Elerit posed as a girl whenever he wasn’t working. His looks could go either way, and he liked to wander the carnival grounds without being pointed at by every heilot in Sand City. After all, he was paid by the hour. The industry serfs could gawk at him all they wanted to in Prodigy Alley.
He liked to rub shoulders with the marks, wander up and down the gas-lit aisles, in and out of cabarets and saloons, game booths and augury tents. Sometimes he would sit and watch the thrill rides and skill gauntlets whirling through the fervid air, mesmerized by the garish lights and the gyration of the blood-stained bludgeons and the tinny music that failed to drown out the scream of machinery.
But for him the main attraction was at the hub of the carnival, where Hex the Inexorable gave oracles through his shapely interpreter, Vera the Virgin. From a distance he would watch the maiden mediate between god and supplicant.
One night he actually found himself buying a ticket and getting in line. “Hex knows all but reveals little,” said Vera when his turn came. “What do you wish to know?”
“Does love solace the lonely heart?” he asked.
Her eyes widened a little when she heard his voice. She put the question to the god, who began gesturing with his six jointed arms, rolling his enameled eyeballs in their sockets, and emitting puffs of steam. She observed his movements, then said, “Maybe.”
But Elerit had already vanished.
The next night he waited in line as before. Vera spotted him immediately; anticipated his turn. “Did you ever eat a day-old octopus?” he asked.
She watched the god’s response, then put her lips near Elerit’s ear and whispered, “Yes.”
He could smell her hair, feel the warmth of her body. She wore a white silk tunic and flowing black pants. He thought she looked very fine. “It must have been mighty small,” he said. Vera’s eyes danced. She turned away and asked for the next supplicant.
During his break on the third night he dressed exactly as she did and fixed his hair like hers. He went over and hid in the shadows. She was peering this way and that, looking for him. His heart gave a great thump. He shuddered with pain or delight and fled back to Prodigy Alley.
Vera came down his aisle later than night, pausing at each exhibit to listen to the recordings. When she reached his booth she studied him from toes to head. Her eyes were gentle butterflies. They fluttered about his midriff, then flitted to his face, questioning. He gestured. She smiled and moved on to the next booth. She was soon out of sight.
When his shift was up he slipped into a gown of golden sea-silk and set out across the grounds. Anticipation sent electric tremors through his frame. “Life is good!” he sang to himself.
He was passing the shooting gallery when a gangly albino caught his eye. He froze. His desire shriveled like a salted slug. The man turned, pointed the toy crossbow at him, and let off a bolt. Then he winked and went back to his game.
Dread coiled and uncoiled in the pit of Elerit’s stomach. He stood there in the revolving lights, wondering what he should do. It was just a coincidence, he told himself. He went on his way. His joy came back in a rush.
Soon he was crossing the space between the last line of booths and the boxcars. The shadows tittered at him. Cold fear poured down his back. He went and hid beside Vera’s car and looked out. But there was no one in sight. Once again he put it out of his mind.
Vera glided across the lot a moment later. He stepped out as she passed. “Have you ever ridden a mechanical cheboth?” he asked.
“No,” she breathed, “never.” He pulled her close and kissed her. “You’re so beautiful,” she whispered, running her hand over his breast. He stroked the nape of her neck and her long, golden hair. “I could lose my place because of this,” she said.
“I know,” he said. “I’ll go away if you want me to.”
“I don’t want you to.” She bit the heel of his hand.
“What? What is it?”
“I’m no heilot, you know.”
She drew back, looked into his eyes. “You mean...?”
“I’m a fugitive from the Asylum for the Misbegotten. There was an earthquake... many of us escaped....”
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’ve been so lonely.”
“Can I come inside?”
“If that’s the way you want it.”
“That’s the way I want it.”
They went inside.
Elerit stepped out of the car. It was a few hours past midnight. The sleeping carnival was a crushed insect huddled under the ghostly glow of the city. He went down the steps.
A clammy hand settled on his shoulder. Then a small, hairy fist drove into the side of his face. He staggered in a circle.
“Go easy, Micah,” a voice whispered.
“I know what I’m doing,” hissed Micah. Elerit started to spring. The next blow blacked him out.
When he came to he was stumbling toward the fence, held up by two men. The earth was like a lunar landscape under the magnesium torches.
“Hello, Brideon,” he said. “Hello, Micah. Let me go. I won’t give you any more trouble.”
“Walk on your own, then,” said Brideon, the albino. “We don’t care to hold hands with you too much ourselves.” He cautiously released Elerit. “Watch out there. The ground’s uneven.”
“Thanks,” said Elerit, touching his face. “I suppose I know what you fellows are after.”
“You double-crossed us,” put in Micah. “You may have planned the job, but we all shared the risk. But it’s not what we’re after. It’s what he’s after.” A grin cracked his swarthy face. He had an old man’s head on top of a doll’s body.
They slipped through a gap in the fence. It was like leaving an enchanted circle. A line of high-rise towers piled on a plateau of crushed masonry blocked the view to the west. Their ten thousand twinkling eyes looked unconcernedly over the trough of Sand City. Big blocks of tenement houses rose out of a counterpane of quarries, railyards, warehouses, factories, saloons, shrines, and brothels. Smoldering kilns and firepits dotted the landscape. Solitary heilotim wandered the dusty streets.
“I may as well tell you,” said Elerit. “I don’t have it on me.”
“You can tell that to him,” said Brideon.
“You mean he’s here?”
“Prepare yourself, sweetheart.”
“Where is he?”
“You’ll find out soon enough,” said Micah.
Elerit followed his abductors over and under railroad tracks, through warehouse yards, around oil sumps. They approached a tenement block beneath the eaves of the metropolis. What appeared a solid prism gradually resolved into an array of towers built one against another and knit into a sort of hive. The air quivered over its crown.
Brideon and Micah led Elerit into the house and through the maze of windowless rooms and claustrophobic corridors. They eventually emerged into a quadrangle at the heart of the block, where a tiny stone temple stood on a patch of earth. The grating suspended over its roof was heaped so high with rubbish that it almost blocked out the scrap of sky at the mouth of the well.
The door opened at Micah’s knock. He went inside for a moment, then peered out and jerked his head. Elerit and Brideon followed him in.
A figure was seated on a throne at the back, veiled and robed in white, with a retainer at either hand. The man on his right looked like a warrior, the man on his left like a fool. Tarnished light fell from tube-lamps hidden in the niches of forgotten gods.
“Zilla the Impaler,” announced Micah, “the White Prince, the predestined God-Emperor of Enoch.”
“And the King of Freaks and the Prize Specimen of the Asylum,” Elerit muttered. They had all known one another as wards of the city-state.
“The whole world is an asylum now,” said Brideon. “Under the new order, those it counts as misbegotten will be its judges.” He and Micah withdrew.
The fool cut a pirouette. “You have a penchant for losing yourself where you can’t be found, my dear!” he jeered. “But I knew where to look. Where do you hide a runcible spoon? Eh? Why, among runcible spoons, of course!” He had an elongated skull and a protruding mouth; his red, pointed tongue waved energetically as he spoke. His words seemed to trip over one another in their haste to leap from his face.
“I know what you want, Skeller,” said Elerit, “and you can have it. I’m cutting my ties. Zilla may have become a god since our time together, but I already have a religion.”
“But we want you, too!” protested Skeller. “We need you! You and that fine, subtle brain of yours.”
“You’re not in a position to strike bargains,” the warrior said. His zealous eyes gleamed in the murk.
“All the same, let’s not be too hasty, Stilerich,” said Skeller. “Tepid hearts don’t further our cause, do they? Eh? Do they, my sun and moon, my beauty?” This last was addressed to Zilla, who showed no sign of having heard. “No, no, no,” Skeller went on. “All’s well that ends well, I say. The principal thing is to get the, ah, the... item. After that, if our friend wishes to go his own way, why, I don’t see why he can’t.”
“I’ll get it for you, and I’ll be left alone after that,” said Elerit. “Is that a promise?”
“Yes, I’d say so, yes, that’s what I understood, absolutely. You and that, ah, that... young friend of yours.”
“What does she have to do with it?”
“Why, nothing, nothing at all. Ha ha! You know, while we’re at it, there’s something I’ve always wanted to ask you. Are you, I mean, can you, you know...? No, no, never mind. Where are my manners? He he! Let’s see. The item is near here, isn’t it? What’s a good deadline? Say, midnight tomorrow?”
“Why don’t you take your old Asylum friends there for company?” He winked. “They can help you carry it.”
“Better get me some decent clothes,” Elerit said.
The train burrowed through heavy fog, driving north. Dawn was near.
Elerit watched the shrouded world fly by from the door of the car. The smell was insufferable otherwise. Chebothim strained their scaly necks through the barriers, blinking their small, round eyes as if in perpetual amazement.
Brideon came up beside him. “So it is in Sand City,” he said.
“Then where the hell are we going?”
“Be patient. I have to see someone.”
The light increased. The train slowed and entered a switchyard. Elerit leaped out as it swerved, followed by his companions. They hid in a ditch while it passed, then set out across the tangle of tracks.
Brideon kept looking over his shoulder.
“Something the matter?” asked Elerit.
“Dah, he just forgets if he fed his pet maugrel,” said Micah.
They entered a junkyard, a wilderness of cast-off machinery and furniture. Micah and Brideon clung to their guide through the maze of ravines, practically blind in the fog. Furtive noises came from the crannies.
They dropped into a basin encircled by slopes of scrap iron. An earthen knoll rose from the center with a tarpapered shack on its crown. The yard was littered with bedframes, wheel hoops, boilers, clock gears, odds and ends, bits and pieces. A hand-painted sign read “Cunea’s Curiosities.”
“Wait here,” said Elerit. He strode up and knocked on the door.
A woman thrust her head out. She was large-boned and meaty, with a bold, well-defined figure. Her breasts swung freely beneath her nightgown. Her face was attractive but a little brutal; her mouth was large and red. She had dark brown hair. “Hey, there, Baby,” she said.
“Hey,” said Elerit.
She looked over his shoulder. “Trouble?”
“Just entertaining a couple of old friends.”
“I told you, didn’t I?”
“You told me.”
“Joining up again?”
“Not if I can help it. I cut a deal.”
“You know what that’s worth, Baby. They’re never going to let you leave.”
“The key, Cunea. I need it.”
Cunea vanished, then reappeared. “I hope you know what you’re doing,” she said, handing it over.
“I’ll drop by on my way out and let you know how it went.”
“I don’t think I’ll be seeing you again, Elerit.”
“Then maybe we’ll meet in Sheol.”
He went back down to his companions. They made their way across the junkyard and crawled out through the back fence. A gravel embankment loomed up out of the fog. They climbed it and turned to the right, walking between the rails. The tracks veered to the left and straightened out, passing under the livid eaves of the moss-forest, heading for the crumbling foothills.
The forest had a presence that was monumental yet iterative, like an organ fugue, echoed on a smaller scale by the quincuncial skin of each scale-tree stem. The under-story was a particolored patchwork of lichen and moss gravid with mist-drops. Every leaf, every tendril, every parasol and spear looked as though sculpted from something precious. It was very quiet.
“What does he want with this thing, anyway?” asked Elerit. “Have you ever found out?”
“You would know better than me,” said Brideon. “Why did you want it?”
Elerit shrugged his shoulders. “It’s hard to explain,” he said. “I’d always wanted it. You remember my old pursuits. This, this world of ours.... But you, you don’t worry about these things. Do you? You just do what you’re told.”
“We’re not philosophers,” said Micah. “Change is coming. We’re going to be the world’s judges.”
“And I’ll be one of the judged?”
“You’re already judged,” said Brideon.
They went on in silence. Their feet crunched on gravel. The trees dripped. The terrain rose and fell in gentle swells. Moss-rich boulders dotted the forest floor on either hand. Bars of sunlight began to press down like organ notes. Soon ragged tufts and patches of blue were visible through the wine-colored canopy.
In the afternoon they entered a valley. The tracks were heaped with drifts of leaves. The walls grew steeper with each bend, until the canyon finally terminated in a rock face. The rails continued up a tunnel.
“It’s in here,” Elerit explained. “The line dead-ends. They never finished the blasting.” He fished a lantern out of a nook and lit it, then led the way into the darkness.
His companions kept pressing ahead of him even though their shadows made them stumble. They passed an old handcar and rounded a bend. A crazy barricade covered with melodramatic warning signs blocked the way.
“What the hell,” said Micah.
“It’s just for show,” said Elerit, flourishing the key. He unlocked a hidden bolt and threw it back. The entire thing swung open in one piece. He was all atremble, but Brideon and Micah didn’t notice. They just pushed past him like cattle crowding into a slaughterhouse. He promptly closed the gate on them and locked it again.
They turned and regarded him through the bars. It dawned on them what had just happened. “Hey,” said Brideon. “Hey, you can’t do that!”
“We had an arrangement,” hissed Micah.
“As if I didn’t know what you were going to do once you got your hands on the goods,” said Elerit. “I’m not stupid. I know Zilla.”
“So you’re just going to leave us here,” said Micah, his eyes glittering with malice. He was handling something in his pocket.
“That’s the idea,” said Elerit.
“They’ll catch up with you,” Brideon said.
“I’ll have to take my chances. It’s worth too much to me to give up, anyway.”
Micah produced a little metal box. “Then here’s a present from the White Prince,” he said. “I’ll die easier knowing you got yours first.”
Brideon tried to stop him, but it was too late. A shadow leaped out of the box. Dread beat a death knell on Elerit’s heart. He stood rooted to the spot, powerless to flee. A pair of black hands encircled Micah’s neck. The little man’s eyes popped open so wide that they seemed about to drop out. The fingers squeezed right through his flesh as though he were made of clay, and his head thumped to the floor.
“No, not us,” whispered Brideon. “No, not us, not us.” A black hand reached across his brow and slid downward, wiping his face clean off. He started to put his hands up, but the thing wiped again, and he fell down by his partner.
Elerit felt a rush of arid wind as the daemon brushed past him. Released from his invisible bonds, he dashed after it, leaped onto the handcar, and began pumping. When he shot into the open air it was already far ahead. It was like a tall, black lemur, a living shadow crowned with two bifurcating branches. It turned and looked at him with eyes that were small and round and yellow. Then it was gone.
He came round the first bend and pulled the brake. Everything was still. The forest was watchful.
He jumped down and started to climb the wall of the valley, pushing his way through brakes of ferns to the mouth of a little grotto invisible from the tracks. There was a low-ceiled room at the back, green with moss except where patches of calcite glittered in the gloom. A cubical leather case sat in the middle of the floor. He took it and returned to the car.
The outward journey was mostly downhill. He covered in minutes what it had taken hours to traverse that morning. The fog was gone. The cathedral spaces had been transformed into a riot of color and hard-edged detail. There was no sign of the daemon.
Soon he emerged into sunlight. Everything was painfully visible. The smoggy skyline of the coast-long downtown faced him across the flats of Sand City. Hollow-eyed heilotim wandered the streets. Children ran naked, laying with one another or playing violent games. Huge dragonflies looped and dodged over the cesspools, gorging themselves on blowflies. Low down in the west, a fat airship crawled across the sky.
He braked the car at the back of the junkyard and retraced his steps to the shack, toting the case. He crept cautiously up the knoll. Everything seemed peaceful. Wind chimes sang in the breeze. Homemade whirligigs spun on their axles.
The door was ajar. He pushed his way into the small, square room furnished with a single table and chair, a cast-iron stove, and a metal trunk. The light filtered through a window of colored bottle bases. A doorway hung with a curtain of printed fabric led into the next room.
He thrust the curtain aside. Cunea lay on her mattress, her eyes wide open, her tongue sticking out. Her floral-print dress was sodden. The mattress was adrift in a dark, placid lake. It seemed impossible that a single body could have held so much liquid.
Elerit went and closed her eyes. He kissed her on the lips, pushing her tongue back in with his own. The inside of her mouth was still warm and moist. He rose and stepped back through the curtain. His legs were shaking and his chin was quivering.
A mass of crimson and gold caught his eye. He recognized his gown from the night before. It had been dipped in blood and was wadded up in the corner.
A shadow crossed the rippled panes. He seized the poker and struck out blindly. Stilerich fell in a heap at his feet. There was a long knife on the floor beside him.
Elerit squeezed out and went rummaging about the yard. A minute later he returned with a pair of manacles. The warrior was still unconscious, so he dragged him down to the base of the knoll and chained him to an iron post.
For a long time he just stood there. The sun sank lower and lower. His mind cleared slowly. At last he shook himself and went back up to the shack. Burnished plates arranged on a rack gleamed like discs of molten gold. Beside them was a can of oil. He took it and went inside.
Cunea’s face had sagged a little. He laid a dramach in her mouth and kissed her cold lips one last time. Then he doused her dress, the mattress, and the walls with oil. It ran down and mingled with the thickening blood. Next he soaked the gown and hung it up on a nail. About half the can remained, so he went outside and poured it down all four walls.
Stilerich had risen at last and was watching curiously. Elerit went around back, selected a file from a workbench, and thrust it into his tunic. He also laid hold of a sledgehammer. He could feel Stilerich’s eyes on him when he returned to the front. The sun was close to setting. The sky was sea green. The rusty heads of the junk-hills were touched with orange flame.
He raised the hammer and brought it down with a clang. A shower of sparks flew out. The shack blossomed as he flung himself down the knoll. Hungry tongues licked up the walls and thrust their way inside. The pillar of fire sent a column of night into the greening vault.
The horizon swallowed the sun. The pyre grew sullen and tired as dusk began to close in. He walked down to Stilerich. For a moment they regarded one another in silence.
“You got back sooner than I expected,” said Stilerich.
“I had a car,” said Elerit.
“Who was she?”
“No one. My womb-mother.”
“I thought you’d always lived in the Asylum.”
“I found her after the earthquake. I’d like to know why you did it.”
“That should be obvious.”
“To pin it on me. But why? I don’t understand.”
“Zilla wanted to be able to have you picked up whenever he liked. As that prattler said last night, it’s you he really wants. The goods are the price he was willing to pay. But don’t worry, he’ll get you one way or another. He may discharge a follower now and then, but no one quits. You know that.”
“And Brideon and Micah?”
“They try to use the box on you? I see that they did. That was planned. They were becoming an embarrassment. He’s washing his hands of the Asylum’s dregs now.”
“I’m honored not to be counted among them,” Elerit said. “Well, I guess I’ll be going.”
“What? You’re not going to leave me here, are you?”
“Don’t worry. You won’t starve. These heaps are swarming with maugrelim. She was fond of feeding them in the evening.”
Stilerich glanced around. “I’ll not beg for my life,” he said. “Do as you see fit. But don’t think you can escape. There’s no place to hide, neither heilot’s den nor hanging garden. The Inversion is coming. Soon he will ascend on high.”
Elerit tossed the file to the ground in answer. He went and retrieved the case and set out into the junkyard. The whine of sawing filled the air. He glanced one more time at the ring of fire on the hill. Then the deepening gloom received him into its bosom.
It was close to midnight when he slipped into the carnival. Everything was in an uproar. Hex was shut down.
He snuck over to Vera’s car and stood on a box to look in the window. There was no one inside.
A throat cleared. He fell off the box. “I’ve been waiting for you,” a voice said. It was Buzzy, one of the painted eunuchs.
“Buzzy!” hissed Elerit. “What’s going on?”
“You tell me. Vera uttered a true prophecy tonight. Most beautiful thing I’d ever heard. Said she couldn’t help it. Of course it pissed the supplicant off. He complained to Abner. Abner had the hymenist examine her. Then it all came out. People saw you coming over here last night. You’re in big trouble, kid. What the hell did you do to her?”
Elerit shivered. “Where is she?” he asked.
“I got a little berth nearby. Here.” He handed Elerit a slip of paper and a key. “Listen. She was like a sister to us, you maugrel. You got her into this. You take care of her now. Or I’m personally going to induct you into our club, if that’s even possible, which for all I know it isn’t.”
Elerit flushed. “Thanks,” he muttered. “Be seeing you.”
The address was for the tenement house he’d visited the night before. He reached it just as rain began to pour. It was a warm, drenching rain from the sea.
The cubicle was on a middle floor near the center. It took him a long time to find it. He had to ask the way several times. The heilotim were suspicious. They could tell he didn’t belong there.
He let himself in. There was a kitchenette lit by a guttering tube-lamp, with a tiny bedroom beyond that. Vera was asleep on the pull-down bed.
He set the case on the counter and opened it. The leather fit snugly over a metal box. He opened that, too.
The orrery was more beautiful and delicate than he’d remembered, all gold and crystal and lapis lazuli. The interlocking hyperspheres were slowly gyrating. Parts seemed to shimmer or shiver, as though they weren’t entirely there. The crystals resonated audibly, hypnotically. He shut the case again.
He got a drink of rusty water from the tap and went into the bedroom. It was still raining. A gutter ran down the wall outside. The torrent’s thunder was the voice of the elemental forces of the world.
Vera sat up in bed, wild-eyed. “What?” she demanded. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” he said. “It’s nothing. Go to sleep.”
She settled back down. She was sleeping in the nude. Her clothes were on the floor. There was a hastily packed bag in one corner.
Elerit went into the toilet, stripped, and showered. He returned to the bedroom and slipped into her clothes. They fit him fairly well. Then he made up his face and fixed his hair the way she did. He looked in the mirror. The resemblance was striking. As a final touch, he sprayed himself with her perfume and breathed it in deeply.
There was a single square window. He went over and peered through it. The little temple was down below, beneath the rubbish-heaped grating. He saw Skeller and Zilla cross to the labyrinth. He wanted to shout down to them, pretend to be Vera, but the window wouldn’t open.
He looked at Vera. She was drooling in her sleep. For a long time he stood there, just watching her sleep, trying to treasure up the golden grains as they slipped one by one into oblivion. Then he slung her bag over his shoulder, went into the kitchenette, and took up the orrery. He left the apartment, locking the door behind him.