Some dully competent relations of mine will be in charge during our absence; the clan Girgetioni. I say dully competent; that may flatter them. My family has always been firmly of the opinion that if it is absolutely necessary to take leave of one’s responsibilities for a while, always be sure to leave surrogates in charge who will ensure your welcome on return will be both genuine and enthusiastic. Ha ha.” Utli’s eye stalks waggled as though in a strong wind, indicating humour. “But this is to jest. The Girgetioni clan are a credit to the Nariscene species. I have personally placed my least incompetent nephew in the position of acting Zamerin. I have the highest possible confidence in him and them.”

“And how are things?” Shoum asked. “Within Sursamen, I mean.”

“Quiet.”

“Just ‘quiet’?” Shoum asked, amused.

“Generally. Not a peep, not a molecule from the God-beast in the basement, for centuries.”

“Always reassuring.”

“Always reassuring,” Utli agreed. “Oh, the awful saga of the Third Level, Future Use Committee proceedings rumbles on like cosmic background, though at least that might be swept away in some future cataclysm or Big Concluding Event, whereas said committee might plausibly go on far, far beyond that and redefine the meaning of the term In Perpetuity for any entities having the ghastly misfortune still to be around at the time.” The Grand Zamerin’s body shape and scents signalled exasperation. “The Baskers still wish it to be theirs, the Cumuloforms still claim it as already long promised to them. Each side has come heartily to despise the other, though not, we’d life-stake, a sixth as much as we have come to despise both of them.

“The L12 Swimmers, perhaps inspired by the japes the Cumuloforms and Baskers are having with their dispute, have waved a scent-trace to the wide winds regarding the vague possibility of one day, perhaps, if we wouldn’t mind, if nobody else would object, taking over Fourteen.

“The Vesiculars of…” Utli paused as he checked elsewhere, “Eleven announced some time ago that they wished to migrate, en masse, to Jiluence, which is somewhere in the Kuertile Pinch and, they allege, an ancestral homeworld of theirs. That was some gross of days ago, though, and we’ve heard nothing since. A passing fancy, probably. Or art. They confuse such terms. They confuse us, too. It may be deliberate. Possibly too long an association with the Oct, who are most adept at lateral thinking but seemingly incapable of anything but lateral expression, too; were there a prize for least-translatable galactic species, the Oct would win every cycle, though of course their acceptance speeches would be pure gibberish. What else?” Utli’s demeanour indicated resignation and amusement, then went back to exasperation again, mixed with annoyance.

“Oh yes, talking of the Oct, who call themselves the Inheritors; they have managed to antagonise the Aultridia — of ill repute, et cetera — through some inebriate machination or other. We listened to their petitions before leaving, but it all sounds lamentably trivial. Tribal wars amongst the natives of some cuspid wastelevels. The Oct may well have been interfering; it has been my curse to command the one world where the local Oct seem unable to leave well, ill or indeed indifferent alone. However, as they don’t appear actually to have transferred any technology to the protégé barbarians concerned, we are without immediate excuse to step in. Ineffably tiresome. They — meaning the Oct and the ghastly squirmiforms — wouldn’t listen to our initial attempts to mediate and frankly we were too taken up with our leaving preparations to have the patience to persist. Storm in an egg sac. If you’d like to take a sniff at the problem, do feel free. They might listen to you. Emphasis ‘might’, though. Be prepared fully to deploy your masochistic tendencies.”

The director general allowed a flush of amusement to spread across her body. “So, then; you will miss Sursamen?”

“Like a lost limb,” the Grand Zamerin agreed. He pointed his eye stalks at the porthole. They both looked down at the planet for some moments, then he said, “And you? You and your family, group, whatever — are they well?”

“All well.”

“And are you staying long here?”

“As long as I can without unduly upsetting our embassy here,” the director general replied. “I keep telling them I just enjoy visiting Sursamen but I believe they think I have an ulterior motive, and their preferred candidate is a determination on my part to find something wrong in their conduct.” She indicated amusement, then formality. “This is a courtesy call, no more, Utli. However, I shall certainly seek whatever excuses I can to stay longer than the polite minimum, simply to enjoy being in this wonderful place.”

“It has its own sort of blotchy, deeply buried beauty, we might be persuaded to concede,” Utli said grudgingly, with a small cloud of scent that indicated guarded affection.

Director General Morthanveld Shoum, free-child of Meast, nest of Zuevelous, domain of T’leish, of Gavantille Prime, Pliyr, looked out over the mighty, mostly dark, still slightly mysterious world filling the view beneath the transit facility.

Sursamen was a Shellworld.

Shellworld. It was a name that even now brought a thrill to the very core of her being.

“Sursamen — an Arithmetic Shellworld orbiting the star Meseriphine in the Tertiary Hulian Spine.” She could still see the glyphs rippling across the surface of her school teaching mat.

She had worked hard to be here, dedicated her life — through study, application, diligence and no small amount of applied psychology — to one day making Sursamen an important part of her existence. In a sense, any Shellworld would have done, but this was the place that had initiated her enchantment, and so for her it had a significance beyond itself. Ironically, the very force of that drive somehow to make herself part of Sursamen’s fate had caused her to overshoot her mark; her ambition had carried her too far, so that now she had oversight of Morthanveld interests within the whole long river-system of stars called the Tertiary Hulian Spine, rather than just the Meseriphine system containing the enigmatic wonder that was Sursamen, with the result that she spent less time here than she would have considered ideal.

The dim green glow of the Gazan-g’ya Crater lit up her body and that of the Grand Zamerin, the gentle light slowly increasing as Sursamen turned and presented more of the vast pockmark of the crater to the rays of the star Meseriphine.

Sursamen collected adjectives the way ordinary planets collected moons. It was Arithmetic, it was Mottled, it was Disputed, it was Multiply Inhabited, it was Multi-million-year Safe, and it was Godded.

Shellworlds themselves had accreted alternative names over the aeons: Shield Worlds, Hollow Worlds, Machine Worlds, Veil Worlds. Slaughter Worlds.

The Shellworlds had been built by a species called the Involucra, or Veil, the best part of a billion years earlier. All were in orbits around stable main-series suns, at varying distances from their star according to the disposition of the system’s naturally formed planets, though usually lying between two and five hundred million kilometres out. Long disused and fallen into disrepair, they had, with their stars, drifted out of their long-ago allotted positions. There had been about four thousand Shellworlds originally; 4096 was the commonly assumed exact number as it was a power of two and therefore — by general though not universal assent — as round a figure as figures ever got. No one really knew for sure, though. You couldn’t ask the builders, the Involucra, as they had disappeared less than a million years after they’d completed the last of the Shellworlds.

The colossal artificial planets had been spaced regularly about the outskirts of the galaxy, forming a dotted net round the great whirlpool of stars. Almost a billion years of gravitational swirling had scattered them seemingly randomly across and through the skies ever since: some had been ejected from the galaxy altogether while others had swung into the centre, some to stay there, some to be flung back out again and some to be swallowed by black holes, but using a decent dynamic star chart, you could feed in the current positions of those which were still extant, backtrack eight hundred million years and see where they had all started out.

That four-thousand-plus figure had been reduced to a little over twelve hundred now, mostly because a species called the Iln had spent several million years destroying the Shellworlds wherever they could find them and nobody had been willing or able to prevent them. Exactly why, nobody was entirely sure and, again, the Iln were not around to ask; they too had vanished from the galactic stage, their only lasting monument a set of vast, slowly expanding debris clouds scattered throughout the galaxy and — where their devastation had been less than complete — Shellworlds that had been shattered and collapsed into barbed and fractured wrecks, shrunken compressed husks of what they had once been.

The Shellworlds were mostly hollow. Each had a solid metallic core fourteen hundred kilometres in diameter. Beyond that, a concentric succession of spherical shells, supported by over a million massive, gently tapering towers never less than fourteen hundred metres in diameter, layered out to the final Surface. Even the material they were made from had remained an enigma — to many of the galaxy’s Involved civilisations at least — for over half a billion years, before its properties were fully worked out. From the start, though, it had been obvious that it was immensely strong and completely opaque to all radiation.

In an Arithmetic Shellworld, the levels were regularly spaced at fourteen-hundred-kilometre intervals. Exponential or Incremental Shellworlds had more levels close to the core and fewer further out as the distance between each successive shell increased according to one of a handful of logarithm-based ratios. Arithmetic Shellworlds invariably held fifteen interior surfaces and were forty-five thousand kilometres in external diameter. Incremental Shellworlds, forming about twelve per cent of the surviving population, varied. The largest class was nearly eighty thousand kilometres across.

They had been machines. In fact, they had all been part of the same vast mechanism. Their hollowness had been filled, or perhaps had been going to be filled (again, nobody could be certain this had actually been done), with some sort of exotic superfluid, turning each of them into a colossal field projector, with the aim, when they were all working in concert, of throwing a force field or shield round the entire galaxy.

Precisely why this had been thought necessary or even desirable was also unknown, though speculation on the matter had preoccupied scholars and experts over the aeons.

With their original builders gone, the people who had attacked the worlds seemingly also permanently missing and the fabled superfluid equally absent, leaving those vast internal spaces linked by the supporting Towers — themselves mostly hollow, though containing twisted webs of structurally reinforcing material, and punctured with portals of various sizes giving access to each of the levels — it had taken almost no time at all for a variety of enterprising species to work out that a derelict Shellworld would make a vast, ready-made and near-invulnerable habitat, after just a few relatively minor modifications.

Gases, fluids — especially water — and solids could be pumped or carried in to fill all or some of the spaces between the levels, and artificial interior ‘stars’ might be fashioned to hang from the ceilings of each level like gigantic lamps. The various venturesome species set about exploring the Shellworlds closest to them, and almost immediately encountered the problem that would bedevil, frustrate and delay the development of the worlds profoundly for the next few million years and, intermittently, beyond; the Shellworlds could be deadly.

It remained unclear to this day whether the defence mechanisms that kept killing the explorers and destroying their ships had been left behind by the worlds’ original builders or those who appeared to have dedicated their entire existence to the task of destroying the great artefacts, but whether it had been the Veil or the Iln — or, as it was now generally agreed, both — who had left this lethal legacy behind, the principal factor limiting the use of the Shellworlds as living spaces was simply the difficulty of making them safe.

Many people died developing the techniques by which a Shellworld might be so secured, and the same lessons generally had to be learned afresh by each competing civilisation, because the power and influence which accrued to a grouping capable of successful Shellworld exploitation meant that such techniques remained fiercely guarded secrets. It had taken an Altruist civilisation — exasperated and appalled at such a selfish waste of life — to come along, develop some of the techniques, steal others and then broadcast the whole to everybody else.

They had, of course, been roundly vilified for such unsporting behaviour. Nevertheless, their actions and stance had, in time, been ratified and even rewarded by various galactic bodies, and the Culture, although far remote in time from these now long-Sublimed people, had always claimed a sort of kinship by example with them.

The civilisations which specialised in making Shellworlds safe and who effectively took part-ownership of their interiors became known as Conducers. Sursamen was unusual in that two species — the Oct (who claimed direct descent from the long-departed Involucra and so also called themselves the Inheritors) and the Aultridia (a species with what might be termed a poorly perceived provenance) — had arrived at the same time and begun their work. It had also been unusual in that neither species ever got a decisive upper hand in the ensuing conflict which, in the only positive aspect of the dispute, at least remained localised to Sursamen. In time the situation within the world had been formalised when the two species were awarded joint protective custody of Sursamen’s access Towers by the then newly formed Galactic General Council, though, importantly, without any stipulation that the two could not contend for increased influence in the future.

The Nariscene were granted full inhabitory rights to the planet’s Surface and overall control of the world, formalising their long-held claim to it, though even they had to defer ultimately to the Morthanveld, in whose volume of influence the system and the world lay.

So Sursamen had been colonised, making it Inhabited, and by a variety of species, hence the Multiply- prefix. The holes in the supporting Towers that might have let gases or liquids vent to lower levels were sealed; some effectively permanently, others with lock complexes that permitted safe entry and exit, while transport mechanisms were installed inside the great hollow Towers to allow movement between the various levels and to and from the Surface. Material in gaseous, liquid and solid form had been moved in over the many millions of years of the planet’s occupation, and beings, peoples, species, species groups and whole ecosystems had been imported by the Oct and the Aultridia, usually for a consideration of some sort or another, sometimes at the behest of the peoples concerned, more often at the request of others.

Interior stars had been emplaced; these were thermonuclear power sources like tiny suns, but with the useful distinction of being anti-gravitative, so that they pressed upwards against the ceiling above any given level. They subdivided into Fixstars and Rollstars, the former stationary, the latter moving across the skies on predetermined routes and on regular, if sometimes — when there were many, of different periodicities — complicated schedules.

The deaths continued, too; long after a given Shellworld had been apparently de-weaponed and made safe, hidden defence systems could wake up centuries, millennia and decieons later, resulting in gigadeaths, teradeaths, effective civicides and near-extinctions as interior stars fell, levels were flooded from above or drained — often with the result that oceans met interior stars, resulting in clouds of plasma and superheated steam — atmospheres were infested by unknown wide-species-spectra pathogens or were turned inexorably into poisonous environments by unseen mechanisms nobody could stop, or intense bursts of gamma radiation emanating from the floor/ceiling structure itself flooded either individual levels or the whole world.

These were the events that gave them the name Slaughter Worlds. At the point that Director General Shoum gazed down upon the dark, colour-spotted face of Sursamen, no mass deaths had been caused by the Shellworlds themselves for nearly four million years, so the term Slaughter World had long since slipped into disuse, save amongst those cultures with exceptionally long memories.

Nevertheless, on a grand enough scale the morbidity of any habitat type could be roughly judged by the proportion that had become Dra’Azon Planets of the Dead over time. Planets of the Dead were preserved, forbidden monuments to globe-encompassing carnage and destruction which were overseen — and usually kept in a pristine, just post-catastrophe state — by the Dra’Azon, one of the galactic community’s more reclusive semi-Sublimed Elder civilisations with attributes and powers sufficiently close to god-like for the distinction to be irrelevant. Out of the four-thousand-plus Shellworlds originally existing and the 1332 unequivocally remaining — 110 in a collapsed state — fully eighty-six were Planets of the Dead. This was generally agreed to be an alarmingly high proportion, all things considered.

Even some of the Shellworlds lacking the morbid interest of the Dra’Azon had a kind of semi-divine investment. There was a species called the Xinthian Tensile Aeronathaurs, an Airworld people of enormous antiquity and — according to fable — once of enormous power. They were the second or third largest airborne species in the galaxy and, for reasons known solely to themselves, sometimes one of them would take up solitary residence in the machine core of a Shellworld. Though once widespread and common, the Xinthia had become a rare species and were regarded as Developmentally Inherently, Pervasively and Permanently Senile — in the unforgiving language of Galactic taxonomy — by those who bothered to concern themselves with such anachronisms at all.

For as long as anybody could remember, almost all the Xinthia had been gathered together in one place; a necklace of Airworlds ringing the star Chone in the Lesser Yattlian Spray. Only a dozen or so were known to exist anywhere else, and seemingly they were all at the cores of individual Shellworlds. These Xinthians were presumed to have been exiled for some transgression, or to be solitude-craving hermits. Presumption was all anybody had to go on here too, as even though the Xinthia, unlike the long-departed Veil or Iln, were still around to ask, they were, even by the standards of the galaxy’s Taciturn cultures, quite determinedly uncommunicative.

Hence the Godded part of Sursamen’s full description; there was a Xinthian Tensile Aeronathaur at its core, called by some of the world’s inhabitants the WorldGod.

Invariably inside the great worlds and sometimes on their exteriors, the shells were adorned with massive vanes, whorls, ridges, bulges and bowls of the same material that made up both the levels themselves and the supporting Towers. Where such structures appeared on the Surface of a Shellworld, the bowl-shaped features had usually been filled with mixtures of atmospheres, oceans and/or terrain suitable for one or more of the many Involved species; the shallower examples of these — somewhat perversely called Craters — were roofed, the deeper usually not.

Sursamen was one such example of a Mottled Shellworld. Most of its Surface was smooth, dark grey and dusty — all the result of being lightly covered with nearly an aeon’s worth of impact debris after systemic and galactic bodies of various compositions, sizes and relative velocities had impacted with that unforgiving, adamantine skin. About fifteen per cent of its external shell was pocked with the covered and open bowls people called Craters and it was the greeny-blue reflected light of one of those, the Gazan-g’ya Crater, that shone through the porthole in the transit facility and gently lit up the bodies of the Grand Zamerin and the director general.

“You are always glad to arrive, to see Sursamen, or any Shellworld, are you not?” Utli asked Shoum.

“Of course,” she said, turning to him a little.

“Whereas, personally,” the Grand Zamerin said, swivelling away from the view, “it’s only duty keeps me here; I’m always relieved to see the back of the place.” There was a tiny warble and one of his eye stalks flicked briefly over to look at what appeared to be a jewel embedded in his thorax. “Which we’re informed occurs very shortly; our ship is ready.”

Shoum’s comms torque woke to tell her the same thing, then went back to its privacy setting.

“Relieved? Really?” the director general asked as they floated back through the web towards their respective entourages and the docking chutes that gave access to the ships.

“We shall never understand why you are not, Shoum. These are still dangerous places.”

“It’s been a very long time since any Shellworld turned on its inhabitants, Utli.”

“Ah, but still; the intervals, dear DG.”

The Grand Zamerin was referring to the distribution of Shellworld-induced mass die-offs through time. Plotted out, they implied only a slow dying away of such titanic murderousness, not yet a final end. The graphed shape of attacks approached zero, but did so along a curve that implied there might be one or two more yet to come, probably some time in the next few thousand years. If, of course, that was really the way these things worked. The implied threat of future cataclysms might be the result of coincidence, nothing more.

“Well then,” Shoum said, “to be blunt, we would have to hope it does not happen during our tenure, or if does, it does not happen in Sursamen.”

“It’s just a matter of time,” the Grand Zamerin told her gloomily. “These things turn killer, or disappear. And nobody knows why.”

“Yet, Utli,” the director general said, signalling mischievousness, “do you not find it in any sense romantic somehow — even in a sense reassuring — that there are still such mysteries and imponderables in our polished, cultivated times?”

“No,” the Grand Zamerin said emphatically, expelling an emission named Doubting the sanity of one’s companion, with barely a trace of humour.

“Not even in the abstract?”

“Not even in the abstract.”

“Oh, well. Still, I wouldn’t worry, if I were you,” Shoum told Utaltifuhl as they approached their attendants. “I suspect Sursamen will still be here when you get back.”

“You think its disappearance is unlikely?” Utli said, now expressing mock seriousness.

“Vanishingly,” Shoum said, but the joke didn’t translate.

“Indeed. And of course. However, it has struck us that so wonderful and enjoyable is the life we lead that a disaster of equal but opposite proportions must always be a threat. The higher you build your Tower, the more tempting a target for fate it becomes.”

“Well, at least you are vacating your Tower for the next year. I trust the trip home is rewarding and I shall look forward with pleasure to seeing you again, Grand Zamerin.”

“And I you, Director General,” Utaltifuhl told her, and performed the most respectful and delicate of formal mandible-nips on her outstretched maniple spine. Shoum blushed appropriately.

They had reached their respective entourages and a giant window that looked out the other side of the transit facility, to a small fleet of docked ships. Utaltifuhl looked out at the star craft and emoted dubiety. “Hmm,” he said. “And interstellar travel is also not without its risks.”


5. Platform

<p>5. Platform</p>

Djan Seriy Anaplian, who had been born a princess of the house of Hausk, a dynasty from a wide-spectrum pan-human species lately from a median level of the Shellworld Sursamen and whose middle name basically meant fit-to-be-married-to-a-prince, stood alone on a tall cliff looking out over a rust desert deep within the continent of Lalance on the planet Prasadal. A strong wind lashed at her long coat and tore at her clothes. She still wore her dark, wide-brimmed hat and its stiff material was caught and tugged at by the gusting wind as though it was trying to tear it off her head. The hat, secured by well-tied ribbons, was unlikely to come off, but it meant that the wind made her head shake and nod and jerk as though with palsy. The wind carried dust and sand in small dry flurries that came beating up from the desert floor beneath and curling over the serrated edge of the cliff, stinging her cheeks where they were exposed between the scarf that covered her mouth and nose and the goggles that protected her eyes.

She put one gloved hand to the goggles, pulling them away from her face a fraction to let a little moisture out from the base of the frames. The sparse liquid ran down her cheeks, leaving streaks, but soon dried in the dusty force of air. She took a deep breath through the protecting scarf as the clouds of dust parted like a dry mist, allowing her an uninterrupted view of the distant city and the forces that had been besieging it.

The city was burning. Siege engines taller than its own towers buttressed its walls like gigantic calipers. The desert around it, until recently dark with the besieging army, was clearing as they poured into the stricken city, exposing sand the colour of drying blood. Smoke tried to rise from the wreckage of the shattered buildings in great curling bundles of darkness but was struck down by the force of the gale, flattened and whirled away from the various conflagrations, dipping down and back towards the desert to come rearing up again as it met the cliff so that it went billowing over Anaplian’s head in a ragged, fast-moving overcast.

The wind increased in strength. Out over the plain, a wall of dust was forming between her and the city as half the desert seemed to lift into the air, gradually dimming and wiping away the view, silhouetting a series of rocky outcrops for a few moments until they too were swept under the hem of the advancing dust storm. She turned and walked a little way back to where a contraption like a cross between a skeleton and a sculpture sat poised on all fours on the exposed rock. She gathered the coat about her and stepped backwards on to the feet of the strange machine. The seatrider came alive instantly, swinging up fluidly and fitting itself about her, clasps closing round ankles, thighs, waist, neck and upper arms, nestling its thin form around her like a lover. She took the offered control grip as it swung out to her hand and pulled it upwards, sending the machine and her flying into the sky, then pushed forward so that she went racing through the storm of dust and smoke to the beleaguered city.

She rose through the haze into clearer air as she built up speed, leaving the fields down at first and letting the slipstream buffet her, the wind making her coat tails snap like whips and forcing the hat’s brim to fold itself away, then she clicked the streamline field on and rode in a delta-shaped bubble of quiet air towards the city.

She dropped and slowed as she crossed over the walls and turned the streamline field off again. She flew between wind-twisted columns of smoke, watching the besieging forces as they swept into the spaces of the city, saw defenders falling back and inhabitants fleeing, observed arrows fly and a last few rocks and fire barrels land in the city’s upper reaches. She smelled the smoke and heard the clash of blades and the crack and rattle of burning and the rumble of falling masonry and the ululating battle cries and war trumpets of the victorious invaders and the wails and screams of the defeated. She saw a few tiny figures pointing at her, and a couple of arrows arced towards her then fell away again. She was knocked to one side and almost thought herself hit with the violence of the action as the seatrider dodged a fire barrel; it went past with a great roar and a stench of burning oil, looping downwards to crash into the roof of a temple in the upper city, splashing flame.

She turned the full panoply of fields back on, hiding her and the machine and enclosing herself in the still bubble of protected air again. She had been heading for the centre of the city, for what she assumed would be the citadel and the palace, but then changed her mind and flew around one side of the city, level with its middle reaches, watching the general influx of invaders and the chaotic retreat of defenders and civilians while also trying to observe the slighter struggles of small groups and individuals.

Eventually she alighted on the flat, low-walled roof of a modest building where a rape was in progress and a small child cowered in a corner. The four soldiers waiting their turn gazed at her with annoyance when she appeared seemingly from thin air, stepping off the seatrider. Their frowns were beginning to turn into appreciative if unpleasant smiles when she drew a sleek chunk of a gun from a shoulder holster and, smiling thinly back, set about punching head-sized holes in each of their torsos. The first three men went flying backwards off the roof to the street below in frothy detonations of blood and tissue. The fourth man had time to react and — as he ducked and started to dive away — a tiny part of Anaplian’s combat wiring kicked in, flicking the gun more quickly than her conscious mind could have ordered the action and simultaneously communicating with the weapon itself to adjust its emission pattern and beam-spread. The fourth soldier erupted across the roof in a long slithering torrent of guts. A sort of bubbling gasp escaped his lips as he died.

The man raping the woman was looking up at Anaplian, mouth open. She walked round a few paces to get a clear shot at him without endangering the woman, then blew his head off. She glanced at the child, who was staring at the dead soldier and the form lying underneath the spasming, blood-spouting body. She made what she hoped was a calming motion with her hand. “Just wait,” she said in what ought to be the child’s own language. She kicked the soldier’s body off the woman, but she was already dead. They’d stuffed a rag into her mouth, perhaps to stop her screams, and she had choked on it.

Djan Seriy Anaplian let her head down for a moment, and cursed quickly in a selection of languages, at least one of which had its home many thousands of light years away, then turned back to the child. It was a boy. His eyes were wide and his dirty face was streaked with tears. He was naked except for a cloth and she wondered if he had been due to be next, or just marked to be thrown from the roof. Maybe they’d have left him. Maybe they hadn’t meant to kill the woman.

She felt she ought to be shaking. Doubtless without the combat wiring she would be. She glanded quickcalm to take the edge off the internal shock.

She put the gun away — though even now the boy probably didn’t understand it was a weapon — and walked over to him, crouching down and hunkering as she got up close to him. She tried to look friendly and encouraging, but did not know what to say. The sound of running footsteps rang from the open stairwell on the opposite corner of the roof.

She lifted the boy by both armpits. He didn’t struggle, though he tried to keep his legs up and his arms round his knees, retaining the ball shape she’d first seen him in. He was very light and smelled of sweat and urine. She turned him round and held him to her chest as she stepped into the seatrider. It closed around her again, offering the control grip as its sliding, clicking components fastened her and it together.

A soldier wielding a crossbow arrived clattering at the top of the steps. She took the gun out and pointed it at him as he took aim at her, but then shook her head, breathed, “Oh, just fuck off,” flicked the controls and zoomed into the air, still holding the child. The bolt made a thunking noise as it skittered off the machine’s lower field enclosure.

* * *

“And what exactly do you intend to do with it?” the drone Turminder Xuss asked. They were on a tall stump of rock at least as far downwind from Anaplian’s earlier clifftop vantage point as that had been from the city. The child — he was called Toark — had been told not to go near the edge of the great rock column, but was anyway being watched by a scout missile. Turminder Xuss had, in addition, given the boy its oldest and least capable knife missile to play with because the weapon was articulated; its stubby sections snicked and turned in the child’s hands. He was making delighted, cooing noises. So far, the knife missile had suffered this treatment without complaint.

“I have no idea,” Anaplian admitted.

“Release him into the wild?” the drone suggested. “Send him back to the city?”

“No,” Anaplian said, sighing. “He keeps asking when Mummy’s going to wake up,” she added, voice barely above a whisper.

“You have introduced a Special Circumstances apprenticeship scheme on your own initiative,” the drone suggested.

Anaplian ignored this. “We’ll look for somewhere safe to leave him, find a family that can raise him,” she told the machine. She was sitting on her haunches, her coat spread around her.

“You should have left him where he was,” the drone said above the still strong wind, lowering the tone of its voice and slowing its delivery as it tried to sound reasonable rather than sarcastic.

“I know. That didn’t feel like an option at the time.”

“Your seatrider tells me you — how shall I put this? — appeared to the attackers and defenders of the city like some demented if largely ineffectual angel before you swooped in and carried little Toark away.”

Anaplian glared at the seatrider, not that the obedient but utterly unintelligent machine would have had any choice but to surrender its memories to the drone when it had been asked.

“What are you doing here, anyway?” she asked Xuss.

She’d asked to be left alone for the day to watch the fall of the city. It had been her fault, after all; it had come about due to actions she had taken and indeed helped plan, and though it was by no means what had been desired, its sacking represented a risk that she, amongst others, had judged worth taking. It was demonstrably not the worst that might have happened, but it was still an abomination, an atrocity, and she had had a hand in it. That had been enough for her to feel that she could not just ignore it, that she needed to bear witness to such horror. The next time — if there was a next time, if she wasn’t thrown out for her irrational, overly sentimental actions — she would weigh the potential for massacre a deal more heavily.

“We have been summoned,” the machine said. “We need to get to the Quonber; Jerle Batra awaits.” Its fields flashed a frosty blue. “I brought the module.”

Anaplian looked confused. “That was quick.”

“Not to slap your wrist for disturbing the war or rescuing adorable waifs. The summons pre-dates such eccentricities.”

“Batra wants to see me personally?” Anaplian frowned.

“I know. Not like him.” It dipped left-right in its equivalent of a shrug. “It.”

Anaplian rose, dusting her hands. “Let’s go then.” She called to the boy, who was still trying to twist the uncomplaining knife missile apart. The module shimmered into view at the cliff edge.

“Do you know what his name means?” the drone asked as the child came walking shyly towards them.

“No,” the woman said. She lifted her head a little. She thought she’d caught a hint of the smell of distant burning.

“‘Toark’,” the drone said as the boy came up to them, politely handing back the knife missile. “In what they call the Old Tongue—”

“Lady, when does my mother wake?” the boy asked.

Anaplian gave what she was sure was a not particularly convincing smile. “I can’t tell you,” she admitted. She held out one hand to guide the child into the module’s softly gleaming interior.

“It means ‘Lucky’,” the drone finished.

* * *

The module trajectoried itself from the warm winds of the desert through thinning gases into space, then fell back into the atmosphere half a world away before Toark had finished marvelling at how clean he had become, and how quickly. Anaplian had told him to stand still, close his eyes and ignore any tickling sensation, then plonked a blob of cleaner gel on his head. It torused down over him, unrolling like liquid and making him squirm when a couple of smaller circles formed round his fingers and rolled back up to his armpits and back down. She’d cleaned his little loincloth with another blob but he wanted that gone and chose a sort of baggy shirt from a holo-display instead. He was most impressed when this immediately popped out of a drawer.

Meanwhile the woman and the drone argued about the degree of eye-averting that ought to be applied to her rule-breaking flight over the city. She was not quite yet at the level where the Minds that oversaw this sort of mission just gave her an objective and let her get on with it. She was still in the last stages of training and so her behaviour was more managed, her strategy and tactics more circumscribed and her initiative given less free rein than that of the most experienced and skilled practitioners of that ultimately dark art of always well-meaning, sometimes risky and just occasionally catastrophic interference in the affairs of other civilisations.

They agreed the drone wouldn’t volunteer any information or opinion. It would all come out in the end — everything came out in the end — but by then, hopefully, it wouldn’t seem so important. Part of the training of a Special Circumstances agent was learning a) that the rules were supposed to be broken sometimes, b) just how to go about breaking the rules, and c) how to get away with it, whether the rule-breaking had led to a successful outcome or not.

They landed on the platform Quonber, a flat slab of hangar space and accommodation units that looked like a small, squashed cruise liner, albeit one perfectly disguised by a camoufield. It floated smoothly in the warm air just over the altitude where a few puffy clouds drifted, their shadows spotting the surface of the pale green ocean a couple of thousand metres below. Directly beneath the platform lay the salt lagoons of an uninhabited island near the planet’s equator.

The platform was home to another eleven SC human staff, all charged with attempting to alter the development of the various species on Prasadal. The planet was unusual in having five quite different sentient expansionist/aggressive species all hitting their civilisational stride at the same time. In all recorded history, every other time this had happened without some outside influence taking a hand in matters, at least three and usually four of the contending species were simply destroyed by the victorious grouping. The Culture’s notoriously highly detailed and allegedly extremely reliable simulations confirmed that this was just the way things worked out for your average aggressive species, unless you interfered.

When the module arrived everybody else was either on the ground or busy, so they saw nobody else as one of the Quonber’s own slaved drones escorted them along the open side-deck towards the rear of the platform. Toark stared goggle-eyed through the drop of air towards the salt lagoons far below.

“Shouldn’t you at least hide the boy?” the drone suggested.

“What would be the point?” Anaplian asked it.

The slave-drone showed them into the presence of Anaplian’s control and mentor, Jerle Batra, who was taking the air on the wide balcony that curved round the rear portion of the module’s third deck.

Jerle Batra had been born male. He had, as was common in the Culture, changed sex a while, and had borne a child. Later, for his own reasons, he had spent some time in Storage, passing a dreamless millennium and more in the closest thing the Culture knew to death from which it was still possible to wake.

And when he had awoken, and still felt the pain of being a human in human form, he had had his brain and central nervous system transferred sequentially into a variety of different forms, ending, for now at least, with the body type he now inhabited and which he had retained for the last hundred years or so — certainly for the decade or more that Anaplian had known him, that of an Aciculate; his shape was bush-like.

His still human brain, plus its accompanying biological but non-human support systems, was housed in a small central pod from which sixteen thick limbs protruded; these quickly branched and rebranched to form smaller and smaller limblets, maniples and sensor stalks, the most delicate of which were hair-thin. In his normal, everyday state he looked just like a small, rootless, spherical bush made from tubes and wires. Compressed, he was little larger than the helmet of an old-fashioned human spacesuit. Fully extended, he could stretch for twenty metres in any given direction, which gave him what he liked to term a high contortionality factor. He had, in all his forms, always worshipped order, efficiency and fitness, and in the Aciculate form felt he had found something that epitomised such values.

Aciculacy was not the furthest one could stray from what the Culture regarded as human basic. Other ex-humans who looked superficially a lot like Jerle Batra had had their entire consciousness transcribed from the biological substrate that was their brain into a purely non-biological form, so that, usually, an Aciculate of that type would have its intelligence and being distributed throughout its physical structure rather than having a central hub. Their contortionality factor could be off the scale compared to Batra’s.

Other people had assumed the shapes of almost anything mobile imaginable, from the relatively ordinary (fish, birds, other oxygen-breathing animals) to the more exotic, via alien life-forms — again, including those which were not normally in the habit of supporting a conscious mind — all the way to the truly unusual, such as taking the form of the cooling and circulatory fluid within a Tueriellian Maieutic seed-sail, or the spore-wisp of a stellar field-liner. These last two, though, were both extreme and one-way; there was a whole category of Amendations that were hard to do and impossible to undo. Nothing sanely transcribable had ever been shifted back from something resembling a stellar field-liner into a human brain.

A few genuine eccentrics had even taken the form of drones and knife missiles, though this was generally considered to be somewhat insulting to both machine- and human-kind.

“Djan Seriy Anaplian,” Batra said in a very human-sounding voice. “Good day. Oh. Do I congratulate?”

“This is Toark,” Anaplian said. “He is not mine.”

“Indeed. I thought I might have heard.”

Anaplian glanced at the drone. “I’m sure you would have.”

“And Handrataler Turminder Xuss. Good day to you too.”

“Delightful as ever,” muttered the drone.

“Turminder, this does not involve you initially. Would you excuse Djan Seriy and me? You might entertain our young friend.”

“I am becoming an accomplished child-minder. My skills grow with every passing hour. I shall hone them.”

The drone escorted the boy from the balcony. Anaplian glanced up at the overhanging bulk of the accommodation deck and took her hat off, throwing it into one suspended seat and herself into another. A drinks tray floated up.

Batra drifted nearer, a greyly skeletal bush about head-height. “You are at home here,” he stated.

Anaplian suspected she was being gently rebuked. Had she been overcasual in her hat-throwing and her seat-collapsing-into? Perhaps Batra was chiding her for not showing him sufficient deference. He was her superior, to the extent that this wilfully unhierarchic civilisation understood the idea of superiors and inferiors. He could have her thrown out of SC if he wanted to — or at the very least, make her restart the whole process — however, he wasn’t usually so sensitive regarding matters of etiquette.

“It serves,” she said.

Batra floated across the deck and settled into another of the seats hanging from the ceiling, resting in it like a sort of fuzzy, vaguely metallic ball. He had formed part of the side facing Anaplian into a kind of simulated face, so that his visual sensors were where the eyes should be and his voice came from where a human mouth would have been. It was disconcerting. Just having a fuzzy ball talking to you would have been much less alarming, Anaplian thought.

“I understand that events have not ended as well as they might with the Zeloy/Nuersotise situation.”

“A year ago we disabled and turned back an army on its way to sack a city,” Anaplian said wearily. “Today the would-be attackers became the attacked. The more progressive tendency, as we would put it, ought now to prevail. Though at a cost.” She pursed her lips briefly. “Part of which I have just witnessed.”

“I have seen some of this.” The image of the face suggested by Batra’s mass of steely-looking tendrils expressed a frown, then closed its eyes, politely indicating that he was reviewing data from elsewhere. Anaplian wondered if he was watching general views of the siege and sacking of the city, or something that included her unwarranted excursion on the seatrider.

Batra’s eyes opened again. “The knowledge that so much worse happens where we do nothing, and always has, long before we came along — and that so much worse might happen here were we to do nothing — seems of very little significance when one is confronted with the grisly reality of aggression we have failed to prevent. All the more so when we had a hand in allowing or even enabling it.” He sounded genuinely affected. Anaplian, who was innately suspicious of perfectly one hundred per cent natural, utterly unamended human-basic humans, wondered whether Batra — this bizarre, many-times-alien, two-thousand-year-old creature that still thought of itself as “he” — was expressing sincere emotion, or simply acting. She wondered this very briefly, having realised long ago the exercise was pointless.

“Well,” she said, “it is done.”

“And much more remains to be done,” Batra said.

“That’ll get done too,” Anaplian said, beginning to lose patience. She was short on patience. She had been told this was a fault. “I imagine,” she added.

The metallic bush rolled back a little, and the face on its surface seemed to nod. “Djan Seriy, I have news,” Batra said.

Something about the way the creature said this made her quail. “Really?” she said, feeling herself battening down, shrinking inward.

“Djan Seriy, I have to tell you that your father is dead and your brother Ferbin may also be deceased. I am sorry. Both for the news itself and to be the one who bears it.”

She sat back. She drew her feet up so that she was quite enclosed in the gently swinging egg of the suspended seat. She took a deep breath and then unfolded herself deliberately. “Well,” she said. “Well.” She looked away.

It was, of course, something she had tried to prepare herself for. Her father was a warrior. He had lived with war and battle all his adult life and he usually led from the front. He was also a politician, though that was a trade he’d had to train himself to do well rather than one that he had taken to entirely naturally and excelled at. She had always known he was likely to die before old age took him. Throughout the first year when she had come to live amongst these strange people that called themselves the Culture she had half expected to hear he was dead and she was required to return for his funeral.

Gradually, as the years had passed, she had stopped worrying about this. And, also gradually, she had started to believe that even when she did hear he was dead it would mean relatively little to her.

You had to study a lot of history before you could become part of Contact, and even more before you were allowed to join Special Circumstances. The more she’d learned of the ways that societies and civilisations tended to develop, and the more examples of other great leaders were presented to her, the less, in many ways, she had thought of her father.

She had realised that he was just another strong man, in one of those societies, at one of those stages, in which it was easier to be the strong man than it was to be truly courageous. Might, fury, decisive force, the willingness to smite; how her father had loved such terms and ideas, and how shallow they began to look when you saw them played out time and time again over the centuries and millennia by a thousand different species.

This is how power works, how force and authority assert themselves, this is how people are persuaded to behave in ways that are not objectively in their best interests, this is the kind of thing you need to make people believe in, this is how the unequal distribution of scarcity comes into play, at this moment and this, and this…

These were lessons anybody born into the Culture grew up with and accepted as being as natural and obvious as the progression of a star along the Main Sequence, or evolution itself. For somebody like her, coming in from outside, with a set of assumptions built up in a society that was both profoundly different and frankly inferior, such understanding arrived in a more compressed time frame, and with the impact of a blow.

And Ferbin dead too, perhaps. That she had not expected. They had joked before she’d left that he might die before his father, in a knife fight over a gambling game or at the hand of a cuckolded husband, but that had been the sort of thing one said superstitiously, inoculating the future with a weakened strain of afflictive fate.

Poor Ferbin, who had never wanted to be king.

“Do you need time to grieve?” Batra asked.

“No,” she said, shaking her head fiercely.

“Are you sure?”

“Positive,” she said. “My father. Did he die in battle?”

“Apparently so. Not on the battlefield, but of his wounds, shortly after, before he could receive full medical attention.”

“He’d rather have died on the field itself,” she told Batra. “He must have hated having to settle for second best.” She found that she was both crying a little, and smiling. “When did it happen?” she asked.

“Eleven days ago.” Batra made a bristling motion. “Even news of such importance travels slowly out of a Shellworld.”

“I suppose,” Anaplian said, her expression thoughtful. “And Ferbin?”

“Missing, on the same battlefield.”

Anaplian knew what that meant. The vast majority of those labelled missing in battles either never reappeared at all, or turned up dead. And what had Ferbin being doing anywhere near a battle in the first place? “Do you know where?” she asked. “Exactly how far-flung a province was it?”

“Near the Xiliskine Tower.”

She stared at him. “What?”

“Near the Xiliskine Tower,” Batra repeated. “Within sight of Pourl — that is the capital, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Anaplian said. Her mouth was suddenly quite dry. Dear God, it had all fallen away, then. It had all crumbled and gone. She felt a sorrow she barely understood.

“So was this some… Excuse me.” She cleared her throat. “Was this a final stand, in that case?”

And why hadn’t she heard? Why had no one told her things had reached a point of such awful desperation? Were they afraid she’d try to return and use her new-found skills and powers to intercede? Were they worried she’d try to join the fray, was that it? How could they?

“Now, Djan Seriy,” Batra said, “while I have been briefed in this, I cannot claim to have immediate access to an expert database. However, I understand that it was the result of what was expected to be a surprise attack by the Deldeyn.”

“What? From where?” Anaplian said, not even trying to hide her alarm.

“From this Xiliskine Tower.”

“But there’s no way out of…” she began, then put one hand to her mouth, pursing her lips and frowning as she stared at the floor. “They must have opened a new…” she said, more to herself than to Batra. She looked up again. “So, is the Xiliskine controlled by the Aultridia now, or…?”

“First, let me assure you that as I understand it, Pourl and your father’s people are not under threat. The Deldeyn are the ones facing disaster.”

Anaplian’s frown deepened, even as the rest of her body showed signs of relaxing. “How so?”

“Your father had effectively completed his Wars of Unity, as he termed them.”

“Really?” She felt a surge of relief and a perverse urge to laugh. “He did keep busy.”

“The Deldeyn would appear to have assumed that they’d be his next target. They therefore staged what they hoped would be a decisive, pre-emptive surprise attack on your father’s capital city, having been convinced by the — Oct? Inheritors?”

“Synonyms.” Anaplian flapped one hand again. “Either.”

“That they, the Oct, would deliver the Deldeyn forces in secret to where a new portal would be opened in the Xiliskine Tower through which they might effect such an attack, taking the city. This was a ruse, and one which the Sarl were party to. Your father’s forces were waiting for the Deldeyn and destroyed them.”

Anaplian looked confused. “Why were the Oct deceiving the Deldeyn?”

“This is still a matter for conjecture, apparently.”

“And the Aultridia?”

“The other Conducer species. They have backed the Deldeyn in the past. They are believed to be considering military and diplomatic action against the Oct.”

“Hmm. So why…?” Anaplian shook her head once more. “What is going on back there?” she asked. Again, Jerle Batra suspected this question was not really directed at him. He let her continue. “So, Ferbin’s in charge — no, of course, he’s probably dead too. Oramen, then?” she asked, looking worried and sceptical at once.

“No; your younger brother is deemed too young to inherit all your father’s power immediately. A man called Mertis tyl Loesp is regent until your brother’s next birthday.”

“Tyl Loesp,” Anaplian said thoughtfully. She nodded. “At least he’s still around. He should be all right.”

“Your younger brother won’t be in any danger, will he?”

“Danger?”

Batra’s impersonated face configured a weak smile. “It has been my understanding that, like wicked stepmothers, ambitious regents do not usually come out well from such contexts. Perhaps that is only in tales.”

“No,” Anaplian said with what sounded like relief. She wiped her eyes. “Tyl Loesp’s been my father’s best friend since they were children. He’s always been loyal, fastened his ambitions to my father’s. God knows, they were grand enough for two. Grand enough for a host.” Anaplian looked away to one side, where the bright, tropic air of this place that she had almost come to think of as home over the last two years now seemed as far away as it had when she’d first arrived. “Though what do I know? It’s been fifteen years.”

She wondered how much Ferbin had changed in that time, and Oramen. Her father, she strongly suspected, would hardly have changed at all — he had been the same forbidding, occasionally sentimental, rarely tender, utterly focused individual for as long as she’d known him. Utterly focused, yet with one eye always on history, on his legacy.

Had she ever known him? Most of the time he wasn’t there to be known in the first place, always away fighting his distant wars. But even when he had returned to Pourl, his palace, concubines and children, he had been more interested in the three boys, especially Elime, the eldest and by far the most like him in character. Second in age, her gender and the circumstances of her birth had fixed the King’s only daughter firmly last in his affections.

“Should I leave you, Djan Seriy?” Batra asked.

“Hmm?” She looked back at him.

“I thought you may need time alone. Or do you need to talk? Either is—”

“I need you to talk to me,” she told him. “What is the situation now?”

“On what is called the Eighth? Stable. The King is mourned with all due—”

“Has he been buried?”

“He was due to be, seven days ago. My information is eight or nine days old.”

“I see. Sorry. Go on.”

“The great victory is celebrated. Preparations for the invasion of the Deldeyn continue apace. The invasion is widely expected to take place between ten and twenty days from now. The Oct have been censured by their Nariscene mentors, though they have blamed everybody else for what has happened, including elements within their own people. The Aultridia have, as I have said, threatened retaliation. The Nariscene are trying to keep the peace. The Morthanveld are so far not involved, though they have been kept informed.”

She pinched her lower lip with her fingers. She took a breath and said, “How long would it take for me to get back to Sursamen?”

“A moment, please,” Batra said, falling silent for a moment while, she imagined, he consulted the course schedules of whole networks of distant ships. She had time to wonder why he hadn’t already memorised or at least accessed this information, and whether this possibly deliberate hesitation implied a criticism of her for even thinking of abandoning her post here.

“Between one hundred and thirty and one hundred and sixty days,” Batra told her. “The uncertainty comes from the changeover to Morthanveld space.”

Morthanveld space. The Morthanveld were the highest-level Involved species around Sursamen. As part of her training Anaplian had studied, and been suitably stunned by, the full three-dimensional map of all the various species that inhabited the galaxy and had spread sufficiently far from their homes to discover that they were profoundly Not Alone.

The standard star chart detailing the influence of the better-travelled players was fabulously complex and even it only showed major civilisations; those with just a few solar systems to their name didn’t really show up, even with the holo-map filling one’s entire field of vision. Generally overlapping, often deeply interconnected, slowly shifting, subject to continual gradual and very occasionally quite sudden change, the result looked like something committed by a madman let loose in a paint factory.

The Morthanveld held sway over vast regions of space, one tiny pocket of which happened to include the star around which her home planet orbited. They had been there, or spreading slowly out in that direction, for longer than the Culture had existed, and the two civilisations had long since settled into a comfortable and peaceful co-existence, though the Morthanveld did expect all but the most pressing business crossing their sphere of influence to be conducted using their own spacecraft.

Having immersed herself in the politics, geography, technology and mythology of Prasadal for over two intense, demanding years, and having almost ignored outside events for the same amount of time, Anaplian realised she had half forgotten that the Culture was not somehow the totality of the galactic community — that it was, indeed, a relatively small part, even if it was a powerful and almost defiantly widespread one.

“Would I be excused here?” she asked Batra.

“Djan Seriy,” the metallic bush said, and for the first time something other than its pretended face moved, its sides expanding in a gesture that looked a lot like a human spreading their arms, “you are a free agent. Nothing keeps you here but you. You may go at any time.”

“But would I be welcome back? Would I still have a place in SC if I did return home? Could I come back here, to Prasadal?”

“None of that is for me finally to decide.”

The creature was being evasive. It would have a say, even if the final decision might be made by some tiny clique of ship Minds spread throughout the Culture and across the galaxy.

Anaplian arched one eyebrow. “Take a guess.”

“SC, I’d imagine, yes. Here? I can only imagine. How long would you be going for, do you think?”

“I don’t know,” Anaplian admitted.

“And neither would we. It is unlikely you would start any return journey within a few days of arriving. You might be gone a standard year, all told. Perhaps longer; who can say? We would have to replace you here.”

There was a degree of margin in the system here, of course. Her colleagues could fill in for her, for a while at least. Leeb Scoperin especially knew what Anaplian had been doing in her part of the planet and seemed to have the sort of natural understanding of her aims and techniques that would let him take over her role with as little turbulence as possible, plus he was one of those training an assistant, so the overall burden wouldn’t be too great. But that sort of arrangement would not do for ever. A little slack was one thing, but leaving people feeling useless for extended amounts of time was pointless and wasteful, so the platform was not overstaffed for the task in hand. Batra was right; they’d have to replace her.

“You could give me a ship,” Anaplian said. That would get her there and back quicker.

“Ah,” Batra said. “That is problematical.” This was one of his several ways of saying no.

The Culture was being especially careful not to offend the Morthanveld at the moment. The reason was officially moot, though there had been some interesting suggestions and one in particular that had become the default explanation.

Anaplian sighed. “I see.”

Or she could just stay here, she supposed. What good, after all, could she do back home? Avenge her father? That was not a daughter’s duty, the way the Sarl saw things, and anyway it sounded like the Deldeyn were about to have more than sufficient vengeance visited upon them long before she would be able to get there. Her father would have been the aggressor in all this, anyway; she had no doubt that the pre-emptive attack the Deldeyn had launched was anything other than just that — an attempt to stop the Sarl under King Hausk invading them.

Perhaps she would just make a bad situation worse if she went back; things would be in turmoil enough without her suddenly reappearing. She had been away too long, she thought. People would have forgotten about her, and everything would have changed. Anyway, she was female. After fifteen years living in the Culture, it was sometimes hard to recall just how misogynist her birth-society had been. She might go back and try to affect things only to be laughed at, scorned, ignored. Oramen was clever if still young. He’d be all right, wouldn’t he? Tyl Loesp would take care of him.

Her duty, arguably, lay here. This was what she had taken on, this was what she had to do, what she was expected to finish. She knew that could affect the course of history on Prasadal. It might not always go as she’d wish, and it could be bloody, but her influence was in no doubt and she knew that she was good at what she did. On the Eighth — and the Ninth, given that the Deldeyn had been forced into the matter — she might effect nothing, or only harm.

That was not what she was being trained to do.

Her father had sent her to the Culture as payment, if you wished to be brutal about it. She was here as the result of a debt of honour. She had not been banked far away from Sursamen as some sort of insurance, neither was it assumed she would be educated further and returned an even more fit bride for some foreign prince, to cement an alliance or tie-in a far away conquerance. Her duty, in perpetuity, was to serve the Culture to repay it for the help — through the man called Xide Hyrlis — it had given her father and the Sarl people. King Hausk had made it perfectly clear that he did not expect ever to see his only daughter again.

Well, he had been right about that.

When this bargain had first been suggested, she had struggled with the competing emotions of pride at being asked to play such an important role, and anguish at experiencing a rejection even more final and complete than all the other rejections her father had made her suffer. At the same time there had been a kind of triumph coursing through her that had been stronger still than either feeling.

At last! At last she would be free of this idiot backwater, at last she could develop as she wished, not as her father and this female-fearing, woman-demeaning society demanded. She was accepting an obligation she might spend the rest of her life fulfilling, but it was one that would take her away from the Eighth, away from the Sarl and the constrictions of the life she had gradually realised — with increasing dismay through her girlhood — she would otherwise have been expected to lead. She would still be going into service, but it was service in faraway exotic places, service in a greater cause and perhaps even one that actually involved action, not simply the requirement to please a man and produce a litter of petty royals.

Her father had thought the Culture representatives effeminate fools for being more interested in her than in her brothers when he’d insisted on sending one of his children into their employ. Even his respect for Xide Hyrlis had suffered, when he too had suggested little Djan should be the one to go, and Anaplian didn’t know of anyone, save perhaps tyl Loesp, that her father had thought as highly of as Hyrlis.

Her father had barely pretended to be sorry that they had chosen his troublesome, discontented, discounted daughter rather than one of his precious sons. If, of course, she wished to go; the Culture’s representatives made it very clear that they had no desire to coerce her into their employ. Naturally, as soon as they’d asked she’d had no choice — her father had been convinced he’d been presented with an absolute bargain, and hurried her departure before the Culture could see sense and change its mind — but it was precisely what she would have chosen anyway.

She had pretended. She had pretended — to her father and the rest of the court — to be reluctant to go to the Culture, in just the way that a girl chosen to be a bride was expected to pretend to be reluctant to go to her new home and husband, and she had trusted that the Culture people would see that this was an act, for appearances’ sake, to observe the niceties. They had, and she’d duly gone with them when the time came. She had never regretted it for a moment.

There had been times, many of them, when she’d missed her home and her brothers and even her father, times when she’d cried herself to sleep for many nights at a time, but not once, not even for an instant, had she thought that she might have made the wrong choice.

Her duty was here, then. Her father had said so. The Culture — Special Circumstances, no less — assumed so, and was relying on her to remain here. No one on the Eighth would expect her to return. And if she did, there was probably nothing useful she could do.

Yet what was duty? What was obligation?

She had to go, and knew it in her bones.

She had been silent just a few moments. She did something she only ever did with reluctance, and clicked into her neural lace and through it into the vast, bludgeoningly vivid meta-existence that was the SC version of the Culture’s dataverse.

A clamorous, phantasmagoric scape opened instantly in front of her and flicked all around. Confronting, pervading Anaplian in this mind-dazzling, seemingly frozen blink of time was a collection of inputs using every amended-range sense available; this barely graspable riot of sensory overload presented itself initially as a sort of implied surrounding sphere, along with the bizarre but perfectly convincing sensation that you could see every part of it at once, and in more colours than even the augmented eye possessed. The immediately appreciable surface of this vast enclosing globe was less than tissue thin, yet seemed to connect with senses deep inside her as the colossal but intricate simulation suffused into what felt like every fragment of her being. You thought through to an apparent infinitude of further membranes, each with its own sensory harmonics, like a lens adjusting to bring different depths within its field of vision into focus.

It was a given that this perceptual frenzy was as close as a human, or anything like a human, could get to knowing what it was like to be a Mind. Only politeness prevented most Minds pointing out that this was the drastically coarsened, savagely cut-down, vastly inferior, well-below-nursery-level version of what they themselves were immersed within throughout every moment of their existence.

Even without consciously thinking about it, she was there with a diagrammatic and data-ended representation of this section of the galaxy. The stars were shown as exaggerated points of their true colour, their solar systems implied in log-scaled plunge-foci and their civilisational flavour defined by musical note-groups (the influence of the Culture was signalled by a chord sequence constructed from mathematically pure whole-tone scales reaching forever down and up). An overlay showed the course schedules of all relevant ships and a choice of routes was already laid out for her, colour-coded in order of speed, strand thickness standing for ship size and schedule certainty shown by hue intensity, with comfort and general amenability characterised as sets of smells. Patterns on the strands — making them look braided, like rope — indicated to whom the ships belonged.

Circles and ellipses, mostly, confronted her. A few supplementally more complicated shapes squiggled through the view where ships anticipated describing more eccentric courses between the stars over the next few tens and hundreds of standard days.

Seemingly unbidden, another line formed in the overlay, almost perfectly straight, showing her how quickly the nearest available unit of the Culture’s fleet of Very Fast Pickets could get her there. Crude flight time was a little over a dozen days, though it would take almost as long for the ship to get to Prasadal to pick her up in the first place. Other ships could have made the journey in even less time, though they were too far away. There was a degree of favourable uncertainty in the projection; it applied only to Culture vessels that were currently making their whereabouts known. It was entirely possible that another ship of the Rapid Asset fleet not currently bothering to circulate its location was even closer and would respond positively to a broadcast request.

But that wasn’t going to happen — Batra had made that clear. She wiped the offending overlay from the view. She would have to take the prescribed route, and be passed like a baton from ship to ship. It looked complicated.

A lot of very clever processing had already gone on in her neural lace to predict what she’d want to look at effectively before she knew herself, and — fabulously convenient and highly technically impressive though this might be — it was this aspect of lace-use that most disturbed Anaplian and caused her to keep its application to a minimum. In the end, she didn’t even need to pull out any data-ends to check the raw figures; there was one fairly obvious route through this tangled scribble from Prasadal to Sursamen, and it would indeed take at least one hundred and twenty-nine and a bit days if she left any time within the next two days, assuming that the Morthanveld end of things went as fortuitously as it might. A lot seemed to depend on whether the Morthanveld Great Ship Inspiral, Coalescence, Ringdown decided to take in the Nestworld Syaung-un on its way from one globular cluster to another.

She was about to click out when a barely formed thought regarding exactly what a Morthanveld Great Ship and a Nestworld actually were started to blossom into a whole hierarchy of increasingly complicated explanations as the lace raced to retrieve and present the relevant information with all the desperate enthusiasm of an overenthusiastic child asked to perform a party piece. She shut it down with a sort of inward slam and clicked out again with the usual sense of relief and vague guilt. The last vestige of the lace’s presence informed her that her heart was still completing the beat it had been beginning when she’d first clicked in.

It was like waking up, though from a dream world where everything was more detailed, vivid, splendid and even plausible than reality, not less. That was another reason she didn’t like using the lace. She wondered briefly how Jerle Batra’s normality compared to hers.

“I’m sorry. I think I have to go,” she told him.

“Think, Djan Seriy?” Batra asked, sounding sad.

“I am going,” she said. “I must.”

“I see.” Now the man who looked like a fuzzy little bush sounded apologetic. “There will be a cost, Djan Seriy.”

“I know.”


6. Scholastery

<p>6. Scholastery</p>

Ferbin otz Aelsh-Hausk’r and his servant Choubris Holse were riding along an ill-kept road through a forest of cloud trees towards the Xiliskine-Anjrinh Scholastery. They had chosen to travel through the long half-night of the Rollstar Guime, which showed as a sullen red glow spread like a rosy bruise across the farpole horizon. They had pulled off the road only twice so far, once to avoid a troop of mounted Ichteuen and once when a steam truck had appeared in the far distance. The prince no longer looked like himself; Holse had close-cut his scalp, his facial hair was growing quickly (darker than his head hair; nearly brown, which peeved him disproportionately), he had removed all his rings and other regal jewellery and he was dressed in clothes Holse had obtained from the battlefield.

“From a corpse?” Ferbin had spluttered, staring down at himself wide-eyed. Holse had thought to inform the prince of the provenance of his new-to-him civvies only after he’d put them on.

“One with no obvious wounds, sir,” Holse had assured him reasonably. “Just a little bleeding from the ears and nose. Dead a good two or three days, too, so any fleas would assuredly have caught cold and jumped ship. And he was a gentleman, too, I might add. An army private provisioner, unless I’m mistaken.”

“That’s not a gentleman,” Ferbin had told his servant patiently. “That’s a merchant.” He’d pulled at his sleeves, held out his hands and shaken his head.

If there had been any aerial activity — unlikely in the near darkness — they didn’t see it. At any rate, nobody came swooping down to inspect them as they trudged on, Holse on his rowel and Ferbin on the mersicor his servant had brought to the folly overlooking the river four days earlier. Holse had dug a couple of wads of crile root from a saddle bag to help keep them awake as they rode, and they chewed on this while they talked. It gave their conversation what Holse felt was a rather comical, munchy sort of quality, though he thought better of mentioning this to Ferbin.

“Choubris Holse, it is your duty to accompany me to wherever I might choose to go.”

“I’d beg to differ, sir.”

“There’s no differing involved. Duty is duty. Yours is to me.”

“Within the kingdom, and within the rule of the king’s law, I’d not argue with you, sir. It is my duty beyond that reach I might think to question.”

“Holse! You are a servant! I am a prince! You’d be best advised to do as you’re damn well told even were I some lowly gent with no more than a tumbledown fort, a flea-bitten nag and too many children to his name. As servant to a prince — the senior prince, I might add — of the royal house of Hausk…” Ferbin broke off, choking on his own amazement and disgust at encountering such obduracy in a servant. “My father would have you thrashed for this, Holse, I tell you! Or worse! Damn it, man, I am the rightful king!”

“Sir, I am with you now, and intend to stay with you until the varsity and thence to whatever conveyance you might find beyond that which they are able to recommend you to. To that very point I shall be at your side, as faithful as ever.”

“And there you damn well have to stay! Wherever I go!”

“Sir, pleasing your pardon, my allegiance — at the bottom of the pot, after all reduction, as it were — is to the throne rather than to your good self. Once you remove yourself from the furthest extent of your father’s conquests, it is my understanding that I am bound to return to the seat of authority — which I would take to be the royal palace in Pourl, all other matters being in normal balance — there to take fresh instruction from, well, whomsoever—”

“Holse! Are you a lawyer?”

“Dear God forbid, sir!”

“Then shut up. Your duty is to stay with me. That’s the all and end of it.”

“My duty, begging your pardon, sir, is to the king.”

“But I am the king! Haven’t you been telling me for the last four days that I’m the rightful heir to the throne?”

“Sir, excuse my bluntness, but you are an uncrowned king who is riding most determinedly away from his throne.”

“Yes! Yes, to save my life! To seek help so that I may return to claim that throne, if the WorldGod lets. And, I would point out, in doing so I am following the highest precedents; does not the WorldGod find its own sanctuary from cares here at the core of our blessed world? Did not the Sarl people themselves flee persecution on their homeworld, escaping here to our own dear Sursamen?”

“Still, sir. Being a king has its expectations. One is letting people know you’re alive.”

“Is it really? Well, well,” Ferbin said, deciding to be witheringly sarcastic. “Do you tell me that now? And what else, might one ask?”

“Well, sir, acting in a kingly manner regarding the taking up of the reins of power, by dispute if needs be, rather than leaving them to fall to—”

“Choubris Holse, you will not lecture me in the art of kingcraft or my regal obligations and responsibilities!”

“Indeed not, sir. I agree most completely. Lecturing is the province of the scholastic monk types towards which we make our way. No argument there from me, sir.”

Holse’s rowel snored as though in agreement. Their animals were bred to night-walk and could literally walk in their sleep, though they needed the odd prod to keep them on the road.

“I decide my duty, Holse, not you! And my duty is not to let myself be murdered by those who have already killed one king and would not flinch from adding another — that is, me — to their score!”

Holse looked up at the near-unGodly vastness of the Hicturean Tower, rising to their left like fate. The sky-supporting stem was skirted with grassed and forested slopes, their steepness increasing as they approached the topmost edge where, piled up against the smooth, uncanny surface of the Tower, the ground and foliage broke like a dark green wave against the trunk’s vast pale roundness, glowing in the low red light like the bone of some long-dead god.

Holse cleared his throat. “These documents we go in search of, sir. They don’t work the other way, do they?”

“The other way? What do you mean, Holse?”

“Well, would they let you travel downwards, to the Core, to see the WorldGod, sir?” Holse had no idea how these things worked; he had never really bothered with religion, though he had always paid lip-service to the church for the sake of an easy life. He had long suspected that the WorldGod was just another convenient semi-fiction supporting the whole structure that sustained the rich and powerful in their privilege. “To see if its Divineness might help you?” He shrugged. “It would save all the bother of travelling to the Surface and then to the external stars, sir.”

“That is impossible, Holse,” Ferbin said patiently, trying not to lose his temper at such childish drivel. “The Oct and — thank God — the Aultridia are forbidden from interfering with the WorldGod; they may not descend to the Core. Therefore neither may we.” He might have replied at greater length, but — following an inopportune partial inhaling of a well-chewed wad of crile root — he was struck by an attack of coughing, and spent much of the next few minutes wheezing and spluttering and refusing Holse’s repeated offers to administer a forceful slap on the back.

* * *

The Hicturean-Anjrinh Scholastery sat on a low hill a day’s ride from the Hicturean Tower in the direction of nearpole, so that the great column was almost directly between it and Pourl. Like most Scholasteries, the place was forbidding-looking, even if technically it was unfortified. It looked like a long, low castle with its curtain wall removed. It had two turrets, but they housed telescopes rather than guns. The visible walls actually looked quite jolly, painted in all sorts of different colours, but it still appeared somehow grim to Ferbin. He had always been rather in awe of such places and the people who inhabited them. To give yourself up to a life of study, thought and contemplation seemed like, well, such a waste. He tipped continually between contempt for anyone who could cut themself off from so much that made life fun just to pursue this abstraction they called learning, and something close to reverence, deeply impressed that seriously clever people would willingly choose such an abstemious existence.

It was to one of these places that he knew Djan Seriy would have wanted to go, had she been free to choose. She hadn’t been, of course, and anyway the Culture had made off with her. Some of her letters home to her family after she had gone with them had spoken of places of learning that sounded a lot like Scholasteries. Ferbin had formed the impression that she’d learned a great deal. (Far too much, in the snorting estimation of their father.) Later letters seemed to hint that she had become some sort of warrior, almost a champion. They had worried about her sanity at first, but woman warriors were not unknown. Everybody had thought they belonged firmly in the past, but — well — who knew? The ways of the aliens — the superior, mentor and Optimae races, and who could say what others — were beyond knowing. So much of life went in great circles, in wheels of good and ill fortune; maybe woman warriors were part of some utterly strange and incomprehensible future.

Ferbin hoped she was a warrior. If he could get to her, or at least get word to her, Djan Seriy might be able to help him.

The Rollstar Obor was spreading a slow, reluctant dawn to their right as they approached. They passed apprentice scholars leaving the Scholastery compound to work in the fields, orchards and streams around the jumble of gaily painted buildings. They nodded, helloed, waved hats. Ferbin thought they looked almost happy.

An increasing number of the cities of the Sarl were becoming host to something like a Scholastery, though these urban institutions offered more practical instruction than the ancient, usually remote and rural Scholasteries. Many merchants and even some nobles were starting to send their sons to such modern varsities, and Ferbin had heard of one in Reshigue that accepted only girls. (Though that was Reshigue, and everybody knew the people of that thankfully distant city were mad.)

“No telegraph connection that I can see,” Holse pointed out, casting his gaze about the jumble of buildings. “That may be to the good. We’ll see.”

“Hmm?” Ferbin said.

* * *

Ferbin rarely prayed. It was a failing, he knew, but then a noble one, he’d always told himself. Even Gods, he felt sure, must have limited patience and even attention. By not praying he was leaving the floor of the divine court that little bit less crowded and so free for more deserving, less fortunate people whose own prayers would therefore stand by that same increment more likely to be heard above whatever hubbub must surely fill said assembly. In fact, he took comfort in the fact that, being a prince, his entreaties would of course have been given priority in the WorldGod’s petitionary court — he would have had a naturally louder voice, as it were — and so by his modest, self-effacing absence, he did far more good than a fellow of more limited importance would have done by such an act of self-sacrifice.

Still, the WorldGod was there, and — while going to see it, as Holse had suggested, was patently ridiculous — prayers were assuredly listened to. Sometimes, indeed, the WorldGod was said to intervene in the affairs of people, taking up the cause of the good and just and punishing those who had sinned. It would, therefore, positively be dereliction of princely duty not to entreat the deity. Even if it did — as it surely would — already know of the terrible events that had befallen Ferbin and which might be about to befall the Sarl people as a whole with a usurper in their midst and indeed in charge, the WorldGod might not feel able to act until it had received a sort of formal request from him, the rightful king. He wasn’t sure exactly how these things worked, never having paid attention in Divinity classes, but he had a feeling it might be something like that.

“Dear God, God of the World. Support me in my cause, let me escape my pursuers, if, ah, assuming there are pursuers. If not, then let there continue not to be any. Aid my getting out of the World and finding Xide Hyrlis and my dear sister Djan, that she may succour me. Let her be not turned away from her brother by the luxuries and, umm, luxuriances of the Culture people. Please, God, visit the most terrible and disgusting tribulations and humiliations upon the filthy usurper tyl Loesp, who killed my father. There is a foul fiend indeed, God! There is a monster in the form of man! You must have seen what happened, God, and if not, look into my memory and see it seared in there like a brand, burned and fixed for ever — what more awful crime has there ever been? What ghastliness committed between your skies can outdo that atrocity?”

Ferbin found he was growing breathless, and had to stop to collect himself. “God, if you punish him most severely, I shall rejoice. If not, then I shall take it as a sure and certain sign that you grant him not even the honour of divine retribution but leave his punishment for human hand. That hand may not be my own — I am, as your good self knows, more of a man of peace than of action — but it will be at my instigation, I swear, and it will be a sorry tower of anguish and despair that bastard suffers beneath. And the others, all who helped him; all them too. I do swear this, on the violated body of my own dearly loved father!” Ferbin swallowed, coughed. “You know I ask this for my people, not for myself, God; I never wanted to be king, though I will accept this burden when it falls to me. Elime; he should have been the king. Or Oramen might make a good king one day. I… I’m not sure I’d be very good at it. I never have been sure. But, sir, duty is duty.”

Ferbin wiped some tears away from his tightly closed eyes. “Thank you for this, my God. Oh; also, I would ask you to make my idiot servant see where his true duty lies and get him to stay with me. I have no skill negotiating the base vulgarities of life, whereas he has and, argumentative wretch though he may be, he makes progress the smoother for me. I’ve hardly dared let him out of my sight since I began to worry he might run off and I cannot think how daunting my way would be without him. Please also let the Head Scholar here, one Seltis, be well disposed to me and not remember that it was I who put the tack on his seat that time, or the maggot into his pie on that other occasion. Actually, twice, come to think of it. Anyway, let him have a Tower travel warrant thing that he doesn’t mind letting me have so that I can get away from here. Grant me all of this, WorldGod, and on my father’s life I swear I shall build a temple to your greatness, mercy and wisdom that will challenge the Towers themselves! Umm… Right. With all my — ah, well, that’s all.” Ferbin sat back, opening his eyes, then closed them and went on one knee again. “Oh, and ah, thank you.”

He had been given a small cell in the Scholastery after they’d arrived and announced themselves as a gentleman traveller and his assistant (a title — a promotion, even — that Holse had insisted upon) who had need of an audience with the Head Scholar. Ferbin found it strange to be treated like an ordinary person. In a way it was almost fun, but it was also a little shaming and even annoying, despite the fact it was this disguise of ordinariness that might well be all that was keeping him alive. Being asked to wait while anybody other than his father found time to see him was a novel experience, too. Well, not that novel, perhaps; certain ladies of his knowledge were prone to such tactics too. But that was a delicious sort of waiting, even if, at the time, seemingly intolerable. This was not delicious at all, this was frustrating.

He sat on the small sleeping platform in the little room, looked round the bare, sparsely furnished space and briefly took in the view towards the Hicturean Tower — most Scholastery windows looked towards Towers if they could. He looked down at his clothes, stolen from a dead man. He shivered, and was hugging himself when the door was struck loudly and almost before he could say, “Enter,” Choubris Holse had swung into the room, looking unsteady, his face flushed.

“Sir!” Holse said, then seemed to collect himself, drawing himself up and producing a nod that might have been the remnants of a bow. He smelled of smoke. “The Head Scholar will see you now, sir.”

“I shall be there directly, Holse,” Ferbin said, then, recalling that the WorldGod allegedly helped those most given to helping themselves — a treatise Holse himself most obviously lived by — he added, “Thank you.”

Holse frowned and looked confused.

* * *

“Seltis! My dear old friend! It is I!” Ferbin entered the office of the Head Scholar of Hicturean-Anjrinh Scholastery and held his arms open. The elderly man in slightly worn-looking scholastic robes sat on the far side of a broad, paper-littered desk, blinking behind small round glasses.

“That you are you, sir, is one of life’s great undeniables,” he replied. “Do you apply for position by stating such truisms and claiming them profound?”

Ferbin looked round to make sure the door had been closed from outside by the serving scholar who had let him in. He smiled and approached the Head Scholar’s desk, arms still outspread. “No, Seltis, I mean, it is I!” He lowered his voice. “Ferbin. Who once was your most exasperating yet still I hope most loved pupil. You must pardon my disguise, and I am glad that it is so effective, but it is most assuredly me. Hello, old friend and most wise tutor!”

Seltis rose, an expression of some wonder and uncertainty on his withered face. He made a small bow. “By God, I do believe it might be, too.” His gaze searched Ferbin’s face. “How are you, boy?”

“No longer a boy, Seltis,” Ferbin said, taking a comfortable seat to one side of the desk, in a small bay window. Seltis remained at his desk, looking over a small cart full of books at his former pupil. Ferbin let a serious, even tormented expression take over his features. “Rather a young man, old friend, and a happy, carefree one at that, until a few days ago. Dear Seltis, I saw my own father murdered in the most obscene circumstance—”

Seltis looked alarmed and held up one hand. He turned away from Ferbin and said, “Munhreo, leave us, please.”

“Yes, Head Scholar,” said another voice, and, somewhat to Ferbin’s horror, a young man dressed in the robes of a junior scholar rose from a small, paper-piled desk set in one alcove of the room and — with a fascinated glance at Ferbin — went to leave the room.

“Munhreo,” the Head Scholar said to the youth as he was opening the door. The young scholar turned round. “You heard nothing, do you understand?”

The young scholar made a small bow. “Indeed, sir.”

“Ah. He must study the art of hiding, that one, eh?” Ferbin said awkwardly after the door had closed.

“He is trustworthy, I believe,” Seltis said. He drew his own seat over and sat by Ferbin, still studying his face. “Remind me; my assistant at the palace — who would that have been?”

Ferbin frowned, blew out his cheeks. “Oh. I don’t know. Youngish chap. Can’t recall his name.” He grinned. “Sorry.”

“And did I ever implant the name of the capital of Voette sufficiently well for it to take root?”

“Ah. Voette. Knew an ambassador’s daughter from there once. Lovely girl. She was from… Nottle? Gottle? Dottle? Something like that. That right?”

“The capital of Voette is Wiriniti, Ferbin,” Seltis said wearily. “And I truly do believe you are who you say.”

“Excellent!”

“Welcome, sir. I have to say, though, we had been informed that you were killed, prince.”

“And if the wishes of that murderous, scheming turd tyl Loesp made such things so, I would be, old friend.”

Seltis looked alarmed. “The new regent? What’s the cause of this hatred?”

Ferbin related the fundamentals of his story since the moment he and his party had crested the Cherien ridge and looked out over the great battlefield. Seltis sighed, polished his glasses twice, sat back, sat forward again, stood up at one point, walked round his seat, looked out through the window and sat back down again. He shook his head a few times.

“And so myself and my unreliable servant are here to ask for your help, dear Seltis, firstly in getting a message to Oramen and also in getting me away from the Eighth and from the great World itself. I have to warn my brother and seek my sister. I am that reduced. My sister has been with these Optimae the Culture for many years and has, by her own account, learned such things that even you might find impressive. She may even have become a sort of female warrior, as I understand it. In any event, she might have — or can call upon — powers and influences that I myself cannot. Help me make my way to her, Seltis, and help me warn my brother, and my gratitude, I swear, will be great. I am the rightful king even if I am not the anointed monarch; my formal ascension lies in the future, as must your reward. Even so, one as wise and learned as yourself no doubt understands even better than I the duty a subject owes to their sovereign. I trust you see that I ask for no more than I have every right to expect.”

“Well, Ferbin,” the old scholar said, sitting back in his seat and taking his glasses off again to inspect them, “I don’t know which would be the more confounding; that all you say is true, or that your skills in fictive composition have suddenly improved a million-fold.” He placed his glasses back on his nose. “Truthfully, I would rather that what you say is not so. I would rather believe that you did not have to witness what you did, that your father was not murdered, and our regent is not a monster, but I think I have to believe that all you claim is true. I am sorry for your loss, Ferbin, beyond words. But in any case, I hope you see that it is as well I attempt to restrict your stay here to a minimum. I will certainly do all I can to assist you on your way and I shall depute one of my senior tutors to take a message to your brother.”

“Thank you, old friend,” Ferbin said, relieved.

“However. You should know that there are rumours against you, Ferbin. They say that you deserted the battlefield shortly before your death, and that many other crimes, large and small, domestic and social, are being piled against you, now that you are thought safely dead.”

What?” Ferbin shouted.

“As I say,” Seltis said. “They seek, by the sound of it, to make you ill-missed and, perhaps — if they suspect you are not dead — to make it the more likely that you will be betrayed by anyone you reveal yourself to. Take all care, young man that was boy, and prince that hopes to be king.”

“Inequity upon infamy,” Ferbin breathed, his mouth drying as he spoke. “Injustice piled upon outrage. Intolerable. Intolerable.” A terrible anger built within him, causing his hands to shake. He stared at his trembling fingers, marvelling at such a physical effect. He swallowed, looking at his old tutor with tears in his eyes. “I tell you, Seltis, at every point at which I feel my rage cannot conceivably grow any further, having reached the outermost extremity of that possible for a man to bear, I am propelled further into indecent fury by the next action of that unspeakable puddle of excrement tyl Loesp.”

“Taking account of all you say,” Seltis said, rising, “that is hardly to be wondered at.” He went to a sash hanging by the wall behind his desk. “Will you have something to drink?”

“Some respectable wine would not go amiss,” Ferbin said, brightening. “My servant favours stuff you’d hesitate to rinse a rowel’s arse with.”

Seltis pulled on the sash. A gong rang distantly. He came and sat down with the prince again.

“I take it you wish me to recommend you to the Oct, for enTowerment, for transportation to the Surface.”

“Whatever you call it,” Ferbin said eagerly, sitting forward. “Yes. Naturally there are, in theory, royal prerogatives I might use, but that would amount to suicide. With a pass from you, I might hope to evade tyl Loesp’s spies and informants.”

“Rather more than just spies and informants; in potential, at least, the whole of the army, and even all of the people,” Seltis said. “Everyone, thinking themselves loyal, will be turned against the one they ought to be loyal to.”

“Indeed,” Ferbin said. “I must trust to my own wits and those of my irritating but wily servant.”

Seltis looked concerned, Ferbin thought.

A servant came to the door and wine was ordered. When the door was closed again, Ferbin leant forward and said solemnly, “I have prayed to the WorldGod, good Seltis.”

“That can do no harm,” the Head Scholar said, looking no less concerned.

Someone rapped loudly on the door. “Enter!” Seltis called. “The kitchens are not usually so—”

Choubris Holse lunged into the room, nodded briefly at the Head Scholar and to Ferbin said, “Sir; I fear we are discovered.”

Ferbin leapt to his feet. “What? How?”

Holse looked uncertainly at Seltis. “Little scholar fellow on the roof, sir; heliographed a passing patrol. Three knights on caude just coming in to land.”

“Munhreo,” the Head Scholar said, also standing.

“Maybe they’re just… visiting?” Ferbin suggested.

“In the circumstances, assume the worst,” Seltis told him, moving to his desk. “You’d best get going. I’ll try to detain them as long as I can.”

“We’ll never outrun them on mounts!” Ferbin protested. “Seltis, do you have any flying beasts?”

“No, Ferbin. We do not.” He took a small key from a drawer, kicked a rug behind his desk against the wall and, grunting, knelt on the boards, opening a small hatch in the floor and taking out two thick, heavy grey envelopes stoutly secured with thin metal bands. He opened a flap in each package and quickly wrote their names, then stamped the Scholastery seal on them. “Here,” he said, handing the envelopes to Ferbin. “The D’neng-oal Tower. The Towermaster is one Aiaik.”

“Ake,” Ferbin said.

Seltis tutted and spelled the name for him.

“Aiaik,” Ferbin said. “Thank you, Seltis.” He turned to his servant. “Holse, what are we going to do?”

Holse looked pained. “I have, reluctantly, had an idea, sir.”

* * *

The three caude were tied to a hitching ring on the flat roof of the Scholastery’s main building. A small crowd of mostly young scholars and servants had gathered to gape at the great air beasts, which had settled on their haunches on the roof and were munching on whatever was in their nose bags, giving every impression of ignoring the crowd around them with a degree of disdain. A warm, gusting wind ruffled their crests and made the gaudy coverings under their saddles flap. Ferbin and Holse hurried up the steps and crossed the roof.

“Make way!” Holse shouted, striding through the crowd. Ferbin drew himself up to his full height and strode manfully too, affecting an expression of hauteur.

“Yes! Out of my way!” he yelled.

Holse moved a couple of youthful scholars aside with the flat of his hand and then pointed at another. “You! Untie the beasts. Just two. Now!”

“I was told to guard them, by their riders,” the youth protested.

“And I’m telling you to untie them,” Holse said drawing his short-sword.

What a sheltered life they must lead here, Ferbin thought as the youngster’s eyes went wide and he started fumbling with the reins of one of the beasts. Amazed at the sight of caude and impressed by a drawn sword!

“You!” Holse shouted at another youth. “Help him.”

Ferbin felt rather proud of Holse, if a little envious too. Even resentful, he admitted to himself. He wished he could do something dynamic, or at least useful. He looked at the twenty or so faces confronting him, trying to remember what the scholar called Munhreo had looked like.

“Is Munhreo here?” he said loudly, cutting through a dozen muttered conversations.

“Sir, he went with the knights,” said one voice. The various conversations resumed. Ferbin glanced back at the stairs that led to the roof. “Who’s most senior here?” he barked.

Looks were exchanged. In a moment, one tall scholar stepped forward. “I am.”

“You are aware what these are?” Ferbin asked, pulling the two fat envelopes from his jacket. More wide eyes, and some nodding. “If you are loyal to your Head Scholar and your rightful king, guard that stairway with your life. Make sure nobody else comes up it, and stop anybody from leaving the roof too, until we’ve gone.”

“Sir.” The tall scholar looked initially doubtful, but he took a couple of his peers and went to stand by the steps.

“The rest of you, kindly stand over there,” Ferbin said, indicating the far corner of the roof. There was some muttering, but the scholars complied. He turned back. Holse was removing the nose bag from one of the caude. He emptied the bag with a flick while the creature was mewling in protest, turned the caude round to face towards the nearest edge of the roof and then quickly threw the emptied bag over the beast’s head. “Do the same with the other one, would you, sir?” he asked Ferbin, and moved to the caude which was still tied up. “Make sure it points the same way as that one.”

Ferbin did as he’d been asked, starting to understand why. He felt sick. The two caude with the nose bags over their heads laid their heads obediently on the surface of the roof and might already have been asleep.

Holse gentled the third caude, patting its nose and murmuring to it even as he brought the short-sword to its long neck. He slashed its throat, deep and hard, and the creature jerked back, snapped its tied reins and fell over backwards, wings half extending then folding back again, long legs kicking, then — to the shocked cries of several of the scholars — it went still, dark blood pooling on the roof’s dusty paving.

Holse flicked blood from his sword, sheathed it and strode past Ferbin. He whipped the nose bags off the two surviving caude; their heads rose and deep grumbling noises issued from their wide mouths. “Jump on, sir,” he said. “Try and keep it from seeing the dead one.”

Ferbin mounted the nearest caude, fitting himself into the deep saddle and drawing its belt over while Holse was doing the same. Ferbin was buttoning his jacket tight when his caude bent its long leathery neck back and looked at him with what might have been a puzzled expression, possibly registering the fact that it had a rider different from the one it was used to.

Caude were fabulously stupid animals; the intelligence had been bred out of them as obedience and stamina had been bred in. Ferbin had never heard of one being trained to accept just one rider. He patted the beast’s face and sorted its reins, then kicked its sides and got it to rise on its great long legs and half open its wings with a dry, rustling sound. Suddenly he was towering over the collection of startled, shocked-looking scholars.

“Ready?” Holse shouted.

“Ready!” Ferbin yelled.

They kicked the caude forward to the edge of the roof; the animals jumped on to the parapet and in the same heart-stopping movement launched themselves into the air just as shouts from the stairway end of the roof rang out. Ferbin whooped, half in fear and half in excitement, as the great wings opened with a snap and he and the caude started to fall towards a flagstoned courtyard half a dozen storeys below, the air roaring in his ears. The caude began pulling out of its dive, heavying him into the saddle; the wind screamed about him and he caught a glimpse of Holse to his side, grim-faced, hands clenched round the reins as they levelled out and the giant beasts took their first flap at the air. Distant popping noises behind them might have been gunfire. Something whizzed past between his caude and Holse’s, but then they were beating out away from the Scholastery over the fields and streams.


7. Reception

<p>7. Reception</p>

A reception was held in a grand drawing room of the palace after the state funeral of the late king and his internment in the Hausk family mausoleum, which lay some distance outside the farpole edge of the city walls. It had rained since morning and the day was still dark beyond the tall windows of the great room. Hundreds of candles burned by mirrored walls; the King had recently had installed lights which consumed lampstone, and others which arced electricity to make light, but both had proved problematic in operation and Oramen was glad to see the candles. They gave a softer light and the room didn’t stink of the noxious gases the other types of lamp gave off.

“Fanthile!” Oramen said, seeing the palace secretary.

“Sir.” Fanthile, in his most formal court clothes, all trimmed with mourning red, bowed deeply to the prince. “This is the sorriest of days, sir. We must hope it marks the end of the very sorriest of times.”

“My father would have wanted it no other way.” Oramen saw a couple of Fanthile’s assistants waiting behind him, as good as hopping from foot to foot like children in need of the toilet. He smiled. “I believe you’re needed, Fanthile.”

“With your leave, sir.”

“Of course,” Oramen said, and let Fanthile go to arrange whatever needed to be arranged. He supposed it was a busy time for the fellow. Personally he was quite content to stand and watch.

The atmosphere in the echoing great space, it seemed to Oramen, was one almost of relief. He had only recently developed a feeling for things like the atmosphere of a room. Amazingly, this was something Ferbin had purposefully taught him. Before, Oramen had tended to dismiss talk of such abstracts as ‘atmosphere’ as somehow unimportant; stuff adults talked about for want of anything actually worth discussing. Now he knew better and, by measuring his own submerged mood, he could attempt to gauge the emotional tenor of a gathering like this.

Over the years, Oramen had learned much from his older brother — mostly things like how to behave so as to avoid beatings, tutors tearing their hair out, scandalised lenders petitioning one’s father for funds to pay gambling debts, outraged fathers and husbands demanding satisfaction, that sort of thing — but this was an instance when Ferbin had had a proper lesson he could actually teach his younger brother, rather than simply exemplifying the bad example.

Ferbin had taught Oramen to listen to his own feelings in such situations. This had not been so easy; Oramen often felt overwhelmed in complicated social environments and had come to believe that he felt every emotion there was to feel at such times (so that they all cancelled each other out), or none at all. Eitherly, the result was that he would just stand there, or sit there, or at rate just be there, at whatever ceremony or gathering he was present at, seemingly near catatonic, feeling thoroughly detached and declutched, a waste to himself and an embarrassment to others. He had never suffered especially as a result of this mild social disability — one could get away with almost anything being the son of the King, as Ferbin seemed to have spent most of his life attempting to prove — however, such incidents had come to annoy him, and he’d known that they would only increase as he grew older and — even as the younger prince — he’d be expected to start taking a fuller part in the ceremonial and social workings of the court.

Gradually, under Ferbin’s admittedly casual tutelage, he had learned to seek a sort of calmness in himself and then amplify what feeling was still there, and use that as his marker. So that if, after a little immersion in a social grouping, he still felt tense when he had no particular reason to, then the shared feeling amongst that group must be something similar. If he felt at ease, then that meant the general atmosphere was also placid.

There was, here, he thought — standing looking out over the people collecting in the great drawing room — genuine sadness as well as an undercurrent of apprehension regarding what would happen now with the great king gone (his father’s stature had risen all the higher with his death, as if he was already passing into legend), but there was too a kind of excitement; everyone knew that the preparations for the attack on what was thought to be the now near-defenceless Deldeyn were being stepped up and the war — perhaps, as the late king had believed, the last ever war — was therefore approaching its conclusion.

The Sarl would achieve a goal they had been pursuing for almost all the life of their departed king, the Deldeyn would be defeated, the loathsome and hated Aultridia would be confounded, the WorldGod would be protected — who knew? even saved — and the Oct, the long-term allies of the Sarl, would be grateful, one might even say beholden. The New Age of peace, contentment and progress that King Hausk had talked so much about would finally come to pass. The Sarl would have proved themselves as a people and would, as they grew in power and influence within the greater World and eventually within the alien-inhabited skies beyond, take their rightful place as one of the In-Play, as an Involved species and civilisation, a people fit — perhaps, one day, no doubt still some long way in the future — to treat even the Optimae of the galaxy (the Morthanvelds, the Cultures, and who knew what alien others) as their equals.

That had always been his father’s ultimate aim, Oramen knew, though Hausk had known that he’d never see that day — neither would Oramen, or any children he would ever have — but it was enough to know that one had done one’s bit to further that albeit distant goal, that one’s efforts had formed some sturdy part of the foundations for that great tower of ambition and achievement.

The stage is small but the audience is great, had been one of King Hausk’s favourite sayings. To some degree he meant that the WorldGod watched and hopefully somehow appreciated what they were doing on its behalf, but there was also the implication that although the Sarl were primitive and their civilisation almost comically undeveloped by the standards of, say, the Oct (never mind the Nariscene, still less the Morthanveld and the other Optimae), nevertheless, greatness lay in doing the best you could with what you were given, and that greatness, that fixity of purpose, strength of resolve and decisiveness of action would be watched and noted by those far more powerful peoples and judged not on an absolute scale (on which it would barely register) but on one relative to the comparatively primitive resources the Sarl had available to them.

In a sense, his father had told him once — his contemplative moods were rare, so memorable — the Sarl and people like them had more power than the ungraspably supreme Optimae peoples with their millions of artificial worlds circling in the sky, their thinking machines that put mere mortals to shame and their billions of starships that sailed the spaces between the stars the way an iron warship cruised the waves. Oramen had found this claim remarkable, to put it kindly.

His father had explained that the very sophistication the Optimae and their like enjoyed acted as binds upon them. For all the legendary size of the great island of stars that existed beyond their own world of Sursamen, the galaxy was a crowded, settled, much-lived-in place. The Optimae — the Morthanveld, the Culture and so on — were self-consciously well-behaved and civilised peoples, and existed hip-by-hip with their fellow inhabitants of the great lens. Their realms and fields of influence — and to a degree their histories, cultures and achievements — tended to intermingle and overlap, reducing their cohesiveness as societies and making a defensive war difficult.

Similarly, there was little or nothing they ever needed to compete for and so might come to arms over. Instead, they were bound by numerous treaties, agreements, accords, conventions and even never fully articulated understandings, all designed to keep the peace, to avoid friction between those who were entirely alien in form to one another, but entirely alike in having reached the plateau of civilisational development where further progress could only take one away from the real life of the galaxy altogether.

The result was that while their individuals had what appeared to be complete freedom within their societies, the societies themselves had very little freedom of movement at all, certainly not that seemingly implied by their colossal martial potential. There was simply not much left for them to do on any grand scale. There were no — or at least very few — great wars at this level, no vast tusslings for position and power except by the slowest and most subtle of manoeuvrings. The last great, or at least fairly substantial conflict had been a millennium of Eighth short-years ago, when the Culture had fought the Idirans, and that had been, bizarrely, over principle, at least on the Culture side. (Oramen suspected that if it had not been Xide Hyrlis himself who had confirmed the truth of this, his father would never have believed anything that seemed to him so decadently preposterous.)

The Optimae had no kings to move a whole people to a single purpose at once, they had no real enemies they felt they had no choice but to fight, and they had nothing they valued that they could not somehow produce, seemingly at will, cheaply and in whatever quantities they chose, so there were no resources to fight over either.

But they, the Sarl, the people of the Eighth, this little race of men, they and their like were free to pander to their natures and indulge in their disputes untrammelled. They could do, in effect, and within the limits of their technologies, as they liked! Was that not a fine feeling? Some of the treaties the Optimae indulged in amongst themselves were framed so as to allow people like the Sarl to behave like this, unfettered, in the name of non-interference and resisting cultural imperialism. Was this not rich? Their licence to fight and lie and cheat their way to power and influence was guaranteed by space-alien statute!

The King had found this thoroughly amusing. The stage is small but the audience is great, he had repeated. But never forget, he had told Oramen, that you might be in more of a theatre than you thought. The abilities of the Optimae easily encompassed watching all that was going on amongst people as defenceless to such technologies as the Sarl. It was one of the ways that the Optimae refreshed their jaded palates and reminded themselves what a more barbarous life was like; they watched, for all the world like gods, and while various agreements and treaties were supposed to control and restrict such spying, they were not always observed.

Decadent it might be, but it was the price a people like the Sarl had to pay, perhaps, for their sanction to behave in ways that the Optimae might otherwise find too distasteful to allow. But never mind; maybe one day the descendants of the Sarl would spend their time flying between the stars and watching their own mentored primitives dispute! Happily, by then, his father had informed the youthful Oramen, they would both be long and safely dead.

Who knew to what extent the Sarl were observed? Oramen looked about the great room and wondered. Maybe alien eyes were watching this great mass of people all dressed in their deep red clothes. Maybe they were watching him, right now.

“Oramen, my sweet young prince,” the lady Renneque said, suddenly at his side. “You must not just stand there! People will think you a statue! Come, be my escort to the grieving widow, we’ll pay what respects are due together. What do you say?”

Oramen smiled and took the lady’s offered hand. Renneque was radiantly beautiful in her crimson gown. Her night-dark hair was not quite perfectly contained in a scarlet mourning cap; ringlets and curls had sprung out here and there, framing her perfectly smooth and flawless face.

“You are right,” Oramen said. “I should go to see that lady, and say the right things.”

They walked together through the crowd, which had greatly increased in size since Oramen had last paid proper attention to it as more mourners had been delivered by their carriages. There were hundreds of people here now, all dressed in a hundred shades of red. Only the Urletine mercenaries’ emissary and the knight commander of the Ichteuen Godwarriors seemed to have been excused, and even they had made an effort; the emissary had removed almost all the dried enemy body-parts from his clothing and donned a brown cap that no doubt appeared red to him, while the knight commander had concealed his most shocking facial scars with a crimson veil. And not just humanity was represented; he could smell the presence of the Oct ambassador, Kiu.

In amongst this, the animals of the court: ynt, like ankle-high furry waves slinking sinuously across the floor, always sniffing, happily trailing vermilion ribbons; ryre, tiptoeing decorously, usually by walls, thinly knee-high, ever-charmed by their own reflection, watchful, barely tolerating crimson collars; choups, bouncing and skittering on the polished-to-a-gleam wood tiles, bumping into people’s thighs and waists, alarmed at any alienness, proudly sporting little saddles for children, flanks tied-over with red to indicate mourning like full-size mounts throughout the kingdom on this day, all caparisoned in scarlet.

Moving through the crowd in Renneque’s rustlingly red wake, Oramen gave many small smiles to many slightly anxious faces trying to hit on the right combination of regretful grief and encouraging friendliness. Renneque kept her face modestly down, yet seemed to appreciate every glance cast her way and to be energised by the attention. “You have grown, Oramen,” she told him, slipping back to his side. “It seems that only yesterday I could look down on you, but no more. You’re taller than me now, practically a man.”

“I trust I grow rather than you shrink.”

“What? Oh!” Renneque said, and squeezed his hand with every appearance of bashfulness. She glanced up. “So many people, Oramen! All would be your friends now.”

“I did not think I lacked for friends before, but I suppose I must accept I was wrong.”

“Will you go with the army, Oramen, down into the Ninth, to fight the dreadful Deldeyn?”

“I don’t know. It’s not really for me to decide.”

Renneque looked down at her fine red gown being kicked out ahead of her with every step. “Perhaps it should be.”

“Perhaps.”

“I hope the victory is quick! I want to see the great Falls at Hyeng-zhar and the Nameless City.”

“I have heard they are most spectacular.”

“My friend Xidia — she’s older than me, of course, but still — she saw them once, in more peaceful times. Her father was ambassador to the Deldeyn. He took her. She says they are like nothing else. A whole city! Imagine that! I should like to see them.”

“I’m sure you shall.”

They arrived at where Harne, the lady Aelsh, was seated, surrounded by her own ladies, many clutching handkerchiefs and still dabbing at their eyes. Harne herself looked dry-eyed, though grim.

Oramen’s late father had never taken any lady to be his queen, thinking it best to leave that position free in case he needed to use it as a method of securing a troublesome or much-required territory. It was said that King Hausk had come close to marrying several times; certainly the subject had been raised amongst the ambassadors and diplomats of the court often enough, and if you believed every rumour he had been nearly married to almost every eligible princess of the Eighth and at least one from the Ninth. In the event his feats of arms had done all the securing required without recourse to a diplomatic or strategic marriage and instead he had chosen to make a series of more tactical alliances within the nobility of his own kingdom through a judicious choice of honoured concubines.

Oramen’s own mother, Aclyn, the lady Blisk — who had also birthed his elder brother, the late and still sorely lamented Elime — had been banished shortly after Oramen had been born, allegedly at the insistence of Harne, who, being older, it was said had felt threatened. Or perhaps there had been a falling-out between the two women — versions varied according to whom within the palace you listened to. Oramen had no memories of his mother, only of nurses and servants and an occasionally visiting father who somehow contrived to seem more remote than his utterly absent mother. She had been banished to a place called Kheretesuhr, an archipelagic province in the Vilamian Ocean, towards the far side of the world from Pourl. One of Oramen’s goals, now that he was at least approaching the true seat of power, was to secure her return to the court. He had never expressed this desire to anyone, yet he had always felt that somehow Harne must know this.

The final link in this unhappily expansive family had been Vaime, the lady Anaplia. Always frail, she had collapsed when heavily pregnant. The doctors had told the King he could save the mother or the child, but not both. He chose to save the child, expecting a boy. Instead he was presented with a tiny premature dot of a girl. He was so appalled at this disaster that the infant wasn’t even named for a month. Eventually she was called Djan. Over the years, the King had made no secret, least of all towards Djan herself, that had he known her gender before birth, she would have been sacrificed for the good of her mother. His only solace had been that he might marry the girl off one day for diplomatic profit.

The King had lately taken another couple of junior concubines, though these were kept in a smaller palace in another part of the city — again, at the insistence of Harne, according to palace gossip — however, it was Harne that was recognised as his widow in all but name. The two younger concubines had not even been present at the service or internment, nor had they been invited here.

“Madam, good lady,” Oramen said, bowing deeply to Harne. “It is only in you that I feel my sense of loss is matched, even outweighed. I beg you accept my most sincere condolences. If we may take one ray of light from this dark time, let it be that you and I grow closer than we have been; my father’s death, and that of your son, giving birth to a more affectionate relationship between us than that which has existed in the past. The King always sought harmony, even if through initial conflict, and Ferbin was the very soul of sociability. We might honour both their memories by seeking our own concord.”

He’d had this little speech, this careful formed set of words, prepared for some days now. He had meant to say “the King’s death”, but it had come out otherwise; he had no idea why. He felt annoyed at himself.

The lady Aelsh kept her strict expression, but made a small inclination of her head. “Thank you for your words, prince. I’m sure they would both be pleased if all could be in agreement within the court. We might all take pains to celebrate them so.”

And that, Oramen thought — as Renneque fell to Harne’s side and took the older woman’s hands in hers and shook them as she told her how awful was her own grief — will just have to do. It was not outright rejection, but neither was it quite what he’d been hoping for. He caught Harne’s gaze briefly while Renneque talked on. He bowed and turned away.

* * *

“How go our preparations, Field Marshal?” Oramen asked the gauntly forbidding form of the army’s newly promoted chief. Werreber was standing, drink in hand, gazing out at the rain falling over the city. He turned and looked down at Oramen.

“Satisfactorily, sir,” he said gravely.

“The rumours say we attack within ten days.”

“I have heard as much myself, sir.”

Oramen smiled. “My father would have loved to have been at the head of our forces.”

“He would indeed, sir.”

“We will not suffer by his lack? I mean, sufficiently for there to be any doubting the outcome.”

“He is a great loss, sir,” Werreber said. “However, he left the army in its best deportment. And there is, of course, an urge amongst the men to avenge his death.”

“Hmm,” Oramen said, frowning. “I heard that the Deldeyn prisoners were slaughtered after his death.”

“There was killing, sir. It was a battle.”

“After the battle, though. When by every other standard and practice of my father, prisoners are meant to be treated as we would want any of our own taken.”

“There was killing then too, sir. It is to be regretted. Doubtless the men were blinded by grief.”

“I have heard it said that my father ordered the slaughter.”

“I am sorry you have heard that, sir.”

“You were there with him when he died, dear Werreber. Do you remember such an order?”

The field marshal drew back and up a little, and appeared positively discomfited. “Prince,” he said, looking down his great long nose at him, “it is sad, but there are times when the less that is said about certain matters the better it is for all. A clean wound’s best left. Only pain comes from poking and prodding at it.”

“Oh, Werreber, I could not be there at my father’s death. I have a need — natural to any son — to know quite how it was. Can you not help fix it in my mind so that, secured, it’s easier to leave it finally alone? Otherwise I must imagine the scene, the words, the actions, and all these things shift because they are not established for me. So it becomes a wound I cannot help but return to.”

The field marshal looked as uncomfortable as Oramen had ever seen him. “I was not present throughout the incident of your father’s dying,” he said. “I was with the Exaltine, on our way having been summoned, or for some long time outside the building, not wishing to make a crowd while efforts to save the King’s life continued. I heard no such order given by your father regarding the prisoners, but that does not mean it was not given. It hardly matters, sir. Done to order or in an excess of grief, the enemy concerned remain dead.”

“So I’d not dispute,” Oramen said. “It was more the reputation of my father I was thinking of.”

“He must have been in great pain and distress, sir. A fever can afflict men in such circumstances. They become other than themselves and say things they would never say otherwise. Even the bravest. It is often not an edifying spectacle. I repeat, sir; it is all best left alone.”

“Are you saying that at the very end he did not die as he had lived? He would think that a severe charge.”

“No, sir, I am not. In any event, I did not see the very end.” Werreber paused, as if unsure quite how to express himself. “Your father was the bravest man I ever knew. I cannot imagine he met death with anything other than the fierce composure with which he faced its threat so many times during life. Also, though, he was never one to dwell excessively on the past. Even having made a mistake, he took what he might learn from it and then dismissed it. We must do as he would have done, and turn our attention to the future. Now, sir, might I be excused? I believe I am needed at Headquarters. There is much still to be planned.”

“Of course, Werreber,” Oramen said, sipping his drink. “I did not mean to detain you, or unduly press on any wound.”

“Sir.” The field marshal bowed and departed.

* * *

Oramen counted himself privileged to have got so much from Werreber, who was known as a man of few words. This was a description unsuited to the Exaltine Chasque, the next figure he approached seeking detail of his father’s death. The Exaltine was rotund in body and face and his dark red robes bulked him out still further. He blustered over his own part in the deathbed scene, claiming his eyes had been too full of tears and his ears brimming with the lamentations of all around to recall much clearly.

“And so, do your studies progress, young prince?” the Exaltine asked, as though returning to the more important subject. “Eh? Do you continue to sup at the well of learning? Hmm?”

Oramen smiled. He was used to adults asking about favourite school subjects when they could think of nothing else to talk of or wished to get off an awkward subject, so he replied perfunctorily and made his escape.

* * *

“They say the dead look back at us from mirrors, don’t they, Gillews?”

The royal physician turned round with a startled expression on his face, and then staggered and nearly fell over. “Your — that is, Prince Oramen.”

The doctor was a small, tense, nervous-looking man at the best of times. He seemed now positively abuzz with energy. Also, from his continued swaying and the glassy look about his eyes, quite drunk too. He had been staring at his reflection in one of the mirrors that covered half the walls of the drawing room. Oramen had been looking for him, moving amongst the throng, accepting sympathies, dispensing solemn pleasantries and trying to look — and be — grieving, brave, calm and dignified all at once.

“Did you see my father, Gillews?” Oramen asked, nodding to the mirror. “Was he in there, looking down on us?”

“What’s that?” the doctor asked. His breath smelled of wine and some unsluiced foodstuff. Then he seemed to catch up with what was going on and turned, swaying again, to look into the tall mirror. “What? The dead? No, I see no one, saw nobody. Indeed not, prince, no.”

“My father’s death must have affected you deeply, good doctor.”

“How could it not?” the little fellow asked. He wore a doctor’s skullcap, but it had slipped to one side and come forward, too, so that it was starting to droop over his right eye. Wispy white hairs protruded. He looked down into his near-empty glass and said, “How could it not?” again.

“I’m glad I found you, Gillews,” Oramen told him. “I have wanted to talk to you since my father was killed.”

The doctor closed one eye and squinted at him. “Uh?” he said.

Oramen had grown up with adults getting drunk around him. He didn’t really enjoy drinking — the sensation of being dizzy, as though you were about to be sick, seemed an odd state to pursue with such determination — but he quite liked being with drunk people, having learned that they often gave away the true natures they otherwise contrived to hide, or just let slip some item of information or gossip they would not have parted with so casually when sober. He already suspected he had got to Dr Gillews too late, but he’d give it a try anyway. “You were with my father when he died, obviously.”

“It was a most obvious death, sir, true,” the doctor said, and, strangely, attempted a smile. This dissolved quickly into an expression of some despair, then he dropped his head so that his expression was unreadable and started muttering what sounded like, “Well, not obvious, why obvious? Gillews, you idiot…”

“Doctor. I’d know how my father was in those last minutes. This is a matter of some importance to me. I feel I can’t put him fully to rest in my mind until I know. Please — can you recall?”

“To rest?” Gillews said. “What rest? What rest is there? Rest is… rest is beneficial. Renews the frame, redefines the nerves, resupplies the muscles and allows the mechanical stresses on the greater bodily organs to abate. Yes, that is rest, and crave it we might. Death is not rest, no; death is the end of rest. Death is decay and rotting down, not building up! Don’t talk to me of rest! What rest is there? Tell me that! What rest? Where, when our king lies heavy in his grave? For whom? Eh? I thought not!”

Oramen had taken a step back as the doctor raved at him. He could only wonder at the depths of emotion the poor man must be feeling. How he must have loved his king, and how devastating it must have been for him to lose him, to be unable to save him. The doctor’s two principal assistants moved in on either side to take Gillews’ arms, supporting him. One took his glass and pushed it into a pocket. The other looked at Oramen, smiled nervously and shrugged. He mumbled something apologetic-sounding that ended in “sir”.

“What?” Gillews said, head tipping from side to side as though his neck was half broken, eyes rolling as he tried to focus on the two young men. “My pall-bearers, already? Is it to a council of my peers? An arraignment before the shades of physicians past? Throw me in the mirror. Let me reflect…” He pitched his head back and wailed, “Oh, my king, my king!” then slumped in the grip of the two men, weeping.

The assistants took Gillews stumbling away.

“Dear Oramen,” tyl Loesp said, appearing at Oramen’s side. He looked after the departing figures of Gillews and his two helpers. “The doctor may have enjoyed his drink too much.”

“He enjoys nothing else,” Oramen said. “I feel outdone in unkiltered grief.”

“There is appropriate grief, and inappropriate grief, don’t you think?” tyl Loesp said, standing close to Oramen, towering over him, white hair shining in the candlelight. His dark red trous and long jacket contrived to make him look no less massive than he’d looked in full armour, the evening he’d brought the King’s body back from the battlefield. Oramen was growing tired of being polite.

“Did my father die well, in the end, tyl Loesp?” he asked. “Tell me. Please.”

Tyl Loesp had been bending over Oramen a little. Now he drew himself back and up. “Like a king should, sir. I was never more proud of him, nor held him in greater esteem, as at that moment.”

Oramen put his hand on the tall warrior’s arm. “Thank you, Loesp.”

“It is my pleasure and my duty, young prince. I am but the stake to support a sapling.”

“You have supported me well in this, and I am in your debt.”

“Never so, sir. Never so.” Tyl Loesp smiled at Oramen for a moment or two, then his gaze flicked to somewhere behind the prince and he said, “Here, sir. Look; a more welcome face.”

“My prince,” said a voice behind Oramen.

He turned to find his old friend Tove Lomma standing there, smiling.

“Tove!” Oramen said.

“Equerry Tove, if you’ll have me, Prince Regent.”

“Equerry?” Oramen asked. “To me? Of mine?”

“I’d hope! Nobody else would have me.”

“In fact, a most able young man,” tyl Loesp said, clapping both Lomma and Oramen on the shoulders. “Remember merely that he is meant to keep you out of mischief, not lay a course towards it.” Tyl Loesp smiled at Oramen. “I’ll leave you two to plot much good behaviour.” He bowed shortly and left.

Tove looked rueful. “Not a day for mischief, prince. Not this one. But we must hope there will be many in the future.”

“We’ll share none if you don’t call me by my name, Tove.”

“Tyl Loesp instructed me most strictly that you were the Prince Regent, nothing more familiar,” Tove said, and pretended to frown.

“Consider that order rescinded, by me.”

“Duly agreed, Oramen. Let’s have a drink.”


8. Tower

<p>8. Tower</p>

“Fate, I tell you, if not the hand of the WorldGod itself… or whatever manipulatory appendage WorldGods possess. Anyway, the hand, metaphorically, of the WorldGod. Possibly.”

“I think you underguess the workings of blind chance, sir.”

“Blind chance that took me to that dreadful place?”

“Unarguably, sir: your startled mount ran cross-country until it found a track; naturally it then took the levelled road rather than the coarse ground and of course it took the easier, downhill route. Then that old mill appeared, on the first place where the road widens and levels out. Natural place for it to stop.”

Ferbin looked across at the prone form of his servant, lying on the ground a couple of strides away across the leaf-littered ground with a large blue leaf poised over his head. Choubris Holse looked calmly back.

* * *

They had flown straight out from the Scholastery until hidden from it by a line of low hills, then set down on a sloped heath above the limit of cultivated land.

“I think I’ve heard of the D’neng-oal Tower,” Ferbin said, while they inspected the two grumbling, huffing caude, “but I’m damned if I know which way it is.”

“Same here, sir,” said Holse. He opened up one of the saddle bags on his beast. “Though with any luck there’ll be a map in here. Let me just have a quick furtle.” He dug his hand elbow-deep into the bag.

The saddle bags yielded maps, some food, a little water, a telescope, a heliograph, two hefty pocket chronometers, one barometer/altimeter, some rifle and pistol ammunition but no weapons, four small bomblets like smooth hand grenades with cruciform flights, padded jackets, gauntlets, one small blanket each and the usual paraphernalia of tack associated with caude, including a good supply of the krisk nuts they found so stimulating. Holse popped one in the mouth of each animal; they mewed and whinnied appreciatively. “Ever tried these things, sir?” Holse asked, holding up the bag of krisk.

“No,” Ferbin lied. “Of course not.”

“Bloody horrible. Bitter as a scold’s piss.” He put the bag away, fastened the saddle bags and adjusted his saddle. “And these bastard knights that came to the Scholastery must be ascetics or something, for there’s no sign of any of the little niceties that make life bearable for the common man, sir. Like wine, or unge, or crile. Bloody fliers.” Holse shook his head at such lack of consideration.

“No goggles or masks either,” Ferbin pointed out.

“Must have carried them with them.”

Holse was checking one of the pistol rounds they’d discovered in the saddle bags against one from his own gun. “Let’s have a quick look, and then be off, eh, sir?” he said, then shook his head and dumped all the ammunition on the heath.

They consulted the maps, one of which was of sufficient scale to show the land for nearly ten days’ flying around Pourl, depicting hundreds upon hundreds of the great Towers as well as the shade limits and periods of the various Rollstars.

“There it is,” Ferbin said, tapping on the map.

“What would you say, sir? Four short-days’ flying?”

“More like three,” Ferbin said, glad to have found a practical subject he knew so much more of than his servant. “Five Towers along and one down, four times over, then three and one. Away from Pourl, which is to the good.” He glanced up at Obor. Its red-tinged bulk was still barely above the horizon as it rose upon its slow and settled course. “It’s a long-day today. We shall have to let the beasts day-sleep, but we should achieve the tower before dusk.”

“Could do with a snooze myself,” Holse yawned. He looked disparagingly at his mount, which had tucked its long neck under its massive body to lick its genitals. “Rather hoped I’d seen the last of these things this close, I do confess, sir.” Holse’s caude removed its head from between its legs, though only long enough for it to fart long and loud, as though to confirm its new rider’s poor opinion.

“You are not enamoured of the beasts of the air, Holse?”

“Indeed not, sir. If the gods had meant us to fly they’d have given us the wings and the caude the pox.”

“If they hadn’t meant us to fly, gravity would be stronger,” Ferbin replied.

“I wasn’t aware it was adjustable, sir.”

Ferbin smiled tolerantly. He realised that his servant might not be versed in the kind of alien lore that would insist that what he and Holse had known all their lives as normal gravity was about half Standard, whatever that really meant.

“However,” Holse said. “Let’s get moving, eh?” They both went to saddle up.

“Best put these jackets on,” Ferbin said. “It’ll be cold up there.” He gestured upwards. “Clouds are clearing so we’ll be able to go high.”

Holse sighed. “If we must, sir.”

“I’ll work the clock, shall I?” Ferbin held up the chronometer.

“That necessary, sir?”

Ferbin, who had got lost while flying too many times, mistakenly thinking that you could never miscount things as big as Towers — or fall asleep in the saddle, for that matter — said, “I think it advisable.”

* * *

They had flown without incident at the altitude best for caude cruising stamina. They had seen other fliers far in the distance, but had not been approached. The landscape moved slowly beneath them, changing from tiny fields to stretches of waste and heath that were low hills, then back to fields, small towns, and great glaring areas of bright green that marked the roasoaril plantations whose fruits went to feed the refineries which produced the fuel to power the steam engines of the modern age.

Slowly over the horizon appeared a handful of long fingers of shining water that were the Quoluk Lakes. Ferbin recognised the island that held the Hausk family estate of Moiliou. The river Quoline gathered water from all the lakes and then wound away towards the distant equator, vanishing in the haze. Canals blinked, reflecting sunlight like thin threads of silver, spearing straight over level areas and describing curving contours about raised ground.

Even in the jacket, Ferbin shivered. His knees, covered only in hose and trous, were especially cold. Not having goggles or a mask meant his eyes were watering all the time. He’d wrapped his collar scarf round his lower face, but it was all still most uncomfortable. He kept an eye on the chronometer clipped to the tall front edge of his saddle and used a waterproof pad and wax crayon also attached to the saddle to mark down the passing of each great Tower as it loomed and then slid slowly past to their right.

The Towers, as ever, were a source of a kind of odd comfort. From this height more of them were visible than one saw from the ground and one was able to form a proper impression of their numbers and regular spacing. Only from this sort of altitude, Ferbin thought, did one fully appreciate that one lived within a greater world, a world of levels, of regularly spaced floors and ceilings, with the Towers holding one above the other. They rose like vast spars of pale luminescence, masts of a celestial ship of infinite grace and absolute, inconceivable power. High above, just visible, the laciness of Filigree showed where the Towers’ splayed summits — still fourteen hundred kilometres over his and Holse’s heads, for all their chilly altitude — fluted out like an impossibly fine network of branches from a succession of vast trees.

A million Towers held the world up. The collapse of just one might destroy everything, not just on this level, their own dear Eighth, but on and in all the others too; the WorldGod itself might not be beyond harm. But then it was said that the Towers were near invulnerable, and Sursamen had been here for a thousand times a million years. Whether this meant their own short-years or long-years or so-called Standard years, he didn’t know — with such a number it hardly mattered.

Ferbin wiped his eyes free of tears and looked carefully around, taking time to let his gaze rest on a succession of distant points the better to catch any movement. He wondered how long it would take for word to get back to Pourl of what had happened at the Scholastery. Riding there would take five days or so, but — using the heliograph — perhaps another patrol would be attracted, and in reality the knights who’d lost their mounts only needed to get to the nearest telegraph station. Plus, the patrol would be missed when it didn’t return; search parties would be sent out and would no doubt be signalled from the Scholastery. Seltis would surely be questioned; would they stoop to torture? What if he told them about the documents and the D’neng-oal Tower?

Well, he and Holse had little choice. They would make the best time they could. The rest was up to luck and the WorldGod.

Their beasts started to show signs of fatigue. Ferbin checked the chronometer. They had been in the air nearly ten hours and must have flown over six hundred thousand strides — six hundred kilometres. They had passed twelve Towers to their right, and flown left by one tower every five. Obor, a slow, orange Rollstar, was just approaching its noon. They were about halfway.

They descended, found an island at the edge of a vast Bowlsea with a rich crop of fat bald-head fruit, and landed in a small clearing. The caude swallowed fruit until they looked fit to burst. They started farting again, then promptly fell asleep in the nearest shade, still expelling gas. Ferbin and Holse tethered the beasts, also had something to eat, then found another patch of deep shade and cut down a giant leaf each to shield their eyes still further from the light while they slept. This was where Ferbin chose to share his thoughts with his servant on the course of events recently, and why ideas like predestination, destiny and fate had been much on his mind during the long, cold and painful hours in the saddle.

* * *

“Oh. I see,” Ferbin said. “You are familiar with the disposition of that ancient manufactury?”

“All I’m saying, sir, is that it was about the only intact building for half a day’s ride around. Even the old hunting lodge, which was, as it were, the cause of every other building in the area having as useful a roof as that stupidity I found you in—”

“Folly.”

“ — that folly I found you in, was smashed to buggery. It had been artilleried. But anyway, sir, your mount getting you there was no great surprise.”

“Very well,” Ferbin said, determined to show his reasonableness by making a concession. “My arriving might not have been due to the hand of fate. The traitors taking my father there — that was. Destiny was taking a hand. Perhaps even the WorldGod. My father’s fate was sealed, it would seem, and he could not be saved, but at least his son might be allowed to witness the despicable crime and set vengeance in train.”

“I’m sure it seemed and seems so to you, sir. However, with no buildings about the place, in the heat of a battle, and a dirt-rain starting, taking a wounded man to a place with a roof only makes sense. If dirt-rain gets into a wound, it turns cut-rot and infection from a bad risk to a perfect certainty.”

Ferbin had to think back. He recalled that when he’d crawled out of the burning building into the damp, cloying leaves and branches it had, indeed, been a dirty rain that had been falling. That was why it had all felt so sticky and grainy and horrible. “But they wanted him dead!” he protested.

“And where would you rather do that, sir? In full view of who-knows-who, in the open, or under a roof, between walls?”

Ferbin frowned, pulled his big blue leaf down over his face and from underneath said grumpily, “Still, for all your cynicism, Holse, it was fate.”

“As you say, sir,” Holse said, sighing, and pulled his own leaf over his face. “Good sleep, sir.”

He was answered with a snore.

* * *

When they awoke it was to colder, darker, windier conditions. The Obor-lit long-day was still in its early afternoon, but the weather had changed. Small grey clouds sailed raggedly across the sky beneath a high overcast and the air smelled damp. The caude were slow to wake and spent much of the next half-hour defecating noisily and voluminously. Ferbin and Holse took their small breakfast some distance upwind.

“That wind’s against us,” Ferbin said, looking out from the edge of the plantation across the quick-chopping waves of the Bowlsea. A dark horizon in the direction they would be heading looked ominous.

“As well we made good distance yesterday,” Holse said, chewing on some air-dried meat.

They secured their few belongings, checked the map, took a few of the bald-head fruit with them — for the caude; the fruit was indigestible to humans — then took off into a freshening breeze. The wind added to the sensation of cold, even though they were flying much lower than earlier due to the great banks and drifts of dark grey cloud striating the sky. They skirted the bigger clouds and flew through only the smallest. Caude were reluctant to fly through thick cloud anyway, though they would do so if they were forced. Once inside cloud the animals were as bad as humans at gauging whether they were upright and flying straight and level, or describing a banked circle and about to crash into some nearby Tower. Caude were the rowels of the air, reliable work beasts rather than thoroughbred racing creatures like lyge, and so only flew at about fifty or sixty kilometres per hour. Even so, hitting a Tower at that speed was usually enough to kill both beast and rider, and if not, then the subsequent fall to the ground tended to do the trick.

Ferbin was still keeping an eye on the chronometer and marking the passage of the Towers to their right — they were flying closer to them now, only a few kilometres off each one, so they didn’t miss any, something Ferbin knew from experience it was all too easy to do — however, he found himself thinking back to a dream he’d had the night before and — via that — to his one journey to the Surface, back when he’d been a youth.

That, too, was like a dream to him now.

He had walked on strange ground beneath no lid or ceiling save that of the atmosphere itself, held contained by a far circle of walls and by nothing else but gravity; a place with no Towers, where the curve of the earth beneath one’s feet just went on, uninterrupted, unbroken, unsupported, unbelievable.

He had watched the stars wheel and, in each of the half-dozen days he had been there, had marvelled at the tiny, blinding dot that was Meseriphine, the Unseen Sun, the distant, connected yet unconnected pivot that great Sursamen itself spun slow about. There was a remorselessness about those Surface days; one sun, one source of light, one regular set of days and nights, always the same, seemingly unchanging, while everything he’d ever known was far below — entire levels that were themselves worlds beneath him, and only nothing above; a dark true-nothingness, sprinkled with a rash of faint points of light that he was told were other suns.

His father had been meant to be there but had had to call off at the last moment. Ferbin had gone with his older brother Elime, who had been there before but had wanted to go again. They were very privileged to be treated so. Their father could command the Oct to take people to other levels including the Surface, as could some other rulers and the Head Scholars of Scholasteries, but any other person travelled at the whim of the Oct, and they granted almost no such wishes.

They had taken a couple of friends and a few old servants. The great Crater they’d stayed within for most of their visit was green with vast meadows and tall trees. The air smelled of unidentifiable perfumes. It was thick and at once fresh and heady; they had felt energised, almost drugged.

They had lived within an underground complex in the face of a tall cliff looking out over a vast network of hexagonal lakes bounded by thin strips of land; this pattern stretched to the horizon. They had met some Nariscene and even one Morthanveld. Ferbin had already seen his first Oct, in the scendship that had taken them up the Tower to the Surface. This had been before the Oct embassy had been opened in the palace at Pourl and Ferbin had the same superstitious dread of the Oct as most people. There were legends, rumours and uncorroborated reports that the Oct issued from their Towers in the dead of night to steal people from their beds. Sometimes whole families or even villages disappeared. The Oct took the captured back to their Towers and experimented upon them, or ate them, or transported them to another level for sport and devilment.

The result was that the common mass of people dreaded both the Oct themselves and the very idea of being taken to and transported within a Tower. Ferbin had long been told these were nonsense tales, but he’d still been nervous. It had been a relief to discover the Oct were so small and delicate-looking.

The Oct in the scendship had been most insistent that they were the true Inheritors and direct descendants of the Involucra, the original builders of the Shellworlds. He had been highly impressed with this, and had felt a vicarious outrage that this fact was not more widely accepted.

He’d been in awe of the Oct’s casual familiarity with and easy control of this vessel that could rise within a Tower, past level after unglimpsed level, to the very outside of all things. It was control of the world, he realised. It seemed more real, more relevant and somehow even more important and impressive than control of the infinitude of ungraspable space beyond the world itself. This, he’d thought, was power.

Then he’d watched how the Oct and the Nariscene treated each other, and realised that the Nariscene were the masters here; they were the superiors, who merely indulged this strange species that to his people, to the Sarl, had near-magical powers. How lowly the Sarl must be, to be mere cargo, simple primitives to the Oct, who were themselves treated like little more than children by their Nariscene mentors!

Seeing, furthermore, how the Nariscene and the Morthanveld interacted was almost dismaying, because the Morthanveld in turn seemed to regard the Nariscene as something like children and treated them with amused indulgence. Another level, and another; all beyond his, above his people’s heads.

In some ways, they were the lowest of the low, he realised. Was this why so few of his people were ever invited here?

Perhaps if everybody saw what he, his brother and their friends were seeing, the Sarl might sink into a state of apathy and depression, for they would know how little their lives really counted within the ever-expanding hierarchies of alien powers beyond them. This had been Elime’s opinion. He also believed that it was a deliberate scheme of their mentors to encourage those who were in power, or who would one day assume power, to witness the wonders that they were now being shown, so that they would never be tempted to get above themselves, so that they would always know that no matter how magnificent they appeared to themselves or those around them and regardless of what they achieved, it was all within the context of this greater, more powerful, sophisticated and ultimately far superior reality.

“They try to break us!” Elime had told Ferbin. Elime was a big, burly, energetic young man, always full of enthusiasm and opinions and tirelessly keen to hunt or drink or fight or fuck. “They try to put a little voice in our heads that will always say, ‘You don’t matter. What you do means nothing!’”

Elime, like their father, was having none of this. So the aliens could sail within the Towers and cruise between the stars and construct whole worlds — so what? There were powers beyond them that they didn’t fully understand. Perhaps this nesting, this shell-after-shell-beyond-what-you-knew principle went on for ever! Did the aliens give up and do nothing? No! They had their disputes and contentions, their disagreements and alliances, their wins and losses, even if they were somehow more oblique and rarefied than the wars, victories and defeats that the Sarl both enjoyed and suffered. The stratagems and power-plays, the satisfactions and disillusions that the Sarl experienced mattered as much to them as those of the aliens did to their own over-weeningly cosmopolitan and civilised souls.

You lived within your level and accepted that you did; you played by the rules within that level, and therein lay the measure of your worth. All was relative, and by refusing to accept the lesson the aliens were implicitly trying to teach here — behave, accept, bow down, conform — a hairy-arsed bunch of primitives like the Sarl could score their own kind of victory against the most overarching sophisticates the galaxy had to offer.

Elime had been wildly excited. This visit had reinforced what he’d seen during his first time at the Surface and had made sense of all the things their father had been telling them since they were old enough to understand. Ferbin had been amazed; Elime was positively glowing with joy at the prospect of returning to their own level with a kind of civilisational mandate to carry on his father’s work of unifying the Eighth — and who knew, perhaps beyond.

At the time, Ferbin, who was just starting to take an interest in such things, had been more concerned with the fact that his beautiful second cousin Truffe, who was a little older than he and with whom he’d started to think he might be falling in love, had succumbed — with frightening, indecent ease — to Elime’s bluff charms during the visit to the Surface. That was the sort of conquering Ferbin was starting to take an interest in, thank you, and Elime had already beaten him to it.

They had returned to the Eighth, Elime with a messianic gleam in his eye, Ferbin with a melancholic feeling that, now Truffe was forever denied him — he couldn’t imagine she’d settle for him after his brother, and besides, he wasn’t sure he wanted her any more anyway — his young life was already over. He also felt that — in some strange, roundabout way — the aliens had succeeded in lowering his expectations by the same degree they had inadvertently raised Elime’s.

* * *

He realised he had drifted off in this reverie when he heard Holse shouting at him. He looked about. Had he missed a Tower? He saw what looked like a new Tower some distance off to his right and forward. It looked oddly bright in its paleness. This was because of the great wall of darkness filling the sky ahead. He was damp all over; they must have flown through a cloud. The last he recalled they had been flying just under the surface of some long grey mass of vapour with hazy tendrils stretching down like forest creepers all around them.

“…grit-cloud!” he heard Holse yell.

He looked up at the cliff of darkness ahead and realised it was indeed a silse cloud; a mass of sticky rain it would be dangerous and possibly fatal to try and fly through. Even the caude he was riding seemed to have realised things weren’t quite right; it shivered beneath him and he could hear it making moaning, whining noises. Ferbin looked to either side. There was no way round the great dark cloud and it was far too tall for them to go over the top. The cloud was loosing its gritty cargo of rain, too; great dragged veils of darkness swept back along the ground beneath it.

They’d have to land and sit it out. He signalled to Holse and they wheeled right round, back the way they’d come, descending fast towards the nearest forest on the side of a tall hill bound on three sides by the loop of a broad river. Drops of moisture tickled Ferbin’s face and he could smell something like dung.

They landed on the broad, boggy summit of the hill near a rough-edged pool of dark, brackish water and squelched through a quaking mire of shaking ground, leading the grumbling caude down to the tree line. They persuaded the caude to trample down a few springy saplings so they could all shoulder their way far enough in. They sheltered under the trees while the whole day darkened until it was like night. The caude promptly fell asleep.

The grit-rain whispered in the branches high above, growing slowly louder. The view of the hill’s top and a line of remaining brightness in the sky beyond disappeared.

“What I wouldn’t give for a pipe of good unge leaf,” Holse said, sighing. “Bloody nuisance, eh, sir?”

Ferbin could barely make out his servant’s face in the gloom, though he was almost within touching distance. “Yes,” he said. He squinted at the chronometer, which he was keeping inside his jacket. “We won’t get there in daylight now,” he said.

A few leaf-filtered drops of the dirty rain plopped down about them; one landed on Ferbin’s nose and trickled to his mouth. He spat.

“My old dad lost a whole crop of xirze to one of these buggering silse storms once,” Holse said.

“Well, they destroy but they build up too,” Ferbin said.

“I have heard them compared to kings, in that regard,” Holse said. “Sir.”

“We need them, both.”

“I’ve heard that too, sir.”

“In other worlds, they have no silse, no sticky rain. So I’ve been told.”

“Really? Doesn’t the land just wear away to nothing?”

“Apparently not.”

“Not even eventually, sir? Don’t these places have rain and such — ordinary rain, I mean, obviously — that would wear the hills down and carry them all away to lakes and seas and oceans?”

“They generally do. Seemingly they also have such hydrological systems that can build up land from beneath.”

“From beneath,” Holse said, sounding unconvinced.

“I remember one lesson where it sounded like they had oceans of rock so hot it was liquid, and not only flowed like rivers but also could flow uphill, to issue from the summits of mountains,” Ferbin said.

“Really, sir.” Holse sounded like he thought Ferbin was trying to fool him into believing the sort of preposterous nonsense a child would dismiss with derision.

“These effects serve to build up land,” Ferbin said. “Oh, and the mountains float and can grow upwards wholesale, apparently. Entire countries crash into each other, raising hills. There was more, but I rather missed the start of that lesson and it does all sound a bit far-fetched.”

“I think they were having you on, sir. Trying to see how gullible you might be.” Holse might have sounded hurt.

“I thought that, I have to say.” Ferbin shrugged, unseen. “Oh, I probably got it wrong, Choubris. I wouldn’t quote me on this, frankly.”

“I shall take care not to, sir,” Holse said.

“Anyway, that is why they don’t need silse rain.”

“If a tenth of all that stuff’s true, sir, I think we have the better side of the bargain.”

“So do I.”

Silse rebuilt land. As Ferbin understood it, tiny animalcules in the seas and oceans each grabbed a particle of silt and then made some sort of gas that hoisted creature and particle to the surface, where they leapt into the air to become clouds which then drifted over the land and dropped the lot in the form of dirty, sticky rain. Silse clouds were relatively rare, which was just as well; a big one could drown a farm, a village or even a county as efficiently as a small flood, smothering crops with knee-deep mud, tearing down trees or leaving them stripped of branches, breaking roofs of too shallow a pitch, paving over meadows, blanketing roads and damming rivers — usually only temporarily, swiftly resulting in real floods.

The gritty rain was dripping on to them even under the cover of the trees as it found its way through the now heavy, drooping branches.

From all directions around them, a sporadic series of loud cracks rang out above the sound of the silse storm, each followed by a rushing, tearing, crashing noise concluding in a great thump.

“If you hear that right above us, sir,” Holse said, “best jump.”

“I most certainly shall,” Ferbin said, trying to uncloy his eyes from the gritty stuff falling on them. The silse stank like something from the bottom of a latrine trench. “Though right now, death does not seem so unattractive.”

The cloud passed eventually, the day brightened again and a strong wind veered about the hilltop. They squelched out on to the doubly treacherous summit. The newly dumped silse mud covering the already unstable surface of the bog pulled at their feet and those of the caude, both of which showed signs of distress at being forced to walk in such conditions. The mud reeked like manure. Ferbin and Holse brushed as much as they could from their skin and clothes before it caked.

“Could do with a shower of nice clean rain now, eh, sir?”

“What about that sort of pool thing up there?” Ferbin asked.

“Good idea, sir,” Holse said, leading the caude to the shallow, now overbrimming tarn near the summit of the hill. The caude whinnied and resisted, but eventually were persuaded to enter the water, which came to halfway up their bellies.

The two men cleaned the beasts and themselves as best they could. The caude were still unhappy, and their slipping, sliding take-off run only just got them above the trees in time. They flew on into the late afternoon.

* * *

They kept flying even as the dusk slowly descended, though the caude were whining almost constantly now and continually tried to descend, dropping down and answering only slowly and with much grumbling to each up-pulling of the reins. On the landscape below must be farms, villages and towns, but they could see no sign of them. The wind was to their left side, constantly trying to push them towards the Towers they needed to keep to their right. The clouds had settled back to a high overcast and another ragged layer at about half a kilometre; they kept beneath this, knowing that getting lost in night cloud might easily be the end of them.

Eventually they saw what they thought must be the D’neng-oal Tower, a broad, pale presence rising across an extensive marsh still just about reflecting the slow-fading embers that Obor had left on the under-surface of the sky high above.

The D’neng-oal Tower was what was known as a Pierced Tower; one through which access might be gained to its interior and so to the network of thoroughfares in which the Oct — and the Aultridia — sailed their scendships. This was at least the popular understanding; Ferbin knew that all the Towers had been pierced originally, and in a sense still were.

Every Tower, where it fluted out at its base on each level, contained hundreds of portals designed to transport the fluid which it was alleged the Involucra had planned to fill the World with. On the Eighth the portals were, in any case, all buried under at least a hundred metres of earth and water, but in almost every Tower the portals had all long since been firmly sealed by the Oct and Aultridia. There were rumours — which the Oct did nothing to deny — that other peoples, other rulers, had sunk mines down to where the sealed portals were and had tried to open them, only to find that they were utterly impenetrable to anybody without the kind of technology that let one sail the stars, never mind the interior of Towers, and also that even attempting to meddle with them inevitably brought down the wrath of the Oct; those rulers had been killed and those peoples scattered, often across other, less forgiving levels.

Only one Tower in a thousand still had a single portal which gave access to the interior, at least at any useful height — telescopes had revealed what might be portals high above the atmosphere, hundreds of kilometres above ground level — and the usual sign of a Pierced Tower was a much smaller — though still by human standards substantial — access tower sited nearby.

The D’neng-oal’s access tower proved surprisingly difficult to spot in the gloom. They flew round the Tower once, under the thickening layer of cloud, feeling pressed between the mists rising from the ground below and the lowering carpet of darkness directly above. Ferbin was worried first that they might crash into the lesser tower in the darkness — they were being forced to fly at only a hundred metres above the ground, and that was about the usual altitude for the top of an access tower — and then that they had chosen the wrong Tower in the first place. The map they’d looked at earlier had shown the Tower was pierced, but not exactly where its accompanying access tower was. It also showed a fair-sized town, Dengroal, situated very close to the nearpole base of the main Tower, but there was no sign of the settlement. He hoped it was just lost in the mists.

The access tower lit up in front of them as the top twenty metres of the cylinder suddenly flashed in a series of giant, tower-encircling hoops so bright they dazzled the eye. It was less than a hundred strides in front of them and its summit was a little above their present level, almost in the clouds; the blue light picked out their gauzy under-surface like some strange, inverted landscape. He and Holse pulled up and banked and then, with gestures, agreed to land on the top. The caude were so tired they hardly bothered to complain as they were asked to climb one more time.

The summit of the access tower was fifty strides across; a concentric series of blue hoops of light was set into its surface like a vast target. The light pulsed slowly from dim to bright, like the beat of some vast and alien heart.

They landed on the tower’s nearest edge; the startled caude scrambled and beat their wings with one last frantic effort as the smooth surface under their grasping feet failed to bring them to a halt as quickly as ground or even stone would have, but then their scraping claws found some purchase, their wingbeats pulled them up and finally, with a great whistling sigh that sounded entirely like relief, they were stopped. They each settled down, quivering slightly, wings half outstretched with exhaustion, heads lying on the surface of the tower, panting. Blue light shone up around their bodies. The vapour of their breath drifted across the flat, blue-lit summit of the tower, dissipating slowly.

Ferbin dismounted, joints creaking and complaining like an old man’s. He stretched his back and walked over to where Holse was standing rubbing at the leg he’d hurt when the mersicor had fallen on top of him.

“Well, Holse, we got here.”

“And a strange old here it is, sir,” Holse said, looking around the broad circular top of the tower. It appeared to be perfectly flat and symmetrical. The only visible features were the hoops of blue light. These issued from hand-wide strips set flush with whatever smooth material made up the tower’s summit. They were standing about halfway between the centre of the surface and the edge. The blue light waxed about them, giving them and their beasts a ghostly, otherworldly appearance. Ferbin shivered, though it was not especially cold. He looked about them. There was nothing visible beyond the circles of blue. Above, the slow-moving layer of cloud looked almost close enough to touch. The wind picked up for a moment, then fell back to a breeze.

“At least there’s nobody else here,” he said.

“Thankful for that, sir,” Holse agreed. “Though if there is anybody watching, and they can see through the mist, they’ll know we’re here. Anyway. What happens now?”

“Well, I don’t know,” Ferbin admitted. He couldn’t recall what one had to do to gain access to one of these things. On the occasion when he’d gone to the Surface with Elime and the others he’d been too distracted by everything that was happening to take note of exactly what the procedure was; some servant had done it all. He caught Holse’s expression of annoyance and looked around again, gaze settling on the centre of the tower’s surface. “Perhaps…” he started to say. As he’d spoken, he’d pointed at the glowing dot at the focus of the pulsing blue hoops, so they were both looking right at it when it rose slowly, smoothly into the air.

A cylinder about a foot across extended like a section of telescope from the dead centre of the tower’s summit, rising to around head height. Its top surface pulsed blue in time with the widening circles radiating out from it.

“That might be useful,” Ferbin said.

“As a hitching post for the beasts, if nothing else, sir,” Holse said. “There’s bugger all else to tie them to up here.”

“I’ll take a look,” Ferbin said. He didn’t want to show Holse he felt frightened.

“I’ll hold the reins.”

Ferbin walked over to the slim cylinder. As he approached, an octagon of grey light seemed to swivel into place, facing him, level with his own face. It showed a stylised Oct in silhouette. The cylinder’s surface beaded with moisture as a light rain began to fall.

“Repetition,” said a voice like rustling leaves. Before Ferbin could say anything in reply, the voice went on, “Patterns, yes. For, periodicity. As the Veil become the Oct, so one iteration becomes another. Spacing is the signal, so creates. Yet, also, repetition shows lack of learning. Again, be on your way. Signal that is no signal, simply power, follows. Unrepeats.” The octagonal patch showing the silhouetted Oct shape faded and the cylinder started to sink silently back into the surface.

“Wait!” Ferbin shouted, and grabbed at the smooth round shape, putting both arms round it and attempting to prevent it disappearing. It felt cold and seemed to be made of metal; it would have been slick enough anyway but the drizzle made it more so and it slid imperturbably downwards as though his efforts to retrain it were having no effect whatsoever.

Then it seemed to hesitate. It drew to a stop and rose back to its earlier height. The grey octagonal shape — some sort of screen, Ferbin realised — glowed into existence on the surface again. Before it could say anything, he shouted, “I am Ferbin, prince of the house of Hausk, with documents to support my right to warranted travel under the protection of our esteemed allies the Oct! I would speak with the Towermaster, Aiaik.”

“Denigration is—” the cylinder had started to say, then the voice cut off. “Documents?” the voice said after a few moments.

Ferbin unbuttoned his jacket and took out the finger-thick grey envelopes, brandishing them in front of the screen. “By the authority of Seltis, Head Scholar of the Anjrinh Scholastery,” Ferbin said. “Of the Eighth,” he added, partly in case there was any confusion and partly to show he was familiar with the realities of the World and not some coarse-bonce bumpkin who’d somehow achieved the summit of the tower for a bet.

“To wait,” said the leaf-rustling voice. The screen faded again but this time the cylinder stayed where it was.

“Sir?” Holse called from where he stood holding the reins of the now soundly sleeping caude.

“Yes?” Ferbin said.

“Just wondering what’s happening, sir.”

“I believe we’ve established some sort of rapport.” He frowned, thinking back to what the voice had said when it had first spoken to him. “But I think we’re not the first here, not recently. Perhaps.” He shrugged at the worried-looking Holse. “I don’t know.” Ferbin swivelled, looking all about, trying to see through the glowing blue mist created by the drizzle. He saw something dark moving in the air to one side of Holse and the caude; a huge shadow, heading straight for them. “Holse!” he cried, pointing at the apparition.

Holse glanced round, already starting to drop. The great shape tore through the air just above the two slumped mounts, missing Holse’s head by no more than the span of a hand; the sound of massive wings beating whumped through the air. It looked like a lyge, Ferbin thought, with a rider on its back. A sharp crack and a tiny fountain of yellow sparks announced Holse firing his pistol at the departing, wheeling beast.

The lyge rose, stalled and turned, catching itself on a single great beat of its massive wings as it landed on the far edge of the tower. A slight figure jumped from its back holding a long gun; the flier dropped to one knee and took aim at Holse, who was slapping his pistol with his free hand and cursing. Holse dived for cover between the caude, both of which had raised their heads at the sound of the shot and were looking sleepily about them. The rifle spoke again and the caude nearest the shooter jerked and screamed. It started trying to rise from the surface, beating one wing and scraping one leg back and forth. Its fellow raised its head high and let out a terrified wail. The flier from the lyge levered another round into the rifle.

“Small detonations,” said the Oct voice just above Ferbis’ head. He hadn’t even realised he’d ducked down, just his head showing round the side of the cylinder so he could still see the flier attacking them. “Celebratory actions inappropriate,” the voice continued. “Betokening the undesired. To cease.”

“Let us in!” Ferbin said in a hoarse whisper. Behind the figure with the rifle, the lyge hunkered down. The wounded caude near Holse screamed and thrashed its wings against the surface of the tower. Its companion keened, shifting and shuffling away, stretching its own wings. The flier took aim again and shouted, “Show yourself! Surrender!”

“Fuck off!” Holse yelled back. Ferbin could barely hear him over the screaming caude. The creature was moving slowly backwards over the surface of the tower as it beat its wings and shrieked. The second caude rose suddenly on its legs and seemed to realise only then that it was unrestrained. It turned, hopped once to the edge of the tower, spread its wings and launched itself into the darkness with a miserable wail, disappearing immediately.

“Please!” Ferbin said, knocking on the cylinder’s surface with his knuckles. “Let us in!”

“The cessation of childishness,” the cylinder’s voice announced. “Necessary if not sufficient.”

The wounded caude rolled half to one side as though stretching itself, its screams fading as its voice became hoarse.

“And you!” the lyge flier yelled, turning to point the rifle at Ferbin. “Both of you. Out. I’ll not shoot if you surrender now. The hunt’s finished. I’m just a scout. There are twenty more behind me. All regent’s men. It’s over. Surrender. You’ll not be harmed.”

Ferbin heard a fizzing sound between the desperate shrieks of the wounded caude, and a hint of yellow light seemed to illuminate the surface just behind the screaming animal.

“All right!” Holse shouted. “I surrender!” Something flew up from behind the wounded caude, lobbed over its beating wings on an arc of orange sparks. The flier with the rifle started back, rifle barrel flicking upwards.

The finned grenade landed three strides in front of the lyge flier. As the bomblet bounced, the caude Holse had been sheltering behind gave a final great thrash of its wings and one last scream before overbalancing and falling over the edge of the tower in a despairing tangle of wings, revealing Holse lying on the surface. The creature’s wails faded slowly as it fell.

The grenade landed and rolled round, pivoting about its cruciform tail, then its fuse gave a little puff of orange smoke and went out even as the lyge flier was scrambling backwards away from it. In the relative silence following the departure of the caude, Ferbin could hear Holse trying to fire his pistol; the click, click, click noise sounded more hopeless than had the wounded caude’s cries. The lyge flier went down on one knee again and took aim at the now utterly exposed Holse, who shook his head.

“Well, you can still fuck off!” he shouted.

The chronometer smacked the lyge flier across the bridge of the nose. The rifle pointed fractionally upwards as it fired, sending the shot a foot or so above Holse. He was up and running at the dazed figure on the far side of the roof before the chronometer Ferbin had thrown got to the edge of the tower’s summit and vanished into the drizzle. The lyge looked down at the rolling, disconnected-looking figure in front of it and appeared merely puzzled as Holse threw himself forward and on to its rider.

“Fuck me, sir, you’re a better shot than him,” Holse said as he knelt on the flier’s back and prised the rifle out of his fingers. Ferbin had started to think their assailant was a woman, but it was just a small-built man. Lyge were faster than caude but they could carry less weight; their fliers were usually chosen for their small frame.

Ferbin could see dark blood on the glowing blue band beneath the fallen flier. Holse checked the rifle and reloaded it, still with one knee pressing on the back of the struggling lyge flier.

“Thank you, Holse,” Ferbin said. He looked up at the thin, dark, puzzled face of the lyge, which rose up a little and gave a single great beat of its wings before settling back down again. The pulse of air rolled over them. “What should we do with—”

The grenade fizzed into life again. They scrambled away on all fours, Holse making an attempt to pull the lyge flier with him. They rolled and clattered across the hard surface, and Ferbin had time to think that at least if he died here it would be on the Eighth, not somewhere lost and unholy between the stars. The grenade exploded with a terrific smacking noise that seemed to take Ferbin by the ears and slap him somewhere in between them. He heard a ringing sound and lay where he was.

When he collected his scattered senses and looked about him, he saw Holse a couple of strides away looking back at him, the lyge flier lying still a few strides further back, and that was all.

The lyge had gone; whether killed or wounded by the grenade or just startled by it, it was impossible to know.

Holse’s mouth moved as if he was saying something, but Ferbin couldn’t hear a damn thing.

A broad cylinder, a good fifteen strides across, rose up in the centre of the tower’s summit, swallowing the thin tube that Ferbin had been talking to. This fresh extrusion climbed five metres into the air and stopped. A door big enough to accept three mounted men side by side slid open and a grey-blue light spilled out.

Around the tower, a number of great dark shapes started to appear, circling.

Ferbin and Holse got up and ran for the doorway.

His ears were still ringing, so Ferbin never heard the shot that hit him.


9. One-finger Man

<p>9. One-finger Man</p>

Mertis tyl Loesp sat in his withdrawing chamber, high in the royal palace of Pourl. The room had started to seem overly modest to him recently; however, he’d thought it best to leave it a short-year or so before moving into any of the King’s apartments. He was listening to two of his most trusted knights report.

“Your boy knew the old fellow’s hiding place, in a secret room behind a cupboard. We hauled him out and persuaded him to tell us the truth of earlier events.” Vollird, who had been one of those guarding the door when the late king had met his end in the old factory, smiled.

“The gentleman was a one-finger man,” the other knight, Baerth, said. He too had been there when the King had died. He used both hands to mime breaking a small twig. A twitch about his lips might also have been a smile.

“Yes, thank you for the demonstration,” tyl Loesp said to Baerth, then frowned at Vollird. “And then you found it necessary to kill the Head Scholar. Against my orders.”

“We did,” Vollird said, uncowed. “I reckoned the risk of bringing him to a barracks and oublietting him too great.”

“Kindly explain,” tyl Loesp said smoothly, sitting back.

Vollird was a tall, thin, darkly intense fellow with a look that could, as now, verge on insolent. He usually regarded the world with his head tipped downwards, eyes peering out from beneath his brow. It was by no means a shy or modest aspect; rather it seemed a little wary and distrusting, certainly, but mostly mocking, sly and calculating, and as though those eyes were keeping carefully under the cover of that sheltering brow, quietly evaluating weaknesses, vulnerabilities, and the best time to strike.

Baerth was a contrast; fair, small and bulky with muscle, he looked almost childish at times, though of the two he could be the most unrestrained when his blood was up.

Both would do tyl Loesp’s bidding, which was all that mattered. Though on this occasion, of course, they had not. He had asked them to perform various disappearances, intimidations and other delicate commissions for him over the past few years and they had proved reliable and trustworthy, never failing him yet; however, he was worried they might have developed a taste for murder above obedience. A principal strand of this concern centred on who he could find to dispose of these two if they did prove in sum more liabilitous than advantageous to him; he had various options in that regard, but the most ruthless tended to be the least trustworthy and the least criminal the most tentative.

“Mr. Seltis’ confession was most comprehensive,” Vollird said, “and included the fact that the gentleman who had been there earlier had specifically demanded that the Head Scholar get word to said gentleman’s brother here in the palace, regarding the manner of their father’s death and the danger the younger brother might therefore be in. There had been no time for the Head Scholar to begin effecting such warning; however, he seemed most tearfully regretful at this and I formed the distinct impression he would do what he could to pass this information on should he have the chance, to whatever barracksman, militia or army he happened to encounter. So we took him to the roof on excuse of visiting the place where the fleeing gentlemen had absconded and threw him to his death. We told those in the Scholastery that he had jumped, and assumed our most shocked expressions.”

Baerth glanced at the other knight. “I said we might have kept him alive as we were told and just torn out his tongue.”

Vollird sighed. “Then he would have written out a warning message.”

Baerth looked unconvinced. “We could have broken the rest of his fingers.”

“He’d have written using a pen stuck in his mouth,” Vollird said, exasperated.

“We might—”

“Then he’d have shoved the pen up his arse,” Vollird said loudly. “Or found some sort of way, if he was desperate enough, which I judged him to be.” He looked at tyl Loesp. “At any rate, dead is what he is.”

Tyl Loesp thought. “Well,” he said, “I will concede that was well enough done, in the circumstances. However, I worry that we now have a Scholastery full of offended scholars.”

“They’d be easy enough to cull too, sir,” Vollird said. “There’s a lot of them, but they’re all nicely gathered and guarded, and they’re all soft as a babe’s head, I swear.”

“Again, true, but they’ll have parents, brothers, connections. It would be better if we can persuade a new Head Scholar to keep them in order and say no more of what occurred.”

Vollird looked unconvinced. “There’s no better way of ensuring a tongue’s held than stilling it for good, sir.”

Tyl Loesp gazed at Vollird. “You are very good at pieces of the truth, Vollird, aren’t you?”

“Only as needs be, tyl Loesp,” the other man replied, holding his gaze. “Not to a fault.”

Tyl Loesp felt sure the two knights were convinced that killing all the scholars at Anjrinh would end the problem that they might have seen Ferbin, alive and on the run.

Ferbin, alive. How entirely like that fatuous, lucky idiot to stumble through a battle unscathed and evade all attempts at capture. All the same, tyl Loesp doubted that even Ferbin’s luck would be entirely sufficient for that; he suspected the servant, one Choubris Holse, was providing the cunning the prince so evidently lacked.

Vollird and Baerth both imagined that simply excising those who’d seen the prince would put an end to the matter; it was the obvious, soldierly way to think. Neither could see that all such surgery had its own further complications and ensuences. This present problem was like a small boil on the hand; lancing it would be quick and immediately satisfying, but a cautious doctor would know that this approach might lead to an even worse affliction that could infectively paralyse the whole arm and even threaten the body’s life itself. Sometimes the most prudent course was just to apply some healing oils or cooling poultice and let things subside. It might be the slower treatment but it carried fewer risks, left no scars and could be more effective in the end.

“Well,” tyl Loesp told the knights, “there is one tongue I’d have stilled as you propose, though it must look as though the gentleman has been careless with his own life, rather than had it surgeried from him. However, the scholars will be left alone. The family of the spy who alerted us will be rewarded. The family, though, not the boy. He will already be jealoused and despised quite sufficiently already, if the others truly suspect who was there.”

“If it was who we think it might have been. We still cannot be sure,” Vollird said.

“I have not the luxury of thinking otherwise,” tyl Loesp told him.

“And the fugitive himself?” Baerth asked.

“Lost, for the moment.” Tyl Loesp glanced at the telegraphed report he’d received that morning from the captain of the lyge squadron who had come so close to capturing or killing Ferbin and his servant — assuming it was them — at the D’neng-oal Tower just the night before. One of their quarry wounded, possibly, the report said. Too many possibles and probables for his liking. “However,” he said, smiling broadly at the two knights, “I too now have the documents to get people to the Surface. The fugitive and his helper are running away; that is the second best thing they can do, after dying.” He smiled. “Vollird, I imagine you and Baerth would like to see the Surface and the eternal stars again, would you not?”

The two knights exchanged looks.

“I think we’d rather ride with the army against the Deldeyn,” Vollird said. The main part of the army had already left the day before to form up before the Tower through which they would attack the Ninth. Tyl Loesp would leave to join them tomorrow for the descent.

Baerth nodded. “Aye, there’s honour in that.”

“Perhaps we’ve killed enough just for you, tyl Loesp,” Vollird suggested. “We grow tired of murdering with every second glance directed over our backs. Might it not be time for us to serve Sarl less obliquely, on the battlefield, against an enemy all recognise?”

To serve me is to serve the Sarl; I am the state, tyl Loesp wanted to say, but did not, not even to these two. Instead he frowned and pursed his lips momentarily. “Let us three agree a compact, shall we? I shall forgive you for being obtuse, disloyal and selfish if you two forgive me for seeming to have expressed my orders by way of a question, with the implication that there is any choice whatsoever on your part. What d’you say?”


Depth of Field

10. A Certain Lack

11. Bare, Night

12. Cumuloform

13. Don’t Try This At Home

14. Game

15. The Hundredth Idiot

16. Seed Drill

17. Departures

18. The Current Emergency

19. Dispatches

<p>Depth of Field</p>
<p>10. A Certain Lack</p>

She had been a man for a year.

That had been different. Everything had been different. She had learned so much: about herself, about people, about civilisations.

Time: she came to think in Standard years, eventually. To her, at first, they were about one and a half short-years or very roughly half a long-year.

Gravity: she felt intolerably heavy and worryingly fragile at once. A treatment she had already agreed to started to thicken her bones and reduce her height before she left the Eighth, but even so, for the time she was on the ship that took her from the Surface and during the first fifty days or so after her arrival, she towered over most people and felt oddly delicate. Allegedly, the new clothes she had chosen had been reinforced to save her from breaking any bones if she fell badly in the stronger gravity. She had assumed this was a lie to make her feel less frightened, and just took care instead.

Only the measures of human-scale length were roughly as she knew them; strides were near enough metres, and she already thought in kilometres, even if she’d grown up with ten raised to the power of three rather than two to the power of ten.

But that was just the start of it.

For the first couple of years after arriving in the Culture she had been simply as she was, save for that amendment of thickening and shortening. Meanwhile she got to know the Culture and it got to know her. She learned a lot, about everything. The drone Turminder Xuss had accompanied her from the day she’d stepped from the ship she’d arrived on, the space vessel called Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill (she found their ships’ names absurd, childish and ridiculous at first, then got used to them, then thought she kind of understood them, then realised there was no understanding the Mind of a ship, and went back to finding them annoying). The drone answered any questions she had and sometimes talked on her behalf.

Those first three years had been spent on the Orbital Gadampth, mostly on the part called Lesuus, in a sort of extended, teased-out city built on a group of islands scattered across a wide bay on the edge of a small inland sea. The city was named Klusse, and it had some similarities to an ordinary city, despite being much cleaner and lacking any curtain walls or other defensive components that she could discern. Mostly, though, it seemed to be a sort of vast Scholastery.

It took her some time to work out why, as she went walking about the boulevards, terraces, promenades and piazzas of the place, she had felt — not initially, but gradually, just when she ought to have felt herself getting used to the place — an odd mixture of comfort and disturbance at the same time. Eventually she realised it was because in all the faces that she saw there, not one held a disfiguring tumour or had been eaten half away by disease. She had yet to see even a mildly disfiguring skin condition or a lazy eye. Similarly, in all the bodies she moved among, not one was limping or supporting itself on a crutch or trolley, or went hobbling past on a club foot. And not a single madman, not one poor defective standing flecked screaming on a street corner howling at the stars.

She hadn’t appreciated this at first because at the time she was still being amazed at the sheer bewildering physical variation of the people around her, but once she had become used to that, she started to notice that although there was near infinite physical variety here, there was no deformity, and while there was prodigious eccentricity, no dementia. There were more facial, bodily and personality types than she could have imagined, but they were all the product of health and choice, not disease and fate. Everyone was, or could be if they so desired, beautiful in both form and character.

Later she would find that, as this was the Culture after all, of course there were people who embraced ugliness and even the appearance of deformity or mutilation just to be different or to express something inside that they felt ought to be broadcast to their peers; however — once she had passed over her initial sense of irritation and exasperation at such people (did they not, even if unknowingly, mock those truly afflicted, those with no choice in how hideous they looked?) — she realised that even that deliberate adoption of unsightliness displayed a kind of societal confidence, a thumbing of the collective nose at the workings of crude providence and the ancient tyranny, now itself long overthrown, of genetic aberration, gross injury and transmissible pestilence.

* * *

A star named Aoud shone down upon the ten-million-kilometre bracelet of the Orbital. This sun was what everybody else seemed to regard as a real star; one which had been naturally formed. To her it sounded incredibly old and absurdly, almost wastefully enormous.

There, in Klusse, she learned about the history of the Culture and the story of the galaxy itself. She learned about the other civilisations that she had been taught as a child were called the Optimae. They generally referred to themselves as the Involveds or the In-Play, though the terms were loose and there was no exact equivalent of the Sarl word Optimae, with its implication of supremacy. “High-level Involved” was probably as close as you could get.

She also learned pretty much all there was to be learned about her own people, the Sar their long-ago evolution on a faraway planet of the same name, their involvement in a terrible war, their condemnation, exile and displacement (partly for their own good, partly for that of the peoples they had shared that original planet with; the consensus was that they would either kill everybody else or be killed) and their eventual sanctuary/internment in Sursamen under the auspices of the Galactic Council, the Morthanveld and Nariscene. This version felt like the truth, she thought; close enough to the myths and legends of her own people, but less self-serving, less dramatically glorious, more equivocal in its moral implications.

This area of study turned up surprising details. The fact that the Deldeyn and the Sarl were the same people, for example; the Deldeyn were a sub-group of the main population who had been transported to the level below by the Oct over a thousand years ago. And the Oct had done this without permission from their Nariscene mentors; that level, while once supporting many peoples, had seen them all evacuated millennia ago and was supposed to have been left empty of intelligent life until further notice. The Oct had been forced to apologise, undertake never to do such a thing again and pay reparations in the form of surrendered influence elsewhere; however, the unauthorised movement of people had finally, reluctantly, been accepted as a fait accompli.

She learned about pan-humanity, about the great diasporic welter of human-like, human-ish and humanoid species scattered throughout so much of the galaxy.

She learned about the present sociopolitical set-up that existed in the galaxy and felt a sort of widespread satisfaction that there was just so much of it, and almost all of it peaceful. There were millions of species, hundreds of different types of species, even casting one’s definition wide, and that was without taking into account civilisations that were composed more of machines than biological beings at all. Ultimately the galaxy, indeed the sum of the universe in its entirety, was mostly nothing; average it all out and it made a pretty good vacuum. But within the foci of matter that were the systems, the stars and planets and habitats — what a cornucopia of life was there!

There were bogglingly large numbers just of these pan-humans (of which, of course, she was one), but they still formed less than a single per cent of all the aggregated life-mass of the greater galaxy. Also, where they did exist, men and women were mostly — most places, most of the time — equals. In the Culture this was even guaranteed by birthright; you could be whatever gender you wished — just by thinking about it! She found this highly satisfactory, and a kind of vindication.

Life buzzed in, fumed about, rattled around and quite thoroughly infested the entire galaxy, and probably — almost certainly — well beyond. The vast ongoingness of it all somehow put all one’s own petty concerns and worries into context, making them seem not irrelevant, but of much less distressing immediacy. Context was indeed all, as her father had always insisted, but the greater context she was learning about acted to shrink the vast-seeming scale of the Eighth Level of Sursamen and all its wars, politics, disputes, struggles, tribulations and vexations until it all looked very far away and trivial indeed.

She learned about Contact, the part of the Culture that went out to discover and interact with other civilisations, especially new and fast-developing ones, and about its slightly scurrilous, tentatively raffish, arguably shadowy division called Special Circumstances. It was some time before she realised that she herself was expected to have at least a chance of becoming part of this prestigious, if not entirely respectable organisation. This was, she gathered, supposed to be a most singular and unusual honour and almost the only worthwhile distinction the Culture had to offer that was not available on demand. However, she was, again, instantly suspicious.

For some time the aspect of Orbital life she marvelled at more than anything else was the geography: mountains, cliffs and gorges, pinnacles, scree and boulder fields. That none of it was truly natural, that it had all been designed and manufactured from debris found in the solar system when the world was made only added to her amazement. She hiked the high mountains and learned to ski. She took part in various sports and discovered she even enjoyed being part of a team. She hadn’t expected that, somehow.

She had made friends and taken lovers, when she had grown to believe that her new, squat self was not hideous. Not all pairings worked, even, as it were, mechanically — there was a wide variety of body shapes. Another treatment she chose monitored her womb, to alert her on the very low off-chance that she mated with somebody her own physical system found sufficiently compatible for her to conceive by. She had wondered if this was not a lie, too, but nothing ever happened.

She played with her own dreams, and took part in shared dreams that were vast games, using nothing more exotic-seeming than special pillows or nightcaps to access these strange sub-realities. She realised that she slept much more than most of her friends, missing out on a potential part of waking life. She asked for another treatment, which solved that problem as though it had never existed; she slept deeply for a few hours each of these clockworkly regular and dependable nights and awoke thoroughly refreshed each morning.

She took part in other semi-hallucinatory experiences that seemed like games but which she knew were also lessons and evaluations, submerging her entirely conscious self into simulations of reality that were sometimes based on real, earlier events and experiences, and sometimes were as entirely deliberately created as the Orbital and its amazingly vertiginous landscape. Some left her troubled to know the terrible things people — pan-humans and beyond, but all people — could do to each other. The implication, though, was that such ghastliness was an affliction, and could be at least partially cured. The Culture represented the hospital, or perhaps a whole caring society, Contact was the physician and SC the anaesthetic and the medicine. Sometimes the scalpel.

Almost the only aspect of her new life that she adapted to without pause for thought was the total absence of money in the Culture. She had been a princess, after all, and so was perfectly used to that.

She watched some of her friends enter states she could not share, and, after great initial wariness, asked for more treatments that caused glands in her body she hadn’t even known she possessed to alter over a few tens of days until she possessed a simple drug-gland suite inside her head and a modest choice of mixtures of trace chemicals she could now choose to release into her bloodstream and brain whenever she wanted.

That had been interesting.

Amongst the Sarl, at least on the Eighth, every drug had at least one unwanted and unpleasant side effect. Here; nothing. You got what you wanted, no more. She remained highly sceptical, unconvinced such light was possible without shade. She no longer needed the drone Turminder Xuss, who went off to tend to others. She used a finger-ring terminal to connect with the dataverse instead.

She began to collect amendments, treatments, as one might accumulate jewellery. She even had a couple of treatments rescinded, just removed from her altogether, simply to make sure that the processes truly were fully reversible. A new tutor, one who was present only rarely but seemed in some sense senior to the others, a bush-like being who had once been a man, called Batra, sounded amused when he/it said she was a suspicious child. Amused and somehow approving. She got the feeling she was supposed to feel flattered, but she’d been more concerned about the mild insult contained in the word “child”.

People shifted, went away, relationships ended. She asked one of her female mentors about how one changed from female to male. Another treatment. Over most of a year she grew slightly, bulked out further, grew hair in strange places, and watched, fascinated, as her genitals went from fissure to spire. She did wake up a couple of nights covered in sweat, appalled at what was happening to her, feeling herself, wondering if this was all some enormously laboured joke and she was being made a freak of deliberately, for sport, but there were always people to talk to who had been through the same experience — both in person and via screens and sims — and no shortage of archived material to explain and reassure.

She kept a couple of intermittent, unbothered lovers even as she changed, then, as a man, took many more, mostly female. It was true: one made a better, more considerate lover when one had once been as one’s partner. He woke up one morning after a strenuous night with a small group of old friends and just-mets, blinking in the sunshine of a brilliant new day, looking out over a broad balcony and a sparkling sea to a great columnar mountain that reminded him of a Tower back home, and woke everybody else up with his laughter.

He was never sure why he decided to change back. For a long time he thought to return to Sursamen as a man, see what they made of him then. Apart from anything else, there had been a couple of ladies at the court he had always been fond of, and now felt something more for. By that point he knew his brother Elime had been killed and he was the eldest child of the King; the next king, indeed, if you looked at it in a certain way. He might return, claim the throne, in time. By then, with further treatments, he might have martial skills and attributes beyond those of any warrior who had ever lived on the Eighth. He’d be unstoppable; he could take the throne if he wanted. That would be hilarious. Oh, the looks on certain faces!

But that would be cruel at best, he thought. At worst, the results might be something between melodrama and the bloodiest of tragedies. Anyway, to be king of the Sarl no longer seemed like the greatest thing a soul might aspire to, not by some long measure.

He changed, became a she again. The lesson regarding being a considerate lover did not change.

She took her Full Name. In her father’s kingdom, she had been called Djan Seriy Hausk’a yun Pourl, yun Dich — this translated as Djan, Prince-Consort Hausk’s daughter of Pourl, of the Eighth.

Here, now that she thought of herself as a Culture citizen — albeit still one that had been born and brought up elsewhere — she took the name Meseriphine-Sursamen/VIIIsa Djan Seriy Anaplian dam Pourl.

Marain, the Culture’s exquisitely formed meta-language, used its Secondary Numbering Series to denote Shellworld levels. The Anaplian part came from her mother’s name: Anaplia. The word Seriy — indicating she had been raised to be fit to be married to a prince — she kept for a laugh. She expressed disappointment that there was no ceremony to mark the taking of one’s Full Name. Her friends and colleagues invented one for her.

She had further treatments, to give her control of many more aspects of her body and mind. Now she would age very slowly, and did not really need to age at all. Now she was proof against any natural disease under this or any other sun, and even losing something as major as a limb would prove only a temporary inconvenience, as a new one would simply grow back. Now she had the full panoply of drug glands, with all the benefits and responsibilities that entailed. Now she gained fully augmented senses — so that, for example, her vision became sharper and brought her information about the infrared and the ultraviolet — now she could sense radio waves, now she was able to interface directly with machines via a thing called a neural lace that had grown about and through her brain like a flimsy, three-dimensional net, now she could switch off pain and fatigue (though her body seemed to scorn them anyway), now her nerves changed to become more like wires, shifting impulses far faster than before, while her bones accreted strands of carbon to make them stronger and her muscles went through chemical and microscopically scaled mechanical changes that made them more effective and more powerful. Every major internal organ grew more efficient, more tolerant, more capable, resilient and adaptable, even as many of them grew smaller.

She became part of Contact and joined the crew of the General Contact Unit Transient Atmospheric Phenomenon. She’d had the luxury of a choice in the matter and had turned down the Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall and the Pure Big Mad Boat Man just because of their ridiculous names. She served with distinction for only five years aboard the GCU before the invitation to join Special Circumstances arrived. A surprisingly short period of additional training ensued; almost all the new skills she would now need were already there, pre-implanted. She was reunited with the drone Turminder Xuss, who had always been intended as her companion. She discovered the old machine came complete with a small squadron of knife, attack and scout missiles and was effectively a little arsenal of wide-spectrum destruction all on its own.

SC added its own final, finessed layers of additional characteristics to her already heady mix of bodily enhancements, empowering her still further: here were fingernails that could lase, to signal, blind or kill, here was a tiny reactor within her skull that, amongst other things, could provide the power to keep her alive and conscious for years without oxygen, here was a whole-body fibre structure welded to her very bones that could sense distortions in the skein of space itself; here was a level of conscious control over her own body and, almost incidentally, over any merely electronic machine within fifty metres which exceeded that of any rider over their mount or any champion swordsman over his blade…

She felt, she realised one day, like a god.

She thought then of Sursamen, and her old self, and knew there was no going back.

* * *

She was going back. And she was losing some of those skills and attributes, some of those martial enhancements.

“You’re gelding me,” she said to Jerle Batra.

“I’m sorry. The Morthanveld are very wary of Special Circumstances agents.”

“Oh, really.” She shook her head. “We’re no threat to them.” She looked at the man who looked like a small bush. “Well, we’re not, are we?”

“Of course not. On the contrary.” Batra made a shrugging motion. “It’s a courtesy.”

“It feels like a discourtesy to me.”

“That is unfortunate.”

“We may be overdoing the coddling thing here, you know,” she said.

“All the same.”

They were on the platform Quonber, riding frigid waves of air above a high mountain range; kilometres beneath, a grey-white glacier streaked with lines of shattered rock curved and corrugated its way towards the limits of a tungsten sky.

The coddling Djan Seriy was referring to involved the almost exaggerated respect the Culture as a whole had recently been showing the Morthanveld. The Morthanveld were technologically on a par with the Culture and the two civilisations had co-existed on good terms since they had encountered each other thousands of years earlier, sharing extensive cultural links and co-operating on a variety of projects. They were not exactly allies — the waterworlders had kept scrupulously neutral during the Idiran war, for example — but they were of a mind on most matters.

Djan Seriy’s discomfiture was being caused by the fact that some of the Culture’s more self-congratulatingly clever Minds (not in itself an underpopulated category), patently with far too much time on their platters, had come up with the shiny new theory that the Culture was not just in itself completely spiffing and marvellous and a credit to all concerned, it somehow represented a sort of climactic stage for all civilisations, or at least for all those which chose to avoid heading straight for Sublimation as soon as technologically possible (Sublimation meant your whole civilisation waved farewell to the matter-based universe pretty much altogether, opting for a sort of honorary godhood).

Avoid self-destruction, recognise — and renounce — money for the impoverishing ration system it really was, become a bunch of interfering, do-gooding busybodies, resist the siren call of selfish self-promotion that was Subliming and free your conscious machines to do what they did best — essentially, running everything — and there you were; millennia of smug self-regard stretched before you, no matter what species you had started out from.

So. It was thought, by those Minds that especially concerned themselves with such matters, that the Morthanveld were on the cusp of going Culture; of undergoing a kind of societal phase-change, altering subtly but significantly into a water-worlder equivalent of the Culture. All that would need to happen for this to be effected, it was reckoned, would be the Morthanveld giving up the last vestiges of monetary exchange within their society, adopting a more comprehensive, self-consciously benign and galaxy-wide foreign policy and — probably most crucially — granting their AIs complete self-expressive freedom and full citizenship rights.

The Culture wanted to encourage this, obviously, but could not be seen to interfere or to be trying to influence matters. This was the main reason for not upsetting the people who would be Djan Seriy’s hosts for the latter part of her journey back to Sursamen; this was why she was being stripped of almost all her SC enhancements and even some of the amendments she had chosen for herself before Special Circumstances had invited her aboard in the first place.

“Probably a bluff anyway,” she told Turminder Xuss grumpily, looking out over the surface of cragged, chevronned ice below. The skies were clear and the balcony on which she stood and over which the drone silently hovered provided a calm, pleasantly warm environment; however, a furious torrent of air was howling all around the platform as the planet’s jetstream swept above the high mountains. Force fields beyond the balcony’s perimeter prevented the invisible storm from buffeting and freezing them, though such was the power of the screaming rush of air that a faint echo of its voice could be heard even through the field; a distant, thrumming wail, like some animal trapped and shrieking on the ice far below.

When they had first taken up station here during the previous night the air had been perfectly still and you could hear the cracks and creaks and booms of the glacier as it ground against the torn shoulders of the mountains that formed its banks and scoured its way across the great gouged bed of fractured rock beneath.

“A bluff?” Turminder Xuss sounded unconvinced.

“Yes,” Anaplian said. “Could it not be that the Morthanveld merely pretend to be on the brink of becoming like the Culture in order to keep the Culture from interfering in their business?”

“Hmm,” the drone said. “That wouldn’t work for long.”

“Even so.”

“And you’d wonder why the idea that the Morthanveld were poised in this manner was allowed to become so prevalent in the first place.”

Anaplian realised they had got rather rapidly to the point that all such conversations regarding the strategic intentions of the Culture tended to arrive at sooner or later, where it became clear that the issue boiled down to the question What Are The Minds Really Up To? This was always a good question, and it was usually only churls and determinedly diehard cynics who even bothered to point out that it rarely, if ever, arrived paired up with an equally good answer.

The normal, almost ingrained response of people at this point was to metaphorically throw their hands in the air and exclaim that if that was what it really all boiled down to then there was no point in even attempting to pursue the issue further, because as soon as the motivations, analyses and stratagems of Minds became the defining factor in a matter, all bets were most profoundly off, for the simple reason that any and all efforts to second-guess such infinitely subtle and hideously devious devices were self-evidently futile.

Anaplian was not so sure about this. It was her suspicion that it suited the purposes of the Minds rather too neatly that people believed this so unquestioningly. Such a reaction represented not so much the honest appraisal of further enquiry as being pointless as an unthinking rejection of the need to enquire at all.

“Perhaps the Minds are jealous,” Anaplian said. “They don’t want the Morthanveld to steal even the echo of their thunder by becoming like them. They patronise the waterworlders in order to antagonise them, make them do the opposite of what is supposedly anticipated, so that they become less like the Culture. Because that is what the Minds really desire.”

“That makes as much sense as anything I’ve heard so far on the matter,” Turminder Xuss said, politely.

She was not being allowed to take the drone with her on her return to Sursamen. SC agent + combat drone was a combination that was well known far beyond the Culture. Although perilously close to a cliché, it remained a partnership you could, allegedly, still frighten children and bad people with.

Anaplian felt a faint tingle somewhere inside her head and experienced a sort of buzzing sensation throughout her body. She tried clicking into her skein sense, that let her monitor significant gravity waves in her vicinity and alerted her to any warp activity nearby, but the system was off-line, flagged indefinitely inoperable though not as a result of hostile action (nevertheless, she could feel at least one part of her SC-amended neural lace protesting, some automatic system forever watching for damage by stealth reacting to what it would register as the impairment of her abilities and the degradation of her inherent survivability with pre-programmed outrage).

The platform’s own drone-standard AI was, with her permission, moving slowly through her suite of enhancements and gradually turning off those it was thought the Morthanveld might object to. Click. There went the electromagnetic effector ability. She tried interfering with the field unit buried in the ceiling overhead, which was keeping the air on the balcony insulated from the thin and well-below-freezing airstream coursing around the platform. No connection. She could still sense EM activity but she couldn’t affect it any more. She had lived most of her life without such abilities and to date had used very few of them in anger, but she experienced their going with a distinct sense of loss and even dismay.

She looked down at her fingernails. They appeared normal at the moment, but she’d already thought the signal that would make them detach and fall off by the following morning. There would be no pain or blood and new nails would grow back during the next few days, but they wouldn’t be Coherent Radiation Emission Weapons, they wouldn’t be lasers.

Oh well, she thought, inspecting them, even ordinary, unamended nails could still scratch.

Click. There, she couldn’t radio now either. No transmissions possible. Trapped inside her own head. She tried to communicate via her lace, calling up Leeb Scoperin, one of her colleagues here and her most recent lover. Nothing directly; she would have to go through the platform’s systems, just like ordinary Culture people. She had rather hoped to see Leeb before she left, but he just hadn’t been able to get away from whatever it was he was doing at such short notice.

Turminder Xuss’ own systems must have registered something happening. “That you?” it asked.

She felt mildly insulted, as though the drone had enquired whether she’d just farted. “Yes,” she said sharply. “That was me. Comms off-line.”

“No need to get snappy.”

She looked at the machine through narrowed eyes. “I think you’ll find there is,” she informed it.

“My, it’s breezy out there!” Batra said, floating in through the force field from outside. “Djan Seriy; the module is here.”

“I’ll get my bag,” Anaplian said.

“Please,” Turminder Xuss said. “Allow me.”

Batra must have read the expression on her face as she watched the drone make its way to the nearest interior door.

“I think Turminder Xuss is going to miss you,” Batra said, extending loops of brittle-looking twigs and branches to take his/its weight and standing head-height in front of her like a framework for the sculpture of a human.

Anaplian shook her head. “The machine grows sentimental,” she said.

“Unlike yourself?” Batra asked neutrally.

She guessed he was talking about Toark, the child she had rescued from the burning city. The boy was still asleep; she had crept into his cabin to say a one-sided farewell earlier that morning, stroking his hair, whispering, not waking him. Batra had agreed, reluctantly, to look after the child while she was away.

“I have always been sentimental,” Anaplian claimed.

The little three-seat module dropped from the sky, lowered itself gently through the roof of force field bowing over the platform’s flight deck and backed up towards the group waiting for it, rear door hingeing open.

“Farewell, Djan Seriy,” Batra said, extending a less-than-skeletal assemblage at chest height, the extremity vaguely hand-shaped.

Anaplian put her palm briefly against this sculpted image, feeling faintly ridiculous. “You will look after the boy?” she said.

“Oh,” Batra said with a sighing noise, “as though he were your own.”

“I am serious,” she said. “If I don’t come back, I want you to take care of him, until you can find somewhere and someone more fitting.”

“You have my word,” Batra told her. “Just make sure you do come back.”

“I shall endeavour to,” she said.

“You have backed up?”

“Last night,” Anaplian confirmed. They were both being polite; Batra would know very well that she had backed herself up. The platform had taken a reading of her mind state the evening before. Should she fail to return — whether due to death or in theory any other reason — a clone of her could be grown and all her personality and memories implanted into it, creating a new her almost indistinguishable from the person she was now. It did not do to forget that, in a disquietingly real sense, to be an SC agent was to be owned by SC. The compensation was that even death was just a temporary operational glitch, soon overcome. Again though, only in a sense.

Turminder Xuss reappeared and deposited her bags in the module. “Well, goodbye, dear girl,” it said. “Try to avoid getting into any scrapes; I shan’t be there to save you.”

“I have already adjusted my expectations,” Anaplian told it. The drone was silent, as though not sure what to make of this. Anaplian bowed formally. “Goodbye,” she said to both of them, then turned and walked into the module.

Three minutes later she was stepping out of it again, aboard the Eight Rounds Rapid, a Delinquent-class Fast Picket and ex-General Offensive Unit which would take her to rendezvous with the Steppe-class Medium Systems Vehicle Don’t Try This At Home. This represented just the first leg of her complicated and languidly paced journey back to her old home.

Djan Seriy was shown to a small cabin aboard the old ex-warship by a ship-slaved drone. She would be aboard for less than a full day; however, she had wanted somewhere to lie down and think.

She opened her bag. She looked at what was lying on top of her few clothes and possessions. “I don’t recall packing you,” she muttered, and was immediately uncertain whether she was talking to herself or not (she instinctively tried to read the device with her active EM sense, but of course that didn’t work any more).

She was not talking to herself.


“Well remembered,” the thing she was looking at said. It appeared to be a dildo.

“Are you what I think you are?”

“I don’t know. What do you think I am?”

“I think you are a knife missile. Or something very similar.”

“Well, yes,” the small device said. “But then again no.”

Anaplian frowned. “Certainly you would appear to possess some of the more annoying linguistic characteristics of, say, a drone.”

“Well done, Djan Seriy!” the machine said brightly. “I am indeed one and both at the same time. The mind and personality of myself, Turminder Xuss, copied into the seasoned though still hale and hearty body of my most capable knife missile, lightly disguised.”

“I suppose I ought to be gratified you chose to make your ruse known at this point rather than later.”

“Ha ha. I would never have been so ungallant. Or intrusive.”

“You hope to protect me from scrapes, I take it.”

“Absolutely. Or at least share them with you.”

“Do you think you’ll get away with this?”

“Who can say? Worth a try.”

“You might have thought to ask me.”

“I did.”

“You did? I appear to have lost more than I thought.”

“I thought to ask you, but I didn’t. So as to protect you from potential blame.”

“How kind.”

“This way I may take full responsibility. In the I hope unlikely event you wish me to return whence I came, I shall leave you when you board the Don’t Try This At Home.”

“Does Batra know?”

“I most sincerely hope not. I could spend the rest of my Contact career toting bags, or worse.”

“Is this even semi-official?” Anaplian asked. She had never entirely lost her well-developed sense of suspicion.

“Hell’s teeth, no! All my own work.” The drone paused. “I was charged with protecting you, Djan Seriy,” it said, sounding more serious now. “And I am not some blindly obedient machine. I would like to continue to help protect you, especially as you are travelling so far outside the general protection of the Culture, to a place of violence, with your abilities reduced. For these reasons, I duly offer my services.”

Anaplian frowned. “Save that for which your appearance would imply you are most suited,” she said, “I accept.”

<p>11. Bare, Night</p>

Oramen lay on the bed with the girl who’d called herself Jish. He was playing with her hair, tangling long brown locks of it around one finger then releasing it again. He was amused by the similarity in shape of the girl’s spiralled curls and the rolls of smoke she was producing from the unge pipe she was smoking. The smoke rolled lazily upwards towards the high, ornate ceiling of the room, which was part of a house in an elegant and respectable area of the city which had been favoured by many of the court over the years, not least by his brother Ferbin.

Jish passed him the pipe, but he waved it away. “No.”

“Oh, come!” she said, giggling. She turned towards him to try and force the pipe on him, her breasts jiggling as she moved across the broad, much-tousled bed. “Don’t be a spoil!” She tried to jam the stem of the pipe into his mouth.

He turned his head, moved the pipe away again with the flat of one hand. “No, thank you,” he said.

She sat cross-legged in front of him, perfectly naked, and tapped him on the nose with the stem. “Why won’t the Ora play? Won’t the Ora play?” she said in a funny, croaky little voice. Behind her, the broad, fan-shaped headboard of the bed was covered with a painting of mythical half-people — the satyrs and nymphs of this world — engaged in a pink-toned orgy upon fluffy white clouds, peeling faintly at the edges. “Why won’t the Ora play?”

He smiled. “Because the Ora has other things to do.”

“What’s to do, my lovely prince?” She puffed briefly on the pipe, releasing the grey smoke in a liquidic sheen. “The army’s away and all is quiet. Everyone’s gone, the weather is warm and there’s nothing to do. Play with your Jish, why not?”

He lay back in the bed, stretching. One hand went out to the glass of wine that stood on the bedside table, as though about to grasp it, but then it fell away again.

“I know,” Jish said, smiling, and turned half away from him, breasts outlined in the smoky sunlight pouring through the tall windows on the far side of the room. He could see she was pulling deeply on the pipe. She turned back to him, eyes bright, came forward and down and, holding the pipe away from the two of them, placed her lips over his, opening her mouth full of smoke and trying to make him breathe it from her lungs into his. He blew back sharply, making her draw away, coughing and hacking in an unruly cloud of bitter fumes.

The pipe clattered to the floor and she coughed again, one hand at her mouth, almost sounding like she was retching. Oramen smiled. He sat upright quickly and grabbed her hand, pulling it sharply away from her and twisting his grip on her skin so that she gave a small cry of pain. Ferbin had told him that many women responded well to being treated roughly and — though he found this bizarre — he was testing this theory.

“I would not force myself on you, my dear,” he told her. Her face was unattractively reddened, and tears were in her eyes. “You ought to reciprocate.” He let go her hand.

The girl rubbed her wrist and glared at him, then sniffed and tossed her hair. She looked for the pipe and saw it on the floor. She levered herself half out of the bed to get it.

“What’s all this?” Tove Lomma stuck his head over the fan-shaped headboard. The room contained two large beds which could be side-by-side or headboard-to-headboard, if one wanted just a little additional privacy. Tove was with another couple of girls on the other bed. His big, sweaty-looking face beamed down at them. “Not a tiff, I hope?” He gazed at Jish’s backside as she stretched across for the pipe. “Hmm. Most appreciable.” He looked at Oramen, nodding at Jish’s buttocks as she pulled herself back into the bed. “Perhaps we ought to swap shortly, eh, my prince?”

“Perhaps,” Oramen said.

One of Tove’s girls appeared at his side and stuck her tongue in his ear. Oramen nodded at this. “I think you’re wanted,” he told Tove.

“I hear and obey,” Tove said, with a wink. He and the girl disappeared.

Oramen stared up at the ceiling. How much had changed, he thought. How much he’d grown and matured, just in the month since his father’s death. He’d been with girls, learned to smoke and drink and waved a ceremonial goodbye to an entire army. He had found a few pretty words to say, both to the girls — though they needed no cajoling, save the rattle of a purse — and to the army. His little speech there had been of his own devising — the one tyl Loesp had prepared for him had seemed vainglorious and immodest (the regent had done his best to hide his displeasure). Well, it had been mostly of his own devising; he had borrowed a little from The House of Many Roofs by Sinnel, with a hint of the executioner’s speech in act three of Baron Lepessi by Prode the younger.

And off the fabulous spread of their forces had gone, under banners of bright cloth and cloud-white steam, with many a clank and hiss and whinny and roar and rattle and cheer, all bound for glory, destined to fall upon the now near-defenceless Deldeyn and finally complete King Hausk’s grand plan of unity across the Eighth and beyond. Thus would come the Golden Age of peace his father had talked about, when a prince of his, that is Oramen’s, stamp might take his people on to still greater accomplishments and recognition.

Such was the theory. They had to win their battle first. The army was not taking the obvious route and would be gone longer than might have been anticipated, which ought to make the result all the more certain — the Deldeyn would presumably have most of what was left of their much-reduced forces waiting at the most obvious portal Tower, so would be surprised as well as overwhelmed — but one still never knew for sure. He hadn’t been allowed to go with the army. Still a boy, they said; better not risk their last prince, not after what had happened to Ferbin…

He wasn’t sure if he’d wanted to go or not. It would have been interesting, and it seemed a pity that there would not even be one of the late king’s children there to witness this last great campaign. He yawned. Well, never mind; he doubted there would be more than one man in a hundred in the army who would not rather be where he was right now than where they were.

His father had asked him if he wanted to come to a house like this, a few seasons earlier, but he hadn’t felt ready. He had anyway not been utterly unprepared; for a couple of years Ferbin had been regaling him with tales of debauchery, mostly centred around such houses, so he knew what went on and what was required. Still, the full experience was most surprisingly congenial. It certainly beat studying. He’d wished Shir Rocasse a happy retirement.

And Tove had been, well, like the best and most accommodating, most encouraging and helpful friend a fellow could ever have. He’d told him as much, and been glad to see the resulting look of pleasure on Tove’s face.

Jish was refilling the pipe. Oramen watched her for a little, listening to the noises coming from the far side of the headboard, then he swung gently out of the bed and started to pull on his clothes. “I have to go,” he told the girl.

“You don’t really want to go,” she said, a sly expression on her face. She nodded. “That doesn’t want to go.”

He looked down. He was hard again. “That’s not me,” he told her, “that’s only my cock.” He tapped his head. “This wants to go.”

She shrugged and lit the pipe.

He pulled on his trous then stood, tucking his shirt in.

The girl looked darkly through wreaths of grey smoke as he turned towards the door, holding his boots in one hand.

“Ferbin would have been more of a sport,” she said.

He turned and sat by the footboard, reaching to pull the girl towards him and saying quietly, “You were with my brother?” He glanced up. The top edge of the other bed’s headboard was swaying back and forth. “Quietly,” he warned her.

“A few times,” Jish said with a sort of shy defiance. “He was a laugh. Not like they’re saying now. He’d have stayed.”

“I bet he would,” Oramen said. His gaze searched her eyes, then he smiled and put one hand out to stroke her face. “I really do have to go, Jish. Another time.”

He padded to the door, boots still in one hand. Jish fell back on the bed, staring up at the ceiling, pipe out to the side, as the door closed quietly.

A little while later, Tove, breathing hard, stuck his head round the side of the headboard and looked, puzzled, at Jish and the otherwise empty bed.

“Piss break?” he asked the girl.

“If it is, the little fuck’s fucked off to the palace for it,” she told him. “And taken his fucking togs with him.”

“Shit!” Tove said, and disappeared. Moments later he too was getting dressed, to protests.

* * *

“Dr Gillews?”

The physician had his consulting offices in the palace’s lower backing wing, only a few minutes’ walk from the King’s chambers by a couple of corridors and a long gallery under the eaves of one of the main buildings. It was a surprisingly quiet place, so close to the centre of things. The chambers looked out over a medicinal garden, tipped and terraced to catch the best of the light. Oramen had found the door unlocked after knocking on it a couple of times. He called the doctor’s name again, from just inside the threshold. Gillews was known to get very caught up in the various experiments and distillations he carried out in his principal work chamber, and sometimes did not hear — or affected not to hear — people calling him.

Oramen went further along the hall, then through an archway into what appeared to be the doctor’s sitting room; windows beyond looked out to the little garden, distant clouds high above. “Dr Gillews?” he called. He could see what looked like a bench in front of the windows, covered in books, cases, phials and retorts. He could hear a faint dripping sound, and smell something acrid. He walked through the sitting room, making sure there was nobody there as he went; he didn’t want to disturb the doctor if he was sleeping. The dripping sound came louder and the smell of something bitter grew stronger.

“Doctor…?”

He stopped, staring.

The doctor was sitting in a wooden chair of ornately twisted carving, his head lying on the bench in front of him. It appeared to have hit some phials and beakers when he had fallen forward, scattering some and breaking others. The dripping noise came from liquids spilled from some of the smashed glassware. One of the liquids fumed in the air and made a sizzling noise as it struck the wooden floor.

A syringe stuck out of Gillews’ exposed left lower arm, plunger fully in. His eyes stared sightlessly along the equipment-strewn bench.

Oramen put one hand to his mouth. “Oh, Dr Gillews,” he said, and sat down on the floor, fearing his legs were about to give out. He stood up again quickly, coughing, and supported himself on the bench. The fumes were worse lower down. He leant across and pushed open two of the windows looking over the courtyard.

He took some deep breaths and reached out to feel for a pulse on the doctor’s neck, a little surprised and ashamed that his hand was shaking so. Gillews’ skin was quite cold, and there was no pulse.

Oramen looked around. He wasn’t really sure for what. Everything was untidy but that might well be the norm for such a place. He could see no note or last scratched message.

He supposed he ought to go and inform the palace guard. He looked, fascinated, at the syringe. There was blood around the puncture wound where the needle had entered, and some bruising and scratches around a handful of other small wounds, as though the doctor had had some trouble finding a vein, stabbing at himself before he found the right place.

Oramen touched Gillews’ skin again, at the exposed wrist, where there was a dull bruise. He coughed once more, throat catching on the fumes, as he pulled up the cuff of the shirt covering the doctor’s other wrist, and saw some similar bruising there. The arms of the chair were quite broad and flat.

He pulled the cuff down again, went to find a guard.

* * *

The Oct used hundreds of their largest scendships and a half-dozen scend tubes, cycling loops of vessels like stringed counting-stones in the hands of merchants tallying the day’s takings. They filled up with men, beasts, engines, artillery, wagons, supplies and materiel on the Eighth then dropped fast to the Ninth to spill their contents and race back up the Illsipine Tower for another load. Still the process took a full long-day, with all the inevitable delay caused by the sheer complexity of the vast undertaking. Animals panicked in the scendships, would not enter or would not leave — hefters, the most numerous of the beasts of burden, seemed to be particularly sensitive — roasoaril tankers leaked, risking conflagrations; steam wagons broke down (one blew up while inside a scendship, causing no damage to the vessel but killing many inside — the Oct took that one out of its loop to clean it up), and a hundred other small incidents and accidents contrived to make the whole procedure draw itself out beyond what felt like its reasonable limit.

Regent tyl Loesp and Field Marshal Werreber wheeled on their lyge about the dimly lit Illsipine Tower, watching the vast army assemble on the Tower’s only slightly brighter sun side, then, still accompanied by their escorting squadron, landed on a hill overlooking the plain. Above and all around, scouts on lyge and caude swung about the dark skies, dimly seen shapes watching for an enemy that did not appear to know they were there.

The Fixstar Oausillac, seeming to hover low over the flat plain to farpole, cast a balefully red light over the scene as tyl Loesp walked over to Werreber, taking off his flying gauntlets and clapping his hands. “It goes well, eh, Field Marshal?”

“It goes, I’ll give you that,” the other man said, letting a squire lead his lyge away. The beast’s breath smoked in the cool, still air.

Even the air smelled different here, tyl Loesp thought. Air smelled different across any level he supposed, but that now seemed like a tactical distinction; here was a strategic difference, something underlying.

“We are undiscovered.” Tyl Loesp looked out at the gathering army again. “That is sufficient for now.”

“We have come by an odd route,” Werreber said. “We are a long way from our goal. Even further from home.”

“Distance from home is irrelevant, as long as the Oct remain allies,” tyl Loesp told him. “Right now we are an hour away from home, little more.”

“As long as the Oct remain allies,” Werreber echoed.

The regent looked at him sharply, then slowly gazed away again. “You don’t distrust them, do you?”

“Trust? Trust seems irrelevant. They will do certain things or not, and those things will match with what they have said they will do, or not. Whatever guides their actions is hidden behind so many layers of untranslatable thought it might as well be based on pure chance. Their alien nature precludes human attributes like trust.”

Tyl Loesp had never heard Werreber give so long a speech. He wondered if the field marshal was nervous. He nodded. “One could no more trust an Oct than love it.”

“Still, they have been true to their word,” Werreber said. “They said they would deceive the Deldeyn, and they did.”

Tyl Loesp glanced at the other man, searching for any sign of irony, or even wit. Werreber, oblivious, continued. “They said they would bring us here, and they have.”

“The Deldeyn might take a different view.”

“The deceived always will,” Werreber pronounced, unshakeable.

Tyl Loesp could not but think that they were now in a position very similar to that the Deldeyn had been in when they had been issuing from the Xiliskine Tower barely a month ago, convinced — no doubt — that the Oct had allowed them special access to a normally inaccessible Tower to allow them to carry out their sneak attack on the very heartland of the Sarl people.

Had they felt smug, believing that the Oct were now on their side? Had they listened to the same lectures about how the Oct were direct descendants of the Shellworld builders, and nodded just as indulgently? Had they felt righteous, believing that the justice of their cause was being recognised by higher powers? For no doubt that was how they did think. It seemed to tyl Loesp everybody always thought they were right, and shared, too, the quaint belief that the very fervency of a belief, however deluded, somehow made it true.

They were all of them fools.

There was no right and wrong, there was simply effectiveness and inability, might and weakness, cunning and gullibility. That he knew this was his advantage, but it was one of better understanding, not moral superiority — he had no delusions there.

All that he and Werreber, the army and the Sarl could truly rely on was somehow fitting in with the plans that the Oct had and staying useful to them until matters had reached a conclusion. The Oct had their own reasons for wanting the Deldeyn reduced and the Sarl promoted, and tyl Loesp had an idea what those reasons were and why they were taking this route, not the obvious one, but he was willing to accept that for now they were all simply tools the Oct were using. That would change, if he had any say in it, but for now they were, undeniably, wielded.

Change it would, though. There were times, points, when a relatively small but decisive motion could trigger a weighty cascade of most momentous consequences, when the user became the used and the tool became the hand — and the brain behind it, too. Had he not been the King’s right arm? Had he not been the very epitome of trusted, valiant helper? And yet, when the time had been right, had he not struck, with all the suddenly unimpounded force of a lifetime’s unjust deference and subservience?

He had killed his king, the man to whom all around him, not just the credulous masses, thought he owed everything. But he knew the truth, which was that to be king was only to be the biggest bully in a race of bullies and bullied, the greatest braggart charlatan in a species of blustering priests and cowed acolytes with nary a thought to rub between them. The King had no inherent nobility or even right to rule; the whole idea of inheritable dominion was nonsensical if it could throw up particles like the studiously malleable Oramen and the hopelessly loose-living Ferbin. Ruthlessness, will, the absolute application of force and power; these were what secured authority and dominance.

He won who saw most clearly the way the universe really worked. Tyl Loesp had seen that Hausk was the one to take the Sarl so far along their course, but no further. The King had not seen that. Too, he had not realised that his most trusted helper might have plans, desires and ambitions of his own, and they might be best served by replacing him. So Hausk had trusted tyl Loesp, and that had been stupid. That had been a misty, self-deceptive kind of seeing. And, on a pinnacle so exposed and high as that of monarch, you paid for such foolishness.

So he had killed his king, but that meant little. It was no more wrong to kill a king than any man, and most men could see that all lives were cheap and eminently disposable, including their own. They held that in such high regard only because it was all they had, not because they thought it meant much to the universe; it took a religion to convince people of that, and he would make sure that the emphasis on that aspect of the Sarl faith was reduced in future, to the benefit of those tenets which invoked humility and obedience.

His only regret in killing Hausk, he’d realised, was that Hausk had had so little time to appreciate what had happened, to think back on what must have been going on in his faithful lieutenant’s mind for all those years, as he’d died.

But it was a small regret.

They had made the journey unharmed so far; more than three-quarters of the army was safely delivered and a more than sufficient force had been left on the Eighth to deal with any possible desperate attack by the Deldeyn.

They probably still had the advantage of surprise, too. A small outpost of lyge scouts — there specifically to watch the Tower and report if it ever was used to conduct an incursion — had been surprised and quickly overwhelmed in the first action of this latest stage of the war; a contingent of the new Regent’s Guard, the very cream of the army’s best units, had been entrusted with this and had triumphed. The Deldeyn had no telegraph so their fastest communications moved by heliograph, signal light, carrier bird or a messenger on an air beast. The elite force which had taken the little fort reported that they were sure no message had left it.

Still, the Deldeyn must have felt confident at a similar stage, too, when they had issued from the Xiliskine Tower. How quickly had they realised that they had not just been unlucky, but deceived? At what point did it dawn on them that far from being about to inflict a crushing defeat on their enemies, they were about to suffer one themselves, and the war would be not won on that morning, but lost?

How deluded are we? he thought. How often, how multiply are we used? He still remembered the alien-man Xide Hyrlis coming to them with his glum prognostications regarding the future of warfare on their level, nearly a dozen long-years ago.

They would fall, he warned them, under the power of the first ruler to realise that the new discoveries in distillation, metallurgy and explosives spelled the end of the old, chivalrous ways. The immediate future, Hyrlis had told them, meant leaving the air to scouts, messengers and hit-and-fly raiding forces. There was an invention called the telegraph that could move information more quickly than the fleetest lyge and more reliably than by heliograph; use that. It would lead to still greater things.

Later there would be some disagreement over whether Hyrlis had pointed them towards an inventor who had already developed such an instrument, or pointed the inventor himself in the right experimental direction.

Abandon the great and noble tradition of well-bred men mounted on well-bred caude and lyge, Hyrlis said; build bigger guns, more guns, better guns, give more guns to more men, train them and arm them properly, mount them on animals and wheeled and tracked transports powered by steam — for now — and reap the benefits. Or pay the penalty, when somebody else sensed the change in the wind before you did.

Hausk, still a young man and the inexperienced, newly crowned king of a small, struggling kingdom, had — to tyl Loesp’s surprise and initial chagrin, even disbelief — fallen on these ideas like a starved man on a banquet. Tyl Loesp had, with all the other nobles, tried to argue him out of the infatuation, but Hausk had pressed ahead.

In time, tyl Loesp heard the first rumblings of something beyond mere discontent amongst his fellow nobles, and had had to make a choice. It was the turning point of his life. He made his choice and warned the King. The ringleaders of the conspiring nobles were executed, the rest had their lands seized and were disgraced. Tyl Loesp became despised by some, lauded by others, and trusted utterly by his king. The disputatious nobles had neatly removed the main obstacle to change — themselves — and Hausk’s reforms roared ahead unstayed.

One victory led to another and soon there seemed to be nothing but victories. Hausk, tyl Loesp and the armies they commanded swept all before them. Xide Hyrlis had left long before, almost before any of the reforms had been effected, and it seemed he was quickly forgotten; few people had known about him in the first place and those who had mostly had good reason to downplay his contribution to this new age of innovation, progress and never-ending martial success. Hausk himself still paid tribute to the man, if only in private.

But what had Hyrlis left? What course had he set them on? Were they not his tools, somehow? Were they perhaps doing his bidding, even now? Were they puppets, playthings, even pets? Would they be allowed to achieve only so much and then — as he, after all, had done to the King — have everything taken away on the very brink of complete success?

But he must not fall prey to such thoughts. A little caution, and some rough idea of what to do if things happened for the worst, that was excusable, but to wallow in doubt and presentiments of disaster only served to help bring about that which was most feared. He would not give in to that weakness. They were set for victory; if they struck now they would win, and then the territory opened up where the Oct might find themselves no longer in full control.

He raised his nose and sniffed. There was a smell of burning in the air, something unpleasantly sweet and somehow despoiled loose on the slowly strengthening breeze. He’d sensed this before, at the battle before the Xiliskine Tower, and noted it then. The smell of warfare had a new signature; that of distilled, incinerated roasoaril oil. Battle itself now smelled of smoke. Tyl Loesp could remember when the relevant scents had been sweat and blood.

* * *

“How awful for you!”

“Rather more so for the doctor.”

“Well indeed, though when you saw him he was past caring.” Renneque looked from Oramen to Harne. “Wouldn’t you say, ma’am?”

“A most unfortunate incident.” Harne, the lady Aelsh, sat dressed in her finest and most severe mourning red, surrounded by her closest ladies-in-waiting and a further group of ladies and gentlemen who had been invited to her salon within her apartments in the main palace, less than a minute’s walk from the throne room and the court principal’s chamber. It was a select group. Oramen recognised a famous painter, an actor and impresario, a philosopher, a falsettist and an actress. The city’s most fashionable and handsome priest was present, long black hair glistening, eyes twinkling, surrounded by a smaller semi-court of blushing young ladies; a brace of ancient noblemen too decrepit to venture to war completed the company.

Oramen watched Harne absently stroking a sleeping ynt lying curled on her lap — the animal’s fur had been dyed red to match her dress — and wondered why he’d been invited. Perhaps it was a gesture of conciliation. Just as likely it was to have him tell his somewhat grisly tale in person. And, of course, he was the heir to the throne; he’d noticed that many people felt a need to display their faces before him as often as possible. He had to keep reminding himself of that.

He smiled at Renneque, imagining her naked. After Jish and her friends, he had a template; something to go on, now. Or there was another of Harne’s attendant ladies called Ramile, a slim blonde with tightly curled hair. She had rather caught his eye, and did not seem to resent his interest, looking back shyly but frequently, smiling. He sensed Renneque glancing at the younger woman, then later glaring at her. Perhaps he might use one to get to the other. He was starting to understand how such matters worked. And then, of course, there was the lady actor, who was the most beautiful woman in the room. There was a refreshing directness in her look he rather liked.

“The doctor was known to indulge himself in the more pleasantly affective cures and potions of his trade, I believe,” the priest said, then sipped his infusion. They were gathered to take a variety of recently fashionable drinks, most not long arrived from a variety of foreign parts, all newly opened-up dependencies of the greater kingdom. The infusions were nonalcoholic, though some were mildly narcotic.

“He was a weak man,” Harne pronounced. “If a good physician.”

“It was so written, in his stars,” said a small man Oramen had seen and half recognised; Harne’s latest pet astrologer. The philosopher, sitting as far from the astrologer as practically possible, gave a small snort and shook his head. He muttered something to the nearest lady-in-waiting. She looked blank, though politely so. The astrologer represented the latest fad in astrology, which claimed that human affairs were affected by the stars beyond Sursamen. The old astrology had ascribed influences to the Fixstars and Rollstars of the Eighth and beyond — especially those of the Ninth, which, after all, swept by just under one’s feet, and so were technically closer than those hundreds of kilometres overhead. Oramen had little time even for the old stuff, but it seemed more plausible to him than this new nonsense. However, the Extra-Sursamen Astrology (for so it was termed) was new, and so for this reason alone, he supposed, possessed an irresistible attraction to a certain class of mind.

Renneque was nodding wisely at the small astrologer’s words. Oramen wondered if he really should attempt to bed Renneque, the lady Silbe. He was troublingly aware that he would once again be following his brother. The court would doubtless find out; Renneque and her peers were indiscreet. What would people think of him for going where his wastrel brother had already been? Would they think he was trying to prove he had the equal of Ferbin’s appetites, or was seeking to emulate him, unable to decide on his own tastes? Or would they even think that he sought to pay homage to him? He was still worrying at this, and not really listening to the conversation — which appeared to have spun off into some rather self-consciously clever talk about cures and addictions, benefits and curses — when Harne suddenly suggested the two of them take a turn on the balcony beyond the room.

“My lady,” he said, when the tall shutters had swung to behind them. The evening lay stretched out across the nearpole sky, filling the air with purples, reds and ochres. The lower palace and city beyond was mostly dark, just a few public lights showing. Harne’s dress looked darker out here, almost black.

“I am told you seek the return of your mother,” Harne said.

Well, she was direct. “I do,” he said. He had written to her several times since the King’s death, and told her that he hoped to bring her back to Pourl, back to the court, as soon as possible. He had sent more formal telegraphed messages as well, though they would have to be translated into a paper message at some point too, as the telegraph wires did not extend so far round the world as the benighted spot his mother had been exiled to (she often said how beautiful the place was, but he suspected she dissembled to spare his feelings). He supposed Harne had heard through the telegraph network; the operatives were notorious gossips. “She is my mother,” he told Harne. “She should be here at my side, especially once I become king.”

“And I would not seek to prevent her return, had I the power, please believe me,” Harne said.

You thought to cause her exile in the first place, Oramen wanted to say, but didn’t. “That is… as well,” he said.

Harne appeared distracted, her expression, even by the uncertain light of the drawn-out sunset and the candles of the room behind them, patently confused and uncertain. “Please understand that my concern is for my own place following her return. I wish her no ill, quite none at all, but I would know if her enhancement requires my own degradation.”

“Not through any choice of mine, madam,” Oramen said. He felt a deliciousness in the situation. He felt he was a man now, but he could still too well remember being a boy, or at least being treated like one. Now this woman, who had once seemed like a queen, like the strictest stepmother, like a powerful, capricious ogre to him, hung on his every word and turn of phrase, beseeching him from outside the citadel of his new and sudden power.

“My position is secure?” Harne asked.

He had thought about this. He still resented what Harne had done, whether she had demanded outright that his own mother be banished, presented the King with a choice between the two of them, or just inveigled, schemed and suggested her way towards the idea that such a choice must be made, but his only thought was for Aclyn, the lady Blisk; his own mother. Would Harne’s reduction be to her good? He doubted it.

Harne was popular and liked, and even more so now; she was pitied as the tragic widow and grieving mother all in one, representing in that woe something of what the whole kingdom felt. To be seen to persecute her would reflect badly on him and by immediate extension on his mother too. Harne, the lady Aelsh, had to be shown every respect, or his mother’s just advancement and restoration would be a hollow, bitter thing indeed. He would rather it was otherwise, for in his heart he wanted to banish Harne as his own mother had been banished, but it could not be, and he had to accept that.

“Madam, your position is perfectly secure. I honour you as she who was queen in all but name. I wish merely to see my mother again and have her take her rightful place at court. It will in no sense be at your expense. You were both loved by my father. He chose you over her and fate has chosen me over your son. You and she are equal in that.”

“It is a sad equality.”

“It is what we have, I’d say. I would have my mother back, but not above you — she never could be, in the affections of the people. Your position is unimpeachable, madam; I’d not have it otherwise.” Well, I would, he thought. But what would be the point in telling you?

“I am grateful, prince,” Harne said, laying one hand briefly on his arm. She took a breath, looking down. My, Oramen thought, how my power affects people and things! Being king could be highly agreeable!

“We ought to go in,” Harne said, smiling up at him. “People might talk!” she said, and gave an almost coquettish laugh such that, just for an instant, without in any way desiring her for himself, he saw suddenly what it might be about the woman that could have so captivated his father he would banish the mother of two of his children to keep her, or even just to keep her happy. She paused as she put her hand to the handle of the door leading back to the room. “Prince?” she said, gazing up into his eyes. “Oramen — if I may?”

“Of course, dear lady.” What now? he thought.

“Your reassurance, perversely, deserves its opposite.”

“I beg your pardon?”

“I would have a care, Prince Regent.”

“I fail to understand you, ma’am. One always cares, one always has cares. What more specific—?”

“Specific I cannot be, Oramen. My concerns rest on vaguenesses, associations that may be perfectly innocent, coincidences that may be just those and no more; mere hints of rumours of gossip. Nothing solid or incontrovertible at all. Indeed, only just enough to say that the Prince Regent should take care. That is all. We are all of us forever on the brink of whatever fate may hold for us, even though we might not know it.” She put her hand to his arm again. “Please, Prince Regent, don’t think I seek to discomfit you; there is no malice in this. If I thought only for myself, I would take what you have just told me to my great relief and say no more, for I realise that what I say now may sound disquieting, even allied to a threat, though it is not. Please believe me it is not. I have had the most obscure and reluctant intelligences that suggest — no more — all is not as it appears, and so I ask you: take care, Prince Regent.”

He wasn’t sure what to say. Her gaze searched his eyes. “Please say I have not offended you, Oramen. You have done me generous service in reassuring me as you have and I would despair if I caused you to retract any part of that, but such grace commands I find the last seamed scrap I have to offer in grateful return, and what I’ve said is all I have. I beg you neither to scorn it nor ignore it. I fear we both might suffer from dismissal.”

Oramen still felt mightily confused and was already determined to revisit this conversation as accurately as he could when he had the leisure, but he nodded gravely, though with a small smile, and said, “Then be doubly reassured, ma’am. I regard you no less for what you’ve said. I thank you for your thoughtfulness and counsel. I shall think on it, assuredly.”

The lady’s face, lit from the side by candlelight, looked suddenly care-worn, Oramen thought. Her gaze flicked across his eyes again, then she smiled tremulously, and nodded, and let him open the door for her. The red-coloured ynt that had been sleeping on her lap curled out through the sliver of opening and whined and circled round her feet.

“Oh, Obli,” the lady cried, stooping to scoop the animal into her arms and rubbing her nose against its. “Can’t I leave you for a moment?”

They went back into the room.

* * *

They crossed a Night, and a region of Bare at the same time. It was the least propitious combination known to the superstitious, and even the most practical and hard-headed amongst them felt the tension. It was a long stretch, but there would be no supply dumps or fortlets left here; ordering men to stay in such a place was like consigning them to a living death. The animals complained mightily, hating the darkness and perhaps the strange, smooth feel of the material beneath them. The steam wagons and transports could not have been more suited to the terrain, or lack of it, and quickly pulled ahead. Good discipline, orders given sternly in briefings over the days before and perhaps a degree of fear ensured that the army did not become too attenuated. Searchlights shone upwards to help guide the airborne escorts and returning scouts. There would be three long-days of this.

The Night was caused by a series of great vanes that both hung from the level’s ceiling high above — obstructing all but the faintest air-glow of the Fixstar Oausillac to farpole — and had risen, like the blade of some infinite knife, from the ground ten or so kilometres to their right until they sat like a slice of night above them, six or seven kilometres high and hooked and curved over like some incomprehensibly colossal claw.

Men felt appropriately tiny in the shadow of such manufactured vastness. In a place like this, the heads of even the most unimaginative of beings began to fill with questions, if not outright dread. What titans had forged such vast geographies? What star-encompassing hubris had dictated the placement of these enormous vanes just so, like scimitared propellers from ships the size of planets? What oceanic volumes of what outlandish materials could ever have required such prodigious impelment?

A fierce wind arose, coming straight at them at first, forcing the air-beasts down for shelter. It scoured the last few grains of sand and grit from the Bare, making it entirely clear how this arid region came to be stripped not just of any ground cover but of any ground at all. They were travelling across the very bones of their vast world, tyl Loesp thought, the absolute base and fundament of all that gave them life.

When the wind eased a little and veered, he ordered his half-track command vehicle to stop and got down from it. The machine grumbled beside him, headlights picking out twin cones of creamy Bare ahead of it. All around, the army trundled past, engines blattering, unseen fumes rising into the inky dark. He took his glove off, knelt and pressed his open palm against the Bare, against the pure Prime of Sursamen’s being.

I touch the ancient past, he thought, and the future. Our descendants might build on this mighty, God-threatening scale, one day. If I cannot be there — and the aliens had the gift of eternal life, so he might be there if all went as he dared to hope — then my name shall.

Nearby in the loud darkness, a supply wagon’s tractor had broken down; a spare was being attached.

He put his glove back on and returned to the half-track.

* * *

“Frankly, sir, it’s a murder weapon,” Illis, the palace armourer, said. He was squat and sturdy. His hands were dark, ingrained.

Oramen turned the slim but allegedly powerful pistol over in his hand. He had fretted about Harne’s warning for some days before eventually deciding to dismiss it, but had then woken from a dream wherein he’d been trapped in a chair while faceless men shoved knives into his arms. He had been going to dismiss that too, but then came to the conclusion that something inside him was worried, and even if it was just to keep such nightmares at bay, carrying a weapon more powerful than just his usual long knife might be advisable.

The gun felt heavy. Its mechanism was worked by a strong spring so that it could be used single-handed and it contained ten one-piece shells, arranged in a sort of staggered vertical within the handle and propelled to the firing chamber by another spring, cocked by a lever that folded away after use.

The shells were cross-cut on their tips. “A man-stopper,” Illis said, then paused. “Actually, a hefter-stopper, to serve truth fair.” He smiled, which was a little disconcerting as he had very few teeth left. “Try to avoid accidents with it, sir,” he said reasonably, then insisted the prince practise using it in the long firing gallery attached to the armoury.

The gun certainly kicked like a hefter — and barked louder than one — Oramen thought, but it fired straight and true.

He found a place for its lightly oiled ynt-hide holster, concealed in a plumped-out part of his tunic at the back, and promised to keep its safety catch secured.

<p>12. Cumuloform</p>

It was some time before Ferbin would accept he was not dead. He drifted up towards some sort of awareness to find himself suspended in airy nothing beneath a vast glowing mass of frozen bubbles. Enormous gold-tinged clouds stretched in every direction, mostly up. Far below was a startlingly blue ocean, devoid of land. Unchanging, patterned with a ruffled weave of waves, it seemed, for all its oceanic blueness, somehow frozen.

Sometimes, as he drifted over this apparition, it did seem to change, and he thought he saw tiny flecks appear on its surface, but then the tiny flecks disappeared with the same microscopic slowness with which they had come into being, and all was as before; serene, calm, unchanging, heavenly…

He had the feeling he had recently been in the ocean, though it had been warm rather than cold and he had been able to breathe despite being submerged in it. It was as though death was somehow like being born, like being still in the womb.

And now he was here in this strange scape of infinite cloud and never-ending ocean with only the comforting presence of slowly passing Towers to reassure him he was in the appropriate afterlife. And even the Towers seemed too far apart.

* * *

He saw a face. It was a human face and he knew he ought to recognise it.

* * *

Then he was awake again and the face had gone. He suspected he had dreamed the face, and wondered about dreaming when you were patently dead. Then he seemed to fall asleep. In retrospect, that was surprising too.

* * *

He was awake, and there was a strange numbness about his back and right shoulder. He could feel no pain or discomfort, but it felt like there was a huge hole in him covering a quarter of his torso, something that he couldn’t reach or feel or do anything with. Filling his ears was a distant roaring noise like a waterfall heard at a distance.

He floated over the unimpeachably perfect blueness. A sunset came on slowly, burnishing the huge clouds with red, violet and mauve. He watched a Tower slide past, its sallow trunk disappearing into the deepening azure mass of the sea, edged with white where the surfaces met.

* * *

Then it was dark and only distant lightning lit the ocean and the towering clouds, ushering him back to sleep with silent bursts of faraway light.

This must, he thought, be heaven. Some sort of reward, anyway.

Ideas about what happened after you died varied even amongst the priestly caste. Primitives were able to have more straightforward religions because they didn’t know any better. Once you knew even a little of the reality of the situation in the outside universe, it all got a bit more complex: there were lots of aliens and they all had — or had once had — their own myths and religions. Some aliens were immortal; some had constructed their own fully functional afterlives, where the deceased — recorded, transcribed — ended up after death; some had made thinking machines that had their own sets of imponderable and semi-godlike powers; some just were gods, like the WorldGod, for example, and some had Sublimed, which itself was arguably a form of ascension to Godhead.

Ferbin’s father had had the same robustly pragmatic view of religion as he’d had of everything else. In his opinion, only the very poor and downtrodden really needed religion, to make their laborious lives more bearable. People craved self-importance; they longed to be told they mattered as individuals, not just as part of a mass of people or some historical process. They needed the reassurance that while their life might be hard, bitter and thankless, some reward would be theirs after death. Happily for the governing class, a well-formed faith also kept people from seeking their recompense in the here and now, through riot, insurrection or revolution.

A temple was worth a dozen barracks; a militia man carrying a gun could control a small unarmed crowd only for as long as he was present; however, a single priest could put a policeman inside the head of every one of their flock, for ever.

The more comfortably off, and those with real power, might choose to believe or not as their personal proclivities dictated, but their relatively easeful, pleasant lives were their own rewards, and for the highest in the land, posterity — a place in history itself — would be their prize after death.

Ferbin had never really bothered with thoughts of an afterlife. Where he was now did seem like heaven, or something like it, but he wasn’t sure. Part of him wished he’d paid more attention to the priests when they’d been trying to instruct him about this sort of thing, but then, given that he appeared to have achieved the afterlife without either faith or knowledge, what would have been the point?

* * *

Choubris Holse looked down on him.

Choubris Holse. That had been the name of the face he’d seen earlier. He stared at it and wondered what Holse was doing in the land of the dead, and wearing odd, too-loose-looking clothes, too, though he still had his belt and knife. Should Holse be here? Perhaps he was just visiting.

He moved, and could feel something in the place where before there had been no feeling or movement, in his right upper back. He looked around as best he could.

He was riding in something like a balloon gondola, lying prone on a large, subtly undulating bed, naked but for a thin covering. Choubris Holse was sitting looking at him, chewing on what looked like a stringy piece of dried meat. Ferbin suddenly felt ravenously hungry. Holse belched and excused himself and Ferbin experienced an odd amalgam of emotions as he realised that this was not the afterlife and that he was still alive.

“Good-day, sir,” Holse said. His voice sounded funny. Ferbin clung briefly to this scrap of evidence that he might still be safely dead with the ferocity of a drowning man clutching at a floating leaf. Then he let it go.

He tried working his mouth. His jaw clicked and his mouth felt gummy. A noise like an old man’s groan sounded from somewhere and Ferbin was forced to acknowledge it had probably been emitted by himself.

“Feeling better, sir?” Holse asked matter-of-factly.

Ferbin tried to move his arms and found that he could. He brought both hands up to his face. They looked pale and the skin was all ridged, like the ocean that still sailed by below. Like he’d been too long in it. Or maybe just too long in a nice warm bath. “Holse,” he croaked.

“At your service, sir.” Holse sighed. “As ever.”

Ferbin looked about. Clouds, ocean, bubble gondola thing. “Where is this? Not heaven?”

“Not heaven, sir, no.”

“You’re quite sure?”

“More than moderately positive, sir. This is a portion of the Fourth, sir. We are in the realm of the beings that call themselves Cumuloforms.”

“The Fourth?” Ferbin said. His voice sounded odd too. “But we are still within great Sursamen?”

“Assuredly, sir. Just four levels up. Halfway to the Surface.”

Ferbin looked around again. “How extraordinary,” he breathed, then coughed.

“Extraordinarily boring, sir,” Holse said, frowning at his piece of dried meat. “We’ve been sailing over this water for the past five long-days or so and while the prospect is most impressive at first and the air bracing, you’d be amazed how quickly the impressiveness and the bracingness become tedious when that’s all there is to contemplate all day. Well, all there is to contemplate all day save for your good self, of course, sir, and frankly you were no circus of boundless fun either in your sleeping state. Nary a word, sir. Certainly nary a word of sense. But in any event, sir, welcome back to the land of the living.” Holse made a show of looking beneath his feet, through a translucent membrane that showed a hazy version of the ocean far below. “Though land, as you might have noticed, is the one thing this level appears to be somewhat short of.”

“Definitely the Fourth?” Ferbin said. He leaned up on one elbow — something twinged in his right shoulder, and he grimaced — to look over the side of the bed he was lying on, peering down through the hazy surface Holse was standing on. It all looked rather alarming.

“Definitely the Fourth, sir. Not that I had opportunity to count as it were, but that is most certainly what its denizens term it.”

Ferbin looked at the dried meat held in Holse’s hand. He nodded at it. “I say, d’you think I might have some of that?”

“I’ll get you a fresh piece, shall I, sir? They said you were all right to eat like normal when you wanted to.”

“No, no; that bit will do,” Ferbin said, still staring at the meat and feeling his mouth fill with saliva.

“As you wish, sir,” Holse handed Ferbin the meat. He crammed it into his mouth. It tasted salty and slightly fishy and very good.

“How did we come to be here, Holse?” he said through mouthfuls. “And who would be these ‘they’?”

“Well now, sir,” Holse said.

* * *

Ferbin had been badly wounded by a carbine bullet as they stumbled into the cylinder that had revealed itself on the Oct’s access tower. A lucky shot, Holse told him. Firing in near darkness from a beating air-beast at a running target, even the greatest marksman would need his fair share of good fortune for a month all gathered together at once to secure a hit.

The two of them had fallen into the interior of the cylinder, which then just sat there, door still open, for what had seemed like an eternity to Holse. He had cradled the already unconscious Ferbin in his arms, slowly becoming covered in blood, screaming at whoever or whatever to close the door or sink the effing tube thing back down into the tower, but nothing had happened until some of the men who had attacked them actually landed on the surface outside, then the cylinder did finally lower itself back into the tower. He’d yelled and hollered for help for Ferbin, because he was sure that the prince was dying. Meanwhile he had the impression that the round room they were in was continuing to sink deeper inside the access tower.

The room came to a stop, the doorway they’d fallen through had slid into being again and a machine the shape of a large Oct had scuttled in towards them. It took Ferbin’s limp body off him and quickly turned him this way and that, finding the hole in his back and the larger exit wound in his chest, sealing both with some sort of squirty stuff and cradling his head with a sort of hand thing. Pincers on that hand had seemed to slide into Ferbin’s neck and lower skull, but Ferbin had been too far gone to react and Holse had just assumed and hoped that this was somehow all part of the ministering or doctoring or whatever was going on.

A floating platform appeared and took them along a broad hallway with whole sets and sequences of most impressive doors — each easily the equal in size of the main gates to the palace in Pourl — which variously slid, rolled, rose and fell to allow them through. Holse had guessed that they were entering the base of the D’neng-oal Tower itself.

The final chamber was a big sphere with an added floor, and this had sealed itself tight and started moving; possibly up — it was hard to say. The place had felt damp and the floor had patches of water on it.

The Oct doctor machine continued to work on Ferbin, who had at least stopped bleeding. A screen lowered itself from the ceiling and addressed Holse, who spent the next hour or so trying to explain what had happened, who they both were and why one of them was almost dead. From Ferbin’s jacket he had fished out the envelopes Seltis the Head Scholar had given them. They were covered in blood and one of them looked like it had been nicked by the carbine bullet on its way out of Ferbin’s chest. Holse had waved these at the screen, hoping their effectiveness was not impaired by blood or having a hole in one corner. He felt he was almost starting to get the hang of how to talk to an Oct when some clunking and gentle bouncing around told him they had arrived somewhere else. The door swung open again and a small group of real, proper Oct had looked in through a wall as transparent as the best glass but wobbly as a flag on a windy day.

Holse had forgotten the name of the Towermaster. Seltis had said the name when he’d given them the travel documents but Holse had been too busy trying to think what they were going to do next to pay attention. He waved the travel documents again. Then the name just popped into his head.

“Aiaik!” he exclaimed. It sounded like a cry of pain or surprise, he thought, and he wondered what he and Ferbin must look like to these clever, strange-looking aliens.

Whether the Towermaster’s name had any real effect was debatable, but the two of them — Ferbin carried by the limbs of the Oct doctor machine — found themselves, still on their little floating platform, riding along various water-filled corridors inside a bubble of air. The Oct who’d been looking in at them through the wobbly glass accompanied them, swimming alongside. They entered a large chamber of great complexity; the Oct doctor machine cut the clothes from Ferbin, a sort of jacket was wrapped round his chest, a transparent mask connected to long tubes was placed over his face, other tubes fastened to his head where the doctor’s pincers had entered and then he was placed in a large tank.

One of the Oct had tried to explain what was going on, though Holse hadn’t understood much.

Holse had been told Ferbin would take time to repair. Still sitting on the platform that had borne them earlier, he’d been shown through the watery environment to a nearby room from which all the water drained away while fresh air took its place. The Oct he’d been talking to had stayed with him, its body covered in a sort of barely visible suit of moisture. Another set of dry rooms had opened up which seemed to have been designed for human habitation.

The Oct had said he could live here for the few days Ferbin would take to repair, then left him alone.

He’d walked over to the set of round, man-high windows and looked out over the land of the Sarl as he’d never seen it before, from nearly fourteen hundred kilometres above the surface, through the vacuum which existed above the atmosphere that covered the land like a warm blanket.

“What a sight, sir.” Holse appeared lost for a moment, then shook his head.

“And how came we to be here, on the Fourth?” Ferbin asked.

“The Oct only control the D’neng-oal Tower up to this level, as far as I can understand the matter, sir. They seemed reluctant to admit this, as though it was the cause for some embarrassment, which it may well indeed be.”

“Oh,” Ferbin said. He hadn’t known that the Conducer peoples ever controlled only part of a Tower; he’d just assumed it was all or nothing, from Core to Surface.

“And on account of the fact that beyond the Ninth one is in the realm of the Oversquare, transference from one Tower to another is not possible.”

“Over… what?”

“This has all been explained to me by the Oct I was talking to on the screen while being bled upon by your good self, and subsequently and at some length in my quarters near your place of treatment, sir.”

“Really. Then kindly explain it to me.”

“It’s all to do with the distances apart that the Towers are, sir. Below and up to the level of the Ninth, their Filigree connects, and the Filigree is of sufficient hollowness for scendships — which is the proper term for the spherical room which transported us—”

“I know what a scendship is, Holse.”

“Well, they can switch from one Tower to another through their connectings in amongst the Filigree. But above the Ninth the Filigree doesn’t connect, so to get from one Tower to another one has to travel between them, through whatever exists on the relevant level.”

Ferbin’s understanding of such matters was, like his understanding of most things, vague. Again, it would have been much less so if he’d ever paid any attention to the relevant lessons from his tutors. The Towers supported the ceiling over each level through a great fluted outbranching of this stuff called Filigree, whose greater members were as hollow as the Towers themselves. Given that the same number of Towers supported each level, whether it was the one closest to the Core or that supporting the Surface, the Towers would be at a greater distance from each other the closer they got to that last outward level and the Filigree would no longer need to join up to support the weight above.

“The whole of the Fourth,” Holse said, “is home to these Cumuloform, which are clouds, but clouds which are in some sense intelligent in that mysterious and not especially useful way so many alien peoples and things tend to be, sir. They float over oceans full of fishes and sea monsters and such. Or rather over one big ocean, which fills the whole of the bottom part of the level the way land does on our own dear Eighth. Anyway, they’re seemingly happy to transport folk between Towers when the Oct ask them to. Oh, and I should say, welcome to Expanded Version Five; Zourd,” Holse said, looking up and around at the nebulous mass of cloud extending around and far above them. “For that is what this one is called.”

“Indeed,” Ferbin said.

“Good-day.” The voice sounded like a whole chorus of whispered echoes and seemed to issue from every part of the bubble-wall around them.

“And, ah, and to you, good, ah, Cumuloform,” Ferbin said out loud, looking up at the cloud above. He continued to gaze expectantly upwards for a few more moments, then looked back at Holse, who shrugged.

“It is not what you’d call talkative, sir.”

“Hmm. Anyway,” Ferbin said, sitting up and staring at Holse, “why do the Oct only control the D’neng-oal up to the Fourth?”

“Because, sir, the Aultridia” — Holse averted his head to spit on the semi-transparent floor — “control the upper levels.”

“Oh my God!”

“WorldGod be preserved indeed, sir.”

“What? You mean they control the upper levels of all Towers?”

“No, sir.”

“But wasn’t the D’neng-oal always an Oct Tower?”

“It was, sir. Until recently. This seems to be the principal cause of the embarrassment felt by the Oct, sir. Part of their Tower has been taken over from them.”

“And by the Vileness!” Ferbin said, genuinely horrified. “The very filth of God!”

The Aultridia were an Upstart species; recent arrivals on the Involved scene who had wasted no time in establishing themselves, shouldering their way to as near the front of the galactic stage as possible. They were far from alone in that. What distinguished them was the manner and location of their coming to sentient fruition as a species.

The Aultridia had evolved from parasites which had lived under the carapaces and between the skin layers of the species called the Xinthia; Xinthian Tensile Aeronathaurs to give them their proper name. It was one of these that the Sarl called the WorldGod.

The Xinthia were regarded with something approaching affection by even the most ruthless and unsentimental of the galaxy’s Involved, partly because they had done much great work in the past — they had been particularly active in the Swarm Wars of great antiquity, battling runaway nanotech outbreaks, Swarmata in general and other Monopathic Hegemonising Events — but mostly because they were no threat to anybody any more and a system of the galactic community’s size and complexity just seemed to need one grouping that everybody was allowed to like. Utterly ancient, once near-invincibly powerful, now reduced to one paltry solar system and a few eccentric individuals hiding in the Cores of Shellworlds for no discernible reason, the Xinthia were seen as eccentric, bumbling, well-meaning, civilisationally exhausted — the joke was they hadn’t the energy to Sublime — and generally as the honoured good-as-dead deserving of a comfortable retirement.

The Aultridia were regarded as having spoiled that comfortable twilight. Over the space of several hundred thousand years, the great air-dwelling, spacefaring Aeronathaurs had been greatly troubled by the increasingly active creatures they were playing host to, the infestation of super-parasites running round the necklace of Aeronathaur habitats orbiting the star Chone like a disease.

It hadn’t lasted; the advantage of a truly intelligent parasite was that you could reason with it, and the Aultridia had long since abandoned their old ways, leaving their one-time hosts alone in return for material advancement and what seemed like alien super-science to them but was like a box of broken toys discovered in a dusty attic to the Xinthia.

They had constructed their own purpose-built habitats and taken up the task of opening up and maintaining Shellworlds; this swiftly turned into a real and useful speciality. It was conventionally assumed that burrowing into a Shellworld was somehow something they were suited for just by their history and nature.

The stigma of their birthright remained, however, and it didn’t help that the mat-like Aultridia stank like rotting meat to most oxygen-breathing species.

The only remaining suspicion regarding the Aultridia’s present existence was that they had established at least a token presence on all the Shellworlds which contained Xinthians, often at impractical cost and to the considerable annoyance of other Conducer species like the Oct. To date, as far as anyone knew, the Aultridia had never even tried to penetrate all the way down through the levels of a Shellworld to a Core-dwelling Xinthian — even the more established Conducer species tended to leave the ancient beings alone, out of respect and possibly an almost superstitious wariness — but that didn’t reassure many people, least of all those like the Sarl, who treated the Xinthian at the Core of the world as a God and were appalled at the idea of the ghastly Aultridia worming their way down to the Core to do God-knew-what to their deity. Only the Iln, the fabled and happily long-departed species which had spent so much of their hateful existence destroying Shellworlds, were more despised by the Sarl and all right-thinking people.

The Oct, of course, had not been shy about promoting this view of the Aultridia amongst their client species like the Sarl, arguably exaggerating both the incorrigibility of Aultridian nature and the concomitant threat the species posed to the WorldGod. The Oct were also not slow in pointing out that they were, by their own claim at least, directly descended from the Involucra — the very people who had designed and constructed the deeply wonderful Shellworlds — and so part of a line of almost God-like creators nearly a billion years old. By comparison, the Aultridia were ghastly parasitic newbie slime barely worthy of the term civilised.

“So,” Ferbin said. “We’re floating to another Tower? We are still on our way to the Surface, I trust?”

“We are, sir.”

Ferbin looked through the near-perfectly transparent bed he lay on, down to the waves far below. “We do not seem to be moving especially quickly.”

“Apparently we are, however, sir. We’re going four or five times faster than even a lyge can fly, though certainly not as quickly as an alien flying machine.”

“It doesn’t look very fast,” Ferbin said, still staring at the ocean.

“We are very high, sir. That makes our progress look slow.”

Ferbin looked up. They appeared to be on the very lowest wisp of a vast mass of golden whiteness. “And this thing is basically just a cloud?” he asked.

“It is, sir. Though it sticks together better than the clouds we’re used to, and it is, by allegement, intelligent.”

Ferbin thought about this. He had never really been trained to think properly for himself, or thought much of thinking, as it were, but over the past few days and adventures he had discovered that the pastime was not without its benefits. “Is it not, then, at the mercy of the winds?”

Holse looked mildly surprised. “You know, sir, I thought that! However, it appears the Cumuloforms can control their height with some exactness, and because the level is so arranged with winds heading in different directions at different elevations, they can navigate near well as a bird just by taking care how high off the ground — well, sea — they are.”

Ferbin felt the edge of the simple sheet covering his nakedness. “Do we still have the documents Seltis gave us?”

“Here, sir,” Holse said, pulling them from his loose-fitting tunic.

Ferbin collapsed back on the bed, exhausted. “Is there water here? I’m thirsty.”

“I think you’ll find that tube there will provide the necessary, sir.”

Ferbin took a dangling transparent tube and sucked at it, taking his fill of pleasantly sweet-tasting water, then lay back. He looked over at Holse.

“So, Choubris Holse, you are still with me.”

“Plain as, sir.”

“You did not go back, even though we have now most certainly left my father’s kingdom.”

“I thought the better of it, sir. The gentlemen on the lyge who tried to detain us at the tower did not seem overenthusiastic regarding the niceties of establishing the innocence of one acting merely as a faithful servant. It occurred to me that you might be of most use to the current regime dead, if you see what I mean, sir, and — on account of you having been already so pronounced — some effort might be made to turn this incorrect statement into a true one, only backdated, if you get my drift. Your being alive does rather contradict the official version of events and it strikes me that knowledge of that fact is somewhat like an infective disease, and a fatal one at that.” While Ferbin was still thinking his way through this, Holse frowned, cleared his throat and gathered his tunic about him. “And it did occur to me, sir, that you did somewhat save my life on that tower thing, when that little lyge flier chappie was quite set, it seemed to me, on taking it.”

“Did I?” Ferbin asked. He supposed he had. He had never saved anybody’s life before. Realising that he had was a rather agreeable sensation.

“Not that it wasn’t my sticking with you that had got me into said parlous situation in the first place, mind, sir,” Holse went on, seeing a look of dreamy self-satisfaction appear on Ferbin’s pale, lightly bearded face.

“Indeed, indeed,” Ferbin said. He was thinking again. “You will be some time away from those you love, I fear, dear Holse.”

“It has barely been three weeks, sir. Quite possibly they have yet to miss me. In any event, I’m best to stay away until matters are sorted, sir. Also, if the palace officials work at their customary pace in such affairs, my stipend will continue to be paid for a good long-year or more.”

“Your wife will be able to collect it?”

“She always has, sir. To protect it and me from funding an overfamiliarity with such pleasures as a fellow might meet with in drinking and smoking establishments, betting parlours and the like.”

Ferbin smiled. “Still, you must miss her, and your children. Three, isn’t it?”

“Four at the last count, sir.”

“You will see them again, good Holse,” Ferbin said, feeling oddly tearful. He smiled again at Holse and put his hand out. Holse stared at it, confused. “Good servant, take my hand. We are as much friends now as master and servant, and when I return to reclaim what is rightfully mine, you shall be most richly rewarded.”

Holse took Ferbin’s hand awkwardly. “Why, that’s most kind, sir. Right now, I’d settle for a glass of something other than water and a pipe of leaf, frankly, but it’s nice to have something to look forward to.”

Ferbin felt his eyes closing, seemingly of their own volition. “I think I need to sleep some more,” he said, and was unconscious almost before the last word was uttered.

* * *

The Cumuloform called Expanded Version Five; Zourd drifted into the lee of the two-kilometre-wide Vaw-yei Tower and started elongating itself, eventually extending one single trailing tip of cloud down to the surface of a much smaller though still substantial tower protruding fifty metres or so from the ocean. A great swell, near long as the world was round, washed about it, waves rising and falling back like the beat of some vast heart. A Fixstar sat low on the horizon, staining the clouds and waves with an everlasting sunrise/sunset of red and gold.

The air smelled sharp. The circular surface of the tower was strewn with seaweed and sun-bleached fish bones.

Ferbin and Holse stepped out of a hole which had appeared in the side of the lowest of the bubble chambers they had occupied for the last few days. Waiting for them at the centre of the tower was a raised portion like the one in which they had taken shelter back on the Eighth. Ferbin turned and called, “Farewell, and thank you!” to the cloud, and heard the same strange chorus of whispers say, “Goodbye.”

Then the cloud seemed to gather itself up and spread itself out, great billowing wings of cloud-stuff starting to catch the wind on the edges of the Tower’s lee and pulling the strange, huge but insubstantial creature up and away. They stood and watched it go, fascinated, until a chime sounded from the open door of the access tower’s raised portion.

“Better not miss the coach,” Holse said. They stepped into the chamber, which took them down towards the base of the nearby Tower. A scendship was waiting for them at the far end of the great hall and the gleaming, multifarious doors. The part they could see was a simple sphere, perhaps twenty metres in diameter, with a transparent roof. Its doors closed. A distant Oct told them via a screen that their documents were in order without Ferbin even having to take them from his pocket and brandish them.

The two men looked up through the roof, at a vast blackness threaded with tiny lights and criss-crossed with pale struts and tubes describing a complicated set of spirals around and through the seemingly infinite space.

Holse whistled. “Didn’t spot that last time.”

The scendship moved smoothly away, accelerating upwards into the darkness. The lights flowed silently around them until they both felt dizzy and had to look away. They found a dry part of the mostly still damp floor and sat there, talking occasionally, glancing upwards a lot, for the hour or so until the scendship slowed and stopped, then nudged on upwards through more enormous doors — some sliding, some rolling, some seeming to pull back from the centre in every direction at once — to another level of the colossal cylinder. The scendship picked up speed again, tearing silently up the light-strewn tube of darkness and flickering tubework.

They stretched their legs. Ferbin exercised the shoulder where he’d been shot; it was no more than slightly stiff. Holse asked a patch of screen on the wall if it could hear him and was rewarded with an informative speech in an eccentric version of the Sarl language which he only realised was recorded when he tried to ask it questions. They were now passing the third level, which was dark. No land, all just Bare, just Prime, and no water or atmosphere or even interior stars at all. The next level up was also vacuum, but it did have stars and there were things called Baskers that lived there and apparently just lay about, absorbing sunlight like trees. The last level before the Surface was vacuum again, and was a Seedsail nursery, whatever that was or they were.

The scendship slowed for the final time. They watched the last few lights disappear around the side of the craft. Thumps, squelches and sighing noises announced some sort of conclusion, and the door rolled open to the side. They passed down one broad, tall but very plain corridor and negotiated a round lift at the far end which ascended with multiple hesitations, then they walked through another great corridor of what looked like very thin-cut sandstone, lit from within. Whole sets of massive doors opened in front of them and closed behind them as they went. “They like their doors, don’t they, sir?” Holse observed.

A single Oct in a glistening membrane was waiting between two of the sets of doors.

“Greetings,” it said. It extended one limb holding a small device, which beeped. It extended another limb. “Documents, if pleased. Authority of Vaw-yei Towermaster Tagratark.”

Ferbin drew himself up. “We would see the Nariscene Grand Zamerin.”

“Oct documents remain Oct. To surrendering on arrival Surface.”

“Is this the Surface?” Ferbin asked, looking around. “It doesn’t look like it.”

“Is Surface!” the Oct exclaimed.

“Show us,” Ferbin said, “on our way to the Grand Zamerin.” He tapped the pocket holding the envelopes. “Then you shall have your documents.”

The Oct seemed to think about this. “To follow,” it said, turning abruptly and heading for the doors beyond, which were now opening.

They revealed a broad chamber on the far side of which large elliptical windows gave out on to a view of extensive gardens, broad lakes and distant, rocky, and fabulously steep mountains. Creatures, machines and things which might have been either moved about the vast concourse in a confusing mêlée of colour and sound.

“See? Is Surface,” the Oct said. It turned to them, “Documents. Pleased.”

“The Grand Zamerin, if you please,” Ferbin said.

“Others await. They cause confluence of you/Grand Zamerin, possibility. Or authorised in place of. Additional, explanatory. Grand Zamerin not present. Gone off. Distantly. Documents.”

“What do you mean, gone off?” Ferbin asked.

“What do you mean, others await?” Holse said, looking around, hand going to his knife.

<p>13. Don’t Try This At Home</p>

Djan Seriy Anaplian had been doing her homework, reacquainting herself with Sursamen and Shellworlds and studying the various species involved. She had discovered a Morthanveld image she liked: “When in shallows we look up and see the sun, it seems to centre upon us, its soft rays spreading out around us like embracing arms” (/tentacles, the translation noted), “straight and true with celestial strength, all shifting and pulsing together with the movement of each surface wave and making of the observer an unarguable focus, persuading the more easily influenced that they alone are subject to, and merit, such solitary attention. And yet all other individuals, near and far, so long as they too can see the sun, will experience precisely the same effect, and therefore, likewise, might be as justly convinced that the sun shines most particularly and splendidly upon them alone.”

She sat aboard the Medium Systems Vehicle Don’t Try This At Home, playing a game of bataös with one of the ship’s officers. The Delinquent-class Fast Picket and ex-General Offensive Unit Eight Rounds Rapid had rendezvoused with the Steppe-class MSV the day before and dropped her off before heading on its inscrutable way. So far, nothing had been said about the stowaway knife missile with the drone-quality brain in it which had made itself part of her luggage. She could think of several explanations for this but was choosing to believe the simplest and most benign, which was that nobody had spotted it.

It was possible, however, that this game of bataös might be the excuse for it being mentioned. Humli Ghasartravhara, a member of the ship’s governing board and on the rota of passenger liaison officers, had befriended her over breakfast and suggested the game. They had agreed to play unhelped, trusting the other not to seek advice elsewhere through implants or any other addenda, and not to gland any drugs that might help either.

They sat on tree stumps in a leafy glade of tropel trees by a small stream on the vessel’s topside park. A black-backed borm lay on the far side of the small clearing like a discarded cloak with legs, patiently stalking each errant patch of sunlight as the vessel’s sun line arced slowly overhead. The borm was snoring. Overhead, children in float harnesses or suspended under balloons squealed and shrieked. Anaplian felt something on her head, patted her short dark hair with one hand, then held her palm out flat and looked up, trying to see the floating children from beneath the intervening canopy.

“They’re not peeing on us, are they?” she asked.

Humli Ghasartravhara looked up too, briefly. “Water pistols,” he said, then returned his attention to the game, which he was losing. He was an elderly-looking fellow, pretty much human-basic, with long white hair held in a neat ponytail. His face and upper torso — revealed by some very high-waisted pantaloons of a particularly eye-watering shade of green — were covered in exquisitely detailed and intensely swirly abstract tattoos. The yellow-white lines glowed bright on his dark brown skin like veins of sunlight reflected from water.

“Interesting image,” Ghasartravhara said. Anaplian had told him about the Morthanveld idea of sunlight seen from under water. “The aquatic environment.” He nodded. “Quite different, but the same concerns. Surfacing.” He smiled. “That we are and are not the focus of all reality. All solipsists.”

“Arguably,” Anaplian agreed.

“You are interested in the Morthanveld?” Ghasartravhara made a clicking noise with his mouth as the bataös board indicated it would move a piece for him if he didn’t move one himself soon. He folded a piece, moved it, set it down. It unfolded itself as it settled and clicked down a few leaves of nearby pieces, subtly altering the balance of the game. But then, Anaplian thought, every move did that.

“I am going amongst them,” Djan Seriy said, studying the board. “I thought I’d do a little research.”

“My. Privileged. The Morthanveld are reluctant hosts.”

“I have connections.”

“You go to the Morthanveld themselves?”

“No, to a Shellworld within their influence. Sursamen. My homeworld.”

“Sursamen? A Shellworld? Really?”

“Really.” Anaplian moved a piece. The piece’s leaves clicked down, producing a small cascade of further leaf-falls.

“Hmm,” the man said. He studied the board for a while, and sighed. “Fascinating places, Shellworlds.”

“Aren’t they?”

“Might I ask? What takes you back there?”

“A death in the family.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

Anaplian smiled thinly.

* * *

One of Djan Seriy’s earliest memories from when she had been a little girl was of a funeral. She had been just a couple of long-years old, maybe less, when they’d buried her father’s brother, the Duke Wudyen. She was with the other children of the court, being looked after by nurses back at the palace while the adults were off doing the burying and mourning and so on. She was playing with Renneque Silbe, her best friend, making houses out of screens and pillows and cushions on the rug in front of the nursery fire, which roared and crackled away behind its fire guard of hanging chains. They were looking through the pillows and cushions to find one the right size for their house’s door. This was the third house they’d built; some of the boys kept coming over from where they were playing near the windows and kicking their houses down. The nurses were meant to be looking after them all but they were in their own room nearby drinking juice.

“You killed your mother,” Renneque said suddenly.

“What?” Djan Seriy said.

“I heard you did. Bet you did. Mamma said so. You killed her. Why was that? Did you? Did you really? Did it hurt?”

“I didn’t.”

“She says you did.”

“Well I didn’t.”

“I know you did; my mamma told me.”

“Didn’t. Didn’t kill her. Wouldn’t have.”

“My mamma says you did.”

“Stop it. I didn’t.”

“My mamma does not lie.”

“Didn’t kill her. She just died.”

“My mamma said it was you who killed her.”

“She just died.”

“People don’t just die. Somebody has to kill them.”

“Wasn’t me. She just died.”

“Like Duke Wudyen was killed by who gave him the black cough. That’s reason.”

“Just died.”

“No, you killed her.”

“Didn’t.”

“Did so! Come on now, Djan. Did you? Did you really?”

“Leave me alone. She just died.”

“Are you crying?”

“No.”

“Is that what you’re doing now? Are you crying?”

“Not crying.”

“You are! You’re crying!”

“Not.”

“Toho! Kebli! Look; Djan’s crying!”

* * *

Humli Ghasartravhara cleared his throat as he moved his next piece. He wasn’t really playing any longer, just shifting pieces about. They might have sent somebody better, Anaplian thought, then chided herself for making assumptions. “Will you be staying long?” the man asked. “On Sursamen? Or with the Morthanveld?”

“I don’t know.” She made a move. Quick, easy, knowing she had won.

“The ship you arrived on,” the man said. He left a space she was meant to fill, but Anaplian just raised her eyebrows. “It wasn’t very forthcoming, that’s all,” Humli said, when she refused to speak. “Just kind of dropped you. No passenger manifest or whatever they call it.”

Anaplian nodded. “They call it a passenger manifest,” she confirmed.

“The ship’s a bit concerned, that’s all,” Ghasartravhara said, with a bashful smile. He meant his ship, this ship; the Don’t Try This At Home.

“Is it? The poor thing.”

“Obviously, we — it — would never normally be this, ah…”

“Intrusive? Paranoid?”

“Let’s say… concerned.”

“Let’s.”

“However, with the whole Morthanveld situation, you know…”

“I do?”

He gave a nervous laugh. “It’s like waiting for a birth, almost, isn’t it?”

“Is it?”

Humli sat back, slumped a little and cleared his throat again. “You’re not really making this very easy for me, Ms Anaplian.”

“Was I supposed to? Why?”

He looked at her for a while, then shook his head. “Also,” he said, on a deep breath in, “I was, ah, asked by the ship Mind to ask you about an item in your luggage.”

“Were you now?”

“Unusual. Basically a knife missile.”

“I see.”

“You are aware it is there.”

“I am aware there is something there.”

Ghasartravhara smiled at her. “You’re not being spied on or anything. It’s just these things show up on the scans ships do of anything and everything coming aboard.”

“Are MSVs always so concerned with every intimate part of a traveller’s luggage?”

“Not normally. As I say—”

“The Morthanveld situation.”

“Well, yes.”

“Let me tell you the truth, Mr Ghasartravhara.”

The man sat back. “Okay,” he said, as though preparing himself for something unpleasant.

“I work for Special Circumstances.” She saw his eyes widen. “But I’m off duty. Maybe even off message, and possibly off for good. They’ve pulled my claws, Humli,” she told him, and flexed an eyebrow. She held up one hand, exposing her fingernails. “See those?” Humli nodded. “Ten days ago I had nails with embedded CREWs, any one of which could have drilled a hole in your head big enough to stick a fist through.” Mr. Ghasartravhara looked suitably impressed. Even nervous. She inspected her new nails. “Now… well, they’re just fingernails.” She shrugged. “There’s a lot of other stuff I’m missing, too. All the really useful, harmful, hi-gadgetry stuff. It’s been taken from me.” She shrugged. “I surrendered it. All because of what we’re calling the Morthanveld situation. And now I’m making a private visit to my home, after the recent death of both my father and my brother.”

The man looked relieved and embarrassed. He nodded slowly. “I really am sorry to hear that.”

“Thank you.”

He cleared his throat again and said apologetically, “And the knife missile?”

“It stowed away. It was supposed to stay behind but the drone which controls it wants to protect me.” She was choosing her words very carefully.

“Aw,” Ghasartravhara said, looking and sounding mawkish.

“It is old and getting sentimental,” she told him sternly.

“Yeah, but still.”

“Still nothing. It will get us both into trouble if it’s not careful. All the same, I’d appreciate it if the fact of that device’s presence here didn’t get back to SC.”

“Can’t imagine that will be a problem,” Humli said, smiling.

Yes, she thought, grinning complicitly, everybody likes feeling they’ve got something over SC, don’t they? She nodded at the board. “Your move.”

“I think I’m beaten,” he admitted ruefully. He looked at her dubiously. “I didn’t know you were in SC when I agreed to play you.”

She looked at him. “Nevertheless, I was playing by the same rules all the time. Unhelped.”

Humli smiled, still uncertain, then stuck his hand out. “Anyway. Your game, I think.” They pressed palms.

“Thank you.”

He stretched, looked around. “Must be lunchtime. Will you join me?”

“Happily.”

They started packing away the bataös set, piece by piece.

Well, she had done her best by her idiot drone, she reckoned. If word of its adventure did get back to SC, it wouldn’t be her fault. Anyway, it sounded like she and it might both get away with the fact that it was the mind of an experienced SC drone inside the knife missile, not a normal — and therefore relatively dim — knife missile brain.

It sounded like it. You still never knew.

* * *

The MSV Don’t Try This At Home was relatively small and absolutely crowded, packed with people and ships in a chance convergence of itineraries, building schedules and travel arrangements. Anaplian had been given quarters not within the craft’s own accommodation but inside a ship it contained and was still building, the Subtle Shift In Emphasis, a Plains-class General Contact Vehicle. This was a relatively new class of Culture ship and one that, apparently, couldn’t make up its mind whether it was a big Contact Unit or a small System Vehicle. Whatever else it was it was unfinished, and Anaplian occasionally had to wait for bits and pieces of the structure to be moved around inside the Don’t Try This At Home’s single Intermediate bay where the smaller ship was being constructed before she could move to or from her cabin.

Even this was not really a cabin, and not really part of the new ship either. She’d been allocated the whole of one of the GCV’s modules; a small short-range transit craft which was nestled inside the vessel’s lower hangar with a half-dozen others. The module had morphed its seating into more varied furniture and walls, and she was gratified at the scale of her accommodation — the module was designed to carry over a hundred people — however, there was nobody else quartered aboard either the rest of the under-construction ship or any of its other modules and it felt odd to be so isolated, so apart from other people on a ship so obviously crowded.

She didn’t doubt she’d been quarantined like this to make some sort of point but she didn’t care. To have such space in a small, packed ship was something of an indulgence. Others might have felt they were being treated like a pariah, being so prophylactically isolated from everybody else; she felt privileged. There were, she reflected, times when having been raised as a princess came in useful.

* * *

On her third night aboard the Don’t Try This At Home she dreamt about the time she been taken to see the great waterfall of Hyeng-zhar, a level down, in the Ninth, when she was still little.

Semi-conscious control over one’s dreams was not even an amendment, more of a skill, a technique one learned — in childhood for those born within the Culture, in early adulthood for Anaplian — and in all but her most banal, memory-detritus-clearing dreams, Djan Seriy was used to watching what was going on with a vaguely interested, analytical eye and, sometimes, stepping in and affecting proceedings, especially if the dream threatened to turn into a nightmare.

She had long since ceased to be surprised that one could experience surprise in one’s sleep at something one was watching oneself dreaming. Compared to some stuff that could happen after SC gave you total control over a thoroughly amended and vastly enhanced body and central nervous network, that was small doings.

Their party disembarked from the small train. She was holding the hand of her nurse and tutor, Mrs Machasa. The train itself was a novelty; a long, articulated thing like many land steamers all connected together and pulled by just one great engine, and running not on a road, but on railings! She’d never even heard of such a thing. She found trains and tracks and stations all very wonderful and advanced. She would tell her father to get some trains when they all returned to Pourl, and when he next returned from making the bad people stop being bad.

The station was crowded. Mrs Machasa held her hand tightly. They were a large party, and had their own escort of royal guard — her very important brother Elime, who would be king one day, was with them, which made them all special — but, all the same, as Mrs M had told her that morning as they were getting her dressed, they were far away from home, on another level, amongst foreigners, and everybody knew that foreigners was just another word for barbarians. They had to be careful, and that meant keeping hold of hands, doing as you were told, and no wandering off. They were going to see the greatest waterfall in all the world and she didn’t want to be swept away by all the horrible water, did she?

She agreed she didn’t want to be swept away by all the horrible water. The weather was cold; the Hyeng-zhar lay in a place where the weather varied a lot and it was not unknown for the river and the great cataract to freeze. Mrs M fastened her into her coat and leggings and hat, pulling and jerking her whole body as she tightened this and buttoned that. Mrs M was big and wide and had grey brows that bowed towards each other. There was always something that didn’t meet with her approval, often something about Djan Seriy, but she never hit her, sometimes cried over her and always hugged her, which was the best bit. Djan Seriy had tried to hug her father once when he was all dressed up for business and had been laughed at by some of the men in his court. Her father had pushed her away.

Anaplian felt she was floating in and out of her own younger consciousness, sometimes being her earlier self, sometimes watching from outside. She could see most of the scene quite clearly, though, as usual, when she was floating detached like this the one thing that was vague and unformed was her own younger self. It was as if even in dreams you couldn’t truly be in two places at once. Bobbing in the air to one side of her dream self, she could not see herself as a child, just a sort of vague, fuzzy image of approximately the right size and shape.

She was already criticising her own dream. Had Mrs Machasa really been that big? Had their party really been that many?

Back inside her head, she watched the train huff and puff and cough out great white clouds and a smell of dampness. Then they were in steam carriages being taken along a road through a great flat plain. There were clouds against a blue sky. Some trees. Scrubby grass that Zeel, her mersicor gelding, would have turned his pretty nose up at. All very flat and rather boring.

In her memory there was no warning; the Falls were just there. Snapshot of a by-child-standards interminable carriage journey (probably about ten minutes), then Bang; the Hyeng-zhar, in all their vast, chaotic glory.

There must have been sight of the enormous river, its far bank lost in its own created mists so that it appeared as though an entire sea was spilling to oblivion; whole rolling, billowing fleets of clouds piled above the massive curve of the colossal cataract, rising without cease into the invaded sky; shaled continents of banked and broiling mists disappearing to the horizon; entire sheets and walls and cliffs of spray, the everywhere thunder of that ocean of water tipping over the exposed rock and pounding into the dizzying complex of linked plunge pools beneath where enormous canted blocks, bulging, monstrous curves, hollowed husks and jagged angles of jumbled debris jutted and reared.

She must have seen some of the monks of the Hyeng-zharia Mission, the religious order which controlled the Falls’ excavation, and there must have been, if nothing else, all the squalor and slummery of the shanty town of ever-moving buildings that was the sprawling, peripatetic township called the Hyeng-zhar Settlement and all the equipment, spoil and general material associated with the desperate, ever-time-pressed excavations… but she recalled none of it, not before the shock of the Falls themselves, suddenly there, like the whole world twisting and falling sideways, like the sky upended, like everything in the universe falling forever in on itself, thrashing and pulverising all to destruction in a mad welter of elemental pandemonium. Here the air shook, the ground shook, the body shook, the brain shook inside the head, assaulted, rattled like a marble in a jar.

She had gripped Mrs M’s hand very tightly.

She had wanted to shriek. She had felt that her eyes were bulging out of her head, that she was about to wet herself — the water squeezed out of her by the sheer force and battery of the trembling air wrapped pressing all around her — but mostly she wanted to scream. She didn’t, because she knew if she did Mrs M would take her away, tutting and shaking her head and saying that she had always known it was a bad idea, but she wanted to. Not because she was frightened — though she was; quite terrified — but because she wanted to join in, she wanted to mark this moment with something of her own.

It didn’t matter that this was the single most stunning thing she had ever seen in her life (and, despite everything, despite all the wonders even the Culture had had to show her in her later years, it had, in all the important ways, remained so), that there was no matching it, no measuring it, no competing with it, no point in even trying to be noticed by it; all that mattered was that she was here, it was here, it was making the greatest noise in the history of everything and she needed to add her own acknowledgement to its mighty, overwhelming voice. Her own tininess in comparison to it was irrelevant; its unheeding vastness drew the breath out of her, sucked the sound of screaming from her little lungs and delicate stem of throat.

She filled her chest to the point she could feel her bones and skin straining against her tightly buttoned coat, opened her mouth as wide as it could possibly go and then shook and trembled as though shrieking for all she was worth, but making no noise, certainly no noise above that stunning clamour overwhelming the air, so that the scream was caught and stayed clenched inside her, suffusing out into her miniature being, forever buried under layer after layer of memory and knowing.

They stood there for some time. There must have been railings she looked through or perhaps climbed up on to. Maybe Mrs M had held her up. She remembered that they all got wet; the rolls of mists curled up and over them and drifted this way and that on the cool, energising breeze and came down soaking them.

It had been some time before she even noticed that the great blocks and bulges that dominated the watery landscape beneath the Falls themselves were gigantic buildings. When she looked properly, once she knew what to look for, she started to see them everywhere; tilted and broken around the lake-sized plunge pools, tumbled amongst the mists downstream, poking like bone bits out of the dark walls of falling water before they filled and blossomed with dirty grey spray that settled into white as it rose and rose and rose, becoming cloud, becoming sky.

At the time, she had worried that the people of the city must be getting drowned. A little later, when they had been telling her it really was time to go and trying to prise her fingers off the railings, she had seen the people. They were nearly invisible, hidden inside the mists most of the time, only revealed when the walls and canopies of spray parted briefly. They were at the absolute limit of the eye’s ability to make out; dwarfed, insected by the inhuman scale imposed by the arced sweep of the encompassing Falls, so tiny and reduced that they were just dots, unlimbed, only possibly or probably people because they could not be anything else, because they moved just so, because they crossed flimsy, microscopic suspension bridges and crawled along tiny threads that must be paths and grouped in miniature docks where minuscule boats and diminutive ships lay bobbing on the battering surface of hectic, dashing waves.

And of course they were not the people who had built and originally inhabited the buildings of the great city being revealed by the steady encroachment of the ever-retreating Falls, they were just some of the tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of looters, scavengers, diggers, climbers, breakers, tunnellers, bridge-builders, railway workers, pathfinders, mapmakers, crane men, hoist operators, fisherfolk, boat people, provisioners, guides, authorised excavationers, explorers, historians, archaeologists, engineers and scientists who had re-inhabited this ever-changing, unceasing ruin of torn sediment, tumbling rock, plunging water and scoured monumentality.

They peeled her fingers away one by one. Mrs M scolded her. She didn’t hear, never looked round, couldn’t care. She kept her wide-open eyes focused on that vast arena of water, rock, architecture and spray, kept her gaze fastened on the tiny dots that were people, turning all her attention and diminutive being to just that — not even bothering to expend the energy on struggling or protesting — until an exasperated guard finally pulled her away and put her over his shoulder, marching off with her, Mrs M just behind, wagging her finger at her. She still didn’t care and could not hear; she looked over and past Mrs Machasa at the Falls, just grateful the guard had put her over his shoulder this way, facing backwards, so she could keep looking at the great cataract of Hyeng-zhar for as long as possible, until it disappeared behind the lip of the land, and only the towers and spires and walls of mist and spray and cloud were left, filling half the shining waste of sky.

* * *

The Hyeng-zhar cataract emptied one sea into another down a river two thousand kilometres long and in places so broad one bank was invisible from the other. The Sulpitine river flowed smoothly and gradually across a broad plain in a series of vast loops until it came to the gorge it had created, where it plunged two hundred metres into an enormous bite gouged from the surrounding land; indeed into a series of bites within bites, as a whole fractal series of waterfalls ate into the multiply gouged ground; hundreds of U-shaped falls fed in groups into a succession of huge holes shaped like shattered cups, themselves set within the still greater complexity of the arc of the continually lengthening gorge.

The cataract had once formed part of the shore of the Lower Sulpine Sea — the remaining cliffs still wrapped around a quarter of the sea’s facing shore — but had quickly retreated as its titanic force washed away its own foundations, leaving a gorge two hundred metres deep and — when Djan Seriy had first seen it — four hundred kilometres long.

The gorge wore rapidly because of the nature of the stratification of the land. The cap rock supporting the river at the very lip of the Falls was sandstone, and so itself easily worn away. The layer underneath it was barely rock at all, more severely compacted mud from a series of huge floods hundreds of millions of years earlier. In a more intense gravity field the muds would have turned to rock as well; on Sursamen, some stayed so soft a human hand could crumble them.

The whole cataract was the Hyeng-zhar. It had been called that from the time the river had first started to plummet straight into the Lower Sulpine Sea six thousand years earlier and was still called that even though the complex of waterfalls had now retreated four hundred kilometres from its original position. What the city had been called, nobody knew. Its people had been wiped out in a cataclysm hundreds of millions of years ago and the whole level left abandoned for tens of millions of years subsequently, before — eventually, and with some trepidation — being colonised all over again by its present inhabitants.

They hadn’t even known the city was there and certainly had no idea what its name was. The Oct, the Nariscene, the Morthanveld and even the allegedly near-omniscient Elder cultures of the galaxy didn’t appear to know either; it had all been long ago and under earlier owners, the responsibility of the previous management, an unfortunate problem associated with the last, late, lamented tenants. The one thing everybody did know was that the city’s name wasn’t Hyeng-zhar.

The result was that the city came to be called the Nameless City. Which meant, of course, that its very name was a contradiction.

The Falls had been a Wonder of Sursamen for millennia just due to their sheer scale, famed even on levels of the great world the vast majority of whose inhabitants would never see them directly. Even so, the most prominent or important or just plain rich denizens of the Kiters of the Twelfth and the Naiant Tendrils of the Eleventh and the Vesiculars of the Tenth and the Tubers and Hydrals of the Fourth sometimes made the effort to come and see the Hyeng-zhar, so were transported by the Oct or the Aultridia up or down one or more Towers and then across to the site — those from profoundly different environments encased in whatever suit or vessel they required to survive — to gaze, usually through glass or screen or other intervening material, at the thunderous majesty of the celebrated cataract.

When the Falls began to expose the outskirt buildings of the buried city — almost a hundred years before Djan Seriy first saw them — their renown increased and spread even further, and took on too an air of mystery. The gradually uncovered metropolis was no mere primitives’ settlement, albeit — as more and more of it was excavated by the Falls and its true scale started to become clear — one of extraordinary size; it was undeniably ancient but it had been highly advanced. Even ruined, it held treasures. Most of the plunder was conventional in form; precious metals and stones that would struggle to occur naturally on a Shellworld with its lack of plate tectonics and crustal recycling. Some, though, was in the form of exotic materials that could be used, for example, to fashion blades and machine parts of conventionally unsurpassable sharpness or hardness and fabulous if incomprehensible works of what was assumed must be art.

The materials the buildings were made from themselves possessed properties almost unthinkable to the people who did the discovering on the Ninth. Spars and beams and thin claddings could be used to build bridges of enormous strength and amazing lightness; the main problem those who would use this extravagance of booty faced was that the raw materials rarely came away in handy lengths and chunks and were usually impossible to cut or trim.

Intact or ruined, the interiors of the buildings also often provided strange artifacts and occasionally useful supplies, though never any bodies, fossils or tombs.

The city grew as it was eaten away, the extent of the building debris eventually spreading to beyond the width of the Falls on both sides — the cataract was over seven kilometres across at present, and the city must be broader than that.

Its buildings were of a hundred different types and styles, to the extent that it had been suggested the city had been host to several — possibly many — diverse types of being; doors and interior spaces were different shapes, entire structures were built on disparate scales and some had basement or foundation levels of bizarre designs that went deep below the floor of the gorge base, all the way down to the Prime of the Shellworld itself, another eighty metres below, so that these few buildings remained standing even after the Falls had exposed them and retreated far beyond, leaving them as enormous slab-sided islands towering above the braid of streams that formed the reconstituted river making its way down the great gorge to the Lower Sea.

A series of wars amongst the humans who inhabited the Ninth, centred around the control of the Falls and their supply of treasure, resulted in an Oct-brokered peace that had held for a few decades. The Sarl and a few other peoples from the Eighth — allowed to travel to the relevant region of the Ninth by the Oct — had taken a peripheral part in some of the wars and a greater part in the peace, generally acting as honest brokers and providing relatively neutral administrational and policing contingents.

By then the fame of the Falls had grown sufficiently that even the Nariscene had taken an interest and declared the whole area a Site of Extraordinary Curiosity, effectively putting their stamp of authority on the peace deal and prodding the Oct to help guarantee it, at least within the limits of the general Shellworld mandate decreeing that the inhabitants of each level should basically be left to get on with their odd and frequently violent little lives.

The Deldeyn had other ideas. They’d been fortunate or skilful in the conduct of distant wars not immediately associated with the issue of the Hyeng-zhar, and, identifying an opportunity too good to miss — plus having at the time nothing else to do with the great armies they’d built up in the course of their far-flung victories — had annexed the neutral zone around the Falls, thrown out the administrators and police forces from the other peoples and, just for good measure, attacked anybody who protested too loudly. This latter group included the Sarl. It was in what the Deldeyn regarded as a small punitive raid to make clear to their inferiors that they were in charge now and were not to be trifled with, on the last Sarlian outpost on the Ninth at the foot of the Peremethine Tower, that King Hausk’s eldest son, Elime, had been killed. So had started the war between the Deldeyn and the Sarl, the war between the levels.

* * *

Anaplian woke gently from her dream of the Falls, surfacing to full consciousness with uncharacteristic slowness. How strange to dream of the Hyeng-zhar again after all this time. She could not immediately recall the last time she’d dreamt of them, and chose not to use her neural lace to investigate and tell her the exact date (as well as, no doubt, what she’d eaten the evening before, the disposition of the furnishings of the room she’d had the dream in and any company present at the time).

She looked across the billow-bed. A young man called Geltry Skiltz lay cutely curled and sweetly asleep, naked amongst the gently circulating wisps of soft fabric and what looked like large, dry snowflakes. She watched a few of the flakes swirl near his still most attractive if slightly slack-jawed face, each one neatly avoiding his nose and mouth, and thought back to the dream and through the dream to the reality of that first visit to the cataract.

She had been back again, after years of pleading, on just one other occasion, less than a year before Elime’s death and the start of the war that now might be approaching its end. She’d still been a girl really, she supposed, though she’d thought of herself as a mature young woman at the time and been convinced that her life was already mostly behind her. The Hyeng-zhar had been no less impressive; just the same though utterly different. In the years between her two visits — what she would now think of as about ten Standard years — the cataract had retreated nearly seven hundred metres upstream, revealing whole new districts of fascinating and grotesquely different buildings and structures and changing its shape profoundly.

From the ceiling of the level it would no doubt look roughly similar — that distinctive broken-cup look, that vast bite out of the land — but, close to, there was nothing left to recognise from the last time; all that had been there originally had been swept away, flushed as silt, mud, sand, rocks and rubble to the ever more distant sea or left crooked and askew in the great broad rush of water, clogged and skirted with sandbanks and debris tailings, forlorn.

Looking back, there had been signs of Deldeyn intentions even then, she realised. Just so many men in uniform, and a general air of grievance that other people were allowed to tell the Deldeyn what they could and couldn’t do on what was now, they seemed to believe, their level entirely. And all because of some idiot treaty signed in a time of weakness.

She’d been just mature enough to register some of this, though sadly not sufficiently so to be able to analyse it, contextualise it, act upon it. She wondered briefly if she had been capable of realising the dangers, would it have made any difference? Could she have warned her father, alerted him to the threat?

There had been warnings, of course; Sarlian spies and diplomats at the Falls themselves, in the regional capital of Sullir and the Deldeyn court itself and beyond had reported the mood and detailed some of the preparations for war, but their intelligence had gone unheeded. Such reports always arrived in great quantity and many invariably contradicted each other; some would always be simply mistaken, some would always be from agents and officials trying to exaggerate their own importance or swell their retainer and some would always be deliberate misinformation sown by the other side. You had to pick and choose, and therein lay the potential for mistake.

Even her father, wise warrior though he’d already become by then, had sometimes been guilty of hearing what he wanted to hear rather what was clearly being said, and at the time a potential war with the Deldeyn had been the last thing he’d wanted to be told about; he had his hands full with his campaigns on the Eighth and the armies of Sarl were in no way prepared to face what were at the time the superior forces of the Ninth.

She shouldn’t deceive, or blame, herself. Her warning, if she’d even had the wit to deliver one, would have made no difference. Apart from anything else she was just a girl, and so her father would have taken no notice anyway.

* * *

She lay awake in the cabin, young Mr Skiltz soundly asleep at her side, the disguised knife missile, drone-mind dormant, also effectively asleep, safely tucked up in her bag in a cupboard. She could still use her neural lace within the reach of the Culture’s dataverse, certainly within the ship, and through it she asked for an image to be thrown across the far wall of her bedroom showing the real space star field ahead of the Don’t Try This At Home.

The vessel was making modest speed. The stars looked almost stationary. She looked ahead into the swirled mix of tiny light-points, knowing that Meseriphine, the star Sursamen orbited, would be far in the distance and most likely still invisible. She didn’t ask for it, or its direction, to be displayed. She just watched the slow, slow drift of onward falling stars for a while, thinking of home, and fell gradually into a dreamless sleep.

<p>14. Game</p>

“Toho! A crown to your smallest coin you drop it!”

“Done, bastard that you are, Honge,” the gentleman in question said through gritted teeth. He took the weight of the stick and tankard on his chin and stood very still as one of the laughing serving girls filled it almost to the brim with beer. His friends whooped and laughed and called out insults. Bright sunlight from Pentrl’s first passing since the death of the King poured through tall windows into the smoky interior of the Gilder’s Lament.

Oramen grinned as he watched. They had been here most of the day. The latest game used beer, sticks, the galleries on either side of the Lament’s main room and two of the serving girls. Whoever’s turn it was had to stand beneath the gallery on one side while a girl filled a tankard full of beer, then the fellow had to walk from one side of the room to the other with the glass balanced on a stick resting on his chin, so that a girl on the opposite gallery could relieve him of the glass and bring it down to the assembly, for the purposes of drinking.

It was no easier than it sounded and most of the men had spilled beer on themselves by now, many to the point they were so soaked they had stripped off to the waist. They were using caulked leather tankards rather than ceramic or glass ones so that it didn’t hurt too much when you got hit on the head by one. The game became gradually more difficult as more beer soaked into both the floorboards and the players. About twenty such bravards were in the group, including Oramen and Tove Lomma. The air was thick with smoke and laughter, the smell of spilled beer and ribald taunts.

Tohonlo, the most senior of those present and the most highly ranked save for Oramen himself, pulled slowly away from the gallery and slid his way gradually across the floor, the tankard wobbling and describing a tight little circle above him. A small amount of ale sloshed over the side, splashing on his brow. The other men roared and stamped their feet but he just blinked, wiped the beer away from his eyes and carried on, tankard re-steadied. The foot-stamping got louder and, briefly, more co-ordinated.

Tohonlo neared the gallery on the other side, where a well-built serving lass in a low-cut blouse stretched out over the balustrade, one hand extended, looking to grab the handle of the wobbling tankard. Below, the men were happy to let her know the extent to which she was admired.

“Come on, Toho, tip it on to her tits!”

The tankard wobbled its way to the girl’s outstretched fingers, she grasped it and lifted, giving a little eek as the extra weight nearly tipped her over the edge of the gallery, then she pulled herself back. A great cheer went up from the men. Tohonlo pulled his chin back and let the stick fall. He grabbed it at one end like a sword and made to thrust it at the men who’d been making the most noise while he’d been distracted. The fellows made motions and noises of pretended fear.

“Oramen!” Tove said, slapping him on the back and thumping down on the bench beside him, depositing two leather tankards of beer in front of them with a slop and slosh of spillage. “You should take a turn!” He punched Oramen’s arm.

“I told you I didn’t want another drink,” Oramen said, raising the tankard and waving it in front of Tove’s sweatily gleaming face.

Tove leaned closer. “What?” It was very noisy.

“Never mind.” Oramen shrugged. He put his old drink to one side of their table and sipped at his new one.

“You should!” Tove shouted at him as another of their company put the balancing stick on his chin and waited for the first serving girl to fill the tankard on top. Meanwhile the tankard of ale Tohonlo had transported from one gallery to the other was duly delivered to him by the second serving girl, who then skipped back upstairs, neatly avoiding most of the slaps aimed at her behind. “You should take a turn!” Tove told Oramen. “Go on! Take a turn! Go on!”

“I’d get wet.”

“What?”

“Wet,” Oramen shouted above the din. The lads were clapping loudly and rhythmically.

“Well of course it’s wet! ’S the idea!”

“Should have worn an older tunic.”

“You don’t have enough fun!” Tove said, leaning close enough for Oramen to smell his breath.

“I don’t?”

“You don’t come out as often as you ought, prince!”

“Really?”

“I hardly see you! When was the last time we went out whoring, for fuck’s sake?”

“Not for a bit, I’ll grant.”

“You can’t be fed up with it, can you?”

“With what?”

“Girls!”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“You’re not becoming a man-fucker, are you?”

“Indeed not.”

“You don’t want to fuck men, do you?”

“Heaven forfend.”

“So what’s the matter?”

“I have other things to do, Tove. I’d love to spend more time with you but I—”

“You’re not becoming some fucking man-fucker, are you? They’re worse than fucking republicans.”

“Listen: no.”

“Because I fucking love you, prince, seriously, but I fucking hate fucking man-fuckers, I really fucking do.”

“Tove, I believe you. It would be hard not to. I do not want to fuck men. Please; believe. Even just remember.”

“Well then, come on out with us. Come and have some fun!”

“I shall, I promise.”

“But do you promise?”

“Will you listen? I promise. Now stop being—”

They hadn’t even seen the fight break out. Next thing they knew, tankards and glasses were flying and men were falling over each other and themselves. Blades were supposed to be left at the door, but in the sudden mêlée Oramen thought he saw the flash of sunlight on a steel edge. He and Tove both instinctively sat back and grabbed their tankards as a man — an especially substantial and well-built man — thudded back towards them, half stumbling, half falling.

Their bench was joined by spars to the table in front of them, so everything still went flying, including them; however, Oramen had remembered that bench and table were one even as the fellow came clattering and staggering towards them, and had pulled his legs up and started swivelling on his buttocks as the man’s back and head collided with the empty bench and full table in front of them; Oramen was able to roll out of the way as the whole assemblage went careering backwards taking Tove with it, crashing into another bench and table set behind, causing curses. Oramen even saved most of his ale, which was an achievement; every drink still on the table and the one in Tove’s fist went splashing back, mostly over the people sitting at the table behind, to their unalloyed and most vocal consternation. Tove and the people at the table behind were addressing each other:

“You fucker!”

“Fuck yourself!”

Oramen stood up, then immediately had to duck as a thrown glass sailed through the air where his head had been.

Tove and the people of the bench behind were still conversing. Oramen took a sip of his beer, checked for flying objects and took a step back. It was a most impressive fight. He liked the way you could see the smoke sort of roll and part when people went flying through it. Two burly knights charged forward and came between Tove and the argumentative inhabitants of the table behind, getting briefly tangled up with him.

Tove extracted himself and stumbled over to Oramen, wiping beer off his tunic. “We’d better go,” he said. “Follow me.”

“What?” Oramen protested as Tove grabbed his arm. “I was just starting to enjoy myself.”

“Time for that later. Now’s time to run away.” Tove pulled him by the sleeve round the side of the main fight, across the floor — the two serving girls were screaming from either gallery, encouraging, disparaging, throwing tankards both full and empty at the chaos of brawling bodies below — towards the back door which led to the yard and the toilets.

“But this is fun!” Oramen yelled at Tove, still trying to pull his arm free.

“Some of these fuckers might be anarchists; let’s away.”

A glass shattered on the wall near Oramen’s head. “Oh,” he sighed. “All right.”

“Seeing sense. Late than never.”

They clattered down some steps towards the courtyard and got to the door. Tove stopped in the narrow passageway and said, “After you, pr—”

“Oh, get out there,” Oramen told him, pushing him one-handed.

They burst through a door into the intense afternoon brightness of the tavern’s yard. Oramen caught the sudden stench of a nearby tannery.

A man swung round from one side of the door and sank a long dagger into Tove’s belly, ripping quickly upwards.

“Not, not me!” Tove had time to bubble, then he dropped as the man who’d struck him stepped around him and — with a second man — pulled his arm back, blade aimed straight at Oramen.

Oramen had had his hand at the small of his back all the way down the stairs, pulling his tunic top and shirt out, feeling until the warmth of the gun’s handle was there in his fist. He hauled it out, used his other hand to click the safety off as he’d practised a hundred times in his bedchamber and pulled the trigger in the face of the man who’d knifed Tove.

The man’s forehead formed a small round mouth which gave up a little spitting kiss of red; the hair at the back of his head bounced up and out, releasing a pink spray like a consumptive’s cough. He fell back as though he was collared, some charging beast just got to the end of his lead, jerking rearwards and falling on his shoulder blades and head, eyes staring up at the shining sky. The other man flinched at the incredibly loud bang the gun made and hesitated in his lunge, perhaps even took a half-step back. It was enough. Oramen swung his arm round and shot him — he was little further away — in the chest. He fell back as well, and stayed sitting on the strawy, shitty, uneven stones of the courtyard of the Gilder’s Lament.

The gunshots had left Oramen’s ears ringing.

Tove lay moving slowly, leaking huge amounts of dark red blood, which made a sort of rectangular graph-paper pattern along the spaces of the yard’s cobbles. The first man lay on his back, perfectly motionless, eyes fixed staring upwards. The man Oramen had just shot still sat upright, legs splayed in front of him, dagger dropped to one side, both his hands up at the small wound in his chest, his gaze directed somewhere on to the cobblestones between him and Oramen. He seemed to be hiccuping. Oramen wasn’t sure what to do and was not thinking straight, so he stepped forward and shot the sitting man in the head. He fell over like he’d thrown himself that way, as though gravity somehow wasn’t enough. Oramen hardly noticed that bang, his ears were ringing so.

There was nobody else about. He sat down too, before he fell down. The courtyard seemed very quiet after all the noise.

“Tove?” he said.

Tove had stopped moving. The graph pattern of blood moving along the spaces between the courtyard stones was reaching out towards Oramen’s outstretched feet. He moved them before it touched them, and shivered. There was a roaring noise which he took to be the continuing brawl in the room above.

“Tove?” he said again. It was surprisingly cold in the brightly sunlit courtyard.

Eventually, people came.

* * *

The Deldeyn had dug a series of canals and broad, water-filled ditches across their land, seeking to impede the land-based forces of the Sarl. Due to the direction the Sarl attacked from, itself determined by the Tower they had descended within, only one of these new obstacles lay in their way. They had already beaten off a massed attack by riflemen and grenadiers mounted on caude and lyge shortly after leaving the Night they had encountered near the Illsipine. The Deldeyn had attacked in good order and eventually had to flee in tatters, those who could. They fought bravely and the grenadiers in particular caused some damage and deaths, especially when a roasoaril tanker exploded, but they still had no answer to massed ground guns, which picked the slow-moving beasts and their riders out of the air like hunters firing into a tight flock of birds.

The Sarl’s own flighted forces were mostly held back until the Deldeyn fliers turned away in full retreat, then took off after them, harrying, shooting and tackling in mid-air where the riders were brave or foolish enough. The army dusted itself down and resumed its onward progress, the way marked by the commingled wreckage of dead Deldeyn fliers and their air-beasts. Tyl Loesp counted at least a dozen of the enemy’s to every Sarlian casualty.

They passed one mound of shattered bone, seeping gristle and leathery wing fabric lying on the dusty ground where the Deldeyn rider was still alive. Tyl Loesp himself noticed movement as they passed and ordered his command car stopped and the badly injured flier disentangled from his dead mount, a process which even done without deliberate roughness still caused him to scream hoarsely. They brought him aboard and set him on a litter at the rear of the open car where a doctor attempted to tend to him and an interpreter tried to question him about Deldeyn morale and their remaining forces. The man was near his end anyway, but found the strength to push the doctor away and spit in the interpreter’s face before he died. Tyl Loesp told them to push his body off the rear of the car without further ceremony.

* * *

The great plain stretched away to every horizon. The Sulpitine river was some twenty kilometres to their left. High clouds of faint pink stood against the too-blue sky as they came to the single wide canal which was the last defendable barrier between them and the region which held the Deldeyn capital city of Rasselle. The Deldeyn had stationed land forces on the near side of the canal but they had mostly fled on boats during the night. Their trenches were shallow and unshored, just as the canal was not properly lined and its banks were continually collapsing, leaving beaches of sand all along its length. The water was draining away in any case; only a diversionary feeder canal and hastily thrown-up breakwater affair further up the Sulpitine had kept the improvised water barrier supplied, and that had been destroyed by Sarlian sappers that morning, leaving the waters to drain back to the main river or just soak away into the sands.

Desultory artillery fire from the far side of the canal — from somewhere a good distance beyond it — mostly fell short and anyway seemed virtually unspotted. The Sarls had the air now; no Deldeyn fliers were rising to meet their scouts and patrols and spotters. The Sarlian artillery was mostly still being drawn up and the first few batteries were test-firing even now, finding their range. Tyl Loesp stood on the shallow berm of excavated sand, binoculars in hand, and listened to the explosions. The guns of the batteries fired in short order, almost rhythmically, like a troop of well-drilled riflemen, though the reports were naturally deeper-voiced. Such close-spaced regularity was a good sign. The spotters flew their grids, turning and swivelling in the air, signalling with heliographs where the shots from their allotted batteries were falling. On the far side, distant puffs of sand and veils of slowly drifting dust showed where the rounds landed.

Werreber came up in his land steamer, jumped out, said good day to some of tyl Loesp’s staff — keeping a respectful distance back from their chief — and strode on up to him.

“Question is,” he said abruptly, “do we wait for the water to drain or risk an attack now?”

“How long till it is drained sufficiently?” tyl Loesp asked.

“Perhaps till the start of the next short-night, when Uzretean sets. That’s a very short one; just three hours, then Tresker rises. The engineers are loath to commit themselves to exact times. Patches of the bed may remain muddy; other parts might be wadeable now.”

“Can we identify such variations?”

“We are trying to.” The field marshal nodded at a particularly large caude labouring its way low over the retreating waters, two men on its back. “That’s one of the engineers taking a look from above now. They seem generally of the opinion we should wait till dawn of Tresker. That would be prudent. Even if we can find a few dry paths sooner, crossing by them concentrates our attack to too pinched and vulnerable a focus. Better to attack broadly.”

“But would we not be well to attack sooner rather than later?” tyl Loesp asked. “If we have all our forces ready, I think we ought.”

“Perhaps. They don’t seem to have a lot of men on the far side, though there are reports of many roads and tracks; they might be there and well dug in.”

“Are not the fortifications on this side crude and shallow?”

“They are. That does not mean those on the far side are the same. They might even have left those on this side in such a poor state to lure us onwards.”

“We could be too cautious here,” tyl Loesp said. “The longer we wait, the more time they have to assemble what forces they have.”

“Our own reinforcements arrive too. And we can see any of theirs on their way. The scouts report none so far, though there is too much mist drifting from the great Falls to see further than thirty kilometres down the road. River mists may obscure matters here later, too, especially in the early morning of Tresker, though we may be able to use that to our own advantage.”

“I feel we should attack now,” tyl Loesp said.

“If the enemy are there in any numbers,” Werreber said, nodding at the far bank, “attacking now might lose us the war this afternoon.”

“You take too much care, Werreber. They are broken. We have the momentum. And even if they are there, even if we are temporarily thrown back, the war would not be lost. We have reached a stage where even on their homelands we can afford greater loss than they.”

“Why hurry? Why suffer such loss at all? By morning we’ll have pounded them all night and be set for a broad attack in overwhelming force that’ll trample them beneath us. The men and vehicles need resting anyway, tyl Loesp. To charge onward would be intemperate and risk severe attenuation. We can repel anything they choose to face us with, but only if our forces remain cohesive.”

“Nevertheless, to keep that momentum, even if we then halt and draw breath on the far side, we shall attack as soon as we have crossing points identified.”

Werreber drew himself up to his full, straight-backed height, staring down his hook of a nose at the other man. “I don’t understand you, tyl Loesp; you introduce delay by insisting on taking this circuitous route, then you drive us faster than a stooping lyge.”

“It is my way of maintaining a balance,” tyl Loesp said.

The field marshal looked frosty. “I advise against this attack, tyl Loesp.”

“And I note that.” Tyl Loesp smiled thinly. “Even so.”

Werreber gazed out across the expanse of shining sand and breeze-ruffled waters to the far bank. He sighed. “As you wish, sir,” he said. He inclined a small bow, turned and left.

“Oh, and Field Marshal?”

Werreber turned, frowning.

“Take no prisoners.” Tyl Loesp shrugged. “Save perhaps a few for interrogation.”

Werreber glared at him for a few moments, then gave the most cursory of nods and turned away again.

* * *

“You had not killed before?” Fanthile asked.

“Of course not!”

“Had you ever drawn blood, or been in a fight?”

Oramen shook his head. “Barely touched a sword, let alone a gun. My father never wanted me to be a warrior. That was Elime’s role. Ferbin was his reserve in that, though unsuited, perhaps through an overconcentration on Elime; my father felt Ferbin went to seed, from ripeness to spoiled almost before he was fully a man. I was too young to figure as a combateer when father was ascribing us our parts and planning his assault on posterity. My role was always to be the studious one, the thinker, the analyser, the futurian.” Oramen snorted.

Fanthile poured a little more of the sweet iced wine into Oramen’s crystal. They sat in the palace secretary’s private apartments. Oramen had not known who to talk to after the attack. Eventually his steps had led him to Fanthile. “Then you did especially well, did you not?” the palace secretary said. “Many a man who thinks himself brave finds he is not when faced with such expeditious assault.”

“Sir, did you not hear? I practically fainted. I had to sit before I fell. And I had the advantage; without my pistol, I’d not be here. Couldn’t even defend myself like a gentleman.”

“Oramen,” Fanthile said gently, “you are still a youth. And besides, you thought to arm yourself. That was wise, was it not?”

“So it proved.” Oramen drank deeply.

“And those who attacked you were not overly concerned with etiquette.”

“Indeed not. I imagine they only used a knife rather than a gun because one is silent and the other reports its use over half the city. Unless they turn out to be strict gentlemen, of course,” Oramen said with a sneer. “Such scorn guns, reckoning blades the honourable recourse, though I believe a rifle in a hunt is lately becoming allowable in even the most regressive shires.”

“And they did kill your best friend.”

“Oh, they killed Tove well; stuck him. He was most surprised,” Oramen said bitterly. A small frown creased his brow. “Most surprised…” he repeated, hesitating.

“Then do not blame yourself,” Fanthile was saying. Then it was his turn to frown. “What?”

Oramen shook his head. “Just the way Tove said ‘Not me’, when…” He wiped his face with one hand. “And before, when we were at the door…” He stared up at the ceiling for a few moments, then shook his head decisively. “No. What am I saying? He was my best friend. He could not.” He shivered. “Great grief, the man dies in my place and I look to blame him.” He drank again.

“Steady, young man,” Fanthile said, smiling, nodding at the glass.

Oramen looked at the glass, appeared to be about to argue, then set it down on the table between them.

“The blame is mine, Fanthile,” he said. “I sent Tove first through that door, and I was stupid enough to finish off the one I’d hit first in the chest. Through him we might have discovered who sent them.”

“You think they were sent, by somebody else?”

“I doubt they were just loitering around the courtyard waiting to rob the first person to come through that door.”

“Then who might have sent them?”

“I don’t know. I have thought, and, on thinking, realised there is a dismayingly large cast of suspects.”

“Who might they be?”

Oramen stared at the other man. “The same people you might think of.”

Fanthile met the prince’s gaze. He nodded. “Indeed. But who?”

Oramen shook his head. “Deldeyn spies, republicans, radical parliamentarians, a family with a personal vendetta against my family, from this generation or one before, an out-of-pocket bookmaker mistaking me for Ferbin. Who knows? Even anarchists, though they seem to exist more in the minds of those who oppose them most fervently than in awkward reality.”

“Who,” Fanthile asked, “would gain most from your death?”

Oramen shrugged. “Well, pursued to the absolute limits of logicality, tyl Loesp, I suppose.” He looked at the palace secretary, who met his gaze with a studiedly blank expression. He shook his head again. “Oh, I thought of him, too, but if I distrust him I distrust everybody. You, Harne, Tove — WorldGod welcome him — everybody.” Oramen made a fist and punched at the nearest cushion. “Why did I kill that wounded one? I should have kept him alive!” He stared at the palace secretary. “I’d have wielded the pliers and the glowing iron myself on that cur.”

Fanthile looked away for a moment. “Your father frowned on such techniques, prince. He used them most rarely.”

“Well,” Oramen said, discomfited, “I imagine these… occurrences are best avoided. Best… delegated.”

“No,” Fanthile said. “He would be present, but it was the only thing I ever saw make him physically sick.”

“Yes, well,” Oramen said, feeling suddenly awkward. “I doubt I really could do it. I would faint, or run away, no doubt.” He lifted his glass again, then set it down once more.

“You will need a new equerry, prince,” Fanthile said, looking pleased to be changing the subject. “I am sure one will be chosen for you.”

“Doubtless by Exaltine Chasque,” Oramen said. “Tyl Loesp has left him ‘in charge’ of me while he’s gone.” Oramen shook his head.

“Indeed,” Fanthile said. “However, might I suggest you present the Exaltine with your own choice, already made?”

“But who?” Oramen looked at the palace secretary. “You have someone in mind?”

“I have, sir. Earl Droffo. He is young but he is wise, earnest and reliable, devoted to your late father and your family and only lately come to Pourl. He is — how shall I put this? — not overly contaminated by the cynicisms of the court.”

Oramen regarded Fanthile a little longer. “Droffo; yes, I remember him from the day Father died.”

“Also, sir, it’s time you had your own dedicated servant.”

“Very well, arrange that too, if you would.” Oramen shrugged. “I have to trust somebody, palace secretary; I shall choose to trust you.” He drained his glass. “Now I trust you will refill my glass,” he said, and giggled.

Fanthile poured him a little more wine.

* * *

The battle of the canal crossing was neither the disaster Werreber had feared nor the stroll tyl Loesp had anticipated. They lost more men and materiel than the field marshal thought necessary to get to the far side, and even then they still needed to stop and regroup and resupply for so long that they might as well have waited for the dawn to attack on a broad front after a serious overnight artillery barrage and possibly with the cover of morning mists. Instead they had been funnelled into three long crossings over the shallow pools of standing water and damp sands, and, so concentrated, had suffered from the attentions of Deldeyn heavy machine-gunners and disguised mortar pits well dug in on the far side.

Still, the battle had been won. They had traded saved, unfired artillery shells for the expended lives and limbs of ordinary soldiers. Werreber thought this a shameful, ignominious bargain when there was no pressing need to hurry. Tyl Loesp thought it a reasonable one.

Werreber comforted himself in the knowledge that decreeing something did not necessarily make it so on the ground; knowing the order was to take no prisoners, many of the Sarl units chose to disarm the Deldeyn they captured and let them run away. Werreber had chosen not to hear of such insubordination.

The two men quarrelled again about splitting their forces; the regent wanted to send a substantial body of men to take the Hyeng-zhar Settlement while the field marshal thought it wiser to have all the troops available to attack the capital, where the last significant Deldeyn forces were massing. The regent prevailed there too.

Reduced by the forces assigned to take the Falls, the remaining army spread out, splitting into three sections for the final assault on the Deldeyn capital.

<p>15. The Hundredth Idiot</p>

As soon as Ferbin saw the knights Vollird and Baerth he knew they were here to kill him. He knew precisely who they were. They had stood on either side of the interior of the door at the abandoned factory where his father had been killed. They had stood there and they had watched their king being brutally murdered by tyl Loesp. The shorter, broader, more powerful-looking one was called Baerth — he was the one Ferbin had recognised at the time. The taller, skinnier knight was Vollird, well known to be one of tyl Loesp’s closest allies and who, Ferbin was sure beyond surety, had been the taller knight whose face he had not seen standing on the other side of the door from Baerth.

“Gentlemen,” said Vollird, nodding fractionally and smiling thinly. Baerth — the shorter, more powerful-looking one — said nothing.

The two had appeared on the broad, crowded concourse which stretched away from the Tower exit Ferbin and Holse had just been led from while the Oct — who was still demanding their documents — was attempting to explain why the Nariscene Grand Zamerin wasn’t there to be met with. The two knights were escorted by a Nariscene in a glittering exoskeleton of gold and precious stones. They were dressed in leggings and long tunics covered in tabards, with sheathed swords and pistol holsters hanging from thick belts.

Ferbin did not reply. He just stared at them, fixing their faces in his mind for ever. He could feel himself starting to shake as his pulse quickened and a cold, clenching sensation came from his guts. He was furious with his body for betraying him so, and did all he could to relax, breathe evenly and generally display every outward sign of steady normality.

“And you, sirs,” Holse said, hand still resting on the pommel of his long knife, “who would you be?”

“Documents, if please,” the Oct at Holse and Ferbin’s side said, unhelpfully.

The taller knight looked at Ferbin as he said, “Do us the courtesy of informing your servant that we don’t answer to the pet when the owner stands before us.”

“My servant is a man of honour and decency,” Ferbin said, trying to keep his voice calm. “He may address you in any form or manner he sees fit and by God you ought to be grateful for even the most meagre courtesy he accords you, for you deserve less than a dry spit of it, and if I were you I’d hoard most jealously what little comes your way, for trust me, sirs, leaner times lie ahead if you but knew.”

The short knight looked furious; his hand twitched towards his sword. Ferbin’s mouth was very dry; he was horribly aware how mismatched their two sides were in armament. The taller one appeared surprised and mildly wounded. “These are unkind words, sir, to two who desire only to help you.”

“I believe I know the fate to which you’d like to help us. It is a condition I’m determined to avoid for some time yet.”

“Sir,” the taller knight said, smiling tolerantly, “we have been sent by the current and rightful ruler of our shared homeland, who wishes you only good, to aid you in your passage. I regret any misunderstanding that might have led you to think ill of us before we are even correctly introduced. I am Vollird of Sournier, knight of the court; my companion here is Baerth of Charvin, also so ennobled.” Vollird swivelled fractionally and indicated the shorter man by his side with one hand as he spoke these words, though his gaze stayed fixed upon Ferbin. “We are here at your service, good sir. Grant us civility, I beg you, if for no other reason than that we are in front of our otherworldly friends here, and might risk demeaning the reputation of our whole people by seeming to squabble or fret.” Vollird waved at the brilliant, static forms of the Oct and Nariscene at their sides, his gaze still fastened on Ferbin.

“If you are at my service,” Ferbin replied, “you will remove yourselves from us at once and take this message to your master, who is no more the rightful ruler of our ‘shared homeland’ than my last turd, indeed somewhat less so: I go only to return, and when I do, I shall treat him with all the grace and respect he showed my father, at his end.”

There was the tiniest of jerking motions at one extremity of Vollird’s dark brow; it was the merest hint of surprise, but Ferbin was glad to see it. He knew he could say more, but also knew, with a sort of fascinated certainty, that this constituted one charge of powder he ought to keep aside for now. There might be a moment when some further revelation of his most detailed knowledge of what had happened in the half-ruined factory that evening would be of a use beyond just discomfiting these men.

Vollird was silent for a half-moment, then smiled and said, “Sir, sir, we still misunderstand each other. We would help you, escort you on your way away from here. That is our earnest wish and most specific instruction.” He smiled, quite broadly, and made an open gesture with both hands. “We all of us wish the same thing, which is to see you on your way. You have departed the land and level to which you have belonged with some urgency and dispatch, and we would merely assist you on whatever further flight you may be determined on. We ought not to dispute.”

“We do not wish the same—” Ferbin started to say, but then the shorter knight, Baerth, who had been frowning mightily for the last few moments, said, under his breath, as though to himself, “Enough talk. Sheath this, whore.” He drew his sword and lunged at Ferbin.

Ferbin started to take a step back; Holse began to move in front of him, his left arm making as though to push Ferbin behind him. At the same time Holse’s right arm arced across his body and out; the short knife tore through the air and—

And was whipped out of the air by one limb of the Nariscene at Baerth’s side, at the same time as one of its other legs tripped up the lunging knight and sent him sprawling to the floor at Holse’s feet. Holse stamped sharply on the man’s wrist and scooped his sword from his broken grip. Baerth grunted in pain. Vollird was drawing his pistol.

“Stop!” the Nariscene said. “Stop!” it repeated as Holse made to stab the prone knight with one hand and take his pistol with the other. The sword was knocked from his hand by the Oct while the Nariscene turned and snapped the pistol from Vollird’s grip, producing a sudden gasp. Sword and pistol went clattering to the floor in opposite directions.

“To stop, hostilities,” the Oct said. “Inappropriate behaviour.”

Holse stood, glaring at the eight-limbed alien, shaking his own right hand and blowing on it as though trying to get blood back into it on a cold day. He had moved the foot he’d stamped on Baerth’s wrist with so that it now lay on the man’s neck, with most of Holse’s weight on it. Vollird stood shaking his right hand vigorously, and cursing.

Ferbin had observed it all, keeping back and low and watching with an odd detachment who had done what and where all the weapons were at each moment. He found he still possessed a very clear idea of where both pistols were; one over there on the floor, the other still in Baerth’s side holster.

A device swung down from the ceiling. It looked like a bulky rendition of a Nariscene in an entire symphony of coloured metals.

“Fighting is not allowed in public spaces,” it said loudly in oddly accented but perfectly comprehensible Sarl. “I shall take charge of all weapons in this vicinity. Resistance will incur physical penalties not excluding unconsciousness and death.” It was already gathering up the sword and pistol from the floor, swinging through the air with a whooshing sound. The Nariscene handed it Holse’s long knife. “Thank you,” it said. It removed Baerth’s pistol from its holster — the man was still flat out under Holse’s boot, and starting to make gurgling sounds — took another, smaller gun from the prone knight’s boot and also found a dagger and two small throwing knives in his tunic. From Vollird, now holding his right hand delicately and grimacing, it took a sword, a long knife and a length of wire with wooden grips at each end.

“All unauthorised weapons have now been removed from the vicinity,” the machine announced. Ferbin noticed that a small crowd of people — aliens, machines, whatever one might call them — had gathered at a polite distance, to watch. The machine holding all the weapons said, “Nariscene Barbarian Relational Mentor Tchilk, present, is in notional charge here until further Authority arrives. All involved will hold approximate position under my custody, meantimes. Failure to comply will incur physical penalties not excluding unconsciousness and death.”

There was a pause. “Documents?” the Oct said to Ferbin.

“Oh, have your damned documents!” he said, and fished them from his jacket. He nearly threw them at the machine, but didn’t, in case this was taken as a violent act by the device hovering over them.

* * *

“So,” the glittering Nariscene said, floating slowly round about them a metre or so over their heads and between two and three metres away from them, “you claim to be a prince of this royal family of the Sarl, of the Eighth.”

“Indeed,” Ferbin said crisply.

He and Holse stood within a great, softly green-lit cave of a room. Its walls were mostly of undressed stone; Ferbin found this quite shockingly crude for beings supposedly so technologically advanced. The complex they had been taken to was set deep within a cliff which formed part of an enormous spire of rock sitting in a great round lake a short machine-flight from the concourse where they had first arrived. Once Vollird and Baerth had been taken away, apparently already adjudged to have been the guilty parties without anything as crude and time-consuming as a formal trial — as Vollird had pointed out, quite loudly — Ferbin had asked one of the Nariscene judicial machines if he could talk to somebody in authority. After a few screen conversations with persons distant, all visibly Nariscene, they had been brought here.

The Nariscene officer — he had been introduced as Acting Craterine Zamerin Alveyal Girgetioni — was encased in a kind of skeletal armour like that worn by the Nariscene who had been escorting Vollird and Baerth. He seemed to like floating above and around people he was talking to, forcing them to twist this way and that to keep him politely in sight. About him in the great cavern, at some distance, other Nariscene aliens did incomprehensible things from a variety of cradles, harnesses and holes in the ground filled with what looked like quicksilver. “This royal family,” the Acting Craterine Zamerin continued, “is the ruling entity of your people, and the executive positions are inheritable. Am I right?”

Ferbin thought about this. He looked at Holse, who shrugged unhelpfully. “Yes,” Ferbin said, less certainly.

“And you claim to have witnessed a crime on your home level?”

“A most grievous and disgraceful crime, sir,” Ferbin said.

“But you are unwilling to have the matter dealt with on your own level, despite the fact you claim to be the rightful ruler, that is, absolute chief executive, of this realm.”

“I am unable to do so, sir. Were I to try, I would be killed, just as the two knights today tried to kill me.”

“So you seek justice… where?”

“A sibling of mine is attached to the empire known as the Culture. I may gain help there.”

“You travel to some part, ship or outpost of the Culture?”

“As a first step, we thought to find one human man called Xide Hyrlis, whom we last heard was a friend of the Nariscene. He knew my late father, he knows me, he has — I hope and trust — still some kind sympathies for my family, kingdom and people and may himself be able to aid me in my fight for justice. Even if he cannot help us directly he will, at the least, I feel sure, vouch for me to the part of the Culture called Special Circumstances within which my sibling is located, allowing me to contact and appeal to them.”

The Nariscene stopped dead, becoming quite perfectly stationary in the air. “Special Circumstances?” it said.

“Indeed,” Ferbin said.

“I see.” The Nariscene resumed its orbit, sailing silently through the oddly scented air while the two humans stood patiently, swivelling their heads as the creature circled slowly round them.

“Also,” Ferbin said, “it is imperative that I get a message to my brother Oramen, who is now the Prince Regent. This would have to be done in the greatest secrecy. However, if it was possible — and I would hope that the mighty Nariscene would find this neither beneath nor beyond them—”

“That will not be possible, I think,” the Nariscene told him.

“What? Why not?” Ferbin demanded.

“It is not our place,” the Acting Craterine Zamerin said.

“Why not?”

Alveyal Girgetioni stopped in the air again. “It is not within our remit.”

“I am not even sure I know what that means,” Ferbin said. “Is it not right to warn somebody they might be in mortal danger? For that is—”

“Mr Ferbin—”

“Prince, if you please.”

“Prince Ferbin,” the Nariscene said, reinstating its slow circling. “There are rules to be observed in such interactions. It is not the duty or the right of the Nariscene to interfere in the affairs of our developing mentorees. We are here to provide an overall framework within which a species like that to which you belong may mature and progress according to their own developmental timetable; we are not here to dictate that timetable or hasten or delay any such advancement taking place along that timeline. We merely maintain the superior integrity of the entity that is Sursamen. Your own fates are allowed to remain your own. They are, in a sense, within your own gift. Our gift is that already stated, of overarching care for the greater environment, that is to say the Shellworld Sursamen itself, and the protection of your good selves from undue and unwarranted interference, including — and this is the focus of my point — any undue and unwarranted interference we ourselves might be tempted to apply.”

“So you’ll not warn a young fellow he may be in mortal danger? Or tell a grieving mother her eldest son lives, when she is in mourning for a dead husband and a son as well?”

“Correct.”

“You do realise what that means?” Ferbin said. “I’m not being mistranslated, am I? My brother could die, and soon. He will die in any event before he is of an age to inherit the full title of king. That is guaranteed. He is a marked man.”

“All death is unfortunate,” the Acting Craterine Zamerin said.

“That, sir, is no comfort,” Ferbin said.

“Comforting was not my intention. My duty is to state facts.”

“Then the facts tell a sorry truth of cynicism and complacency in the face of outright evil.”

“That may seem so to you. The fact remains, I am not allowed to interfere.”

“Is there no one who might help us? If we are to accept that you will not, is there anybody here on the Surface or elsewhere who might?”

“I cannot say. I do not know of anyone.”

“I see.” Ferbin thought. “Am I — are we — free to leave?”

“Sursamen? Yes, fully free.”

“And we may pursue our aims, of contacting Xide Hyrlis and my sibling?”

“You may.”

“We have no money about us with which to pay our fare,” Ferbin said. “However, on my accession to—”

“What? Oh, I see. Monetary exchange is not required in such circumstances. You may travel without exchange.”

“I will pay our way,” Ferbin said firmly. “Only I cannot do so immediately. You have my word on this, however.”

“Yes. Yes, well. Perhaps a cultural donation, if you insist.”

“I would also point out,” Ferbin said, gesturing at himself and Holse, “that we have nothing else, either, save what we stand up in.”

“Systems and institutions exist to aid the needy traveller,” the Acting Craterine Zamerin said. “You will not go without. I shall authorise such provisions as you may require.”

“Thank you,” Ferbin said. “Again, generous payment will be forthcoming when I have taken charge of what is rightfully mine.”

“You are welcome,” Alveyal Girgetioni told them. “Now, if you will excuse me…”

* * *

The Baeng-yon Crater was of Sursamen’s most common type, supporting a water- and landscape filled with a gas mixture designed to be acceptable to the majority of oxygen breathers, including the Nariscene, most pan-humans and a wide spectrum of aquatic species. Like most of the world’s Craters it had an extensive network of wide, deep canals, large and small lakes and other bodies of water both open and enclosed providing ample living space and travel channels for seagoing creatures.

Ferbin looked out from a high window set in a great cliff of a building poised over an inlet of a broad lake. Steep-pitched hills and outbreaking cliffs and boulder fields were scattered everywhere amongst a landscape mostly covered in grass, trees and tall, oddly shaped buildings. Curious obelisks and pylons that might have been works of art were dotted about, and various lengths and loops of curved transparent tubing lay draped between and across nearly every feature. A giant sea creature, trailed by a shoal of smaller shapes each twice the length of a man, floated serenely along one of these conduits, passing between gaudily coloured buildings and over some form of steamless ground vehicle to dip into the broad bowl of a harbour and disappear beneath the waves amongst the hulls of bizarrely shaped boats.

All about, Nariscene moved through the air in their glittering harnesses. Overhead, an airship the shape of a sea monster and the size of a cloud moved slowly across a distant line betokening an immensely tall and steep-sided ridge, its barely curved top a serrated row of tiny, regular, jagged peaks. All lay under a startlingly bright sky of shining turquoise. He was looking towards the Crater Edgewall, apparently. An invisible shield held the air inside the vast bowl. It was so bright because a vast lens between the sun and the Crater concentrated the light like a magnifying glass. Much of what he looked at, Ferbin thought, he didn’t even start to understand. Much of it was so strange and alien he hardly knew how to frame the questions that might provide the answers which would help explain what he was looking at in the first place, and he suspected that even if he did know how to ask the questions, he wouldn’t understand the answers.

Holse came through from his room, knocking on the wall as he entered — the doors disappeared when they opened, petals of material folding away into the walls. “Decent quarters,” he said. “Eh, sir?”

“They will do,” Ferbin agreed.

They had been escorted to this place by one of the judicial machines. Ferbin had been tired and — finding what he took for a bed — slept for a while. When he woke a couple of hours later, Holse was inspecting a pile of supplies in the middle room of the five they had been assigned. Another machine had appeared with the loot while Ferbin had been asleep. Holse reported that the door to the outside corridor was not locked. They appeared to be free to go about their business if they so desired, not that Holse had been able to think, offhand, of any business to go about.

They had more clothes now, plus luggage. Holse had discovered a device in the main room that brought entertainments into it; as many different entertainments as there were pages in a book, and seemingly there in the room with them. Almost all were utterly incomprehensible. After he’d muttered as much under his breath the room itself had talked to him and asked if he wanted the entertainments translated. He had said no, and been studious in not talking to himself since.

He’d also discovered a sort of chilly wardrobe full of food. Ferbin found himself to be remarkably hungry, and they ate well of the foods they recognised.

“Sirs, a visitor would meet with you,” a pleasant voice from nowhere said in a well-bred Sarl accent.

“That’s the voice of the room,” Holse whispered to Ferbin.

“Who is this visitor?” Ferbin asked.

“A Morthanveld; Tertiary Hulian Spine Strategic Mission Director General Shoum, of Meast, of Zuevelous, of T’leish, of Gavantille Prime, Pliyr.”

“Morthanveld?” Ferbin said, latching on to almost the only word in all this that he actually understood.

“She is some ten minutes away and would like to know if you’d care to receive her,” the disembodied voice said.

“Who exactly is this person?” Ferbin asked.

“The director general is currently the highest-ranked all-species office-holder on Sursamen and most senior Morthanveld official within the local galactic region. She is charged with oversight of all Morthanveld interests within approximately thirty per cent of the Tertiary Spine. She is present on Sursamen Surface in a semi-official capacity but wishes to visit you in an unofficial capacity.”

“Is she any threat to us?” Holse asked.

“None whatsoever, I’d imagine.”

“Kindly tell the directing general we shall be happy to receive her,” Ferbin said.

* * *

Five minutes before the director general arrived, a pair of strange globular beings appeared at the door of their suite. The creatures were about a stride in diameter and shaped like a huge glistening drop of water with hundreds of spines inside. They announced that they were the pilot team for Director General Shoum and asked, in highly polite and almost unaccented Sarl, to be allowed in for a look round. Holse obliged them. Ferbin was staring thunderstruck at what appeared be an entertainment showing aliens having sex, or possibly wrestling, and hardly noticed the two real aliens.

The two Morthanveld floated in, wafted about for less than a minute and announced themselves satisfied that all was well. A formality, they explained in what sounded like cheerful tones.

Holse was well-educated enough to know that the Morthanveld were an aquatic species and he was still considering the etiquette of offering such beings a drink when the director general herself and her immediate entourage descended. Ferbin switched the alien pornography off and started paying attention. He and the director general were introduced, she and her half-dozen attendants spread out around the room, making admiring comments about the furnishings and pleasant view and then the director general herself — they had been informed she was a she, though there was no way to tell that Holse could see — suggested they take a ride in her barque.

Holse had to shrug when Ferbin looked at him.

“That would be our pleasure, ma’am,” Ferbin told her graciously.

Half a minute later an enormous pancake of an air vehicle with a skin that glittered like innumerable fish scales floated down from above and presented its curved, open rear to the windows, which hinged down to allow them access to the barque.

The transparent walls and clear circles on the floor showed them rising quickly into the air. Soon they could see the whole of the great straggled settlement they had just left, then the entirety of the circular sea on whose margins it lay, then other seas and circular patches of green and brown before — the view seemed to blink as they passed through some gauzy barrier — they were looking down on an entire enormous circle of blue and green and brown and white, with hints of what must be the dark, near-lifeless Surface of Sursamen itself at the edges. Circular patches in the craft’s ceiling showed tiny points of light. Holse supposed they must be the stars of empty space. He took a funny turn and had to sit down quickly on one of a variety of couch-shaped bumps on the floor, all of which were very slightly damp.

“Prince Ferbin,” the director general said, indicating with one of her spines a long, shallow seat near what Ferbin took to be the prow of the craft, some distance away from everybody else. He sat there while she rested on a bowl-shaped seat nearby. A tray floated down to Ferbin’s side. It held a small plate of delicacies and an opened jug of fine wine with one glass.

“Thank you,” Ferbin said, pouring himself some wine.

“You’re welcome. Then, if you please, tell me what brings you here.”

Ferbin told her the short version. Even at this distance in time, relating his father’s murder left him flushed and breathing hard, boiling with fury inside. He took a drink of wine, went on with the rest of his tale.

The director general was silent until the end, then said, “I see. Well then, prince, what are we to do with you?”

“Firstly, ma’am, I must get a message to my younger brother Oramen, to warn him of the danger he is in.”

“Indeed. What else?”

“I should be grateful if you would assist me in finding our old ally Xide Hyrlis, and, perhaps, my other sibling.”

“I should hope that I shall be able to assist with your onward travel,” the waterworlder replied.

This did not sound like an unequivocal yes to Ferbin. He cleared his throat. “I have made it clear to the Nariscene representative I encountered earlier that I will pay for my passage, though I am unable to do so at the moment.”

“Oh, payment is irrelevant, dear prince. Don’t worry yourself about that.”

“I was not worried, ma’am, I seek only to make it quite clear that I need accept no charity. I will pay my way. Depend on it.”

“Well,” Shoum said. There was a pause. “So, your father is dead; murdered by this tyl Loesp man.”

“Indeed, ma’am.”

“And you are the rightful king, by birthright?”

“I am.”

“How romantic!”

“I cannot tell you how gratified I am that you feel that way,” Ferbin said. He had obviously, he realised now, absorbed more courtier-speak than he’d given himself credit for. “However, my most pressing need is to warn my young brother that he is in danger of his life, if it is not already too late.”

“Ah,” the Morthanveld said. “I have what may be news unknown to you on such matters.”

“You do?” Ferbin sat forward.

“Your mother is well. Your brother Oramen lives and appears to prosper and mature most quickly at court. You are presumed dead, though of course tyl Loesp knows you are not. Your reputation has been traduced. Regent Mertis tyl Loesp and Field Marshal Werreber command an army which has been lowered to the level of the Deldeyn by the Oct and even now is on the brink of a decisive battle with the depleted remains of the Deldeyn forces which our modellers believe your people will be victorious in, with less than three per cent doubt.”

“You have spies there, ma’am?”

“No, but information osmoses.”

Ferbin leant forward. “Madam, I must get a message to my younger brother, but only if there is no chance of it being intercepted by tyl Loesp or his people. Might you be able to help?”

“That is not impossible. However, it would, arguably, be illegal.”

“How so?”

“We are not supposed to take such a close, and… dynamic interest in your affairs. Even the Nariscene are not supposed to, and they are technically in charge here.”

“And the Oct?”

“They are allowed limited influence, of course, given that they control so much of the access to Sursamen’s interior and were largely responsible for making it safe, though they have, arguably, overstepped their marked allowance by some margin already in co-operating with the Sarl to deceive and so — almost certainly — defeat the Deldeyn. The Aultridia have subsequently laid a charge before the Nariscene Mentoral Court against the Oct alleging just that. The underlying reasons causing the Oct to behave like this are still being investigated. Informed speculation on the matter is unusually diverse, indicating that no one really has a clue at all. However, I must make clear: my species is supposed to mentor those who mentor those who mentor your people. I am layers and levels away from being jurisdictionally allowed to have any direct influence.

“You find yourself the unintended victim of a system set up specifically to benefit people like the Sarl, prince; a system which has evolved over the centieons to ensure that peoples less technologically advanced than others are able to progress as naturally as possible within a generally controlled galactic environment, allowing societies at profoundly different civilisational stages to rub up against each other without this leading to the accidental destruction or demoralisation of the less developed participants. It is a system that has worked well for a long time; however, that does not mean that it never produces anomalies or seeming injustices. I am most sorry.”

The stage is small but the audience is great, as his father had always said, Ferbin thought as he listened to this. But the audience was just the audience, and so was forbidden from running up on to the stage and taking part, and — aside from a few jeers and calls and the occasional “Behind you!” — they could do little to intervene without risking being flung out of the theatre altogether.

“These are rules that you cannot bend?” he asked.

“Oh, I can, prince. We are talking here, in one of my own craft, so that I can guarantee our privacy and we may speak freely. That is already bending one rule regarding legitimate interaction between what one might term our official selves. I can intervene, but ought I to? I do not mean, present me with further reason, I mean, would it be right for me to do so? These rules, regulations, terms and laws are not invoked arbitrarily; they exist for good reason. Would I be right in breaking them?”

“You may guess my view on the matter, ma’am. I would have thought that the brutal and disgraceful murder of an honourable man — a king to whom all in his realm save a few jealous, treacherous, murderous wretches paid grateful, loving homage — would seize at the heart of any creature, no matter how many layers and levels distant from such humble beings as ourselves they might be. We are all united, I would hope, in our love of justice and the desire to see evil punished and good rewarded.”

“It is as you say, of course,” Shoum said smoothly. “It is simply that, from a further perspective, one cannot but recognise that these very rules I allude to are set out so with precisely such an idea of justice at their core. We seek to be just to the peoples in our charge and those that we mentor by, usually, declining the always obvious option of facile intervention. One might intervene and interfere at every available opportunity and at every single instant when things did not turn out as any decent and reasonable creature would like. However, with every intervention, every interference — no matter how individually well-meant and seemingly right and proper judged purely on its own immediate merits — one would, subtly, incrementally but most certainly remove all freedom and dignity from the very people one sought only to help.”

“Justice is justice, ma’am. Foulness and treachery remain what they are. You may pull so far away you lose sight of them, but only draw back in and as soon as you see them at all you see their corruption, by the very colour and shape of them. When a common man is murdered it means the end for him and a catastrophe for his family; beyond that, and our sentimentality, it affects only as far as his own importance reaches. When a king is murdered and the whole direction of a country’s fate is diverted from its rightful course, it is another thing entirely; how such a crime is reacted to speaks loud for the worth of all who know of it and have the means to punish those responsible or, by tolerating, seem to authorise. Such a reaction beacons out its lesson for every subject, forming a large part of their life’s moral template. It affects the fate of nations, of whole philosophies, ma’am, and may not be dismissed as a passing commotion in the kennels.”

The director general made a dry, spindly noise, like a sigh. “Perhaps it is different for humans, dear prince,” she said, sounding sad, “but we have found that the underdisciplined child will bump up against life eventually and learn their lessons that way — albeit all the harder for their parents’ earlier lack of courage and concern. The overdisciplined child lives all its life in a self-made cage, or bursts from it so wild and profligate with untutored energy they harm all about them, and always themselves. We prefer to underdiscipline, reckoning it better in the long drift, though it may seem harsher at the time.”

“To do nothing is always easy.” Ferbin did not try to keep the bitterness out of his voice.

“To do nothing when you are so tempted to do something, and entirely have the means to do so, is harder. It grows easier only when you know you do nothing for the active betterment of others.”

Ferbin took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. He looked down through the nearest transparent circle in the floor. It showed another Crater sliding by beneath them like a lividly shining yellow-brown bruise of life on Sursamen’s darkly barren Surface. It was gradually disappearing as they travelled over it, leaving only that dark absence of Sursamen’s unadorned face implied below them.

“If you will not help me in getting a message to my brother warning him he is in mortal danger, ma’am, can you help me otherwise?”

“Assuredly. We can direct you to the ex-Culture human and ex-Special Circumstances agent Xide Hyrlis, and facilitate your conveyance towards him.”

“So it is true; Xide Hyrlis is now ex-Culture?”

“We believe he is. With SC, sometimes it is hard to be sure.”

“Is he still in a position to help us?”

“Possibly. I do not know. All I can solve with any certainty is your first problem, which is finding him; this would be a problem otherwise because the Nariscene guard him jealously. He works, in effect, for them now. Even when Hyrlis was here on Sursamen his purpose was moot; his presence was requested by the Nariscene and disapproved of by ourselves, though we drew the line at requesting his removal. A Nariscene experiment, perhaps, possibly at the behest of the Oct, testing the rules regarding the transfer of technology to less-developed peoples; he gave you a great deal, prince, though he was careful to do so only in the form of ideas and advice, never anything material. Your second problem will be persuading Hyrlis to talk to you; that you must do yourselves. Your third problem, obviously, is securing his services. Yours again, I’m afraid.”

“Well,” Ferbin said, “my good fortune arrives in small change these days, ma’am. Nevertheless, I hope I count my gratitude in larger coin. Even if that is all you can offer me, I am beholden. We have recently come to expect that every hand will be turned against us; to find mere indifference caused us joy. Any active help, however circumscribed, now seems like far more than we deserve.”

“I wish you well in your quest, prince.”

“Thank you.”

“Ah; an open Tower end, do you see?”

Ferbin looked down to see a small black spot on the dark brown expanse of the Surface. It only showed because the rest of the view was so dark; situated anywhere near a shining Crater, the dark dot would have been invisible beneath the wash of light. “That dark spot?”

“Yes. Do you know of those? It is the end of a Tower which leads all the way down to the Machine Core, where your god resides.”

“It is?” Ferbin had never heard of such a thing. The spot looked too small, for one thing. The Towers were known to taper, but they were still one and a half kilometres across when they reached the Surface. On the other hand, they were quite high up, here in the director general’s spacecraft.

“They are rare,” she told him. “No more than six out of a million Towers on any Shellworld are fashioned so.”

“That I did not know,” Ferbin said. He watched the tiny dot of darkness slide beneath them.

“Of course, there are defence mechanisms on the Surface and all the way down — no freak piece of random space debris or maliciously directed ordnance would make it far down there, and various doors and lock systems exist at the level of the Core itself — however, essentially, when you stare straight down that shaft, you are looking across twenty-one thousand kilometres of vacuum to the lair of the Xinthian itself.”

“The WorldGod,” Ferbin said. Even as one who had never been especially religious, it felt strange to hear its existence confirmed by an alien of the Optimae, even if she did use its common, dismissive name.

“Anyway. I think now we’ll return you to your quarters. There is a ship leaving in half a day that will take you in the direction of Xide Hyrlis. I shall arrange your passage.”

Ferbin lost sight of the tiny black dot. He returned his attention to the Morthanveld. “You are kind, ma’am.”

The view from the craft tipped all around them as it flipped over, banking steeply. Holse closed his eyes and swayed, even though he was seated. Beside Ferbin, the surface of the wine in his glass barely trembled.

“Your sibling,” the director general said as Ferbin watched the whole world tilt about them.

“My sibling,” Ferbin said.

“She is Seriy Anaplian.”

“That sounds like the name.”

“She, too, is of Special Circumstances, dear prince.”

“Apparently. What of it, ma’am?”

“That is a great deal of good connection for one family, let alone one person.”

“I shan’t refuse any portion, if good it is.”

“Hmm. It does occur to me that, no matter how distant, she may have heard about your father and the other recent events from your home level, which of course includes the news of your supposed death.”

“May she?”

“As I say, news osmoses. And where news is concerned, the Culture is of a very low pressure.”

“I fail to understand you, ma’am.”

“They tend to hear everything.”

* * *

The Nariscene ship The Hundredth Idiot and the orbiting transit facility parted company as gently as lovers’ hands, Holse thought. He watched the process happen on a big circular screen inside one of the vessel’s human-public areas. He was the only person there. He’d wanted to watch from a proper porthole but there weren’t any.

Tubes and gantries and stretchy corridors all sort of just kissed goodbye to each other and retracted like hands inside sleeves on a cold day. Then the transit facility was shrinking, and you could see the whole spindly, knobbly shape of it, and the start of the absurdly long cords that tethered it to the Surface of Sursamen.

It all happened in silence, if you didn’t count the accompanying screechings which were allegedly Nariscene music.

He watched Sursamen bulge darkly out across the great circle of screen as the transit facility shrank quickly to too-small-to-see. How vast and dark it was. How spotted and speckled with those shining circles of Craters. In the roughly quarter of the globe that Holse could see right now he guessed there were perhaps a score of such environments, glowing all sorts of different colours according to the type of atmosphere they held. And how quickly it was all shrinking, gathering itself in, concentrating, like something boiling down.

The ship drew further away. The transit facility was quite gone. Now he could see all of Sursamen; every bit was there on the screen, the whole globe encircled shown. He found it hard to believe that the place where he had lived his entire life was appreciable now in one glimpse. Look; he glanced from one pole to another, and felt his eyes jerk only a millimetre or less in their sockets. Further away still now, their rate of progress increasing. Now he could hold all mighty Sursamen in a single static stare, extinguish it with a blink…

He thought of his wife and children, wondering if he would ever see them again. It was odd that while he and Ferbin had still been on the Eighth and so exposed to the continual and sharp danger of being killed, or travelling up from their home level and still arguably at some risk, he had nevertheless been sure he would see his family again. Now that they were — you’d hope — safe for the moment, on this fancy ship-of-space, he watched his home shrink to quick nothing with a less than certain feeling that he’d be safely back.

He hadn’t even asked to get a message back to them. If the aliens were disinclined to grant the request of a prince, they’d surely ignore a more humble man’s petition. All the same, maybe he ought to have asked. There was even a possibility that his own request would be granted just because he was only a servant and so didn’t signify; news of his living might not matter enough to affect greater events the way knowledge of Ferbin’s continuing existence might. But then if his wife knew he was still alive and people in power heard of this, they would undoubtably treat this as part-way proof that Ferbin did indeed live, and that would be deemed important. They’d want to know how she’d come to know and that might prove uncomfortable for her. So he owed it to her not to get in touch. That was a relief.

He’d be in the wrong whatever he did. If they ever did get back he’d certainly be blamed for turning up alive after being dependably dead.

Senble, bless her, was a passably handsome woman and a good mother, but she had never been the most sentimental of people, certainly not where her husband was concerned. Holse always had the impression he somehow cluttered the place up when he was in their apartment in the palace servants’ barracks. They only had two rooms, which was not a lot when you had four children, and he rarely found a place to sit and smoke a pipe or read a news sheet in tranquillity. Always being moved on, he was, for the purposes of cleaning, or to let the children fight in peace.

When he went out, to sit somewhere else and smoke his pipe and read his paper undisturbed, he was usually welcomed back with a scolding for having wasted the family’s meagre resources in the betting house or drinking shop, whether he’d actually been there or not. Though he had, admittedly, used the earlier unjust accusations as cause to excuse the subsequent commitment of precisely such contrabandly activities.

Did that make him a bad man? He didn’t think so. He’d provided, he’d given Senble six children, holding her to him when she’d wept, mourning the two they’d lost, and doing all he could to help her care for the four who’d survived. Where he’d grown up, the proportions of live to dead would have been reversed.

He’d never hit her, which made him unusual within his circle of friends. He’d never hit a woman at all, which by his count made him unique amongst his peers. He told people he reckoned his father had used up the family’s allowance of woman-hitting, mostly on Holse’s poor long-suffering mother. He’d wished his father dead every single day for many years, waiting until he grew big enough to hit him back and protect his mother, but in the end it had been his mother who’d gone; suddenly, one day, just dropping dead in the field during the harvest.

At least, he’d thought at the time, she’d been released from her torment. His father was never the same man again, almost as though he missed her, just possibly because he felt in some way responsible. At the time Holse had nearly felt himself big enough to stand up to his father, but his mother’s death had reduced his father so, and so quickly, that he’d never needed to. He’d walked away from home one day and never gone back, leaving his father sitting in his cold cottage, staring into a dying fire. He’d gone to the city and become a palace servant. Somebody from his village who’d made the same journey a long-year later had told him his father had hanged himself just a month earlier, after another bad harvest. Holse had felt no sympathy or sorrow at the news at all, only a kind of vindicated contempt.

And if he and Ferbin were gone so long he was declared officially dead, Senble might remarry, or just take up with another man. It would be possible. She might mourn him — he hoped she would, though frankly he wouldn’t have put his own money on it — but he couldn’t imagine her tearing her hair out in an apoplexy of grief or swearing on his cold unge pipe she’d never let another man touch her. She might be forced to find another husband if she was thrown out of the servants’ quarters. How would he feel then, coming back to find his place taken so, his children calling another man Daddy?

The truth was that he would almost welcome the opportunity to start again. He respected Senble and loved his children, but if they were being looked after by a decent sort of fellow then he wouldn’t throw a fit of jealousy. Just accept and walk on might be the best idea; wish all concerned well and make a fresh start, still young enough to enjoy a new life but old enough to have banked the lessons he’d learned from the first one.

Did that make him a bad man? Perhaps, though if so then arguably all men were bad. A proposition his wife would probably agree with, as would most of the women Holse had known, from his poor mother onwards. That was not his fault either, though. Most men — most women, too, no doubt — lived and died under the general weight of the drives and needs, expectations and demands they experienced from within and without, beaten this way and that by longings for sex, love, admiration, comfort, importance and wealth and whatever else was their particular fancy, as well as being at the same time channelled into whatever furrows were deemed appropriate for them by those on high.

In life you hoped to do what you could but mostly you did what you were told and that was the end of it.

He was still staring at the screen, though he hadn’t really been seeing it for some time, lost in this reverie of decidedly unromantic speculation. He looked for Sursamen, looked for the place — vast, multi-layered, containing over a dozen different multitudes — where he had lived all his life and left all he’d ever known quite entirely behind, but he couldn’t find it.

Gone; shrunk away to nothing.

He had already asked the Nariscene ship why it bore the name it did.

“The source of my name,” the vessel had replied, “The Hundredth Idiot, is a quotation: ‘One hundred idiots make idiotic plans and carry them out. All but one justly fail. The hundredth idiot, whose plan succeeded through pure luck, is immediately convinced he’s a genius.’ It is an old proverb.”

Holse had made sure Ferbin was not within earshot and muttered, “I think I’ve known a few hundredths in my time.”

The ship powered away in the midst of faraway stars, an infinitesimal speck lost in the vast swallowing emptiness between these gargantuan cousins of the Rollstars and Fixstars of home.

<p>16. Seed Drill</p>

Quitrilis Yurke saw the giant Oct ship immediately ahead and knew he was about to die.

Quitrilis was piloting his ship by hand, the way you were very much not supposed to, not in the presence of a relatively close-packed mass of other ships — in this case, a whole fleet of Oct Primarian Craft. Primarians were the biggest class of regular ships the Oct possessed. A skeletal frame around a central core, they were a couple of klicks long and usually employed more as a sort of long-distance travel aid for smaller ships than as fully fledged spacecraft in their own right. There was at least a suggestion that the Oct had ships of this size and nature because they felt they ought to rather than because they really needed them; they were a vanity project, something they seemed to think they were required to have to be taken seriously as a species, as a civilisation.

The Primarian fleet was twenty-two strong and stationed in close orbit directly above the city-cluster of Jhouheyre on the Oct planet of Zaranche in the Inner Caferlitician Tendril. They had arrived there in ones and twos over the course of the last twenty days or so, joining a single Primarian that had arrived over forty days before.

Quitrilis Yurke, a dedicated Culture traveller and adventurer, away from home for a good five hundred and twenty-six days now and veteran of easily a dozen major alien star systems, was on Zaranche to find out whatever he could about whatever there was to be found out there. So far he’d discovered that Zaranche was a boring planet of real interest only to the Oct and devoid of any humanoid life. That last bit had been bad news. It had seemed like really good news at first, but it wasn’t. He’d never been anywhere before where he was the only human. Only human on the planet; that was travelling. That was Wandering. That was exclusive. He’d like to see his fellow travellers beat that. He’d felt aloof for about a minute.

After that it was just boring and made him feel alone, but he’d told people — and especially his class- and village mates from back home (not that they were actually at home; they were mostly travelling too) — that he intended to stay on Zaranche for a hundred days or so, doing some proper studying and investigating that would lead to genuine peer-reviewable publishable kind of stuff and it would feel like defeat to squilch out now.

Of all his group, he was the luckiest; everybody agreed, including Quitrilis Yurke. He’d looked for and found an old ship that was up for a bit of vaguely eccentric adventure late in life, and so — rather than just bumming around, hitching, cadging lifts off GSVs and smaller ships the way everybody else was going to — he’d basically got his own ship to play with; estimable!

The Now We Try It My Way had been an ancient Interstellar-class General Transport Craft, built so long ago it could remember — directly; like, living memory — when the Culture had been, by civilisational standards, scrawny, jejune; positively callow. The ship’s AI (not a Mind — way too old and primitive and limited to be called a Mind, but most definitely still fully conscious and with a frighteningly sharp personality) had long since been transferred into a little one-off kind of runabout thing, the sort of ship that people referred to as Erratic-class, even though there wasn’t really any such class. (Only there sort of was now, because even Minds used the term.) Anyway. In its remodelled form it had been designed to serve as a sort of glorified shuttle (but faster than any ordinary shuttle), shifting people and things around the kind of mature system with more than one Orbital.

That had been semi-retirement. Before it could get too weird or eccentric it had properly retired itself and drifted into a sort of slow sleep state inside a hollow mountain store for ships and other biggish stuff on Quitrilis’ home Orbital of Foerlinteul. He’d done proper asking-around-old-ships research to find a craft just like that, following a private theory. And it had worked! He’d lucked! It had been so grade, just so apropos!

The old ship had woken itself up after a tickle-message from its old home MSV and, after only a little thought, agreed to act as personal transport for this youth, him!

Naturally all his classmates had immediately tried doing the same thing, but they were too late. Quitrilis had already found the only likely contender and won the prize and even if there had been other retired ships of a similar disposition anywhere nearby they’d likely have refused such follow-on requests just because it would look like setting a pattern rather than expressing ship individuality and rewarding human initiative, etc. etc.

So far, the relationship had been a pretty good one. The old AI seemed to find it amusing to indulge a young, enthusiastic human and it positively enjoyed travelling for the sake of it, with no real logic to the journeying, going wherever Quitrilis wanted to go for whatever reason he wanted to go there (often he cheerfully confessed he had no idea himself). Obviously they were constrained by the ship’s speed to a relatively limited volume — they’d hitched on a GSV to get here to the Inner Caferlitician Tendril — but that still left them with thousands of potential star systems to visit, even if there was, by general agreement, nothing especially undiscovered in the fairly well-travelled, beaten-track neighbourhood they had access to.

And sometimes the ship let him pilot it by hand, the AI switching itself off or at least retreating inside itself and leaving Quitrilis to take the controls. He had always imagined that even though it claimed he was in complete control it was secretly still keeping an eye on him and making sure he wasn’t doing anything too crazy, anything that might end up killing them both, but now — right now, as the Primarian craft that should not have been there suddenly filled the star-specked darkness of the sky ahead, spreading entirely across his field of vision — he realised the old ship had been true to its word. It had left him alone. He really had been in full hands-on charge of it the whole time. He really had been risking his life, and he was about to lose it now.

Twenty-two ships. There had been twenty-two ships; they’d agreed. Arranged in a pair of sort of staggered lines, slightly curved in tune with the planet’s gravity well. Quitrilis had gone up to have a look at them all but they were boring, just hanging there, only the one that had been there from the start even showed any sign of traffic with a few smaller craft buzzing about. The Oct Movement Monitoring and Control people had sort of shouted at him, he’d got the impression, but an Oct shouting was still a pretty involved, incomprehensible experience and he hadn’t taken much notice.

He’d got the ship to let him have control and gone swooping and zooming and wheening about the fleet, carving round them and then deciding he’d have a blast right through the middle, so heading some way off — well off, like a good half a million klicks on the far side of the planet — and setting everything to Very Quiet, what the ship called Ssh mode, before turning back and coming bazonging back in before they had time to shout at him again and dipping and weaving and hurtling between the parked Primarians (he’d been bouncing up and down in the couch in the control room, whooping), and he thought he’d done it no problem; got to the end of the mass of ships and slung out from under that twenty-second ship on the way back into empty space again (he’d probably go visit one of the system’s gas giants for a day or two to let any fuss die down), when suddenly, as he came out from under that last Primarian — or what should have been the last Primarian — there, dead ahead, bang in front of him, filling the view so tall and wide and deep and fucking big he knew there was no chance he could avoid it, there was another ship! A twenty-third ship!

What?

Something flashed on the spread of retro control panel in front of him (he’d specced that himself). “Quitrilis,” the ship’s voice said. “What—?”

“Sorry,” Quitrilis had time to say as the gantried, openwork innards of the Oct ship expanded in front of him, filling the ahead-view utterly now, getting down to detail.

Maybe they could fly through, he thought, but knew they couldn’t. The internal components of the Primarian were too big, the spaces were too small. Maybe they could crash-stop, but they were just too damn close. The Now We Try It My Way had taken over control. The hand controls had gone limp. Indicator overlays flashed up engine-damage levels of braking and dump-turning, but it was all much too little much too late. They’d hit side on and barely ten per cent slower.

Quitrilis closed his eyes. He didn’t know what else to do. The Now We Try It My Way made some noises he hadn’t known it could make. He waited for death. He’d been backed up before he left home, obviously, but he’d been away over five hundred days and changed immensely in that time. He was profoundly and maturely a different person compared to the brash young lad who’d sailed off in his persuadable accomplice ship. This would be a very real death. Wow; proper sinking feeling here. This would be no-shit, serious, never-again extinction. At least it’d be quick; there was that.

Maybe the Oct had close-range defences against this sort of thing. Maybe they’d be blasted out of the skies before they hit the Primarian. Or they’d be beamed out of the way or something, nudge-fielded, fended off with something truly, stupendously skilful. Except the Oct didn’t have any of that sort of stuff. The Oct ships were relatively primitive. Oh! He’d just realised: he was probably just about to kill lots of Oct people. He got a sinking feeling that outdid the earlier, selfish sinking feeling. Oh fuck. Fucking major diplomatic incident. The C would have to apologise and… He was just starting to think that, Hey, you really could squeeze a lot of thoughts into a second or two when you knew you were about to die when the ship said, quite calmly, “Quitrilis?”

He opened his eyes. Not dead.

And nothing but the old star-specked depths of space ahead. Eh?

He looked back. Stacked ships: twenty-plus Primarians, one ultra close behind, receding fast, like they’d just exited from it, travelling very fast indeed.

“Did we dodge that thing?” he said, gulping.

“No,” the ship said. “We went right through it because it’s not a real ship; it’s little better than a hologram.”

“What?” Quitrilis said, shaking his head. “How? Why?”

“Good question,” the ship said. “I wonder how many of the others are just pretend too.”

“I’m fucking alive,” Quitrilis breathed. He clicked out of the command virtuality so he was sat in the couch properly with the physical controls in front of him and the wraparound display showing in slightly less detail what he’d been looking at seemingly directly. “We’re fucking alive, ship!” he yelled.

“Yes, we are. How odd.” The Now We Try It My Way sounded puzzled. “I’m sending a burst to my old Systems Vehicle about this. Something’s not right here.”

Quitrilis waved his arms around and waggled his toes. “But we’re alive!” he yelled, ecstatic. “We’re alive!”

“I am not disagreeing, Quitrilis. However… Wait. We’re being target—!”

The beam from the original, first-arrived Primarian ship burst all around them, turning the little craft and the single human inside it entirely into plasma within a few hundred milliseconds.

This time, Quitrilis Yurke didn’t have time to think anything at all.

* * *

Djan Seriy Anaplian, agent of the Culture’s renowned/notorious (delete to taste) Special Circumstances section, had her first dream of Prasadal while aboard the Seed Drill, an Ocean-class GSV. The details of the dream itself were not important; what exercised her on waking was that it was the kind of dream she had always associated with home. She had had dreams like that about the royal palace in Pourl and the estate at Moiliou, about the Eighth in general and even — if you counted the dreams of the Hyeng-zhar — about Sursamen as a whole for the first few years after she’d come to the Culture, and always woken from them with a pang of homesickness, sometimes in tears.

Those had slowly disappeared to be replaced by dreams of other places where she’d lived, like the city of Klusse, on Gadampth Orbital, where she had begun her long introduction to, induction into and acceptance of the Culture. These were, sometimes, profound, affecting dreams in their own way, but they were never imbued with that feeling of loss and longing that indicated the place being dreamt about was home.

She blinked awake in the grey darkness of her latest cabin — a perfectly standard ration of space in a perfectly standard Ocean-class — and realised with a tiny amount of horror, a degree of grim humour and a modicum of ironic appreciation that just as she had started to realise that she might finally be happy to be away from and free of Sursamen and all that it had meant to her, she had been called back.

* * *

She nearly caught the ball. She didn’t, and it hit her on the right temple hard enough to cause a spike of pain. It would, she was sure, have floored anybody human-basic. With all her SC stuff still wired in she’d have dodged it or caught it one-handed easily. In fact, with her SC stuff still on line she could have jumped and caught it in her teeth. Instead, Whack!

She’d heard the ball coming, caught the most fleeting glimpse of it arcing towards her, but hadn’t been quite quick enough. The ball bounced off her head. She shook her head once, spread her feet wide and flexed her knees to make her more stable in case she might be about to topple, but she didn’t. The pain flicked off, cancelled. She rubbed her head and stooped to pick up the hard little ball — a crackball, so just a solid bit of wood, basically — and looked for who had thrown it. A guy sailed out of the group of people by the small bar she’d been passing on one of the outer balcony decks.

“You all right?” he asked.

She threw the ball to him on a soft, high trajectory. “Yes,” she told him.

He was a small, round, almost ball-like man himself, very dark and with extravagant hair. He caught the ball and stood weighing it in his hand. He smiled. “Somebody said you were SC, that’s all. I thought, well, let’s see, so I threw this at you. Thought you’d catch it, or duck or something.”

“Perhaps asking would have been more effective,” Djan Seriy suggested. Some of the people at the bar were looking at them.

“Sorry,” the man said, nodding at the side of her head.

“Accepted. Good-day.” She made to walk on.

“Will you let me make you a drink?”

“That won’t be necessary. Thank you, all the same.”

“Seriously. It would make me feel better.”

“Quite. No, thank you.”

“I make a very good Za’s Revenge. I’m something of an expert.”

“Really. What is a Za’s Revenge?”

“It’s a cocktail. Please, stay; have one with us.”

“Very well.”

She had a Za’s Revenge. It was very alcoholic. She let it affect her. The round man and his friends were Peace Faction people, from the part of the Culture that had split away at the start of the Idiran War, hundreds of years earlier, renouncing conflict altogether.

She stayed for more Za’s Revenges. Eventually the man admitted that, although he liked her and found her highly personable, he just didn’t like SC, which he referred to — rather sneeringly, Anaplian thought — as “the good ship We Know What’s Good For You”.

“It’s still violence,” he told her. “It’s still what we ought to be above.”

“It can be violent,” Anaplian acknowledged, nodding slowly. Most of the man’s friends had drifted off. Beyond the balcony deck, in the open air surrounding the GSV’s hull, a regatta for human-powered aircraft was taking place. It was all very gay and gaudy and seemed to involve a lot of fireworks.

“We should be above that. Do you see?”

“I see.”

“We’re strong enough as it is. Too strong. We can defend ourselves, be an example. No need to go interfering.”

“It is a compelling moral case you make,” Anaplian told the man solemnly.

“You’re taking the piss now.”

“No, I agree.”

“But you’re in SC. You interfere, you do all the dirty tricks stuff. You do, don’t you?”

“We do, I do.”

“So don’t fucking tell me it’s a compelling moral case then; don’t insult me.” The Peace Faction guy was quite aggressive. This amused her.

“That was not my intention,” she told him. “I was telling you — excuse me.” Anaplian took another sip of her drink. “I was telling you I agree with what you say but not to the point of acting differently. One of the first things they teach you in SC, or…” She belched delicately. “Excuse me. Or get you to teach yourself, is not to be too sure, always to be prepared to acknowledge that there is an argument for not doing the things that we do.”

“But you still do them.”

“But we still do them.”

“It shames us all.”

“You are entitled to your view.”

“And you to yours, but your actions contaminate me in a way that mine do not contaminate you.”

“You are right, but then you are of the Peace Faction, and so not really the same.”

“We’re all still Culture. We’re the real Culture, and you’re the cancerous offspring, grown bigger than the host and more dangerous than when we split, but you resemble us well enough to make us all look the same to others. They see one entity, not different factions. You make us look bad.”

“I see your point. We guilt you. I apologise.”

“You ‘guilt’ us? This some new SC-speak?”

“No, old Sarl-speak. My people sometimes use odds wordly. Words oddly.” Anaplian put her hand to her mouth, giggling.

“You should be ashamed,” the man said sadly. “Really we’re no better — you’re no better — than the savages. They always find excuses to justify their crimes, too. The point is not to commit them in the first place.”

“I do see your point. I really do.”

“So be ashamed then. Tell me you’re ashamed.”

“We are,” Anaplian assured him. “Constantly. Still, we can prove that it works. The interfering and the dirty-tricking; it works. Salvation is in statistics.”

“I wondered when we’d get to that,” the man said, smiling sourly and nodding. “The unquestioned catechism of Contact, of SC. That old nonsense, that irrelevance.”

“Is not nonsense. Nor… It is truth.”

The man got down from his bar stool. He was shaking his head. This made his wild fawn hair go in all directions, floatily. Most distracting. “There’s just nothing we can do,” he said sadly, or maybe angrily, “is there? Nothing that’ll change you. You’ll just keep doing all that shit until it collapses down around you, around us, or until enough of everybody sees the real truth, not fucking statistics. Till then, there’s just nothing we can do.”

“You can’t fight us,” Anaplian said, and laughed.

“Hilarious.”

“Sorry. That was cheap. I apologise. Profusely.”

The man shook his head again. “However much,” he said, “it’ll never be enough. Good-day.” He walked off.

Anaplian watched him go.

She wanted to tell him that it was all okay, that there was nothing really to worry about, that the universe was a terrible, utterly uncaring place and then people came along and added suffering and injustice to the mix as well and it was all so much worse than he could imagine and she knew because she had studied it and lived it, even if just a little. You could make it better but it was a messy process and then you just had to try — you were obliged, duty-bound to try — to be sure that you did the right thing. Sometimes that meant using SC, and, well, there you were. She scratched her head.

Anyway, of course they worried they were doing the wrong thing. Everybody she’d ever met in SC entertained such thoughts. And of course they satisfied themselves they were doing the right thing. Obviously they must, or they wouldn’t be in SC doing what they were doing in the first place, would they?

Maybe he knew all this anyway. Part of her suspected that the guy was an SC agent too, or something similar; part of Contact, perhaps, or somebody sent by the ship, or by one of the Minds overseeing the Morthanveld situation, just to be on the safe side. Nearly cracking her skull with a solid wooden ball was one crude way of checking she had been properly disarmed.

She left the final Za’s Revenge sitting on the bar, undrunk. “We’re all the fucking Peace Faction, you prick,” she muttered as she staggered away.

* * *

Before she left the Seed Drill she researched what was known about recent events on the Eighth, Sursamen. She did some of the investigating herself and sent agents — crude, temporary personality constructs — into the dataverse to search for more.

She was looking for detailed news but also for any hint that the Sarl might be more closely observed. Too many sophisticated civilisations seemed to believe that the very primitiveness of less developed cultures — and the high levels of violence usually associated with such societies — somehow automatically gave them the right to spy on them. Even for societies some way down the civilisational tech-order, cascade-production of machines to make machines that made other machines meant it was effectively a materially cost-free decision. The resulting cloud of devices could each be as small as a grain of dust and yet together they could, with the back-up of a few larger units in space, blanket-surveille an entire planet and transmit in excruciating detail almost anything that went on almost anywhere.

There were treaties and agreements to limit this sort of behaviour, but these usually only covered the galaxy’s more mature and settled societies, as well as those directly under their control or in their thrall; the relevant tech was like a new toy for those recently arrived at the great Involved table of the galactic meta-civilisation and tended to get used with enthusiasm for a while.

Societies which had only recently renounced the chronic use of force and resort to war — often reluctantly — were usually the most keen to watch those for whom such behaviour was still routine. One of the last-resort methods of dealing with those displaying such voyeurism was to turn their own devices against them, scooping the surveillance machines up from wherever they had been scattered, fiddling with their software and then infesting the worlds of their creators with them, concentrating on the homes and favoured recreational facilities of the powerful. This usually did the trick.

The peoples living within Sursamen, especially those like the Sarl, who would have been both unsuspecting of and defenceless against such conceited oversight, were amongst those supposedly protected against its depredations. But just because something wasn’t public didn’t mean it wasn’t happening. The Culture had one of the most open and inclusive dataverse structures in the galaxy but even it didn’t see or know everything. There were still plenty of private, hidden things going on. As a rule you got to hear of them eventually, but by then the damage had usually been done.

From the Eighth, though, so far; nothing. Either nobody was spying, or if they were they were keeping very quiet about it. The Morthanveld were easily capable, but too proud, law-abiding and anyway disdainful (much like the Culture, then); the Nariscene probably thought themselves above such behaviour too, and the Oct, well, the Oct didn’t really seem to care about anything other than pushing their claim to be the true Inheritors of the Veil legacy.

Even routine accessing of the Oct parts of the dataverse meant having to suffer a recorded lecture on the history of the galaxy according to the Oct, the whole point of which was to highlight the similarities between the Veil and the Oct and emphasise what a good claim the Oct had on the Involucra’s estate. To the Oct this inheritance obviously included both the Shellworlds themselves and the respect they felt ought to come attached, respect they rightly felt they were not being accorded. The Culture’s interface software just as routinely filtered this nonsense out — the Oct claim was strong only according to themselves; the vast majority of trusted scholars, backed by some pretty unimpeachable evidence, held that the Oct were a relatively recent species, quite unrelated to the Veil — but it was always there.

The Oct did watch over the Sarl, but very patchily, infrequently and — by agreement — with centimetre-scale devices; things big enough for a human to see. Usually these were attached to machines manned by Oct: scendships, aircraft, ground vehicles and the environment suits they wore.

There wasn’t much material publicly available from the last few hundreds of days, but there was some. Djan Seriy watched recordings of the great battle which had decided the fate of the Deldeyn, on the land around the Xiliskine Tower. The commentary and accompanying data, such as they were, suggested that the Aultridia had taken over the relevant sections of the Tower and transported the Deldeyn forces into a position where they could carry out their sneak attack on the Sarl heartlands. An SC-flagged data-end appended to the recording suggested Aultridian involvement was a lie; the Oct had been in charge.

All the recordage was from the latter part of the battle, and taken from static positions well above the action, probably from the Tower itself. She wondered if somewhere in what she was looking at there was detail of her father being wounded, and of whatever fate had overtaken Ferbin. She tried to zoom in, thinking to instruct an agent to look for anything relevant, but the recording was too coarse and lost detail well before individuals on the battlefield could be recognised.

She watched — again as though from on high, though this time the cameras were mounted on something flying — as the Sarl forces, now under Mertis tyl Loesp, crossed a canal in the desert near the Hyeng-zhar, its tall mists in the hazy distance, and saw their final short siege and shorter attack on Rasselle, the Deldeyn capital city.

That seemed to be all; a proper news report or docu-feature would have included victory celebrations in Pourl, tyl Loesp accepting the surrender of the Deldeyn commander, piles of dead bodies consigned to pits, banners going up in flames or the tears of the inconsolable bereaved, but the Oct hadn’t thought to get even remotely artistic or judgemental.

Just the sort of enthrallingly primitive, barbaric but dashing war comfortably positioned people liked to hear about, Anaplian thought. It was almost a pity nobody had thought to record it in all its gory detail.

A rapidly expanding but almost entirely vapid cloud of comment, analysis, speculation and exploitation was attached to the Oct recording through the news and current affairs organisations which took an interest in such events. Many Shellworld and Sursamen scholars — there were even people who regarded themselves as Eighth scholars, Sarl scholars — bemoaned the lack of decent data, leaving so much to speculation. For others, this lack of detail seemed to be merely an opportunity; offers to play war games based on the recent events were appended. Entertainments inspired by the recent thrilling events were also in preparation, or indeed already available.

Djan Seriy shivered in her couch by a fragrant poolside (splashing, laughter, the warmth of light on her skin) as she lay there, eyes closed, watching, experiencing all of this. She felt suddenly as she had right at the start of her involvement with the Culture, back in the shockingly confusing early days when everything seemed like bedlam and clash. This was all just too much to take in; at once far too close to home and utterly, horribly, invasively alien compared to it.

She would leave her agents running within the dataverse, in case there was some more directly observed stuff, and it was just well hidden.

Welcome to the future, she thought, surveying all this wordage and tat. All our tragedies and triumphs, our lives and deaths, our shames and joys are just stuffing for your emptiness.

She was being melodramatic, she decided. She checked there was no more of use to watch, clicked out, stood up and went to join in a noisy game of pool tag.

* * *

One ship, another ship. From the Seed Drill she was passed on to the GCU You Naughty Monsters. Another baton-like transmissal took her to the Xenoglossicist, an Air-class Limited System Vehicle. On her last night aboard there was an all-crews dance party; she threw herself into the wild music and wilder dancing like one abandoned.

The last Culture ship to carry her before she entered the Morthanveld domain was called You’ll Clean That Up Before You Leave, a Gangster-class Very Fast Picket and ex-Rapid Offensive Unit.

She still hated the silly names.

<p>17. Departures</p>

Oramen woke to the sound of a thousand bells, blown temple horns, manufactury sirens, carriage hooters and just-audible mass cheering and knew immediately that the war must be over, and won. He looked about. He was in a gambling and whore house known as Botrey’s, in the city’s Schtip district. There was a shape in the bedclothes beside him which belonged to the girl whose name he would remember shortly.

Droffo, his new equerry, who was newly married and determinedly faithful, chose to turn a blind eye to Oramen’s whoring so long as it was carried out in gambling or drinking houses; an honest bordello he would not even contemplate entering. His new servant, Neguste Puibive, had, before he’d left the farm, promised his mother he would never pay for sex and was dutifully honouring this commitment to the letter, though not beyond; he had been modestly successful in persuading some of the more generous girls to extend their favours to him out of simple kindness, as well as sympathy for one who had made such a well-meant if hopelessly naïve promise.

Oramen’s absences from court had not gone unnoticed or unremarked. Just the morning before, at a formal late breakfast reception given by Harne, the lady Aelsh, to welcome her latest astrologer — Oramen had already successfully forgotten the fellow’s name — Renneque, accompanied by and arm-in-arm with Ramile, the pretty young thing Oramen remembered from Harne’s earlier party with the various actors and philosophisers, had scolded him.

“Why, it’s that young fellow!” she had exclaimed upon seeing him. “Look, Ramile! I recall that pretty face, if not the name after so long apart. How d’you do, sir? My name’s Renneque. Yours?”

He’d smiled. “Ladies Renneque, Ramile. How good to see you again. Have I been remiss?”

Renneque sniffed. “I’ll say. Most unfathomably. I declare there are those absent at the war who’re more often at court than you, Oramen. Are we so boring you avoid us, prince?”

“Absolutely not. On the contrary. I determined myself to be so ineffably tedious I thought to remove myself from our most quotidian conduct in the hope of making myself seem more contrastedly interesting to you when we do meet.”

Renneque was still thinking this through when Ramile smiled slyly at Oramen but to Renneque said, “I think the prince finds other ladies more to his liking, elsewhere.”

“Does he, now?” Renneque asked, feigning innocence.

Oramen smiled an empty smile.

“It may be we are not wanted,” Ramile suggested.

Renneque raised her delicate chin. “Indeed. Perhaps we are not good enough for the prince,” she said.

“Or it may be we are too good for him,” Ramile mused.

“How could that be?” Oramen asked, for want of anything better.

“It’s true,” Renneque agreed, taking a tighter hold of her companion’s arm. “Some prize availability over virtue, I’ve heard.”

“And a tongue loosened by money rather than moved by wit,” Ramile offered.

Oramen felt his face flush. “While some,” he said, “trust an honest harlot over the most apparently virtuous and courtly of women.”

Some might, out of sheer perversity,” said Renneque, whose eyes had widened at the word ‘harlot’. “Though whether a man of judgement and honour would term one of those females ‘honest’ in the first place might give rise to some controversy.”

“One’s values, like so much else, might become infected in such company,” Ramile suggested, and tossed her pretty head and long flow of tight blonde curls.

“I meant, ladies,” Oramen said, “that a whore takes her reward there and then, and seeks no further advancement.” This time, as he said “whore”, both Renneque and Ramile looked startled. “She loves for money and makes no lie of it. That is honest. There are those, however, who’d offer any favour seemingly for nothing, but would later expect a very great deal of a young man with some prospect of advancement.”

Renneque stared at him as though he’d lost his mind. Her mouth opened, perhaps to say something. Ramile’s expression changed the most, altering quickly from something like anger back to that sly look, then taking on a small, knowing smile.

“Come away, Renneque,” she said, drawing the other woman back with her arm. “The prince mistakes us grievously, as though in a fever. We’d best withdraw to let the blush subside, and lest we catch it too.”

They turned away as one, noses in the air.

He regretted his rudeness almost immediately, but too late, he felt, to make amends. He supposed he was already a little upset; that morning’s mail had delivered a letter from his mother, all the way from far-distant Kheretesuhr, telling him that she was heavily pregnant by her new husband and had been advised by her doctors not to travel great distances. So to voyage all the way to court, to Pourl, was unthinkable. A new husband? he’d thought. Pregnant? Heavily pregnant, so that it was no recent thing? He’d heard nothing of this, nothing of either. She had not thought to tell him anything. The date on the letter was weeks past; it had suffered some serious delay in finding him, or had lain unposted.

He felt hurt, cheated somehow, as well as jealous and oddly spurned. He still was not sure how to respond. It had even crossed his mind that it might be best not to reply at all. Part of him wanted to do just that, so letting his mother wonder at not being kept informed, making her feel uncared-for, as she had made him feel.

Even while he was still lying there listening to the distant sounds of triumph, trying to work out exactly what he felt about the war’s victorious conclusion and puzzling over the fact that his immediate reaction was somehow not one of utter and untrammelled joy, Neguste Puibive, his servant, ran into the room and stopped, breathless, at the foot of the bed. Luzehl, the girl Oramen had spent the night with, was waking up too, rubbing her eyes and looking dubiously at Puibive, a tall, wide-eyed, buck-toothed boy fresh from the country. He was full of enthusiasm and good will and had the uncommon ability of looking gangly even while asleep.

“Sir!” he shouted. He noticed Luzehl and blushed. “Begging both your pardons, sir, young lady!” He gulped air. “Sir! Still begging your pardon, sir, but the war is finished, sir, and we are victorious! The news is just arrived! Tyl Loesp, great Werreber, they — all Sarl — are triumphant! What a great day! Sorry to have intruded, sir! I’ll extrude now, sir!”

“Neguste, hold,” Oramen said, as the youth — a year older than Oramen but often seeming younger — turned and made to go, tripping over his own feet as he did so and stumbling again as he turned back on Oramen’s command. He sorted himself out and stood, at attention, looking blinking at Oramen, who asked, “Is there any more detail, Neguste?”

“I heard the great news from a one-armed parliamentarian constable charged with shouting it to the rooftops, sir, and he wore a cocked hat. The lady from the infusions bar across the road near fainted when she heard and wished her sons a safely speedy return, sir!”

Oramen stifled a laugh. “Detail within the report of the victory itself, Neguste.”

“Nothing further, sir! Just we are victorious, the capital city of the Deldeyn is taken, their king is dead by his own hand and our brave boys have triumphed, sir! And tyl Loesp and mighty Werreber are safe! Casualties have been light. Oh! And the Deldeyn capital is to be renamed Hausk City, sir!” Neguste beamed with pleasure at this. “That’s a fine thing, eh, sir?”

“Fine indeed,” Oramen said and lay back smiling. As he’d listened to Neguste’s breathless delivery he’d felt his mood improve and gradually begin to resemble what he’d have hoped it would have been from the start. “Thank you, Neguste,” he told the lad. “You may go.”

“Pleasure do soing, sir!” Neguste said. He had yet to come up with a reliable and consistent phrase suitable for such moments. He turned without tripping, found the door successfully and closed it behind him. He barged back in a heartbeat later. “And!” he exclaimed. “A telegraphical letter, sir! Just delivered.” He took the sealed envelope from his apron, handed it to Oramen and retreated.

Luzehl yawned. “Is it really over then?” she asked as Oramen broke the seal and opened the folded sheet.

Oramen nodded slowly. “So it would seem.” He smiled at the girl and started swinging his legs out of the bed as he read. “I’d better get to the palace.”

Luzehl stretched out, tossed her long, black, entangledly curled hair and looked insulted. “Immediately, prince?”

The telegram brought news that he had a new half-brother. It had been written not by Aclyn herself but by her principal lady-in-waiting. The birth had been protracted and difficult — not surprising, it was stated, given the lady Blisk’s relatively mature age — but mother and child were recovering. That was all.

“Yes, immediately,” Oramen said, shrugging off the girl’s hand.

* * *

The heat around the Hyeng-zhar had grown oppressive; two suns — the Rollstars Clissens and Natherley — stood high in the sky and vied to squeeze the most sweat out of a man. Soon, in this water-purged extremity, if the star-watchers and weather sages were to be believed, the land would be plunged into near total darkness for nearly fifty short-days and a sudden winter would ensue, turning the river and the Falls into ice.

Tyl Loesp looked out over the vast tiered, segmented cataract of the Hyeng-zhar, blinking sweat out of his eyes, and wondered that such colossal, booming energy and such furious heat could be quieted, stilled and chilled so soon by the mere absence of passing stars. And yet the scientists said it was going to happen and indeed seemed quite excited about it, and the records talked of such happenings in the past, so it must be so. He wiped his brow. Such heat. He’d be glad to be under the water.

* * *

Rasselle, the Deldeyn capital city, had fallen easily in the end. After a lot of whining from Werreber and some of the other senior army people — and some evidence that the low-order troops were unaccountably coy on the matter of putting captured Deldeyn to death — tyl Loesp had rescinded the general order regarding the taking of prisoners and the sacking of cities.

In retrospect, he ought to have pressed Hausk to have demonised the Deldeyn more. Chasque had been enthusiastic and together they had tried to convince Hausk the attitude of the soldiery and the populace would be improved if they could be made to hate the Deldeyn with a visceral conviction, but the King had, typically, been overcautious. Hausk distinguished between the Deldeyn as a people on the one hand and their high command and corrupt nobility on the other, and even allowed that they might altogether constitute an honourable foe. He would, in any event, need to govern them once they had been defeated, and people nursing a justified grievance against a murderously inclined occupier made peaceful, productive rule impossible. On this purely practical issue he judged massacre wasteful and even contrary as a method of control. Fear lasted a week, anger a year and resentment a lifetime, he’d held. Not if you kept fuelling that fear with every passing day, tyl Loesp had countered, but had been overruled.

“Better grudging respect than terrified submission,” Hausk had told him, clapping him on the shoulder after the discussion that had finally decided the matter. Tyl Loesp had bitten back his reply.

Following Hausk’s death there had not been sufficient time to turn the Deldeyn into the hated, inhuman objects of fear and contempt tyl Loesp thought they ought to have been from the start, though he had done his best to begin the process.

In any event, he had subsequently been left with no choice but to step back from the adamantine harshness of his earlier decrees on the taking of prisoners and cities, but drew comfort from the thought that a good commander always stood ready to modify his tactics and strategy as circumstances changed, so long as each step along the way led towards his ultimate goal.

He had, anyway, turned the situation to his advantage, he reckoned, letting it be known that this new leniency was his gift to the soldiers of the Eighth and the people of the Ninth, graciously and mercifully countermanding the severity of action Hausk had demanded from his deathbed to avenge his killing.

* * *

Savidius Savide, who was the Oct Peripatetic Special Envoy of Extraordinary Objectives Among Useful Aboriginals, watched as the human called tyl Loesp swam and was guided to the place prepared for him in the roving scendship’s receiving chamber.

The scendship was one of a rare class capable of both flight in air and underwater travel as well as the more normal vertical journeys within the vacuum of Towers. It was holding station in the relatively deep water of Sulpitine’s main channel two kilometres above the lip of the Hyeng-zhar cataract. The human tyl Loesp had been brought out to the submerged craft in a small submarine cutter. He was dressed in an air suit and was obviously unused to such attire, and uncomfortable. He was floated into a bracket seat across the receiving chamber from where Savide floated and shown how to anchor himself against the bracket’s shoulder braces using buoyancy. Then the Oct guard withdrew. Savide caused a membrane-buffered air channel to form between him and the human so that they could speak with something approaching their own voices.

“Tyl Loesp. And, welcome.”

“Envoy Savide,” the human replied, tentatively opening his face mask into the air-tunnel rippling between them. He waited a few moments, then said, “You wished to see me.” Tyl Loesp smiled, though he’d always wondered if this expression actually meant anything to an Oct. He found the suit he had to wear strange and awkward; its air smelled of something vaguely unpleasant, burned. The odd, worm-like tube that had extended from the envoy’s mouth parts to his own face brought with it an additional scent of fish just starting to rot. At least it was pleasantly cool here inside the Oct ship.

He looked round the chamber while he waited for the Oct to answer. The space was spherical or very close to it, its single wall studded with silvery spiracles and ornate, tiered studs. The sort of upside-down shoulder-seat he was attached to was one of the chamber’s plainer pieces of ornamentation.

He still resented having to be here; summoned like a vassal, when he had just taken over an entire level. Savidius Savide might have come to see him, to pay tribute to his success, in the Great Palace at Rasselle (which was magnificent; it made the palace at Pourl look plain). Instead he had had to come to the Oct. Secrecy in such matters had been the order so far and Savidius Savide obviously had no intention of changing this in the short term, whatever his reasons were. The Oct, tyl Loesp had to own, knew more of what was really going on here than he did, and so had to be indulged.

He would like to think that he had been called here finally to learn what the last few years had all been about, but he was under no illusions regarding the Oct ability to obscure, prevaricate and confuse. He still had the very faint suspicion that the Oct had overseen this entire enterprise on a whim, or for some minor reason they had subsequently forgotten, though even they would surely hesitate to engineer the transferral of an entire Shellworld level from one group to another without outside permission and without having a good reason, would they not? But see, here; the envoy’s little blue mouth parts were working and a couple of his orange arm-legs were moving and so he was about to speak!

“The Deldeyn lands are controlled now,” Savidius Savide said, his voice expressed as a low gurgle.

“They are indeed. Rasselle is secure. Order barely broke down at all but to the extent that it did, it has been restored. Every other part of the Deldeyn kingdom, including the principalities, provinces, Curbed Lands and outlying imperial satrapies are under our control, through either physical occupation by our forces or — in the case of the furthest and least important colonies — the unconditional acquiescence of their most senior officials.”

“Then all may rejoice in said. The Sarl may join the Oct, Inheritors of the mantle of those who made the Shellworlds, in justified celebration.”

Tyl Loesp chose to assume he had just been congratulated. “Thank you,” he said.

“All are pleased.”

“I’m sure they are. And I would thank the Oct for your help in this. It has been invaluable. Inscrutable, too, but invaluable, beyond doubt. Even dear, late King Hausk was known to concede that we might have struggled to overcome the Deldeyn without you being, in effect, on our side.” Tyl Loesp paused. “I have often asked myself what the reason might be that you have been so forthcoming with your advice and aid. So far I have been unable to come to any satisfactory conclusion.”

“In celebration is found that of explicatory nature, only rarely. The nature of celebration is ecstatic, mysteriously ebullient, detaching full reason, hence betokening some confusion.” The Oct drew breath, or whatever liquidic equivalent it was that Oct drew. “Explication must not become obstruction, deflection,” Savidius Savide added. “Final understanding remaining incentive is most fruitful use available.”

Some small amount of time passed during which the long silvery-looking tube of air joining them gently bobbed and slowly writhed, some lazy little bubbles wobbled their way upwards from the base of the spherical chamber, a sequence of dull, deep and distant whirring noises sounded through the enveloping water and tyl Loesp worked out what the Peripatetic Special Envoy had meant.

“I’m sure it is just as you say, Savide,” he agreed eventually.

“And, see!” the Envoy said, gesturing with two legs at a bunched semi-sphere of screens glittering into being, each projected by one of the shining spires protruding from the chamber’s wall. The scenes displayed on the screens — as far as tyl Loesp could discern them through the intervening water — showed various important and famous parts of the Deldeyn kingdom. Tyl Loesp thought he could make out Sarl soldiers patrolling the edge of the Hyeng-zhar cataract and Sarl banners fluttering above the Great Towers of Rasselle. There were more flags shown at the side of the crater caused by the fallstar Heurimo and silhouetted against the vast white pillar of steam cloud rising forever above the Boiling Sea of Yakid. “It is as you say!” Savidius Savide sounded happy. “Rejoice in such trust! All are pleased!” the Oct envoy repeated.

“How splendid,” tyl Loesp said, as the screens blinked out.

“Agreement is agreeable, agreed,” Savide informed him. He had risen slightly above the station he had been keeping until now. A tiny belch or fart from somewhere behind his mid-torso sent a shoal of tiny silver bubbles trembling upwards, and helped re-establish the envoy’s position in the waters of the chamber.

Tyl Loesp took a deep, tentative breath. “May we speak plainly?”

“No better form is known. Severally, specifically.”

“Quite,” tyl Loesp said. “Envoy; why did you help us?”

“Help you, the Sarl, to defeat they, the Deldeyn?”

“Yes. And why the emphasis on the Falls?”

There was silence for a few moments. Then the Oct said, “For reasons.”

“What reasons?”

“Most excellent ones.”

Tyl Loesp nearly smiled. “Which you will not tell me.”

“Will not, indeed. Equally, cannot. In time, such restrictions change, as with all things changing. Power over others is the least and most of powers, betruth. To balance such great success with transient lack of same is fit. Fitness may not be beheld by subject, but, as object, needs be trust’s invoked. In this: trust to wait.”

Tyl Loesp regarded the Oct hanging in the water a few metres in front of him for a while. So much done, yet always so much still to do. He had that day received a coded report from Vollird telling of the valiant and daring attempt he and Baerth had made on the life of “Our Fugitive” while on the Surface, only to be frustrated at the last moment by alien devil-machinery. They had had to reconcile to second-best, ensuring said person left most expeditiously, sailing away into the night between the eternal stars, terrified and lucky to be alive.

Tyl Loesp didn’t doubt Vollird exaggerated the worth of his and Baerth’s actions; however, killing Ferbin amongst the Optimae, or even the Optimae’s immediate inferiors, had always been a tall order and he would not overly censure the two knights. He’d have preferred Ferbin dead, but absent would do. Still, what mischief might he stir out among the alien races? Would he loudly declaim himself the wronged and rightful heir to all who’d listen, or sneak to his allegedly influential sister?

Things were never settled, it seemed to tyl Loesp. No matter how decisively one acted, no matter how ruthless one was, loose ends remained and even the most conclusive of actions left a welter of ramifications, any of which — it seemed, sometimes, especially when one woke, fretful, in the middle of the night and such potential troubles appeared magnified — might harbinge disaster. He sighed, then said, “I intend to rid us of the Mission monks. They get in the way and restrict more than they aid and enable. I shall follow an opposite course in the capital. We need the remains of the army and militia; however, I think it best they are balanced with some other faction and propose the Heavenly Host sect as that counterweight. They have a self-lacerating quality about their teachings which ought to chime with the current Deldeyn mood of self-blame following their defeat. Some heads will roll, obviously.”

“To that which must be attended, so devote. Is meet, and like.”

“So long as you know. I intend to go back to Pourl, for a triumph, and to return treasure and hostages. In time I may remain in Rasselle. And there are those I’d have near. I shall need a reliable and continually available line of supply and communication between here and the Eighth. May I count on that?”

“The scendships and autoscenders so devoted remain so. As in the recent past, so in the near future and — with all appropriate contextualisationing — foreseeable beyond.”

“I have the scendships already allocated? They are mine to command?”

“To request. The all flatters their likely or possible use. As needs be, so shall their presence.”

“As long as I can get up and down that Tower, back to the Eighth, back to here, at any time, quickly.”

“This is not within dispute. I determine no less, personally. Thus asked, so give, allowed and with pleasure is beinged.”

Tyl Loesp thought about all this for a while. “Yes,” he said. “Well, I’m glad that’s clear.”

* * *

Steam tugs towing barges took the whole contingent of monks — the entirety of the Hyeng-zharia Mission, from most lowly latrine boy to the Archipontine himself — away from their life’s work. Tyl Loesp, fresh returned from his frustrating audience with the envoy, watched the loading and went with the lead tug, which was towing the three barges containing the Archipontine and all the higher ranks of the order. They were crossing the Sulpitine, a kilometre or so upriver from the nearest part of the vast semicircle of the Falls. The monks had been relieved of their duty; they were all being taken across the river to the small town of Far Landing, a movable port always kept some four or five kilometres upstream from the cataract.

Tyl Loesp stayed under the shade of the lead tug’s stern awning, and still had to use a kerchief to wipe at his brow and temples now and again. The suns hung in the sky, an anvil and a hammer of heat, striking together, inescapable. The area of real shade, hidden from both Rollstars, was minimal, even under the broad awning. Around him, the men of his Regent’s Guard watched the swirling brown waters of the river and sometimes raised their glistening heads to look up at the gauzy froth of off-white clouds that piled into the sky beyond the lip of the Falls. The sound of the cataract was dull, and so ever-present that it was easy not to notice it was there at all most of the time, filling the languid, heat-flattened air with a strange, underwater-sounding rumble heard with the guts and lungs and bones as much as through the ears.

The six tugs and twenty barges tracked across the quick current, making a couple of kilometres towards the distant shore though only increasing their distance from the Falls by two hundred metres or so as they fought against the river’s fast-flowing mid-section. The tugs’ engines chuffed and growled. Smoke and steam belched from their tall stacks, drifting over the dun river in faded-looking double shadows barely darker than the sandy-coloured river itself. The vessels smelled of steam and roasoaril oil. Their engineers came up on to deck whenever they could, to escape the furnace heat below for the cooler furnace of the river breeze.

The water roiled and burst and tumbled about the boats like something alive, like whole shoals of living things, forever surfacing and diving and surfacing again with a kind of lazy insolence. On the barges, a hundred strides behind, under makeshift awnings and shades, the monks sat and lay and stood, the sight of their massed white robes hurting the eye.

When the small fleet of boats was in the very middle of the stream and each shore looked as far away as the other — they were barely visible at all in the heat haze, just a horizoned sensation of something darker than the river and a few tall trees and shimmering spires — tyl Loesp himself took a two-hand hammer to the pin securing the towing rope to the tug’s main running shackle. The pin fell, clattering loudly across the thick wooden deck. The loop of rope slithered drily over the deck — quite slowly at first but gathering a little speed as it went — before the loop itself flipped up over the transom and disappeared with hardly a sound into the busy brown bulges of the river.

The tug surged ahead appreciably and altered course to go directly upstream. Tyl Loesp looked out to the other tugs, to make sure their tow ropes were also being unhitched. He watched the ropes flip over the sterns of all the tugs until every one was powering away upstream, released, waves surging and splashing round bluff bows.

It was some time before the monks on the barges realised what was happening. Tyl Loesp was never really sure if he actually heard them start to wail and cry and scream, or whether he had imagined it.

They should be glad, he thought. The Falls had been their lives; let them be their deaths. What more had the obstructive wretches ever really wanted?

He had trusted men stationed downstream from the cataract’s main plunge pools. They would also take care of any monks who survived the plunge, though going on the historical record, even if you sent a thousand monks over the Falls it was unlikely one would survive.

All but one of the barges just vanished in the haze, falling out of sight, disappointing. One, however, must have struck a rock or outcrop right at the lip of the Falls, its stem tipping high into the air in a most dramatic and satisfying manner before it slid and dropped away.

On the way back to port, one of the tugs broke down, its engine giving up in a tall burst of steam from its chimney; two of its fellows put ropes to it and rescued vessel and surviving crew before they too fell victim to the Falls.

* * *

Tyl Loesp stood on a gantry like a half-finished bridge levered out over the edge of the nearpole cliff looking across the Hyeng-zhar, most of which was, frustratingly, obscured by mist and cloud. A man called Jerfin Poatas — elderly, hunched, dark-dressed and leaning on a stick — stood by his side. Poatas was a Sarl scholar and archaeologist who had devoted his life to the study of the Falls and had lived here — in the great, eternally temporary, forever shuffling-forward city of Hyeng-zhar Settlement — for twenty of his thirty long-years. It had long been acknowledged that he owed his loyalty to study and knowledge rather than any country or state, though that had not prevented him being briefly interned by the Deldeyn at the height of their war against the Sarl. With the monks of the Hyeng-zharia Mission gone he was now, by tyl Loesp’s decree, in full charge of the excavations.

“The brethren were cautious, conservative, as any good archaeologist is at an excavation,” Poatas told tyl Loesp. He had to raise his voice to be heard over the thunderous roar of the Falls. Spray swirled up now and again in great spiralling veils and deposited water droplets on their faces. “But they took such caution too far. A normal dig waits; one can afford to be careful. One proceeds with all due deliberation, noting all, investigating all, preserving and recording the place-in-sequence of all discovered finds. This is not a normal dig, and waits for nothing and no one. It will freeze soon and make life easier, if colder, for a while, but even then the brethren were determined to do as they had in the past and suspend all excavations while the Falls were frozen, due to some surfeit of piety. Even the King refused to intervene.” Poatas laughed. “Can you imagine? The one time in the solar-meteorological cycle — in a lifetime — when the Falls are at their most amenable to exploration and excavation and they intended to halt it all!” Poatas shook his head. “Cretins.”

“Just so,” tyl Loesp said. “Well, they rule here no more. I expect great things from this place, Poatas,” he told the other man, turning briefly to him. “By your own reports this is a treasure house whose potential the monks consistently downplayed and underexploited.”

“A treasure house which they resolutely refused to explore properly,” Poatas said, nodding. “A treasure house most of whose doors were left unopened, or were left to the privateers, little more than licensed brigands, to open. With sufficient men, that can all be changed. There’s many a Falls Merchant Explorer who’ll howl with rage to be denied the continuance of their easy stipend, but that is to the good. Even they grew arrogant and lazy, and lately, in my lifetime, more concerned with keeping others out of their concessions than fully exploiting them themselves.” Poatas looked sharply at tyl Loesp as the wind began to change. “There’s no guarantee of finding the sort of treasure you might be thinking of here, tyl Loesp. Wonder weapons from the past that will command the future are a myth. Quell that thought if it’s what exercises you.” He paused. Tyl Loesp said nothing. The veered wind was blowing a hot, desert-dry stream of air across them now, and the clouds and mists were beginning to shift and part before them in the great, still mostly unglimpsed gorge. “But whatever’s here to be found, we’ll find, and if it needs ripping out of some building the brethren of the Mission would have left intact, then so be it. All this can be done. If I have enough men.”

“You’ll have men,” tyl Loesp told him. “Half an army. My army. And others. Some little more than slaves, but they’ll work to keep their bellies full.”

The clouds throughout the vast complexity confronting them were rolling away from the new wind, lifting and dissipating at once.

“Slaves do not make the best workers. And who will command this army, this army which will like as not expect to go home to their loved ones now they think their job’s done here? You? You return to the Eighth, do you not?”

“The armies are well used to foreign travel and distant billets; however, I shall — in prudent portions, leaving nowhere unmanned — so allowance them with loot and easy return they’ll either beg to see the Ninth again or be each one a most zealous recruiting sergeant for their younger brothers. For myself, I return to Pourl only briefly. I intend to spend half each year or more in Rasselle.”

“It is the traditional seat of power, and of infinite elegance compared to our poor, ever-onward-tramping township here, but whether by train or caude it is two days away. More in bad weather.”

“Well, we shall have the telegraph line soon, and while I am not present you have my authority here, Poatas. I offer you complete power over the entire Falls, in my name.” Tyl Loesp waved one hand dismissively. “In bookish legality it may be in the name of the Prince Regent, but he is still little more than a boy. For the moment — and it may, in time, seem a long moment — his future power is mine now, entirely. You understand me?”

Poatas smiled parsimoniously. “My whole life and every work has taught me there is a natural order to things, a rightful stratification of authority and might. I work with it, sir, never seek to overthrow it.”

“Good,” tyl Loesp said. “That is as well. I have in addition thought to provide you with a titular head of excavations, someone I’d rather have quite near to me but not at my side, when I’m in Rasselle. Indeed, their presence here might aid the recruitment of many a Sarl.”

“But they would be above me?”

“In theory. Not in effect. I emphasise: their seniority to yourself will be most strictly honorary.”

“And who would this person be?” Poatas asked.

“Why, the very one we just talked of. My charge, the Prince Regent, Oramen.”

“Is that wise? You say he’s a boy. The Falls can be a pestilential place, and the Settlement a lawless, dangerous one, especially with the brethren gone.”

Tyl Loesp shrugged. “We must pray the WorldGod keeps him safe. And I have in mind a couple of knights I intend to make the essence of his personal guard. They will take all care of him.”

Poatas thought for a moment, nodding, and wiped a little moisture from the stick he leant on. “Will he come?” he asked doubtfully, looking out towards the great, gradually revealing spaces of the Hyeng-zhar’s awesomely complicated, twenty-kilometre-wide gorge of recession.

Tyl Loesp looked out to the gorge complex, and smiled. He had never been here until their armies had invaded and — having heard so much about its peerless beauty and fabulous, humbling grandeur from so many people — had been determined not to be impressed when he did finally see the place. The Hyeng-zhar, however, seemed to have had other ideas. He had indeed been stunned, awestruck, rendered speechless.

He had seen it from various different angles over the past week or so, including from the air, on a lyge (though only from on high, and only in the company of experienced Falls-fliers, and still he could entirely understand why it was such a dangerous place to fly; the urge to explore, to descend and see better was almost irresistible, and knowing that so many people had died doing just that, caught in the tremendous rolling currents of air and vapour issuing from the Falls, hauling them helplessly down to their deaths, seemed like an irrelevance).

Poatas himself expressed some astonishment at the Falls’ latest show. Truly, they had never been more spectacular, certainly not in his life, and, from all that he could gather from the records, at no point in the past either.

A plateau — perhaps, originally, some sort of vast, high plaza in the Nameless City, kilometres across — was being slowly revealed by the furiously tumbling waters as they exposed what was — by the general agreement of most experts and scholars — the very centre of the buried city. The Falls, in their centre section, four or five kilometres across, were in two stages now; the first drop was of a hundred and twenty metres or so, bringing the waters crashing and foaming and bursting down across the newly revealed plateau and surging among the maze of buildings protruding from that vast flat surface.

Holes in the plateau — many small, several a hundred metres across or more — drained to the darkened level beneath, dropping the mass of water to the gorge floor through a tortuous complexity of bizarrely shaped buildings, ramps and roadways, some intact, some canted over, some undercut, some altogether ruptured and displaced, fallen down and swept away to lie jammed and caught against still greater structures and the shadowy bases of the mass of buildings towering above.

By now the mists had cleared away from nearly half the Falls, revealing the site’s latest wonder; the Fountain Building. It was a great gorge-base-level tower by the side of the new plateau. It was still perfectly upright, appeared to be made entirely from glass, was a hundred and fifty metres tall and shaped like a kind of upwardly stretched sphere. Some chance configuration of the tunnels and hidden spaces of the Falls upstream had contrived to send water up into it from underneath, and at such an extremity of pressure that it came surging out in great muddily white fans and jets from all its spiralled levels of windows, bursting with undiminished force even from its very summit, showering the smaller buildings, tubes, ramps and lower water courses all around it with an incessant, battering rain.

“Well, sir?” Poatas demanded. “Will he? This boy-prince of yours; will he come?”

Tyl Loesp had sent the command to Aclyn’s husband just two days earlier, informing the fellow that he was to be the new mayor of the city of Rasselle; this would be a permanent position and he must bring his entire household with him from far Kheretesuhr with the utmost dispatch, on pain of losing both this once-in-a-lifetime promotion, and the regent’s regard.

“Oh, I think he will,” tyl Loesp said, with a small smile.

<p>18. The Current Emergency</p>

“Bilpier, fourth of the Heisp Nariscene colony system, is small, solid, cold-cored, habiformed to Nariscene specifications within the last centieon, dynamically O2 atmosphered, one hundred per cent Nariscene and seventy-four per cent surface bubble-hived.”

Holse and Ferbin were lounging in the sitting area of their generously proportioned suite of cabins within The Hundredth Idiot, being kept fed and watered by a variety of subservient machines and entertained by images on wall screens. They knew they were going to Bilpier and the hive city of Ischuer and the journey would take ten days, though that was all they’d been told since Director General Shoum had secured their passage on a ship leaving only a day after she and Ferbin had spoken.

Ferbin had thought to ask the ship for more information. “Hmm,” he said, little the wiser. “I seek a man called Xide Hyrlis,” he continued. “Do you know if he is there, in this Bilpier place?”

“I do not,” The Hundredth Idiot replied. “It is doubtful that he is. You have preferential clearance to be conveyed to this person as requested, with emphasis, by the Morthanveld Tertiary Hulian Spine Director General. I can now confirm you are booked for onward travel from Ischuer, Bilpier, aboard the Morthanveld vessel ‘Fasilyce, Upon Waking’, a Cat.5 SwellHull. Its destination is not a matter of public record.”

Ferbin and Holse exchanged looks. This was news. “You have no idea how long our journey will be after we leave Bilpier?” Ferbin asked.

“Given you travel aboard a Cat.5 SwellHull, your destination is unlikely to be within the Heisp system,” the ship replied. “The Cat.5 SwellHull is a long-range interstellar class.”

Ferbin nodded thoughtfully. “Oh!” he said, as though just thinking of something. “And can you get a message to a fellow named Oramen, house of Hausk, city of Pourl, the Eighth, Sursamen—”

“That is within a mandated Nariscene Protectorate,” the ship interrupted smoothly, “and so subject to special clearance provisions regarding direct contact between individuals. Specific instructions forming part of your associated travel particulars mean that I may not even begin the relevant message process. I am sorry.”

Ferbin sighed. He went back to watching screenage of bat-like aliens hunting flying, twisty, gossamery things in a Towerless place of soaring yellow-pink canyons beneath pastel clouds.

“Worth a try, sir,” Holse told him, then returned to his own screen, which showed a sort of map-with-depth called a hologram depicting the courses of Nariscene and associated spaceships.

The galaxy was linked like chain mail, he thought. It was all loops and circles and long, joined-up threads and looked like that old-fashioned stuff some old knights from the deepest, darkest shires and valleys still wore when they ventured to court, even if they rarely polished it in case it got worn away.

* * *

The Hundredth Idiot settled smoothly into a valley between two huge dark bubbles kilometres across in a landscape that was nothing but more of the same; the foam of enormous blisters covered three-quarters of Bilpier’s surface, enclosing continents, smothering oceans, arcing over mountain ranges and leaving only so much of the planet’s original swamps and jungles exposed as seemed fit to the Nariscene aesthetic sense.

Ferbin and Holse were shown some impressive domes covering bulbously orange things that seemed to be half trees and half buildings. They met a Nariscene Zamerin and had to listen to some Nariscenic music for nearly an hour.

Within a local day they were standing on some worryingly open webbing high over more giant orange building-trees, at the lofty seam between two vast bubbles, in the half-kilometre-long shadow of a sleekly bulbous spaceship nestling in the open air of the valley formed by the two giant blisters.

They were greeted by a Morthanveld who introduced herself as Liaison Officer Chilgitheri.

* * *

They were carried for nearly thirty days on the “Fasilyce, Upon Waking”. It was a less pleasant journey than that on the Nariscene ship; they had to don suits to investigate the vast majority of the mostly water-filled ship, their quarters were smaller and, worst of all, the ship kept increasing its gravity field, to prepare them for wherever it was they were going. The Morthanveld, being aquatic, seemed rather to scorn gravity, but were gradually ramping up the apparent effect of that force felt on the ship to acclimatise their human guests. They were the only non-Morthanveld aboard and, as Holse said, they should have felt flattered to be so indulged, but it was hard to feel much gratitude when your feet and back and almost everything else ached so much.

* * *

The “Fasilyce, Upon Waking” carried a dozen smaller ships, arranged like rotund seeds around its waist and rear. One of these was the Cat.3 SlimHull “Now, Turning to Reason, & its Just Sweetness”; it was this craft that took Ferbin and Holse on the final leg of their journey. They shared two smallish cabins and would have spent almost all their time lying down if Chilgitheri hadn’t chivied them into standing up and walking around and even doing a few undemanding exercises in the ship’s impersonation of gravity, which was still slowly increasing. “Not increasing slowly enough,” Holse observed, groaning.

* * *

The “Now, Turning to Reason, & its Just Sweetness” bellied in towards a fractured, broken land of rock and cinder. This, Liaison Officer Chilgitheri informed them, was what was left of the country of Prille, on the continent of Sketevi, on the planet Bulthmaas, in the Chyme system.

As the ship closed with this wasteland of grey and brown, the final increment of gravity that had settled like lead epaulets on the two Sarl men lifted; the Morthanveld ships had deliberately made them experience a gravity field slightly greater than the one they would be stepping out into so that the real thing wouldn’t feel quite so bad.

“A mercy so small as to be microscopic,” Holse muttered.

“Better than nothing,” Chilgitheri informed them. “Count your blessings, gentlemen. Come on.”

They found themselves on the flat, fused base of a great fresh-looking crater. Outside the ship’s rotated lower access bulge the air smelled of burning. A cold, keen wind swirled in the depression’s circular base, raising pillars and veils of ash and dust. The atmosphere caught at their throats and the air was shaken by what sounded like continual thunder from far away.

A small, bulbous thing like a carriage compartment made mostly of glass had ridden the access bulge with them as it had cycled round to present them to this ghastly place. Ferbin had wondered if this thing was some sort of guarding device. Thankfully, it was merely their means of conveyance; they would not have to walk any distance in this awful, crushing grip.

“Smell that air,” Chilgitheri told them as they settled into the welcoming couches of the transparent device. It closed its doors and the sounds from outside ceased. “You’ll smell nothing unfiltered for a while, but that is the authentic scent of Bulthmaas.”

“It stinks,” Holse said.

“Yes. There may still be a few of the later wide-spectrum pathogens around, but they ought not to affect you.”

Ferbin and Holse looked at each other. Neither had any idea what pathogens were, but they didn’t like the sound of them.

The little bubble vehicle lifted silently and they crossed the glassy surface of the crater to a construction made of thick metal plates jutting out from the jumbled debris of the lower crater wall like some monstrous iron flower growing from that riven, death-grey geography. A set of ponderously massive doors swung open and the dark tunnels swallowed them.

They saw war machines waiting darkly in alcoves, lines of dim lights stretching away down shadowy side-tunnels and, ahead, the first in a succession of enormous metal shutters which opened before them and closed behind. A few times they saw pale creatures which looked vaguely like men, but which were too small, squat and stunted to be human as they understood the term. They passed one Nariscene, floating in a complex metallic harness, bristling with extra appendages that might have been weapons, then they began descending a spiralled ramp like a hollow spring screwing its way into the bowels of the world.

They halted eventually in a large gloomy chamber cross-braced with thick struts. It was almost filled with parked vehicles; squashed, gnarled, misshapen-looking things. Their little made-of-near-nothing car settled amongst them like a downy seed blown amongst lumps of clinker.

“Time to use those legs!” Chilgitheri cried cheerfully. The car’s doors swung open. The two men unfolded themselves from the transparent conveyance, Holse hoisted the two small bags of clothing they had with them and groaned as they made their way to another opening door and up — up! — a short, narrow ramp to a smaller dimly lit chamber where the air smelled stale, yet with a medicinal tang. The ceiling was so low they had to walk and stand slightly stooped, which made the effects of the high gravity even worse. Holse dumped both bags on the floor at his feet.

One of the short, squat men sat in a chair behind a metal desk, dressed in a dark grey uniform. A Nariscene in one of the complicated-looking harnesses floated off to one side, behind and above the man’s shoulder, seemingly regarding them.

The squashed excuse for a human creature made a series of noises. “You are welcome,” the Nariscene translated.

“My responsibility and that of the Morthanveld ends here,” Chilgitheri told the two Sarl men. “You are now in Nariscene jurisdiction and that of their client species here, the Xolpe. Good luck to you. Take care. Goodbye.”

Ferbin and Holse both bade her well. The Morthanveld turned and floated away down the narrow ramp.

Ferbin looked round for a seat, but the only one in the chamber was occupied by the man behind the metal desk. Some papers issued from a slot in it. The man pulled them out, checked and folded them, bashed them with bits of metal and then pushed them across the desk towards the two Sarl men. “These are your papers,” the Nariscene said. “You will carry them at all times.”

Their papers were covered in tiny alien symbols. The only thing either man could recognise was a small monochrome representation of their own face. More sounds from the squashed little man. “You will wait,” the Nariscene told them. “Here. This way to wait. Follow me.”

More cramped corridors took them to a small, dimly lit room with four bunk beds and nothing else. The Nariscene closed the door, which made loud locking noises. Holse checked; it was locked. A smaller door at the other end of the cell gave access to a tiny toilet compartment. They took the two lower bunks and lay there, breathing hard, grateful to have the weight off their legs and backs. They had to lie folded; the bunk beds were too short for them to stretch out. A grey-blue suit of clothes hung on the end of each bunk. These were their uniforms, the Nariscene had told them. They had to be worn at all times.

“What sort of place is this, sir?”

“A terrible one, Holse.”

“I’d formed that impression myself, sir.”

“Try to sleep, Holse. It’s all we can do.”

“It may be our only escape from this shit-hole,” Holse said, and turned his face to the wall.

Chilgitheri had not been forthcoming regarding what would happen after they were delivered here. This was where Xide Hyrlis ought to be and their request to see him had been forwarded to the relevant authorities, but whether they would be allowed to see him, and how — and even if — they would leave this world, she had confessed she did not know.

Ferbin closed his eyes, wishing he was almost anywhere else.

* * *

“Why are you here?” the Nariscene translated. The creature talking to them might have been the one who’d shown them to their cramped quarters; they had no idea. Introductions might have been in order, Ferbin thought, but obviously things were done differently here. He and Holse were dressed in the uniforms they had been given — the uniforms were both too short and too wide for the Sarl men, making them look ridiculous — and they were in another small chamber facing another small stump of a man behind another metal desk, though at least this time they had chairs to sit in.

“We are here to see a man called Xide Hyrlis,” Ferbin told the Nariscene and the small pale man-thing.

“There is no one of that name here.”

“What?”

“There is no one of that name here.”

“That cannot be true!” Ferbin protested. “The Morthanveld who brought us here assured us this is where Hyrlis is!”

“They could be mistaken,” the Nariscene suggested, without waiting for the man to speak.

“I suspect they are not,” Ferbin said icily. “Kindly be so good as to tell Mr Hyrlis that a prince of the Sarl, the surviving son of his old good friend, the late King Nerieth Hausk of the Eighth, Sursamen, wishes to see him, having travelled amongst the stars all the way from that great world at the express favour, with emphasis, of our friends the Morthanveld with the specific mission of meeting with him, as affirmed by Director General Shoum herself. See to it, if you would.”

The Nariscene appeared to translate at least some of this. The man spoke, followed by the Nariscene. “State full name of the person you wish to see.”

Full name. Ferbin had had time to think of this on many occasions since he’d formed this plan back on the Eighth. Xide Hyrlis’ Full Name had been a chant amongst some of the children at court, almost a mantra for them. He hadn’t forgotten. “Stafl-Lepoortsa Xide Ozoal Hyrlis dam Pappens,” he said.

The stunted man grunted, then studied a screen set into his desk. Its dull green glow lit his face. He said something and the Nariscene said, “Your request will be transmitted through the appropriate channels. You will return to your quarters to wait.”

“I shall report your lack of proper respect and urgency to Mr Hyrlis when I see him,” Ferbin told the Nariscene firmly as he got, painfully, to his feet. He felt absurd in his ill-fitting uniform but tried to summon what dignity he could. “Tell me your name.”

“No. There is no Mr Hyrlis. You will return to your quarters to wait.”

“No Mr Hyrlis? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Could be an issue of rank, sir,” Holse said, also rising and grimacing.

“You will return to your quarters to wait.”

“Very well; I shall inform General Hyrlis.”

“You will return to your quarters to wait.”

“Or Field Marshal Hyrlis, or whatever rank he may have attained.”

“You will return to your quarters to wait.”

* * *

They were awoken in the middle of the night, both of them from dreams of weight and crushing and burial. They’d been fed through a hatch in the door not long before the light in their room had dimmed; the soup had been almost inedible.

“You will come with us,” the Nariscene said. Two of the squat, pale, uniformed men stood behind it holding rifles. Ferbin and Holse dressed in their preposterous uniforms. “Bring possessions,” the Nariscene told them. Holse picked up both bags.

A small wheeled vehicle took them a short way up another spiral ramp. More doors and dimly lit tunnels brought them to a greater space, still dark, where people and machines moved and a train sat humming, poised between two dark holes at either end of the chamber.

Before they could board, the floor beneath their feet shook and a shudder ran throughout the huge chamber, causing people to look up at the dark ceiling. Lights swayed and dust drifted down. Ferbin wondered what sort of cataclysmic explosion would be felt so far beneath this much rock.

“Embark here,” the Nariscene told them, pointing at a shuttered entrance into one of the train’s cylindrical carriages. They heaved themselves up a ramp into a cramped, windowless compartment; the Nariscene floated inside with them and the door rolled back down. There was just enough room for them to sit on the floor between tall boxes and crates. A single round ball in the ceiling, guarded by a little metal cage, gave out a weak, steady yellow light. The Nariscene hovered over one of the crates.

“Where are we going?” Ferbin asked. “Are we going to see Xide Hyrlis?”

“We do not know,” the Nariscene said.

They sat breathing the stale, lifeless air for a while. Then there was a lurch and some muffled clanking as the train moved off.

“How long will this take?” Ferbin asked the Nariscene.

“We do not know,” it repeated.

The train rattled and buzzed around them and they both soon fell asleep again, to be woken from the depths once more, confused and disoriented, and hustled out — knees and backs aching — down a ramp and into another squat vehicle which took them and the accompanying Nariscene along yet more tunnels and down another spiral to a large chamber where a hundred or more tanks of liquid, each twice their height, glowed blue and green in the general darkness.

Each tank held the bodies of a half-dozen or so of the short, stubby-looking men, all quite naked. They looked asleep, a mask over each face, hoses snaking up to the surface of the tanks. Their bodies were quite hairless and many had been badly injured; some were missing limbs, some had obvious puncture wounds and others displayed extensive areas of burned skin.

Ferbin and Holse were so fascinated looking at this unnerving, ghoulish display that it was some time before they realised they appeared to be alone; the little wheeled vehicle had disappeared and seemingly taken the Nariscene with it.

Ferbin walked over to the nearest of the tanks. Close up, it was possible to see that there was a gentle current in the pale, slightly cloudy liquid; tiny bubbles rose from the floor of the tank and headed to the sealed caps of the cylinders.

“D’you think they’re dead?” Ferbin breathed.

“Not wearing those masks,” Holse replied. “They look a bit like you did, sir, when the Oct were healing you.”

“Perhaps they are being preserved for something,” Ferbin said.

“Or medicined,” Holse suggested. “There’s not one without an injury I’ve seen yet, though many seem to be healing.”

“You could say we’re healing them,” someone said behind them.

They both turned. Ferbin recognised Xide Hyrlis immediately; he had barely changed at all. Given that nearly a dozen long-years had passed, this ought to have seemed strange, though it was only later Ferbin realised this.

Xide Hyrlis was a tall man by the standards of the dwarfish people hereabouts, though he was still shorter than Ferbin or Holse. He was dense-seeming somehow, and dark, with a broad face, a large mouth with teeth that were both too few and too wide, and bright, piercingly blue-purple eyes. His eyes had always fascinated Ferbin as a child; they had an extra, transparent membrane that swept across them, meaning that he never had to blink, never needed to stop seeing the world, however briefly, from the moment he woke to the moment he slept (and he did little enough of that). His hair was black and long and kept in a tidy ponytail. He had a lot of facial hair, neatly trimmed. He wore a better-cut version of the grey uniform worn by most of the people they’d seen so far.

“Xide Hyrlis,” Ferbin said, nodding. “It is good to see you again. I am Prince Ferbin, son of King Hausk.”

“Good to see you again, prince,” Hyrlis said. He looked to one side and seemed to address somebody they could not see. “The son of my old friend King Hausk of the Sarl, of the Eighth, Sursamen.” Hyrlis returned his attention to Ferbin and said, “You are much grown, prince. How are things on the Eighth?” Holse glanced at Ferbin, who was staring straight at Hyrlis. “Ferbin was a hip-high child, last time I saw him,” Hyrlis added to whatever imaginary being was at his side. There really was nobody else anywhere near them, and nothing obvious that he could be addressing.

“I have much to tell you, Hyrlis,” Ferbin said, “little of it good. But first, tell me how I ought to address you. What rank do you hold?”

Hyrlis smiled. He glanced to one side. “A good question, don’t you think?” He looked at Ferbin. “Adviser, you might say. Or Supreme Commander. It’s so hard to know.”

“Choose one, sir,” Holse suggested. “There’s a good gent.”

“Allow me,” Ferbin said coldly, as he looked at Holse, who was smiling innocently, “to present my servant, Choubris Holse.”

“Mr Holse,” Hyrlis said, nodding.

“Sir.”

“And sir will do,” Hyrlis said thoughtfully. “It’s what everybody else calls me.” He caught some sudden tension from Ferbin. “Prince, I know you’ll only ever have called your father ‘sir’ since your majority; however, humour me in this. I am a king of sorts in these parts and command more power than ever your father did.” He grinned. “Unless he’s taken over the whole Shellworld, eh?” He turned his head again, “For yes, such Sursamen is, those of you slow to reference,” he said to his unseen companion as Ferbin — still, Holse thought, looking a little glassy-eyed — said, “As I say, sir, I have much to relate.”

Hyrlis nodded at the bodies bobbing gently in the tanks behind them. “Captured enemy,” he said. “Being kept alive, partially repaired. We wash clear their minds and they become our spies, or assassins, or human bombs, or vectors of disease. Come. We’ll find you a place to flop. And better clothes. You look like twig insects in those.”

They followed him to one of the open-sided runabouts, and as they did, dark figures left various shadows all about them, dissociating from the darkness like parts of it; humans in some near-black dark camouflage suits and armed with ugly-looking guns. Ferbin and Holse both jerked to a stop as they saw the four shadowy figures closing swiftly, silently in on them but Hyrlis, without even looking round, just waved one hand as he took the driving seat of the little wheeled vehicle and said, “My guard. Don’t worry. Jump on.”

Once he knew the dark figures were no threat, Ferbin was quite pleased to see them. Hyrlis must have been talking to them for some reason. That was a relief.

* * *

Xide Hyrlis kept a very fine table beneath the kilometres of mountain rock. The chamber was dome-shaped, the servants — young men and girls — glided silently. The stone table they sat around was loaded with highly colourful and exotic foodstuffs and a bewildering variety of bottles. The food was entirely delicious, for all its alien nature, and the drink copious. Ferbin waited until they had finished eating before telling his story.

Hyrlis heard Ferbin out, asking one or two questions along the way. At the end he nodded. “You have my sincere sympathies, prince. I am even sorrier at the manner of your father’s passing than at the fact of it. Nerieth was a warrior and both expected and deserved a warrior’s death. What you’ve described is a murder both cowardly and cruel.”

“Thank you, Hyrlis,” Ferbin said. He looked down, sniffing loudly.

Hyrlis did not seem to notice. He was staring at his wine glass. “I remember tyl Loesp,” he said. He was silent for some moments, then shook his head. “If he harboured such treachery then, he fooled me too.” He looked to one side again. “And do you watch there?” he asked quietly. This time there was definitely nobody present for him to be talking to; the four darkly camouflaged guards had been dismissed when they’d entered Hyrlis’ private quarters and the servants had, just minutes earlier, been told to stay outside the dining chamber until summoned. “Is that part of the entertainment?” Hyrlis said in the same quiet voice. “Is the King’s murder recorded?” He looked back to Ferbin and Holse. Choubris tried to exchange looks with Ferbin, but the other man was staring glassy-eyed at their host again.

Holse wasn’t having it. “Excuse me, sir,” he said to Hyrlis.

From the corner of his eye he could see Ferbin trying to attract his attention. Well, the hell with it. “Might I ask who you’re talking to when you do that?”

“Holse!” Ferbin hissed. He smiled insincerely at Hyrlis. “My servant is impertinent, sir.”

“No, he is inquisitive, prince,” Hyrlis said with a small smile. “In a sense, Holse, I do not know,” he said gently. “And it is just possible that I am addressing nobody at all. However, I strongly suspect that I am talking to quite a number of people.”

Holse frowned. He looked hard in the direction Hyrlis had directed his latest aside.

Hyrlis smiled and waved one hand through the air, as though dispelling smoke. “They are not physically present, Holse. They are — or, I suppose I must allow — they might be watching at a very considerable remove, via spybots, edust, nanoware — whatever you want to call it.”

“I might call it any or all, sir, I’m none the wiser at those words.”

“Holse, if you can’t conduct yourself like a gentleman,” Ferbin said firmly, “you’ll eat with the other servants.” Ferbin looked at Hyrlis. “I may have been too indulgent with him, sir. I apologise on his behalf and my own.”

“No apology required, prince,” Hyrlis said smoothly. “And this is my table, not yours. I’d have Holse here for what you call his impertinence in any event. I am surrounded by too many people unwilling to call me on anything at all; a dissident voice is welcome.”

Ferbin sat back, insulted.

“I believe that I am watched, Holse,” Hyrlis said, “by devices too small to be seen with the human eye, even ones like mine, which are quite keen, if not as keen as they once were.”

“Enemy spies, sir?” Holse asked. He glanced at Ferbin, who looked away ostentatiously.

“No, Holse,” Hyrlis said. “Spies sent by my own people.”

Holse nodded, though with a deep frown.

Hyrlis looked at Ferbin. “Prince, your own matter is of course of far greater importance; however, I think I ought to digress a little here, to explain myself and my situation.”

Ferbin gave a curt nod.

“When I was… with you, amongst you, on the Eighth — advising your father, Ferbin…” Hyrlis said, glancing to the prince but generally addressing both men, “I was employed — at the behest of the Nariscene — by the Culture, the mongrel pan-human and machine civilisation which is one of what you term the Optimae, those civilisations in the first rank of the unSublimed, non-elder groupings. I was an agent for the part of the Culture called Contact, which deals with… foreign affairs, you might say. Contact is charged with discovering and interacting with other civilisations which are not yet part of the galactic community. I was not then with the more rarefied intelligence and espionage part of Contact coyly called Special Circumstances, though I know that SC thought at the time the specific part of Contact I represented was, arguably, encroaching on their territory.” Hyrlis smiled thinly. “Even galaxy-spanning anarchist Utopias of stupefying full-spectrum civilisational power have turf wars within their unacknowledged militaries.”

Hyrlis sighed. “I did, later, become part of Special Circumstances, a decision I look back on now with more regret than pride.” His smile did, indeed, look sad. “When you leave the Culture — and people do, all the time — you are made aware of certain responsibilities you are deemed to have, should you venture into the kind of civilisation that Contact might be interested in.

“I was missioned to do what I did by Contact, which had modelled the situation on the Eighth exhaustively, so that, when I passed on some strategic plan to King Hausk, or suggested sabots and rifling to the royal armourers, it was with a very good and highly reliable idea of what the effects would be. In theory, a reasonably well-read Culture citizen could do the same with no control, no back-up and no idea what they were really doing. Or, worse, with a very good idea; they might want to be king, or emperor, or whatever, and their knowledge would give them a chance of succeeding.” Hyrlis waved one hand. “It’s an exaggerated concern, in my opinion; knowledge in the Culture is cheap beyond measuring, however the ruthlessness required to use that knowledge proficiently in a less forgiving society is almost unheard of.

“Nevertheless, the result is that when you leave the Culture to come to a place like this, or the Eighth, you are watched. Devices are sent to spy on you and make sure you’re not getting up to any mischief.”

“And if a person does get up to mischief, sir?” Holse asked.

“Why, they stop you, Mr Holse. They use the devices they’ve sent to spy, or they send people or other devices to undo what you’ve done, and, as a last resort, they kidnap you and bring you back, to be told off.” Hyrlis shrugged. “When you leave SC, as I did, further precautions are taken: they take away some of the gifts they originally gave you. Certain abilities are reduced or removed altogether so that you have fewer advantages over the locals. And the surveillance is more intense, though even less noticeable.” Hyrlis looked to the side once more. “I trust my even-handedness is appreciated, here. I am generous to a fault.” He looked back at the two men. “I understand most people like to pretend that such oversight doesn’t exist, that it isn’t happening to them; I take a different view. I address those I know must be watching me. So, now you know. And, I hope, understand. Were you worried I was mad?”

“Not at all!” Ferbin protested immediately, as Holse said, “It did occur, sir, as you’d expect.”

Hyrlis smiled. He swirled some wine around in his glass and watched himself doing so. “Oh, I may well be mad; mad to be here, mad to be still involved with the business of war, but at least in this I am not mad; I know I am watched, and I will let those who watch me know that I know.”

“We do,” Ferbin said, glancing at Holse, “understand.”

“Good,” Hyrlis said casually. He leaned forward, putting his elbows on the table and clasping his hands under his chin. “Now, back to you. You have come a very long way, prince. I assume to see me?”

“Indeed, that I have.”

“And with more intended than simply bringing me the news that my old friend Nerieth has been murdered, honoured though I am to hear from a real person rather than a news service.”

“Indeed,” Ferbin said, and pulled himself up in his seat as best he could. “I seek your help, good Hyrlis.”

“I see.” Hyrlis nodded, looking thoughtful.

Ferbin said, “Can you, will you help?”

“In what way?”

“Will you return to the Eighth with me to help avenge my father’s murder?”

Hyrlis sat back. He shook his head. “I cannot, prince. I am needed here, committed here. I work for the Nariscene, and even if I wanted to I could not return to Sursamen in the near or medium future.”

“Are you saying you do not even want to?” Ferbin asked, not hiding his displeasure.

“Prince, I am sorry to hear your father is dead, sorrier still to hear of the manner of it.”

“You have said so, sir,” Ferbin told him.

“So I say it again. Your father was a friend of mine for a short while and I respected him greatly. However, it is not my business to right wrongs occurring deep inside a distant Shellworld.”

Ferbin stood up. “I see I misunderstood you, sir,” he said. “I was told you are a good and honourable man. I find I have been misinformed.”

Holse stood up too, though slowly, thinking that if Ferbin was to storm out — though God knew to where — he had best accompany him.

“Hear me out, prince,” Hyrlis said reasonably. “I wish you well and tyl Loesp and his co-conspirators an undignified end, but I am unable to help.”

“And unwilling,” Ferbin said, almost spitting.

“Yours is not my fight, prince.”

“It should be the fight of all who believe in justice!”

“Oh, really, prince,” Hyrlis said, amused. “Listen to yourself.”

“Better than listening to you and your insulting complacency!”

Hyrlis looked puzzled. “What exactly did you expect me to do?”

“Something! Anything! Not nothing; not just sit there and smirk!”

“And why aren’t you doing something, Ferbin?” Hyrlis asked, still reasonable. “Might you not have been more effective staying on the Eighth rather than coming all this way to see me?”

“I am no warrior, I know that,” Ferbin said bitterly. “I have not the skills or disposition. And I have not the guile to go back to the court and face tyl Loesp and pretend I did not see what I did, to plot and plan behind a smile. I’d have drawn my sword or put my hands on his throat the instant I saw him and I’d have come off the worse. I know that I need help and I came here to ask you for it. If you will not help me, kindly let us go from here and do whatever you might be able and willing to do to speed my journey to my sibling Djan Seriy. I can only pray that she has somehow escaped infection by this Cultural disease of uncaring.”

“Prince,” Hyrlis sighed, “will you please sit down? There is more to discuss; I might help you in other ways. Plus we should talk about your sister.” Hyrlis waved one hand at Ferbin’s seat. “Please.”

“I shall sit, sir,” Ferbin told him, doing so, “but I am grievously disappointed.”

Holse sat too. He was glad of this; the wine was very good and it would be a criminal shame to have to abandon it.

Hyrlis resumed his earlier pose, hands under chin. A small frown creased his brow. “Why would tyl Loesp do what he has done?”

“I care not!” Ferbin said angrily. “That he did it is all that matters!”

Hyrlis shook his head. “I must disagree, prince. If you are to have any chance of righting this wrong, you’d be well advised to know what motivates your enemy.”

“Power, of course!” Ferbin exclaimed. “He wanted the throne, and he’ll have it, the moment he’s had my young brother killed.”

“But why now?”

“Why not!” Ferbin said, clenched fists hammering at the unforgiving stone of the great table. “My father had done all the work, the battles were all won, or as good as. That’s when a coward strikes, when the glory might be stolen without the bravery that afforded it.”

“Still, it is often easier to be the second in command, prince,” Hyrlis said. “The throne is a lonely place, and the nearer you are to it the clearer you see that. There are advantages to having great power without ultimate responsibility. Especially when you know that even the king does not have ultimate power, that there are always powers above. You say tyl Loesp was trusted, rewarded, valued, respected… Why would he risk that for the last notch of a power he knows is still enchained with limitations?”

Ferbin sat boiling with frustration but had resolved not to say anything this time. This only gave occasion for Hyrlis to look to the side and say quietly, “Do you know? Do you look there? Are you allow—?”

Ferbin could stand it no longer. “Will you stop talking to these phantoms!” he shouted, springing up again, this time so quickly his chair toppled over. Holse, having taken the opportunity to sip from his glass at what had seemed a handily quiet moment, had to gulp and stand quickly too, wiping his mouth with his sleeve. “These imagined demons have stolen what wits you ever had, sir!”

Hyrlis shook his head. “Would that they were imaginary, prince. And if there are similar systems of observation within Sursamen, they might hold one key to your difficulty.”

“What in the world are you talking about?” Ferbin hissed through clenched teeth.

Hyrlis sighed again. “Please, prince, do sit down again… No, no, I’ll stand,” he said, changing his mind. “Let’s all stand. And let me show you something. Please come with me. There is more to explain.”

* * *

The airship was a giant dark blister riding the poisoned air above a still glowing battlefield. They had been brought here in Hyrlis’ own small, svelte air vehicle, which had lifted silently from the bottom of another giant crater and flown whispering through clouds and smoke then clearer weather, chasing a ruddy sunset into a night whose far horizon was edged with tiny sporadic flashes of yellow-white light. Below them, rings and circles of dull and fading red covered the dark, undulating land. The airship was bright, all strung with lights, lit from every side and covered in reflective markings. It hung above the livid-bruised land like an admonition.

The little aircraft docked in a broad deck slung underneath the giant ship’s main body. Various other craft were arriving and departing all the time, arriving full of injured soldiers accompanied by a few medical staff and departing empty save for returning medics. Quiet moans filled the warm, smoke-scented air. Hyrlis led them via some spiralled steps to a ward full of coffin-like beds each containing a pale, squat, unconscious figure. Holse looked at the lifeless-looking people and felt envious; at least they didn’t have to stand up, walk around and climb stairs in this awful gravity.

“You know there is a theory,” Hyrlis said quietly, walking amongst the gently glowing coffin-beds, Ferbin and Holse at his rear, the four dark-dressed guards somewhere nearby, unseen, “that all that we experience as reality is just a simulation, a kind of hallucination that has been imposed upon us.”

Ferbin said nothing.

Holse assumed that Hyrlis was addressing them rather than his demons or whatever they were, so said, “We have a sect back home with a roughly similar point of view, sir.”

“It’s a not uncommon position,” Hyrlis said. He nodded at the unconscious bodies all around them. “These sleep, and have dreams inflicted upon them, for various reasons. They will believe, while they dream, that the dream is reality. We know it is not, but how can we know that our own reality is the last, the final one? How do we know there is not a still greater reality external to our own into which we might awake?”

“Still,” Holse said. “What’s a chap to do, eh, sir? Life needs living, no matter what our station in it.”

“It does. But thinking of these things affects how we live that life. There are those who hold that, statistically, we must live in a simulation; the chances are too extreme for this not to be true.”

“There are always people who can convince themselves of near enough anything, seems to me, sir,” Holse said.

“I believe them to be wrong in any case,” Hyrlis said.

“You have been thinking on this, I take it then?” asked Ferbin. He meant to sound arch.

“I have, prince,” Hyrlis said, continuing to lead them through the host of sleeping injured. “And I base my argument on morality.”

“Do you now?” Ferbin said. He did not need to affect disdain.

Hyrlis nodded. “If we assume that all we have been told is as real as what we ourselves experience — in other words, that history, with all its torturings, massacres and genocides, is true — then, if it is all somehow under the control of somebody or some thing, must not those running that simulation be monsters? How utterly devoid of decency, pity and compassion would they have to be to allow this to happen, and keep on happening under their explicit control? Because so much of history is precisely this, gentlemen.”

They had approached the edge of the huge space, where slanted, down-looking windows allowed a view of the pocked landscape beneath. Hyrlis swept his arm to indicate both the bodies in their coffin-beds and the patchily glowing land below.

“War, famine, disease, genocide. Death, in a million different forms, often painful and protracted for the poor individual wretches involved. What god would so arrange the universe to predispose its creations to experience such suffering, or be the cause of it in others? What master of simulations or arbitrator of a game would set up the initial conditions to the same pitiless effect? God or programmer, the charge would be the same: that of near-infinitely sadistic cruelty; deliberate, premeditated barbarism on an unspeakably horrific scale.”

Hyrlis looked expectantly at them. “You see?” he said. “By this reasoning we must, after all, be at the most base level of reality — or at the most exalted, however one wishes to look at it. Just as reality can blithely exhibit the most absurd coincidences that no credible fiction could convince us of, so only reality — produced, ultimately, by matter in the raw — can be so unthinkingly cruel. Nothing able to think, nothing able to comprehend culpability, justice or morality could encompass such purposefully invoked savagery without representing the absolute definition of evil. It is that unthinkingness that saves us. And condemns us, too, of course; we are as a result our own moral agents, and there is no escape from that responsibility, no appeal to a higher power that might be said to have artificially constrained or directed us.”

Hyrlis rapped on the clear material separating them from the view of the dark battlefield. “We are information, gentlemen; all living things are. However, we are lucky enough to be encoded in matter itself, not running in some abstracted system as patterns of particles or standing waves of probability.”

Holse had been thinking about this. “Of course, sir, your god could just be a bastard,” he suggested. “Or these simulation-eers, if it’s them responsible.”

“That is possible,” Hyrlis said, a smile fading. “Those above and beyond us might indeed be evil personified. But it is a standpoint of some despair.”

“And all this pertains how, exactly?” Ferbin asked. His feet were sore and he was growing tired of what seemed to him like pointless speculation, not to mention something dangerously close to philosophy, a field of human endeavour he had encountered but fleetingly through various exasperated tutors, though long enough to have formed the unshakeable impression that its principal purpose was to prove that one equalled zero, black was white and educated men could speak through their bottoms.

“I am watched,” Hyrlis said. “Perhaps your home is watched, prince. It is possible that tiny machines similar to those that observe me spy upon your people too. The death of your father might have been overseen by more eyes than you thought were present. And if it was watched once, it can be watched again, because only base reality cannot be fully replayed; anything transmitted can be recorded and usually is.”

Ferbin stared at him. “Recorded?” he said, horrified. “My father’s murder?”

“It is possible; no more,” Hyrlis told him.

“By whom?”

“The Oct, the Nariscene, the Morthanveld?” Hyrlis suggested. “Perhaps the Culture. Perhaps anybody else with the means, which would include some dozens of Involved civilisations at least.”

“And this would be done,” Holse suggested, “by the same unseen agents that you address from time to time, sir?”

“By things most similar,” Hyrlis agreed.

“Unseen,” Ferbin said contemptuously. “Unheard, untouched, unsmelled, untasted, undetected. In a word, figmented.”

“Oh, we are often profoundly affected by unseeably small things, prince.” Hyrlis smiled wistfully. “I have advised rulers for whom the greatest military service I could perform had nothing to do with strategy, tactics or weapons technology; it was simply to inform them of and persuade them to accept the germ theory of disease and infection. Believing that we are surrounded by microscopic entities that profoundly and directly affect the fates of individuals and through them nations has been the first step in the ascendancy of many a great ruler. I’ve lost count of the wars I’ve seen won more by medics and engineers than mere soldiery. Such infective beings, too small to see, assuredly exist, prince, and believe me so do those designed, made and controlled by powers beyond your grasping.” Ferbin opened his mouth to say something but Hyrlis went on, “Your own faith holds the same idea centrally, prince. Do you not believe that the WorldGod sees everything? How do you think it does that?”

Ferbin felt baulked, tripped up. “It is a god!” he said, blustering.

“If you treat it as such then such it is,” Hyrlis said reasonably. “However, it is unarguably a member of a long-declining species with a clearly traceable galactic lineage and evolutionary line. It is another corporeal being, prince, and the fact that your people have chosen to call it a god does not mean that it is particularly powerful, all-seeing even within the limitations of Sursamen, or indeed sane.” Ferbin wanted to speak but Hyrlis held up one hand. “No one knows why Xinthians inhabit Shellworld Cores, prince. Theories include them being sent there by their own kind as a punishment, or to isolate them because they have become infectiously diseased, or mad. Some speculate they’re there because the individual Xinthians concerned are simply fascinated by Shellworlds. Another guess has it that each seeks somehow to defend its chosen Shellworld, though against what nobody knows, and the truth is that Tensile Aeronathaurs are not in themselves especially powerful creatures, and seem to scorn the kind of high-level weaponry that might compensate for that lack. All in all, not much of a God, prince.”

“We claim it as our God, sir,” Ferbin said frostily. “Not as some mythical Universal Creator.” He glanced at Holse, looking for support, or at least acknowledgement.

Holse wasn’t about to get involved in any theological arguments. He looked serious and nodded, hoping this would do.

Hyrlis just smiled.

“So you are saying we have no privacy?” Ferbin said, feeling angry and dismayed.

“Oh, you may have.” Hyrlis shrugged. “Perhaps nobody watches you, including your god. But if others do, and you can persuade them to share that recording, then you will have a weapon to use against tyl Loesp.”

“But sir,” Holse said, “given such fantastical apparatus, might not anything and everything be faked?”

“It might, but people can be quite good at spotting what has been faked. And the effect on people who do not know that anything can be faked is usually profound. Revealed at the right moment, such a recording, if it exists, may so visibly shake tyl Loesp or his co-conspirators that their immediate reaction leaves no doubt in the unprejudiced mind that they are guilty.”

“And how might we discover whether such a recording exists?” Ferbin asked. It still all sounded absurdly far-fetched to him, even in this entire hierarchical realm of far-fetched world beyond far-fetched world.

“It may be as simple as just asking the right people,” Hyrlis said. He was still standing beside the down-sloped windows. Something flashed white far away on the dark plain below, briefly illuminating one side of his face. Some part of the initial illumination remained, fading slowly to yellow. “Find someone sympathetic in the Culture and ask them. Your sister, prince, would seem an obvious choice, and, being in Special Circumstances, she would stand a good chance of being able to find out the truth, even if it is hidden, and even if it is not the Culture itself that is doing the observing. Look to your sister, prince. She may hold your answer.”

“Given your own refusal to help, I have little choice, sir.”

Hyrlis shrugged. “Well, family should stick together,” he said casually. Another flash lit up his face, and — away in the distance — a great rolling, rising glowing cloud of yellow surged with an unstoppable slowness into the night air. The orange-ruddy light from the huge climbing cloud lit up distant hills and mountains, rubbing them blood-coloured.

“You might have imparted this information in your own quarters,” Ferbin told the man. “Why bring us here, amongst these wretches and above this savagery, to tell us something you might have told over dinner?”

“So that we might, appropriately, observe, prince,” Hyrlis said. He nodded at the landscape below. “We look down upon all this, and perhaps are looked down on in turn. It is entirely possible that everything we see here is only taking place at all so that it may be observed.”

“Meaning what, sir?” Holse asked, when Ferbin didn’t. Also, their host looked as though he had no mind to add any more; he just gazed languidly out through the slanted windows over the red, under-lit clouds and the spark-infested darkness of the cratered landscape beneath.

Hyrlis turned to Holse. “Meaning that this whole conflict, this entire war here is manufactured. It is prosecuted for the viewing benefit of the Nariscene, who have always regarded waging war as one of the highest and most noble arts. Their place among the Involveds of the galactic community sadly precludes them from taking part in meaningful conflicts themselves any more, but they have the licence, the means and the will to cause other, mentored, client civilisations to war amongst themselves at their behest. The conflict we observe here, in which I am proud to play a part, is one such artificial dispute, instigated and maintained for and by the Nariscene for no other reason than that they might observe the proceedings and draw vicarious satisfaction from them.”

Ferbin made a snorting noise.

Holse looked sceptical. “That really true, sir?” he asked. “I mean, as acknowledged by all concerned?”

Hyrlis smiled. A great distant, rumbling, roaring sound seemed to make the airship shiver on the wind. “Oh, you will find many a superficially convincing excuse and casus belli and there are given and seemingly accepted justifications, everything modelled to provide pretexts and keep people like the Culture from intervening to stop the fun, but it is all dressing, disguise, a feint. The truth is as I have said. Depend on it.”

“And you are proud to take part in what you effectively describe as a travesty, a show-war, a dishonourable and cruel charade for decadent and unfeeling alien powers?” Ferbin said, trying to sound — and, to some degree, succeeding in sounding — contemptuous.

“Yes, prince,” Hyrlis said reasonably. “I do what I can to make this war as humane in its inhumanity as I can, and in any case, I always know that however bad it may be, its sheer unnecessary awfulness at least helps guarantee that we are profoundly not in some designed and overseen universe and so have escaped the demeaning and demoralising fate of existing solely within some simulation.”

Ferbin looked at him for a few moments. “That is absurd,” he said.

“Nevertheless,” Hyrlis said casually, then stretched his arms out and rolled his head as though tired. “Let’s go back, shall we?”

* * *

The Nariscene ship Hence the Fortress, a venerable Comet-class star cruiser, lifted from a deep ravine where a poisoned stream of black water moved like liquefied shadow. The craft rose above the rim of the fissure into light airs moving quietly across a landscape of livid sands beneath a soft-looking grey overcast. It accelerated into the darker skies above, finding space within minutes. The ship carried a cargo of several million human souls held petrified within a variety of nanoscale storage matrices, and two human males. The gravity was back to what the Nariscene regarded as normal, and so was much more acceptable to both men.

They had to share one small cabin extemporised for human occupation from some storage space, but were uncomplaining, being mostly just thankful to be away from the oppressive gravity of Bulthmaas and the unsettling presence of Xide Hyrlis.

They had stayed only two more days and nights — as far as such terms meant anything in the warren of deeply buried caverns and tunnels where they’d been kept. Hyrlis had appeared casually unbothered when they professed a desire to be away as soon as possible after he’d told Ferbin he was unable to help.

The morning after he’d taken them to the great airship full of the wounded, Hyrlis summoned them to a hemispherical chamber perhaps twenty metres in diameter where an enormous map of what looked like nearly half of the planet was displayed, showing what appeared to be a single vast continent punctuated by a dozen or so small seas fed by short rivers running from jagged mountain ranges. The map bulged towards the unseen ceiling like a vast balloon lit from inside by hundreds of colours and tens of thousands of tiny glittering symbols, some gathered together in groups large and small, others strung out in speckled lines and yet more scattered individually.

Hyrlis looked down on this vast display from a wide balcony halfway up the wall, talking quietly with a dozen or so uniformed human figures who responded in even more hushed tones. As they murmured away, the map itself changed, rotating and tipping to bring different parts of the landscape to the fore and moving various collections of the glittering symbols about, often developing quite different patterns and then halting while Hyrlis and the other men huddled and conferred, before returning to its earlier configuration.

“There’s a Nariscene vessel scheduled to call in a couple of days’ time,” he told Ferbin and Holse, though his gaze was still directed at the great bulge of the dully glowing display, where various numbers of the glittering symbols, which Ferbin assumed represented military units, were moving about. It was clear now that some of the units, coloured grey-blue and shown fuzzily and in less detail than the rest, must represent the enemy. “It’ll take you to Syaung-un,” Hyrlis said. “That’s a Morthanveld Nestworld, one of the main transfer ports between the Morthanveld and the Culture.” His gaze roamed the huge globe, never resting. “Should find a ship there’ll take you to the Culture.”

“I am grateful,” Ferbin said stiffly. He found it difficult to be anything other than formally polite with Hyrlis after being rejected by him, though Hyrlis himself seemed barely to notice or care.

The display halted, then flickered, showing various end-patterns in succession. Hyrlis shook his head and waved one arm. The great round map flicked back to its starting state again and there was much sighing and stretching amongst the uniformed advisers or generals clustered around him.

Holse nodded at the map. “All this, sir. Is it a game?”

Hyrlis smiled, still looking at the great glowing bubble of the display. “Yes,” he said. “It’s all a game.”

“Does it start from what you might call reality, though?” Holse asked, stepping close to the balcony’s edge, obviously fascinated, his face lit by the great glowing hemisphere. Ferbin said nothing. He had given up trying to get his servant to be more discreet.

“From what we call reality, as far as we know it, yes,” Hyrlis said. He turned to look at Holse. “Then we use it to try out possible dispositions, promising strategies and various tactics, looking for those that offer the best results, assuming the enemy acts and reacts as we predict.”

“And will they be doing the same thing as regards you?”

“Undoubtably.”

“Might you not simply play the game against each other then, sir?” Holse suggested cheerily. “Dispensing with all the actual slaughtering and maiming and destruction and desolating and such like? Like in the old days, when two great armies met and, counting themselves about equal, called up champions, one from each, their individual combat counting by earlier agreement as determining the whole result, so sending many a frightened soldier safely back to his farm and loved ones.”

Hyrlis laughed. The sound was obviously as startling and unusual to the generals and advisers on the balcony as it was to Ferbin and Holse. “I’d play if they would!” Hyrlis said. “And accept the verdict gladly regardless.” He smiled at Ferbin, then to Holse said, “But no matter whether we are all in a still greater game, this one here before us is at a cruder grain than that which it models. Entire battles, and sometimes therefore wars, can hinge on a jammed gun, a failed battery, a single shell being dud or an individual soldier suddenly turning and running, or throwing himself on a grenade.”

Hyrlis shook his head. “That cannot be fully modelled, not reliably, not consistently. That you need to play out in reality, or the most detailed simulation you have available, which is effectively the same thing.”

Holse smiled sadly. “Matter, eh, sir?”

“Matter.” Hyrlis nodded. “And anyway, where would be the fun in just playing a game? Our hosts could do that themselves. No. They need us to play out the greater result. Nothing else will do. We ought to feel privileged to be so valuable, so irreplaceable. We may all be mere particles, but we are each fundamental!”

Hyrlis sounded close to laughing again, then his tone and whole demeanour changed as he looked to one side, where no one was standing. “And don’t think yourselves any better,” he said quietly. Ferbin tsk-ed loudly and turned his head away as Hyrlis continued, “What is the sweet and easy continuance of all things Cultural, if not based on the cosy knowledge of good works done in one’s name, far away? Eh?” He nodded at nobody and nothing visible. “What do you say, my loyal viewers? Aye to that? Contact and SC; they play your own real games, and let the trillions of pampered sleepers inhabiting all those great rolling cradles we call Orbitals run smoothly through the otherly scary night, unvexed.”

“You’re obviously busy,” Ferbin said matter-of-factly to Hyrlis. “May we leave you now?”

Hyrlis smiled. “Yes, prince. Get to your own dreams, leave us with ours. By all means be gone.”

Ferbin and Holse turned to go.

“Holse!” Hyrlis called.

Choubris and Ferbin both turned to look back.

“Sir?” Holse said.

“Holse, if I offered you the chance to stay here and general for me, play this great game, would you take it? It would be for riches and for power, both here and now and elsewhere and elsewhen, in better, less blasted places than this sorry cinder. D’you take it, eh?”

Holse laughed. “Course not, sir! You fun me, sure you must!”

“Of course,” Hyrlis said, grinning. He looked at Ferbin, who was standing looking confused and angry at his servant’s side. “Your man is no fool, prince,” Hyrlis told him.

Ferbin stood up straight in the grinding, pulling gravity. “I did not think him so.”

Hyrlis nodded. “Naturally. Well, I too must travel very soon. If I don’t see you before you go, let me wish you both a good journey and a fair arrival.”

“Your wishes flatter us, sir,” Ferbin said, insincerely.

* * *

Hyrlis was indeed not there to see them off when they departed.

Over thirteen long days during which Ferbin and Holse were left to themselves by the ship and its crew and spent most of their time either sleeping or playing games, the star cruiser Hence the Fortress took them to the Nariscene Globular Transfer Facility of Sterut.

A Morthanveld tramp ship with no name, just a long serial number they both forgot, picked them up from there on one of its semi-regular, semicircular routes and took them onwards to the great Morthanveld Nestworld of Syaung-un.

<p>19. Dispatches</p>

Oramen was standing by the window looking out over the city from his chambers in the palace in Pourl. The morning was bright and misty and Neguste, singing noisily but tunelessly, was next door, running him a bath when Fanthile rapped at the door. Neguste, who patently believed that volume was the ideal compensation for being tone-deaf, didn’t hear the door, so Oramen answered it himself.

He and Fanthile stood out on the apartment balcony while Oramen read a note the palace secretary had brought.

“Rasselle?” he said. “The Deldeyn capital?”

Fanthile nodded. “Your mother’s husband has been ordered there, as mayor. They will arrive during the next few days.”

Oramen let out a deep breath and looked first at Fanthile and then out at the city; canals glinted in the distance and banners of steam and smoke rose from a scattered forest of factory chimneys. “You know that tyl Loesp suggests I go to the Falls of the Hyeng-zhar?” he said, not looking at the palace secretary.

“I have heard, sir. They are a few days from Rasselle, I’m told.”

“I would be in charge of the excavations.” Oramen sighed. “Tyl Loesp believes it would help the bringing together of the people and institutions of the Ninth and the Eighth, that my presence there would help the effort to recruit more Sarl to the great project of the investigation of the mysterious ruins there. Also, it would give me a serious and proper purpose in life, so improving my reputation with the people.”

“You are the Prince Regent, sir,” the palace secretary said. “That might be thought reputation enough by some.”

“By some, perhaps, but these are changed days, Fanthile. Perhaps they are even the New Age that my father talked about, when feats of practical business matter more than those of arms.”

“There are reports that certain far dependencies dispute with various of tyl Loesp’s decrees, sir. Werreber already wants to form a new army to help instil some provincial discipline. The gentleman we speak of would be wise not to disband all the forces.”

Tyl Loesp’s clamorous triumph had been held just a few days earlier; parts of the city were still recovering. It had been a celebration on a scale and of an intensity Pourl had never seen before, certainly not under the late king. Tyl Loesp had provided for banquets in every street, a week’s free drink from every public house and a bounty for every inhabitant within the walls. Games, sports, competitions and concerts of every sort, all freely open to all, had taken place and a patchwork of small riots had broken out in various sections of the city, requiring quelling by constables and militia.

An enormous parade had been staged consisting of the victorious army all bright and polished, smiling and whole under a sea of fluttering banners, complete with wildly caparisoned warbeasts and a host of captured Deldeyn soldiery, artillery pieces, military vehicles and war engines. Streets had been widened, buildings knocked down and rivers and gullies covered over to provide a thoroughfare long and wide enough to accommodate the great procession.

Tyl Loesp had ridden at the head, Werreber and his generals a little behind. In the Parade Field where the kilometres-long procession had ended up, the regent had announced a year without tax (this later turned out to mean a short-year without certain mostly rather obscure taxes), an amnesty for minor criminals, the disbandment of various ancillary regiments with the release — with pensions — of nearly one hundred thousand men, and an extended mission to the Ninth that would mean that both he and the Prince Regent would spend significant time in Rasselle and the Deldeyn provinces, bringing the benefits of Sarl rule and wisdom to that reduced but highly fruitful and promising land.

Oramen, sitting in the shade of the flag-fluttering parade stand with the rest of the nobility, had been warned of this last provision only an hour before, and so was able not to look surprised.

He had felt an initial burst of fury that he had been simply told this rather than consulted, or even asked, but that had gone quickly. He’d soon started to wonder if such a move, such a break with Pourl might not be a good idea. All the same, to be so instructed…

“You might refuse to go, sir,” Fanthile pointed out.

Oramen turned away from the view over the city. “I might, in theory, I suppose,” he said.

“That’s the bath ready, sir! Oh, hello, Mr Palace Secretary sir!” Neguste called, marching into the room behind them.

“Thank you, Neguste,” Oramen said, and his servant winked and retreated.

Fanthile nodded at the note in Oramen’s hand. “Does this make the decision for you, sir?”

“I had already decided I might go,” Oramen said. He smiled. “The very idea of the Hyeng-zhar fascinates me, Fanthile.” He laughed. “It would be something to control all that power, in any sense!”

Fanthile refused to be impressed. “May I speak bluntly, sir?”

“Yes. Of course.”

“Tyl Loesp might worry that leaving you here while he tightens his grip on Rasselle would allow you to build too independent a foundation of regard amongst the nobles, the people and even parliament here. Removing you to somewhere so out of the way, however impressive that place might be as an attraction, could appear to some almost like a form of exile. You could refuse to go, sir. You’d be within your rights. By some arguments your place is here, amongst the people who might love you all the better with greater acquaintance. I have heard who will be there around you. This General Foise, for one; he is entirely tyl Loesp’s man. They all are. All his men, I mean. They are loyal to him rather than to Sarl or your father’s memory, or you.”

Oramen felt relieved. He’d been expecting a scolding or something equally disagreeable. “That is your bluntest, dear Fanthile?” he asked, smiling.

“It is as I see things, sir.”

“Well, tyl Loesp may arrange me as he sees fit, for the moment. I’ll play along. Let him have his time. These men you mention may see their loyalty as lying with him, but as long as he is loyal in turn, which he most unquestionably is, then there’s neither difference nor harm. I shall be king in due course and — even allowing for all our New Age talk of parliamentary oversight — I’ll have my time then.”

“That gentleman might grow used to arranging things to his liking. He may wish to extend his time.”

“Perhaps so, but once I am king, his choices become limited, don’t you think?”

Fanthile frowned. “I certainly know I’d like to think that, sir. Whether I can in honest conscience allow myself to hold such a view’s another thing.” He nodded at the note which Oramen still held. “I think the fellow may be forcing your actions in this, sir, and I believe he may come to enjoy the habit of doing so, if he does not already.”

Oramen took a deep breath. The air smelled so good and fresh up here. Unlike the depths of the city, where, annoyingly, so much of the fun was to be found. He let the air out of his lungs. “Oh, let tyl Loesp enjoy his triumph, Fanthile. He’s continued my father’s purpose as he himself might have wished, and I’d be a churl — and look one, too, in the eyes of your precious people — if I tantrummed now while I am still, in so many eyes, an untried youth.” He smiled encouragingly at the troubled-looking face of the older man. “I’ll bend with tyl Loesp’s current while it’s at its strongest; it might be bruising not to. I’ll beat against its ebb when I see fit.” He waved the letter Fanthile had given him. “I’ll go, Fanthile. I think I need to. But I thank you for all your help and advice.” He handed the note back to the palace secretary. “Now, old friend, I really must go to my bath.”

“Open your eyes, prince,” Fanthile said, for a moment — astoundingly! — not standing aside to let the Prince Regent past. “I do not know what ill’s been done about us since your father’s death, sir, but there’s a smell that hangs over too much that’s happened. We need all take care not to be infected by its noxiousness; it might prove each one of us all too mortal.” He waited another moment, as though to see whether this had sunk in, then nodded a bow and, head still lowered, stood to one side.

Oramen didn’t know what to say that wouldn’t embarrass the fellow further following such an outburst, so he just walked past him on his way to his toilet.

A week later he was on his way to the Hyeng-zhar.

What with all the preparations and general fuss caused by the move, he hadn’t seen Fanthile again before leaving Pourl. The morning of the day he was due to go, shortly after he’d heard he was to have his very own personal guard of two stalwart knights, he’d received a note from Fanthile asking to see him, but there hadn’t been time.

* * *

Jerle Batra took the signal during a break in the peace negotiations. These were proving protracted. He wasn’t directly involved in the haggling, of course — it boggled one to think what the indigents would make of a cross between a talking bush and an expanding fence — but he was overseeing while some of the others in the mission did their best to keep people focused. In the end it had to be the natives themselves who made this work, but a bit of judicious prodding helped on occasion.

He rose a couple of kilometres into the air from the marquee in the middle of the great tent city on the grassy swell of plain where the negotiations were taking place. Up here the air smelled fresh and clean. It felt deliciously cool, too. You experienced changes in temperature so quickly in this form; you felt the wind blow through you. There was nothing quite like it.

My dear old friend, he communicated. The signal was passing from and to the excursion platform Quonber, currently almost directly overhead but on the fringes of space. To what, etc.?

Jerle Ruule Batra, said a familiar voice. Good-day.

The It’s My Party And I’ll Sing If I Want To was an Escarpment-class GCU which had been strongly associated with Special Circumstances for nearly as long as Jerle Batra himself. Batra had no idea where the ship actually was in a true, physical sense, but the old craft had gone to the trouble of sending a working-scale personality construct to talk to him here on Prasadal. This implied a matter of more than passing importance.

To you too, he sent, wherever.

Thank you. How goes your peace conference?

Slowly. Having exhausted the possibilities of every other form of mass-murder they could possibly employ against each other, the natives now appear intent on boring each other to death. They may finally have discovered their true calling.

Still, cause for optimism. My congratulations to all. And I’m told you have a child!

I most certainly do not have a child. I am looking after a child for a colleague. That is all.

Nevertheless, that is more than one might have expected of you.

She asked. I could hardly refuse.

How interesting. However, to business.

By all means.

Listen to this.

There followed a compressed version of the message sent by the Now We Try It My Way to its old home MSV, the Qualifier, describing its odd encounter with what had appeared to be an Oct ship above the planet Zaranche, but hadn’t been.

Very well. This was only mildly interesting and Batra did not see how it might involve him. And?

It is believed that the whole Oct fleet above Zaranche, save for one Primarian-class ship, probably the first arrived, was not really there. It was a ghost fleet.

The Oct are at that stage, though, aren’t they? Batra sent. They’re still trying to puff themselves up, still trying on parents’ shoes, making themselves look bigger.

Batra immediately knew somebody somewhere in SC was going to be reading all sorts of paranoid nonsense into something like this. Ghost ships; pretend fleets. Scary! Except it wasn’t, it couldn’t be. The Oct were an irrelevance. Better still, they were the Morthanveld’s irrelevance, or the Nariscene’s irrelevance, depending on where you chose to draw the line. An equiv-tech Involved getting up to this sort of misdirection might mean something significant. The Oct doing the same thing was profoundly so-whattish. They were probably just trying to impress their Nariscene mentors or had left a switch on they shouldn’t or something.

But SC took this sort of random dross terribly seriously. The finest Minds in the Culture had an almost chronic need for serious stuff to involve them, and this, patently, was their latest dose. We make our own problems, Batra thought. We’ve seeded the fucking galaxy with travellers, wanderers, students, reporters, practical ethnologists, peripatetic philosophers, hands-on ex-sociologists, footloose retirees, freelance ambassadors or whatever they’re called this season and a hundred other categories of far too easily amazed amateur and they’re all forever reporting back stuff that looks like deeply weird shit to them that wouldn’t pass the first filter of even the least experienced Contact Unit’s data intake systems.

We’ve filled the known universe with credulous idiots and we think we’ve sneakily contributed to our own safety by making it hard for anything untoward to creep in under our sensor coverage whereas in fact we’ve just made sure we harvest zillions of false positives and probably made the really serious shit harder to spot when it does eventually come flying.

No, the GCU’s construct sent. We don’t think the Oct are trying to look more impressive than they are, not in this case.

Wind moved through Batra’s bushy body like a sigh. What happened after the close encounter? he asked, dutifully.

We don’t know. Haven’t been able to contact the Erratic since. Could have been captured. Conceivably, even, destroyed. A ship — a warship, no less — has been sent to investigate, though it’s still eight days away.

Destroyed? Batra suppressed a laugh. Seriously? Are we within capabilities here?

The Oct Primarian-class has the weaponry and other systems to overwhelm a cobbled-together ex-GTC mongrel, yes.

But are we within likelihood? Batra asked. Are we even still within the realm of anything other than paranoid lunacy? What is imagined to be their motive in doing whatever might have been done to this Erratic?

To stop this getting out.

But why? To what end? What’s so important about this Zaranche place they’d even try to kidnap any Culture ship, hopeless old junkyard oddball or not?

Nothing about Zaranche; rather what this has led to.

Which would be what?

A subtle but thorough investigation into Oct ship movements and placements over the last fifty days or so. Which has involved quite a few Contact, SC and even VFP/warships dropping everything and hightailing off to a variety of obscure backwood destinations, many well within the Morthanveld sphere.

I am suitably impressed. It must be regarded as awfully important for us to risk annoying our so-sensitive co-Involveds at such an allegedly delicate time. And what was the result of all this high-speed, high-value-asset sleuthing?

There are lots of ghost fleets.

What? For the first time, Batra felt something other than a sort of amused, studied disdain. Some legacy of his human form, buried in the transcribed systems that held his personality, made him suddenly feel the coldness of the air up here. Just for an instant he was fully aware that a naked human exposed to this temperature would have hairs standing up on their skin now.

The ghost fleet above Zaranche is one of eleven, the ship continued. The others are here. A glyph of a portion of the galaxy perhaps three thousand light years in diameter displayed itself in Batra’s mind. He swam into the image, looked around, pulled back, played around with a few settings. That’s quite a large part of what one might call Oct Space, he sent.

Indeed. Approximately seventy-three per cent of the entire Oct Prime Fleet would seem not to be where it appears to be.

Why are they bunched like that? Why those places? All the locations, all the places where these ghost fleets had drawn up were out of the way: isolated planets, backwater habitats and seldom-frequented deep-space structures.

It is believed they are grouped where they are to avoid detection.

But they’re being open about it; they’re telling people where they are.

I mean detection of the fact they are ghosts. The cover story, as it were, is that a series of special convocations is taking place which will lead to some profound new departure for the Oct; some new civilisational goal, perhaps. Possibly one linked to their continuing attempts at betterment and advancement upon the galactic stage. We suspect, however, that this is only partially true. The convocations are a ruse to excuse the departure of so many front-line ships.

Had they better technology, the GCU’s personality construct continued, the Oct would, one imagines, have kept their ghost ships appearing to carry out normal duties while the real ones left for wherever it is they have in fact left for. Their ability so to deceive is limited, however. Any high-Involved ship — certainly one of ours or the Morthanveld, for example, and possibly most Nariscene craft — would be able to tell that what they were looking at was not a real Oct ship. So the genuine craft left the normal intercourse of galactic ship life and these rather crude representations were assembled in locations specifically chosen so that the ships’ lack of authenticity would most likely go unnoticed.

Had he still inhabited human form Batra would, at this point, have frowned and scratched his head. But why? To what end? Are these maniacs going to war?

We don’t know. They have outstanding disputes with a few species and there is a particular and recently inflamed gripe with the Aultridia, but the whole of Oct society does not appear to be presently configured for hostilities. It is configured for something unusual, certainly (Batra could hear puzzlement expressed in the ship’s voice), possibly including some sort of hostile or at least dynamic action, but not all-out war. The Aultridia are taken to be their most pressing potential adversaries but they would almost certainly defeat the Oct as matters stand at present. The models show ninety-plus per cent likelihood, very consistently.

So where are the real ships?

That, old chum, is very much the question.

Batra had been thinking. And why am I being included here?

More modelling. Using the pattern of affected snuck-away ships and a pre-existing profile of Oct interests, we have drawn up a list of likely destinations for the real craft.

Another layered diaglyph blossomed in Batra’s mind. Ah-ha, he thought.

The marginally most likely disposition is a distributed one, or rather one of two not dissimilar choices: in each, the Primarians and other strategic craft take up various different positions, either defensive or offensive, depending. The defensive model implies a more even spread of forces than the offensive one, which favours greater concentration. These represent options one and two respectively in the modelled plausibility grading. There is, however, a third option, shown here.

The other layers fell away but Batra had already spotted the pattern and the place within it that was its focus.

They could be gathering round Sursamen, he sent.

The General Contact Unit It’s My Party And I’ll Sing If I Want To still sounded puzzled: Well, quite.


10. A Certain Lack

<p>10. A Certain Lack</p>

She had been a man for a year.

That had been different. Everything had been different. She had learned so much: about herself, about people, about civilisations.

Time: she came to think in Standard years, eventually. To her, at first, they were about one and a half short-years or very roughly half a long-year.

Gravity: she felt intolerably heavy and worryingly fragile at once. A treatment she had already agreed to started to thicken her bones and reduce her height before she left the Eighth, but even so, for the time she was on the ship that took her from the Surface and during the first fifty days or so after her arrival, she towered over most people and felt oddly delicate. Allegedly, the new clothes she had chosen had been reinforced to save her from breaking any bones if she fell badly in the stronger gravity. She had assumed this was a lie to make her feel less frightened, and just took care instead.

Only the measures of human-scale length were roughly as she knew them; strides were near enough metres, and she already thought in kilometres, even if she’d grown up with ten raised to the power of three rather than two to the power of ten.

But that was just the start of it.

For the first couple of years after arriving in the Culture she had been simply as she was, save for that amendment of thickening and shortening. Meanwhile she got to know the Culture and it got to know her. She learned a lot, about everything. The drone Turminder Xuss had accompanied her from the day she’d stepped from the ship she’d arrived on, the space vessel called Lightly Seared on the Reality Grill (she found their ships’ names absurd, childish and ridiculous at first, then got used to them, then thought she kind of understood them, then realised there was no understanding the Mind of a ship, and went back to finding them annoying). The drone answered any questions she had and sometimes talked on her behalf.

Those first three years had been spent on the Orbital Gadampth, mostly on the part called Lesuus, in a sort of extended, teased-out city built on a group of islands scattered across a wide bay on the edge of a small inland sea. The city was named Klusse, and it had some similarities to an ordinary city, despite being much cleaner and lacking any curtain walls or other defensive components that she could discern. Mostly, though, it seemed to be a sort of vast Scholastery.

It took her some time to work out why, as she went walking about the boulevards, terraces, promenades and piazzas of the place, she had felt — not initially, but gradually, just when she ought to have felt herself getting used to the place — an odd mixture of comfort and disturbance at the same time. Eventually she realised it was because in all the faces that she saw there, not one held a disfiguring tumour or had been eaten half away by disease. She had yet to see even a mildly disfiguring skin condition or a lazy eye. Similarly, in all the bodies she moved among, not one was limping or supporting itself on a crutch or trolley, or went hobbling past on a club foot. And not a single madman, not one poor defective standing flecked screaming on a street corner howling at the stars.

She hadn’t appreciated this at first because at the time she was still being amazed at the sheer bewildering physical variation of the people around her, but once she had become used to that, she started to notice that although there was near infinite physical variety here, there was no deformity, and while there was prodigious eccentricity, no dementia. There were more facial, bodily and personality types than she could have imagined, but they were all the product of health and choice, not disease and fate. Everyone was, or could be if they so desired, beautiful in both form and character.

Later she would find that, as this was the Culture after all, of course there were people who embraced ugliness and even the appearance of deformity or mutilation just to be different or to express something inside that they felt ought to be broadcast to their peers; however — once she had passed over her initial sense of irritation and exasperation at such people (did they not, even if unknowingly, mock those truly afflicted, those with no choice in how hideous they looked?) — she realised that even that deliberate adoption of unsightliness displayed a kind of societal confidence, a thumbing of the collective nose at the workings of crude providence and the ancient tyranny, now itself long overthrown, of genetic aberration, gross injury and transmissible pestilence.

* * *

A star named Aoud shone down upon the ten-million-kilometre bracelet of the Orbital. This sun was what everybody else seemed to regard as a real star; one which had been naturally formed. To her it sounded incredibly old and absurdly, almost wastefully enormous.

There, in Klusse, she learned about the history of the Culture and the story of the galaxy itself. She learned about the other civilisations that she had been taught as a child were called the Optimae. They generally referred to themselves as the Involveds or the In-Play, though the terms were loose and there was no exact equivalent of the Sarl word Optimae, with its implication of supremacy. “High-level Involved” was probably as close as you could get.

She also learned pretty much all there was to be learned about her own people, the Sar their long-ago evolution on a faraway planet of the same name, their involvement in a terrible war, their condemnation, exile and displacement (partly for their own good, partly for that of the peoples they had shared that original planet with; the consensus was that they would either kill everybody else or be killed) and their eventual sanctuary/internment in Sursamen under the auspices of the Galactic Council, the Morthanveld and Nariscene. This version felt like the truth, she thought; close enough to the myths and legends of her own people, but less self-serving, less dramatically glorious, more equivocal in its moral implications.

This area of study turned up surprising details. The fact that the Deldeyn and the Sarl were the same people, for example; the Deldeyn were a sub-group of the main population who had been transported to the level below by the Oct over a thousand years ago. And the Oct had done this without permission from their Nariscene mentors; that level, while once supporting many peoples, had seen them all evacuated millennia ago and was supposed to have been left empty of intelligent life until further notice. The Oct had been forced to apologise, undertake never to do such a thing again and pay reparations in the form of surrendered influence elsewhere; however, the unauthorised movement of people had finally, reluctantly, been accepted as a fait accompli.

She learned about pan-humanity, about the great diasporic welter of human-like, human-ish and humanoid species scattered throughout so much of the galaxy.

She learned about the present sociopolitical set-up that existed in the galaxy and felt a sort of widespread satisfaction that there was just so much of it, and almost all of it peaceful. There were millions of species, hundreds of different types of species, even casting one’s definition wide, and that was without taking into account civilisations that were composed more of machines than biological beings at all. Ultimately the galaxy, indeed the sum of the universe in its entirety, was mostly nothing; average it all out and it made a pretty good vacuum. But within the foci of matter that were the systems, the stars and planets and habitats — what a cornucopia of life was there!

There were bogglingly large numbers just of these pan-humans (of which, of course, she was one), but they still formed less than a single per cent of all the aggregated life-mass of the greater galaxy. Also, where they did exist, men and women were mostly — most places, most of the time — equals. In the Culture this was even guaranteed by birthright; you could be whatever gender you wished — just by thinking about it! She found this highly satisfactory, and a kind of vindication.

Life buzzed in, fumed about, rattled around and quite thoroughly infested the entire galaxy, and probably — almost certainly — well beyond. The vast ongoingness of it all somehow put all one’s own petty concerns and worries into context, making them seem not irrelevant, but of much less distressing immediacy. Context was indeed all, as her father had always insisted, but the greater context she was learning about acted to shrink the vast-seeming scale of the Eighth Level of Sursamen and all its wars, politics, disputes, struggles, tribulations and vexations until it all looked very far away and trivial indeed.

She learned about Contact, the part of the Culture that went out to discover and interact with other civilisations, especially new and fast-developing ones, and about its slightly scurrilous, tentatively raffish, arguably shadowy division called Special Circumstances. It was some time before she realised that she herself was expected to have at least a chance of becoming part of this prestigious, if not entirely respectable organisation. This was, she gathered, supposed to be a most singular and unusual honour and almost the only worthwhile distinction the Culture had to offer that was not available on demand. However, she was, again, instantly suspicious.

For some time the aspect of Orbital life she marvelled at more than anything else was the geography: mountains, cliffs and gorges, pinnacles, scree and boulder fields. That none of it was truly natural, that it had all been designed and manufactured from debris found in the solar system when the world was made only added to her amazement. She hiked the high mountains and learned to ski. She took part in various sports and discovered she even enjoyed being part of a team. She hadn’t expected that, somehow.

She had made friends and taken lovers, when she had grown to believe that her new, squat self was not hideous. Not all pairings worked, even, as it were, mechanically — there was a wide variety of body shapes. Another treatment she chose monitored her womb, to alert her on the very low off-chance that she mated with somebody her own physical system found sufficiently compatible for her to conceive by. She had wondered if this was not a lie, too, but nothing ever happened.

She played with her own dreams, and took part in shared dreams that were vast games, using nothing more exotic-seeming than special pillows or nightcaps to access these strange sub-realities. She realised that she slept much more than most of her friends, missing out on a potential part of waking life. She asked for another treatment, which solved that problem as though it had never existed; she slept deeply for a few hours each of these clockworkly regular and dependable nights and awoke thoroughly refreshed each morning.

She took part in other semi-hallucinatory experiences that seemed like games but which she knew were also lessons and evaluations, submerging her entirely conscious self into simulations of reality that were sometimes based on real, earlier events and experiences, and sometimes were as entirely deliberately created as the Orbital and its amazingly vertiginous landscape. Some left her troubled to know the terrible things people — pan-humans and beyond, but all people — could do to each other. The implication, though, was that such ghastliness was an affliction, and could be at least partially cured. The Culture represented the hospital, or perhaps a whole caring society, Contact was the physician and SC the anaesthetic and the medicine. Sometimes the scalpel.

Almost the only aspect of her new life that she adapted to without pause for thought was the total absence of money in the Culture. She had been a princess, after all, and so was perfectly used to that.

She watched some of her friends enter states she could not share, and, after great initial wariness, asked for more treatments that caused glands in her body she hadn’t even known she possessed to alter over a few tens of days until she possessed a simple drug-gland suite inside her head and a modest choice of mixtures of trace chemicals she could now choose to release into her bloodstream and brain whenever she wanted.

That had been interesting.

Amongst the Sarl, at least on the Eighth, every drug had at least one unwanted and unpleasant side effect. Here; nothing. You got what you wanted, no more. She remained highly sceptical, unconvinced such light was possible without shade. She no longer needed the drone Turminder Xuss, who went off to tend to others. She used a finger-ring terminal to connect with the dataverse instead.

She began to collect amendments, treatments, as one might accumulate jewellery. She even had a couple of treatments rescinded, just removed from her altogether, simply to make sure that the processes truly were fully reversible. A new tutor, one who was present only rarely but seemed in some sense senior to the others, a bush-like being who had once been a man, called Batra, sounded amused when he/it said she was a suspicious child. Amused and somehow approving. She got the feeling she was supposed to feel flattered, but she’d been more concerned about the mild insult contained in the word “child”.

People shifted, went away, relationships ended. She asked one of her female mentors about how one changed from female to male. Another treatment. Over most of a year she grew slightly, bulked out further, grew hair in strange places, and watched, fascinated, as her genitals went from fissure to spire. She did wake up a couple of nights covered in sweat, appalled at what was happening to her, feeling herself, wondering if this was all some enormously laboured joke and she was being made a freak of deliberately, for sport, but there were always people to talk to who had been through the same experience — both in person and via screens and sims — and no shortage of archived material to explain and reassure.

She kept a couple of intermittent, unbothered lovers even as she changed, then, as a man, took many more, mostly female. It was true: one made a better, more considerate lover when one had once been as one’s partner. He woke up one morning after a strenuous night with a small group of old friends and just-mets, blinking in the sunshine of a brilliant new day, looking out over a broad balcony and a sparkling sea to a great columnar mountain that reminded him of a Tower back home, and woke everybody else up with his laughter.

He was never sure why he decided to change back. For a long time he thought to return to Sursamen as a man, see what they made of him then. Apart from anything else, there had been a couple of ladies at the court he had always been fond of, and now felt something more for. By that point he knew his brother Elime had been killed and he was the eldest child of the King; the next king, indeed, if you looked at it in a certain way. He might return, claim the throne, in time. By then, with further treatments, he might have martial skills and attributes beyond those of any warrior who had ever lived on the Eighth. He’d be unstoppable; he could take the throne if he wanted. That would be hilarious. Oh, the looks on certain faces!

But that would be cruel at best, he thought. At worst, the results might be something between melodrama and the bloodiest of tragedies. Anyway, to be king of the Sarl no longer seemed like the greatest thing a soul might aspire to, not by some long measure.

He changed, became a she again. The lesson regarding being a considerate lover did not change.

She took her Full Name. In her father’s kingdom, she had been called Djan Seriy Hausk’a yun Pourl, yun Dich — this translated as Djan, Prince-Consort Hausk’s daughter of Pourl, of the Eighth.

Here, now that she thought of herself as a Culture citizen — albeit still one that had been born and brought up elsewhere — she took the name Meseriphine-Sursamen/VIIIsa Djan Seriy Anaplian dam Pourl.

Marain, the Culture’s exquisitely formed meta-language, used its Secondary Numbering Series to denote Shellworld levels. The Anaplian part came from her mother’s name: Anaplia. The word Seriy — indicating she had been raised to be fit to be married to a prince — she kept for a laugh. She expressed disappointment that there was no ceremony to mark the taking of one’s Full Name. Her friends and colleagues invented one for her.

She had further treatments, to give her control of many more aspects of her body and mind. Now she would age very slowly, and did not really need to age at all. Now she was proof against any natural disease under this or any other sun, and even losing something as major as a limb would prove only a temporary inconvenience, as a new one would simply grow back. Now she had the full panoply of drug glands, with all the benefits and responsibilities that entailed. Now she gained fully augmented senses — so that, for example, her vision became sharper and brought her information about the infrared and the ultraviolet — now she could sense radio waves, now she was able to interface directly with machines via a thing called a neural lace that had grown about and through her brain like a flimsy, three-dimensional net, now she could switch off pain and fatigue (though her body seemed to scorn them anyway), now her nerves changed to become more like wires, shifting impulses far faster than before, while her bones accreted strands of carbon to make them stronger and her muscles went through chemical and microscopically scaled mechanical changes that made them more effective and more powerful. Every major internal organ grew more efficient, more tolerant, more capable, resilient and adaptable, even as many of them grew smaller.

She became part of Contact and joined the crew of the General Contact Unit Transient Atmospheric Phenomenon. She’d had the luxury of a choice in the matter and had turned down the Experiencing A Significant Gravitas Shortfall and the Pure Big Mad Boat Man just because of their ridiculous names. She served with distinction for only five years aboard the GCU before the invitation to join Special Circumstances arrived. A surprisingly short period of additional training ensued; almost all the new skills she would now need were already there, pre-implanted. She was reunited with the drone Turminder Xuss, who had always been intended as her companion. She discovered the old machine came complete with a small squadron of knife, attack and scout missiles and was effectively a little arsenal of wide-spectrum destruction all on its own.

SC added its own final, finessed layers of additional characteristics to her already heady mix of bodily enhancements, empowering her still further: here were fingernails that could lase, to signal, blind or kill, here was a tiny reactor within her skull that, amongst other things, could provide the power to keep her alive and conscious for years without oxygen, here was a whole-body fibre structure welded to her very bones that could sense distortions in the skein of space itself; here was a level of conscious control over her own body and, almost incidentally, over any merely electronic machine within fifty metres which exceeded that of any rider over their mount or any champion swordsman over his blade…

She felt, she realised one day, like a god.

She thought then of Sursamen, and her old self, and knew there was no going back.

* * *

She was going back. And she was losing some of those skills and attributes, some of those martial enhancements.

“You’re gelding me,” she said to Jerle Batra.

“I’m sorry. The Morthanveld are very wary of Special Circumstances agents.”

“Oh, really.” She shook her head. “We’re no threat to them.” She looked at the man who looked like a small bush. “Well, we’re not, are we?”

“Of course not. On the contrary.” Batra made a shrugging motion. “It’s a courtesy.”

“It feels like a discourtesy to me.”

“That is unfortunate.”

“We may be overdoing the coddling thing here, you know,” she said.

“All the same.”

They were on the platform Quonber, riding frigid waves of air above a high mountain range; kilometres beneath, a grey-white glacier streaked with lines of shattered rock curved and corrugated its way towards the limits of a tungsten sky.

The coddling Djan Seriy was referring to involved the almost exaggerated respect the Culture as a whole had recently been showing the Morthanveld. The Morthanveld were technologically on a par with the Culture and the two civilisations had co-existed on good terms since they had encountered each other thousands of years earlier, sharing extensive cultural links and co-operating on a variety of projects. They were not exactly allies — the waterworlders had kept scrupulously neutral during the Idiran war, for example — but they were of a mind on most matters.

Djan Seriy’s discomfiture was being caused by the fact that some of the Culture’s more self-congratulatingly clever Minds (not in itself an underpopulated category), patently with far too much time on their platters, had come up with the shiny new theory that the Culture was not just in itself completely spiffing and marvellous and a credit to all concerned, it somehow represented a sort of climactic stage for all civilisations, or at least for all those which chose to avoid heading straight for Sublimation as soon as technologically possible (Sublimation meant your whole civilisation waved farewell to the matter-based universe pretty much altogether, opting for a sort of honorary godhood).

Avoid self-destruction, recognise — and renounce — money for the impoverishing ration system it really was, become a bunch of interfering, do-gooding busybodies, resist the siren call of selfish self-promotion that was Subliming and free your conscious machines to do what they did best — essentially, running everything — and there you were; millennia of smug self-regard stretched before you, no matter what species you had started out from.

So. It was thought, by those Minds that especially concerned themselves with such matters, that the Morthanveld were on the cusp of going Culture; of undergoing a kind of societal phase-change, altering subtly but significantly into a water-worlder equivalent of the Culture. All that would need to happen for this to be effected, it was reckoned, would be the Morthanveld giving up the last vestiges of monetary exchange within their society, adopting a more comprehensive, self-consciously benign and galaxy-wide foreign policy and — probably most crucially — granting their AIs complete self-expressive freedom and full citizenship rights.

The Culture wanted to encourage this, obviously, but could not be seen to interfere or to be trying to influence matters. This was the main reason for not upsetting the people who would be Djan Seriy’s hosts for the latter part of her journey back to Sursamen; this was why she was being stripped of almost all her SC enhancements and even some of the amendments she had chosen for herself before Special Circumstances had invited her aboard in the first place.

“Probably a bluff anyway,” she told Turminder Xuss grumpily, looking out over the surface of cragged, chevronned ice below. The skies were clear and the balcony on which she stood and over which the drone silently hovered provided a calm, pleasantly warm environment; however, a furious torrent of air was howling all around the platform as the planet’s jetstream swept above the high mountains. Force fields beyond the balcony’s perimeter prevented the invisible storm from buffeting and freezing them, though such was the power of the screaming rush of air that a faint echo of its voice could be heard even through the field; a distant, thrumming wail, like some animal trapped and shrieking on the ice far below.

When they had first taken up station here during the previous night the air had been perfectly still and you could hear the cracks and creaks and booms of the glacier as it ground against the torn shoulders of the mountains that formed its banks and scoured its way across the great gouged bed of fractured rock beneath.

“A bluff?” Turminder Xuss sounded unconvinced.

“Yes,” Anaplian said. “Could it not be that the Morthanveld merely pretend to be on the brink of becoming like the Culture in order to keep the Culture from interfering in their business?”

“Hmm,” the drone said. “That wouldn’t work for long.”

“Even so.”

“And you’d wonder why the idea that the Morthanveld were poised in this manner was allowed to become so prevalent in the first place.”

Anaplian realised they had got rather rapidly to the point that all such conversations regarding the strategic intentions of the Culture tended to arrive at sooner or later, where it became clear that the issue boiled down to the question What Are The Minds Really Up To? This was always a good question, and it was usually only churls and determinedly diehard cynics who even bothered to point out that it rarely, if ever, arrived paired up with an equally good answer.

The normal, almost ingrained response of people at this point was to metaphorically throw their hands in the air and exclaim that if that was what it really all boiled down to then there was no point in even attempting to pursue the issue further, because as soon as the motivations, analyses and stratagems of Minds became the defining factor in a matter, all bets were most profoundly off, for the simple reason that any and all efforts to second-guess such infinitely subtle and hideously devious devices were self-evidently futile.

Anaplian was not so sure about this. It was her suspicion that it suited the purposes of the Minds rather too neatly that people believed this so unquestioningly. Such a reaction represented not so much the honest appraisal of further enquiry as being pointless as an unthinking rejection of the need to enquire at all.

“Perhaps the Minds are jealous,” Anaplian said. “They don’t want the Morthanveld to steal even the echo of their thunder by becoming like them. They patronise the waterworlders in order to antagonise them, make them do the opposite of what is supposedly anticipated, so that they become less like the Culture. Because that is what the Minds really desire.”

“That makes as much sense as anything I’ve heard so far on the matter,” Turminder Xuss said, politely.

She was not being allowed to take the drone with her on her return to Sursamen. SC agent + combat drone was a combination that was well known far beyond the Culture. Although perilously close to a cliché, it remained a partnership you could, allegedly, still frighten children and bad people with.

Anaplian felt a faint tingle somewhere inside her head and experienced a sort of buzzing sensation throughout her body. She tried clicking into her skein sense, that let her monitor significant gravity waves in her vicinity and alerted her to any warp activity nearby, but the system was off-line, flagged indefinitely inoperable though not as a result of hostile action (nevertheless, she could feel at least one part of her SC-amended neural lace protesting, some automatic system forever watching for damage by stealth reacting to what it would register as the impairment of her abilities and the degradation of her inherent survivability with pre-programmed outrage).

The platform’s own drone-standard AI was, with her permission, moving slowly through her suite of enhancements and gradually turning off those it was thought the Morthanveld might object to. Click. There went the electromagnetic effector ability. She tried interfering with the field unit buried in the ceiling overhead, which was keeping the air on the balcony insulated from the thin and well-below-freezing airstream coursing around the platform. No connection. She could still sense EM activity but she couldn’t affect it any more. She had lived most of her life without such abilities and to date had used very few of them in anger, but she experienced their going with a distinct sense of loss and even dismay.

She looked down at her fingernails. They appeared normal at the moment, but she’d already thought the signal that would make them detach and fall off by the following morning. There would be no pain or blood and new nails would grow back during the next few days, but they wouldn’t be Coherent Radiation Emission Weapons, they wouldn’t be lasers.

Oh well, she thought, inspecting them, even ordinary, unamended nails could still scratch.

Click. There, she couldn’t radio now either. No transmissions possible. Trapped inside her own head. She tried to communicate via her lace, calling up Leeb Scoperin, one of her colleagues here and her most recent lover. Nothing directly; she would have to go through the platform’s systems, just like ordinary Culture people. She had rather hoped to see Leeb before she left, but he just hadn’t been able to get away from whatever it was he was doing at such short notice.

Turminder Xuss’ own systems must have registered something happening. “That you?” it asked.

She felt mildly insulted, as though the drone had enquired whether she’d just farted. “Yes,” she said sharply. “That was me. Comms off-line.”

“No need to get snappy.”

She looked at the machine through narrowed eyes. “I think you’ll find there is,” she informed it.

“My, it’s breezy out there!” Batra said, floating in through the force field from outside. “Djan Seriy; the module is here.”

“I’ll get my bag,” Anaplian said.

“Please,” Turminder Xuss said. “Allow me.”

Batra must have read the expression on her face as she watched the drone make its way to the nearest interior door.

“I think Turminder Xuss is going to miss you,” Batra said, extending loops of brittle-looking twigs and branches to take his/its weight and standing head-height in front of her like a framework for the sculpture of a human.

Anaplian shook her head. “The machine grows sentimental,” she said.

“Unlike yourself?” Batra asked neutrally.

She guessed he was talking about Toark, the child she had rescued from the burning city. The boy was still asleep; she had crept into his cabin to say a one-sided farewell earlier that morning, stroking his hair, whispering, not waking him. Batra had agreed, reluctantly, to look after the child while she was away.

“I have always been sentimental,” Anaplian claimed.

The little three-seat module dropped from the sky, lowered itself gently through the roof of force field bowing over the platform’s flight deck and backed up towards the group waiting for it, rear door hingeing open.

“Farewell, Djan Seriy,” Batra said, extending a less-than-skeletal assemblage at chest height, the extremity vaguely hand-shaped.

Anaplian put her palm briefly against this sculpted image, feeling faintly ridiculous. “You will look after the boy?” she said.

“Oh,” Batra said with a sighing noise, “as though he were your own.”

“I am serious,” she said. “If I don’t come back, I want you to take care of him, until you can find somewhere and someone more fitting.”

“You have my word,” Batra told her. “Just make sure you do come back.”

“I shall endeavour to,” she said.

“You have backed up?”

“Last night,” Anaplian confirmed. They were both being polite; Batra would know very well that she had backed herself up. The platform had taken a reading of her mind state the evening before. Should she fail to return — whether due to death or in theory any other reason — a clone of her could be grown and all her personality and memories implanted into it, creating a new her almost indistinguishable from the person she was now. It did not do to forget that, in a disquietingly real sense, to be an SC agent was to be owned by SC. The compensation was that even death was just a temporary operational glitch, soon overcome. Again though, only in a sense.

Turminder Xuss reappeared and deposited her bags in the module. “Well, goodbye, dear girl,” it said. “Try to avoid getting into any scrapes; I shan’t be there to save you.”

“I have already adjusted my expectations,” Anaplian told it. The drone was silent, as though not sure what to make of this. Anaplian bowed formally. “Goodbye,” she said to both of them, then turned and walked into the module.

Three minutes later she was stepping out of it again, aboard the Eight Rounds Rapid, a Delinquent-class Fast Picket and ex-General Offensive Unit which would take her to rendezvous with the Steppe-class Medium Systems Vehicle Don’t Try This At Home. This represented just the first leg of her complicated and languidly paced journey back to her old home.

Djan Seriy was shown to a small cabin aboard the old ex-warship by a ship-slaved drone. She would be aboard for less than a full day; however, she had wanted somewhere to lie down and think.

She opened her bag. She looked at what was lying on top of her few clothes and possessions. “I don’t recall packing you,” she muttered, and was immediately uncertain whether she was talking to herself or not (she instinctively tried to read the device with her active EM sense, but of course that didn’t work any more).

She was not talking to herself.


“Well remembered,” the thing she was looking at said. It appeared to be a dildo.

“Are you what I think you are?”

“I don’t know. What do you think I am?”

“I think you are a knife missile. Or something very similar.”

“Well, yes,” the small device said. “But then again no.”

Anaplian frowned. “Certainly you would appear to possess some of the more annoying linguistic characteristics of, say, a drone.”

“Well done, Djan Seriy!” the machine said brightly. “I am indeed one and both at the same time. The mind and personality of myself, Turminder Xuss, copied into the seasoned though still hale and hearty body of my most capable knife missile, lightly disguised.”

“I suppose I ought to be gratified you chose to make your ruse known at this point rather than later.”

“Ha ha. I would never have been so ungallant. Or intrusive.”

“You hope to protect me from scrapes, I take it.”

“Absolutely. Or at least share them with you.”

“Do you think you’ll get away with this?”

“Who can say? Worth a try.”

“You might have thought to ask me.”

“I did.”

“You did? I appear to have lost more than I thought.”

“I thought to ask you, but I didn’t. So as to protect you from potential blame.”

“How kind.”

“This way I may take full responsibility. In the I hope unlikely event you wish me to return whence I came, I shall leave you when you board the Don’t Try This At Home.”

“Does Batra know?”

“I most sincerely hope not. I could spend the rest of my Contact career toting bags, or worse.”

“Is this even semi-official?” Anaplian asked. She had never entirely lost her well-developed sense of suspicion.

“Hell’s teeth, no! All my own work.” The drone paused. “I was charged with protecting you, Djan Seriy,” it said, sounding more serious now. “And I am not some blindly obedient machine. I would like to continue to help protect you, especially as you are travelling so far outside the general protection of the Culture, to a place of violence, with your abilities reduced. For these reasons, I duly offer my services.”

Anaplian frowned. “Save that for which your appearance would imply you are most suited,” she said, “I accept.”


11. Bare, Night

<p>11. Bare, Night</p>

Oramen lay on the bed with the girl who’d called herself Jish. He was playing with her hair, tangling long brown locks of it around one finger then releasing it again. He was amused by the similarity in shape of the girl’s spiralled curls and the rolls of smoke she was producing from the unge pipe she was smoking. The smoke rolled lazily upwards towards the high, ornate ceiling of the room, which was part of a house in an elegant a