THE SLAVES OF SCYLLA
As unruffled by the disturbances shaking the city as by the furious thunderstorm that threatened with every gust to throw down its shiprock and return its mud brick to the parent mud, His Cognizance Patera Quetzal, Prolocutor of the Chapter of This Our Holy City of Viron, studied his present sere and sallow features in the polished belly of the silver teapot.
As at this hour each day, he swung his head to the right and contemplated his nearly noseless profile, made a similar inspection of its obverse, and elevated his chin to display a lengthy and notably wrinkled neck. He had shaped and colored face and neck with care upon arising, as he did every morning; nevertheless, there remained the possibility (however remote) that something had gone awry by ten: thus the present amused but painstaking self-examination.
"For I am a careful man," he muttered, pretending to smooth one thin white eyebrow.
A crash of thunder shook the Prolocutor's Palace to its foundations at the final word, brightening every light in the room to a glare; rain and hail drummed the windowpanes.
Patera Remora, Coadjutor of the Chapter, nodded solemnly. "Yes indeed, Your Cognizance. You are indeed a most--ah--advertent man."
Yet there was always that possibility. "I'm growing old, Patera. Even we careful men grow old."
Remora nodded again, his long bony face expressive of regret. "Alas, Your Cognizance."
"As do many other things, Patera. Our city ... The Whorl itself grows old. When we're young, we notice things that are young, like ourselves. New grass on old graves. New leaves on old trees." Quetzal lifted his chin again to study his bulging reflection through hooded eyes.
"The golden season of beauty and--um--elegiacs, Your Cognizance." Remora's fingers toyed with a dainty sandwich.
"As we notice the signs of advancing age in ourselves, we see them in the Whorl. Just a few chems today who ever saw a man who saw a man who remembered the day Pas made the Whorl."
A little bewildered by the rapid riffle through so many generations, Remora nodded again. "Indeed, Your Cognizance. Indeed not." Surreptitiously, he wiped jam from one finger.
"You become conscious of recurrences, the cyclical nature of myth. When first I received the bacculus, I had occasion to survey many old documents. I read each with care. It was my custom to devote three Hieraxdays a month to that. To that alone, and to inescapable obsequies. I gave my prothonotary the straitest instructions to make no appointments for that day. It's a practice I recommend, Patera."
Thunder rattled the room again, lightning a dragon beyond the windows.
"I will, um, reinstitute this wise usage at once, Your Cognizance."
"At once, you say?" Quetzal looked up from the silver pot, resolved to repowder his chin at the first opportunity. "You may go to young Incus and so instruct him, if you want. Tell him now, Patera. Tell him now."
"That is--ah--unfeasible, I fear, Your Cognizance. I sent Patera Incus upon a--um--errand Molpsday. He has not--um--rejoined us."
"I see. I see." With a trembling hand, Quetzal raised his cup until its gilt rim touched his lips, then lowered it, though not so far as to expose his chin. "I want beef tea, Patera. There's no strength in this. I want beef tea. See to it, please."
Long accustomed to the request, his coadjutor rose. "I shall prepare it with my own hands, Your Cognizance. It will--ah--occupy only an, um, trice. Boiling water, an, um, roiling boil. Your Cognizance may rely upon me."
Slowly, Quetzal replaced the delicate cup in its saucer as he watched Remora's retreating back; he even spilled a few drops there, for he was, as he had said, careful. The measured closing of the door. Good. The clank of the latchbar. Good again. No one could intrude now without noise and a slight delay; he had designed the latching mechanism himself.
Without leaving his chair, he extracted the puff from a drawer on the other side of the room and applied fleshtoned powder delicately to the small, sharp chin he had shaped with such care upon arising. Swinging his head from side to side as before, frowning and smiling by turns, he studied the effect in the teapot. Good, good!
Rain beat against the windows with such force as to drive trickles of chill water through crevices in the casements; it pooled invitingly on the milkstone windowsills and fell in cataracts to soak the carpet. That, too, wasgood. At three, he would preside at the private sacrifice of twenty-one dappled horses, the now-posthumous offering of Councillor Lemur--one to all the gods for each week since rain more substantial than a shower had blessed Viron's fields. They could be converted to a thank offering, and he would so convert them.
Would the congregation know by then of Lemur's demise? Quetzal debated the advisability of announcing the fact if they did not. It was a question of some consequence; and at length, for the temporary relief the act afforded him, he pivoted his hinged fangs from their snug grooves in the roof of his mouth, snapping each gratefully into its socket and grinning gleefully at his distorted image.
The rattle of the latch was nearly lost in another crash of thunder, but he had kept an eye on the latchbar. There was a second and louder rattle as Remora, on the other side of the door, contended with the inconveniently shaped iron handle that would, when its balky rotation had been completed, laboriously lift the clumsy bar clear of its cradle.
Quetzal touched his lips almost absently with his napkin; when he spread it upon his lap again, his fangs had vanished. "Yes, Patera?" he inquired querulously. "What is it now? Is it time already?"
"Your beef tea, Your Cognizance." Remora set his small tray on the table. "Shall I--um--decant a cup for you? I have, er, obtained a clean cup for the purpose."
"Do, Patera. Please do." Quetzal smiled. "While you were gone, I was contemplating the nature of humor. Have you ever considered it?"
Remora resumed his seat. "I fear not, Your Cognizance."
"What's become of young Incus? You hadn't expected him to be gone so long?"
"No, Your Cognizance. I dispatched him to Limna." Remora spooned beef salts into the clean cup and addedwater from the small copper kettle he had brought, producing a fine plume of steam. "I am--ah--moderately concerned. An, um, modicum of civil unrest last night, eh?" He stirred vigorously. "This--ah--stripling Silk. Patera Silk, alas. I know ham."
"My prothonotary told me." With the slightest of nods, Quetzal accepted the steaming cup. "I'd have thought Limna would be safer."
"As would I, Your Cognizance. As did I."
A cautious sip. Quetzal held the hot, salty fluid in his mouth, drawing it deliciously through folded fangs.
"I sent him in search of a--ah, um--individual, Your Cognizance. A, er, acquaintance of this Patera Silk's. The Civil Guard is searching for Patera himself, hey? As are, er, certain others. Other--ah--parties. So I am told. This morning, Your Cognizance, I dispatched still others to look for young Incus. The rain, however, ah, necessitous, will hamper them all, hum?"
"Do you swim, Patera?"
"I, Your Cognizance? At the--um--lakeside, you mean? No. Or at least, not for many years."
Remora groped toward a point he had yet to discern. "A healthful exercise, however. For those of, um, unaugmented years, eh? A hot bath before sacrifice, Your Cognizance? Or--I have it!--springs. There are, er, reborant springs at Urbs. Healing springs, most healthful. Possibly, while--ah--affairs are so--ah--unsettled here, eh?"
Quetzal shook himself. He had a way of quivering like a fat man when he did that, although on the few occasions when Remora had been obliged to lift him into bed, his body had in fact been light and sinuous. "The gods ..." He smiled.
"Must be served, to be sure, Your Cognizance. I would be on the spot--ah--ensuring that the Chapter's interests were vigilantly safeguarded, hey?" Remora tossedlank black hair away from his eyes. "Each rite carried out with--um--"
"You must recall the story, Patera." Quetzal swayed from side to side, perhaps with silent mirth. "A-man and Wo-man like rabbits in a garden. The--what do you call them?" He held up a thin, blue-veined hand, palm cupped.
"A cobra, Your Cognizance?"
"The cobra persuaded Wo-man to eat fruit from his tree, miraculous fruit whose taste conferred wisdom."
Remora nodded, wondering how he might reintroduce the springs. "I recollect the--um--allegory."
Quetzal nodded more vigorously, a wise teacher proffering praise to a small boy. "It's all in the Writings. Or nearly all. A god called Ah Lah barred Wo-man and her husband from the garden." He ceased to speak, apparently wandering among thoughts. "We seem to have lost sight of Ah Lah, by the way. I can't recall a single sacrifice to him. No one ever asks why the cobra wanted Wo-man to eat his fruit."
"From sheer, er, wickedness, Your Cognizance? That is what I had always supposed."
Quetzal swayed faster, his face solemn. "In order that she would climb his tree, Patera. The man likewise. Their story's not over because they haven't climbed down. That's why I asked if you had considered the nature of humor. Is Patera Incus a strong swimmer?"
"Why, I've--ah--no notion, Your Cognizance."
"Because you think you know why the woman you sent him to look for visited the lake with our scamp Silk, whose name I see on walls."
"Why, er, Your Cognizance is--ah--great penetration, as always." Remora fidgeted.
"I saw it scratched on one five floors up, yesterday," Quetzal continued as though he had not heard, "and went wide."
"Disgraceful, Your Cognizance!"
"Respect for our cloth, Patera. I myself swim well. Not so well as a fish, but very well indeed. Or I did."
"I'm pleased to hear it, Your Cognizance."
"The jokes of gods are long in telling. That's why you ought to sift the records of the past on Hieraxdays, Patera. Today's Hieraxday. You'll learn to think in new and better ways. Thank you for my beef tea. Now go."
Remora rose and bowed. "As Your Cognizance desires."
His Cognizance stared past him, lost in speculation.
Greatly daring, Remora ventured, "I have often observed that your own way of thinking is somewhat--ah--unlike, as well as much more, um, select than that of most men."
There was no reply. Remora took a step backward. "Upon every--ah--topic whatsoever, Your Cognizance's information is quite, um, marvelous."
"Wait." Quetzal had made his decision. "The riots. Has the Alambrera fallen?"
"What's that? The Alambrera? Why--ah--no. Not to my knowledge, Your Cognizance."
"Tonight." Quetzal reached for his beef tea. "Sit down, Patera. You're always jumping about. You make me nervous. It can't be good for you. Lemur's dead. Did you know it?"
Remora's mouth gaped, then snapped shut. He sat.
"You weren't. It's your responsibility to learn things."
Remora acknowledged his responsibility with a shamefaced nod. "May I inquire, Your Cognizance--?"
"How I know? In the same way I knew the woman you sent Incus after had gone to Lake Limna with Patera Caldé Silk."
Once again, Quetzal favored Remora with his lipless smile. "Are you afraid I'll be arrested, Patera? Cast into the pits? You'd be Prolocutor, presumably. I've no fearof the pits." Quetzal's long-skulled, completely hairless head bobbed above his cup. "Not at my age. None."
"None the less, I implore Your Cognizance to be more--ah--circumspect."
"Why isn't the city burning, patera?"
Caught by surprise, Remora glanced at the closest window.
"Mud brick and shiprock walls. Timbers supporting upper floors. Thatch or shingles. Five blocks of shops burned last night. Why isn't the whole city burning today?"
"It's raining, Your Cognizance," Remora summoned all his courage. "It's been raining--ah--forcibly since early this morning."
"Exactly so. Patera Caldé Silk went to Limna on Molpsday with a woman. That same day, you sent Incus there to look for an acquaintance of his. A woman, since you were reluctant to speak of it. Councillor Loris spoke through the glass an hour before lunch."
Remora tensed. "He told you Councillor Lemur was no longer among us, Your Cognizance?"
Quetzal swung his head back and forth. "That Lemur was still alive, Patera. There are rumors. So it would appear. He wanted me to denounce them this afternoon."
"But if Councillor Loris--ah--assures--"
"Clearly Lemur's dead. If he weren't, he'd speak to me in person. Or show himself at the Juzgado. Or both."
"Even so, Your Cognizance--"
Another crash of thunder made common cause with Quetzal's thin hand to interrupt.
"Can the Ayuntamiento prevail without him? That's the question, Patera. I want your opinion."
To give himself time to consider, Remora sipped his now-tepid tea. "Munitions, the--ah--thews of contention, are stored in the Alambrera, as well as in the, um, cantonment of the Civil Guard, east of the city."
"I know that."
"It is an, er, complex of great--um--redoubtability, Your Cognizance. I am informed that the outer wall is twelve cubits in--ah--laterality. Yet Your Cognizance anticipates its surrender tonight? Before venturing an opinion, may I enquire as to the source of Your Cognizance's information?"
"I haven't any," Quetzal told him. "I was thinking out loud. If the Alambrera doesn't fall in a day or so, Patera Caldé Silk will fail. That's my opinion. Now I want yours."
"Your Cognizance does me honor. There is also the--um--dormant army to consider. Councillor Lemur--ah--Loris will undoubtedly issue an--ah--call to arms, should the, um, situation, in his view, become serious."
"Your opinion, Patera."
Remora's cup rattled in its saucer. "As long as the--ah--ndelity of the Civil Guard remains--um--unblemished, Your Cognizance," he drew a deep breath, "it would appear to me, though I am assuredly no--um--master hand at matters military, that--ah, um--Patera Caldé cannot prevail."
Quetzal appeared to be listening only to the storm; for perhaps fifteen tickings of the coffin-shaped clock that stood beside the door, the howling of the wind and the lash of rain filled the room. At last he asked, "Suppose that you were to learn that part of the Guard's gone over to Silk already?"
Remora's eyes widened. "Your Cognizance has--?"
"No reason to think so. My question's hypothetical."
Remora, who had much experience of Quetzal's hypothetical questions, filled his lungs again. "I should then say, Your Cognizance, that should any such unhappy circumstance--ah--circumstances eventuate, the city would find itself amongst--ah--perilous waters."
"And the Chapter?"
Remora looked doleful. "Equally so, Your Cognizance,if not worse. As an augur, Silk could well, ah, proclaim himself Prolocutor, as well as caldé."
"Really. He lacks reverence for you, my coadjutor?"
"No, Your Cognizance. Quite the, um, contrary."
Quetzal sipped beef tea in silence.
"Your Cognizance--ah--intends the Chapter to support the--um--host of, er, Patera Caldé?"
"I want you to compose a circular letter, Patera. You have nearly six hours. It should be more than enough. I'll sign it when we're through in the Grand Manteion." Quetzal stared down at the stagnant brown liquid in his cup.
"To all the clergy, Your Cognizance?"
"Emphasize our holy duty to bring comfort to the wounded and the Final Formula to the dying. Imply, but don't say--" Quetzal paused, inspired.
"Yes, Your Cognizance?"
"That Lemur's death ends the claim to rule the councillors had in the past. You say you know Patera Caldé Silk?"
Remora nodded. "I conversed with him at some--ah--extensively Scylsday evening, Your Cognizance. We discussed the financial--um--trials of his manteion, and--ah--various other matters."
"I don't, Patera. But I've read every report in his file, those of his instructors and those of his predecessor. Thus my recommendation. Diligent, sensitive, intelligent, and pious. Impatient, as is to be expected at his age. Respectful, which you now confirm. A tireless worker, a point his instructor in theonomy was at pains to emphasize. Pliable. During the past few days, he's become immensely popular. Should he succeed in subjugating the Ayuntamiento, he's apt to remain so for a year or more. Perhaps much longer. Charteral government by a young augur who'll need seasoned advisors to remain in office ..."
"Indeed, Your Cognizance." Remora nodded energetically."The same--ah--intuition had occurred to me."
With his cup, Quetzal gestured toward the nearest window. "We suffer a change in weather, Patera."
"An, um, profound one, Your Cognizance."
"We must acclimate ourselves to it. That's why I asked if young Incus swam. If you can reach him, tell him to strike out boldly. Have I made myself clear?"
Remora nodded again. "I will, um, strive to render the Chapter's wholehearted endorsement of an--ah--lawful and holy government apparent, Your Cognizance."
"Then go. Compose that letter."
"If the Alambrera doesn't--ah--bey?"
There was no indication that Quetzal had heard. Remora left his chair and backed away, at length closing the door behind him.
Quetzal rose, and an observer (had there been one) might have been more than a little surprised to see that shrunken figure grown so tall. As if on wheels, he glided across the room and threw open the broad casement that overlooked his garden, admitting pounding rain and a gust of wind that made his mulberry robe stand out behind him like a banner.
For some while he remained before the window, motionless, cosmetics streaming from his face in rivulets of pink and buff, while he contemplated the tamarind he had caused to be planted there twenty years previously. It was taller already than many buildings called lofty; its glossy, rain-washed leaves brushed the windowframe and now even, by the width of a child's hand, sidled into his bedchamber like so many timid sibyls, confident of welcome yet habitually shy. Their parent tree, nourished by his own efforts, was of more than sufficient size now, and a fount of joy to him: a sheltering presence, a memorial of home, the highroad to freedom.
Quetzal crossed the room and barred the door, thenthrew off his sodden robe. Even in this downpour the tree was safer, though he could fly.
The looming presence of the cliff slid over Auk as he sat in the bow, and with it a final whistling gust of icy rain. He glanced up at the beetling rock, then trained his needler on the augur standing to the halyard. "This time you didn't try anything. See how flash you're getting?" The storm had broken at shadeup and showed no signs of slackening.
Chenille snapped, "Steer for that," and pointed. Chill tricklings from her limp crimson hair merged into a rivulet between her full breasts to flood her naked loins.
At the tiller, the old fisherman touched his cap. "Aye, aye, Scaldin' Scylla."
They had left Limna on Molpsday night. From shadeup to shadelow, the sun had been a torrent of white fire across a dazzling sky; the wind, fair and strong at morning, had veered and died away to a breeze, to an occasional puff, and by the time the market closes, to nothing. Most of that afternoon Auk had spent in the shadow of the sail, Chenille beneath the shelter of the half deck; he and she, like the augur, had gotten badly sunburned just the same.
Night had brought a new wind, foul for their destination. Directed by the old fisherman and commanded to hold ever closer by the major goddess possessing Chenille, they had tacked and tacked and tacked again, Auk and the augur bailing frantically on every reach and often sick, the boat heeling until it seemed the gunnel must go under, a lantern swinging crazily from the masthead and crashing into the mast each time they went about, going out half a dozen times and leaving the three weary men below in deadly fear of ramming or being rammed in the dark.
Once the augur had attempted to snatch Auk's needler from his waistband. Auk had beaten and kicked him, andthrown him over the side into the churning waters of the lake, from which the old fisherman had by a miracle of resource and luck rescued him with a boathook. Shadeup had brought a third wind, this out of the southeast, a storm-wind driving sheet after gray sheet of slanting rain before it with a lash of lightning.
"Down sail!" Chenille shrieked. "Loose that, you idiot! Drop the yard!"
The augur hurried to obey; he was perhaps ten years senior to Auk, with protruding teeth and small, soft hands that had begun to bleed almost before they had left Limna.
After the yard had crashed down, Auk turned in his seat to peer forward at their destination, seeing nothing but rainwet stone and evoking indignant squawks from the meager protection of his legs. "Come on out," he told Silk's bird. "We're under a cliff here."
Dry by comparison though the foot of the cliff was, and shielded from the wind, it seemed colder than the open lake, reminding Auk forcibly that the new summer tunic he had worn to Limna was soaked, his baggy trousers soaked too, and his greased riding boots full of water.
The narrow inlet up which they glided became narrower yet, damp black rock to left and right rising fifty cubits or more above the masthead. Here and there a freshet, born of the storm, descended in a slender line of silver to plash noisily into the quiet water. The cliffs united overhead, and the iron mast-cap scraped stone.
"She'll go," Chenille told the old fisherman confidently. "The ceiling's higher farther in."
"I'd 'preciate ter raise up that mains'l ag'in, ma'am," the old fisherman remarked almost conversationally, "an' undo them reefs. It'll rot if it don't dry."
Chenille ignored him; Auk gestured toward the sailand stood to the halyard with the augur, eager for any exercise that might warm him.
Oreb hopped onto the gunnel to look about and fluff his damp feathers. "Bird wet!" They were gliding past impressive tanks of white-painted metal, their way nearly spent.
"A Sacred Window! It is! There's a Window and an altar right there! Look!" The augur's voice shook with joy, and he released the halyard. Auk's kick sent him sprawling.
"Got ter break out sweeps, ma'am, if there's more channel."
"Mind your helm. Lay alongside the Window." To the augur Chenille added, "Have you got your knife?"
He shook his head miserably.
"Your sword then," she told Auk. "Can you sacrifice?"
"I've seen it done, Surging Scylla, and I got a knife in my boot. That might work better." As daring as Remora, Auk added, "But a bird? I didn't think you liked birds."
"That?" She spat into the water.
A fender of woven cordage thumped, then ground against stone. Their side lay within a cubit of the natural quay on which the tanks and the Window stood. "Tie us up." Chenille pointed to the augur. "You, too! No, the stern, you idiot. He'll take the bow."
Auk made the halyard fast, then sprang out onto the stone quay. It was wet, and so slimed that he nearly fell; in the watery light of the cavern, he failed to make out the big iron ring at his feet until he stepped on it.
The augur had found his ring sooner. He straightened up. "I--I am an augur, Savage Scylla. I've sacrificed to you and to all the Nine many times. I'd be delighted, Savage Scylla. With his knife ..."
"Bad bird," Oreb croaked. "Gods hate." He flapped his injured wing as if to judge how far it might carry him.
Chenille bounded onto the slippery stone and crooked a finger at the old fisherman. "You. Come up here."
"You ought to do what you're told, or I'll have my thug kill you straight off."
It was a relief to Auk to draw his needler again, a return to familiar ground.
"Scylla!" the augur gasped. "A human being? Really--"
She whirled to confront him. "What were you doing on my boat? Who sent you?"
"Bad cut," Oreb assured her.
The augur drew a deep breath. "I am H-his Eminence's prothonotary." He smoothed his sopping robe as if suddenly conscious of his bedraggled appearance. "H-his E-e-eminence desired me to l-locate a particular y-y-young woman--"
Auk trained his needler on him.
"Y-you. Tall, red hair, and so forth. I didn't know it was you, Savage Scylla." He swallowed and added desperately, "H-his interest was ha-wholly friendly. H-his Eminence--"
"You are to be congratulated, Patera." Chenille's voice was smooth and almost courteous; she had an alarming habit of remaining immobile in attitudes no mere human being could have maintained for more than a few seconds, and she did so now, her pivoting head and glaring eyes seemingly the only living parts of her lush body. "You have succeeded splendidly. Perhaps you identified the previous occupant? You say this woman," she touched her chest, "was described to you?"
The augur nodded rapidly. "Yes, Savage Scylla. Fiery hair and--and s-skill with a knife and ..."
Chenille's eyes had rolled backward into her skull until only the whites could be seen. "Your Eminence. Silk addressed him like that. You attended my graduation, Your Eminence."
The augur said hurriedly, "He wished me to assure her of our submission. Of the Chapter's. To offer our advice and support, and declare our loyalty. Information H-his Eminence had received indicated that--that you'd g-gone to the lake with Patera Silk. His Eminence is Patera's superior. He--I--we declare our undying loyalty, Savage Scylla."
There was that in Chenille's tone which rendered the words unanswerable. The augur could only stare at her.
"Bad man," Oreb announced virtuously. "Cut?"
"An augur? I hadn't considered it, but ..."
The old fisherman hawked and spat. "If'n you're really Scaldin' Scylla, ma'am, I'd like ter say somethin'." He wiped his grizzled mustache on the back of his hand.
"I am Scylla. Be quick. We must sacrifice now if we're to sacrifice at all. My slave will arrive soon."
"I been prayin' and sacrificin' ter you all my life. You an' your pa's the only ones us fishermen pay mind to. I'm not sayin' you owe me anythin'. I got my boat, an' I had a wife and raised the boys. Always made a livin'. What I'm wantin' ter say is when I go you'll be losin' one of your own. It's goin' ter be one less here for you an' ol' Pas. Maybe you figure I took you 'cause the big feller's got his stitchin' gun. Fact is, I'd of took you anywheres on the lake soon as I knowed who you was."
"I must reintegrate myself in Mainframe," Chenille told him. "There may be new developments. Are you through?"
"Pretty nigh. The big feller, he does anythin' you want him, just like what I'd do in his britches. Only he b'longs ter Hierax, ma'am."
"Not ter you nor your pa neither. He maybe don't know it hisself, but he do. His bird an' that needler he's got, an' the big hanger-sword, an' his knife what he tells he's got in his boots, they all show it. You got ter knowit better'n me. As fer this augur you're gettin' set ter offer me up, I fished him out o' the lake last night, and t'other day I seen another fished up. They do say--"
"Yes'm." The old fisherman considered. "You was down in the cuddy then, I guess. When they'd got him out, I seen him look over our way. Lookin' at the bird, seemed like. Pretty young. Tall as the big feller. Yeller hair--"
"Silk!" Auk exclaimed.
"Pulled out of the water, you said?"
The fisherman nodded. "Scup's boat. I've knowed Scup thirty year."
"You may be right," Chenille told him. "You may be too valuable to sacrifice, and one old man is nothing anyway."
She strode toward the Window before whirling to face them again. "Pay attention to what I say, all three of you. In a moment, I'll depart from this whore. My divine essence will pass from her into the Sacred Window that I have caused to be put here, and be reintegrated with my greater divine self in Mainframe. Do you understand me? All of you?"
Auk nodded mutely. The augur knelt, his head bowed.
"Kypris, my mortal enemy and the enemy of my mother, my brothers, and my sisters--of our whole family, in fact--has been mischief-making here in Viron. Already she seems to have won to her side the meager fool this idiot--What's your name, anyhow?"
"Incus, Savage Scylla. I-I'm Patera Incus."
"The fool this idiot calls His Eminence. I don't doubt that she intends to win over my Prolocutor and my Ayuntamiento too, if she can. The four of you, I include the whore after I'm through with her, are to see to it that she fails. Use threats and force and the power of my name. Kill anyone you need to, it won't be held against you. If Kypris returns, do something to get my attention.Fifty or a hundred children should catch my eye, and Viron's got plenty to spare."
She glared at each man in turn. "Questions? Let's hear them now, if there are any. Objections?"
Oreb croaked in his throat, one bright black eye trained warily upon her.
"Good. You're my prophets henceforth. Keep Viron loyal, and you'll have my favor. Believe nothing Kypris may tell you. My slave should be here shortly. He'll carry you there, and assist you. See the Prolocutor and talk to the commissions in the Juzgado. Tell everyone who'll listen about me. Tell them everything I've said to you. I'd hoped that the Ayuntamiento's boat would be in this dock. It usually is. It isn't today, so you'll have to see the councillors for me. The old man can bring you back here. Tell them I mean to sink their boat and drown them all in my lake if my city goes over to Kypris."
Incus stammered, "A th-theophany, S-savage S-s-scylla, w-would--"
"Not convince your councillors. They think themselves too wise. Theophanies may be useful, however. Reintegrated, I may consider them."
She strode to the damp stone altar and sprang effortlessly to its top.
"I had this built so your Ayuntamiento might offer private sacrifices and, when I chose, confer with me. Not a trace of ash! They'll pay for that as well.
"You." She pointed to Auk. "This augur Silk's plotting to overthrow them for Kypris. Help him, but show him where his duty lies. If he can't see it, kill him. You've my permission to rule yourself as my Calde in that case. The idiot here can be Prolocutor under similar circumstances, I suppose."
She faced the Window and knelt. Auk knelt, too, pulling the fisherman down. (Incus was kneeling already.) Clearing his throat, Auk began the prayer that he had bungled upon the Pilgrims' Way, when Scylla had revealedher divine identity. "Behold us, lovely Scylla, woman of the waters--"
Incus and the fisherman joined in. "Behold our love and our need for thee. Cleanse us, O Scylla!"
At the name of the goddess, Chenille threw high her arms with a strangled cry. The dancing colors called the Holy Hues filled the Sacred Window with chestnut and brown, aquamarine, orange, scarlet, and yellow, cerulean blue and a curious shade of rose brushed with drab. And for a moment it seemed to Auk that he glimpsed the sneering features of a girl a year or two from womanhood.
Chenille trembled violently and went limp, slumping to the altar top and rolling off to fall to the dark and slimy stone of the quay.
Oreb fluttered over to her. "God go?"
The girl's face--if it had been a face--vanished into a wall of green water, like an onrushing wave. The Holy Hues returned, first as sun-sparkles on the wave, then claiming the entire Window and filling it with their whirling ballet before fading back to luminescent gray.
"I think so," Auk said. He rose, and discovered that his needler was still in his hand; he thrust it beneath his tunic, and asked tentatively, "You all right, Jugs?"
He lifted her into a sitting position. "You banged your head on the rock, Jugs, but you're going to be all right." Eager to do something for her, but unsure what he should do, he called, "You! Patera! Get some water."
Auk swung at Oreb, who hopped agilely to one side.
"Yeah, Jugs. Right here." He squeezed her gently with the arm that supported her, conscious of the febrile heat of her sunburned skin.
"You came back. Hackum, I'm so glad."
The old fisherman coughed, striving to keep his eyesfrom Chenille's breasts. "Mebbe it'd be better if me an' him stayed on the boat awhile?"
"We're all going on your boat," Auk told him. He picked up Chenille.
Incus, a battered tin cup of water in his hand, asked, "You intend to disobey?"
Auk dodged. "She said to go to the Juzgado. We got to get back to Limna, then there's wagons to the city."
"She was sending someone, sending her slave she said, to take us there." Incus raised the cup and sipped. "She also said I was to be Prolocutor."
The old fisherman scowled. "This feller she's sendin', he'll have a boat o' his own. Have ter, ter git out here. What becomes o' mine if we go off with him? She said fer me ter fetch the rest back ter see them councillors, didn't she? How'm I s'posed ter do that if I ain't got my boat?"
Oreb fluttered onto Auk's shoulder. "Find Silk?"
"You got it." Carrying Chenille, Auk strode across the quay to eye the open water between it and the boat; it was one thing to spring from the gunnel to the quay, another to jump from the quay to the boat while carrying a woman taller than most. "Get that rope," he snapped to Incus. "Pull it closer. You left too much slack."
Incus pursed his lips. "We cannot possibly disobey the instructions of the goddess."
"You can stay here and wait for whoever she's sending. Tell him we'll meet up with him in Limna. Me and Jugs are going in Dace's boat."
The old fisherman nodded emphatically.
"If you wish to disobey, my son, I will not attempt to prevent you. However--"
Something in the darkness beyond the last tank fell with a crash, and the scream of metal on stone echoed from the walls of the cavern. A new voice, deeper and louder than any merely human voice, roared, "I bring her! Give her to me!"
It was that of a talus larger than the largest Auk hadever seen; its virescent bronze face was cast in a grimace of hate, blinding yellow light glared from its eyes, and the oily black barrels of a flamer and a pair of buzz guns jutted from its open mouth. Behind it, the black dark at the back of the cavern had been replaced by a sickly greenish glow.
"I bring her! All of you! Give her to me!" The talus extended a lengthening arm as it rolled toward them. A steel hand the size of the altar from which she had fallen closed about Chenille and plucked her from Auk's grasp; so a child might have snatched a small and unloved doll from the arms of another doll. "Get on my back! Scylla commands it!"
A half dozen widely spaced rungs of bent rod laddered the talus's metal flank. Auk scrambled up with the night chough flapping ahead of him; as he gained the top, the talus's huge hand deposited Chenille on the sloping black metal before him.
Two rows of bent rods much like the steps of the ladder ran the length of the talus's back. Auk grasped one with his left hand and Chenille with his right. Her eyelids fluttered. "Hackum?"
Incus's head appeared as he clambered up; his sly face looked sick in the watery light. "By--by Hierax!"
"You--You--Help me up."
"Help yourself, Patera. You were the one that wanted to wait for him. You won. He's here."
Before Auk had finished speaking, Incus sprang onto the talus's back with astonishing alacrity, apparently impelled by the muscular arm of the fisherman, who clambered up a moment later. "You'd make a dimber burglar, old man," Auk told him.
"Hackum, where are we?"
"In a cave on the west side of the lake."
The talus turned in place, one wide black belt crawling, the other locked. Auk felt the thump of machinery under him.
Puffs of black smoke escaped from the joint between the upright thorax and long wagonlike abdomen to which they clung. It rocked, jerked, and skewed backward. A sickening sidewise skid ended in a geyser of icy water as one belt slipped off the quay. Incus clutched at Auk's tunic as their side of the talus went under, and for a dizzying second Auk saw the boat tossed higher than their heads.
The wave that had lifted it broke over them like a blow, a suffocating, freezing whorl that at once drained away; when Auk opened his eyes again Chenille was sitting up screaming, her dripping face blank with terror.
Something black and scarlet landed with a thump upon his sopping shoulder. "Bad boat! Sink."
It had not, as he saw when the talus heaved itself up onto the quay again; Dace's boat lay on its side, the mast unshipped and tossing like driftwood in the turbulent water.
Huge as a boulder, the talus's head swiveled around to glare at them, revolving until it seemed its neck must snap. "Five ride! The small may go!"
Auk glanced from the augur to the fisherman, and from him to the hysterical Chenille, before he realized who was meant. "You can beat the hoof if you want to, bird. He says he won't hurt you if you do."
"Bird stay," Oreb muttered. "Find Silk."
The talus's head completed its revolution, and the talus lunged forward. Yellow light glared back at them, reflected from the curved white side of the last tank, leaving the Sacred Window empty and dead looking behind them. Sallow green lights winked into being just above the talus's helmeted head, and the still-tossing waters of the channel congealed to rough stone as the cavern dwindled to a dim tunnel.
Auk put his arm around Chenille's waist. "Fancy a bit of company, Jugs?"
She wept on, sobs lost in the wind of their passage.
He released her, got out his needler, and pushed back the sideplate; a trickle of gritty water ran onto his fingers, and he blew into the mechanism. "Should be all right," he told Oreb, "soon as it dries out. I ought to put a couple drops of oil on the needles, though."
"Good girl," Oreb informed him nervously. "No shoot."
"Bad girl," Auk explained. "Bad man, too. No shoot. No go away, either."
"Lily." Gently, he kissed Chenille's inflamed back. "Lie down if you want to. Lay your head in my lap. Maybe you can get a little sleep."
As he pronounced the words, he sensed that they came too late. The talus was descending, the tunnel angling downward, if only slightly. The mouths of other tunnels flashed past to left and right, darker even than the damp shiprock walls. Drops of water clinging to the unchanging ceiling gleamed like diamonds, vanishing as they passed.
The talus slowed, and something struck its great bronze head, ringing it like a gong. Its buzz guns rattled and it spat a tongue of blue fire.