♦ ♦ ♦
Imago Bone discovered no means of barring the stairs, but a stone passageway revealed side rooms with wooden doors. He ushered Gaunt into what appeared the master bedroom. He regretted they couldn’t use the bed, blanched at the nearby torture equipment, and noted a large air shaft. He and Gaunt dragged gnarled-looking furniture to block the door.
Fists pounded the other side.
Bone whispered, “The air shaft leads to the outer wall.”
“You are sure?”
“Every thief’s an amateur architect. Up you go.”
“I will follow. Go.”
Though Gaunt was quick to challenge him on matters social, geographic, or metaphysical, at least she acquiesced in matters of survival. Sometimes. He gave Gaunt a boost and she scrambled up the shaft.
“Open!” cried one of the drab-robes in passable Roil. “We will not harm you.”
“Spare me,” Bone muttered, preparing to jump.
At that moment the door shattered, and a robed hand emerged.
“Spare me,” Bone prayed to whatever gods yet lived. The drab-robes were far better combatants than he’d feared.
The thief faced a dilemma. He could follow Gaunt into the air shaft, but the drab-robes would see, and would surely have time to slip outside and trap Bone, if not Gaunt as well. Whereas, if Bone stayed and struggled—fought was not really in his professional vocabulary—all the drab-robes might be delayed, allowing Gaunt a better chance. Who knew? He might even win. The drab-robes might simultaneously trip each other.
There was another word that was not really in his professional vocabulary, and he’d never quite used it with Persimmon Gaunt. He did not think of it as he threw pain-implements like daggers, as he tripped foes with bedsheets, as he kicked and bit. He did not think of Gaunt at all, save as the fleeting idea of a woman running free beneath the sun.
He did not even consider the word as they grappled him and smothered him with a pillow and toppled him into a hazy dream wherein he clasped Gaunt’s hand in Palmary’s finest restaurant, peering deep into her eyes.
Is there something you wish to say to me? said dream-Gaunt.
Yes. I hate magic swords.
An aching haze cleared at last, and Bone awoke upon perhaps the most comfortable chair ever placed within a torture chamber. Later, despite painful associations, the memory of that chair would taunt him. It was vast and velvety and perfectly supported his long-abused frame. If the thief ever retired to a cave in the mountains, he must plant such a chair in the center of his loot and doze in sight of the jewels and gold and easily-transportable paintings. The lords of Maratrace knew their furniture.
Alas, they also knew other arts as well.
All around him there were racks and ropes, needles and whips, boxes and spikes, all dedicated to the ostensible purpose of the room, that of damaging the human body by precise increments. Testifying to their use, there came to his nose a reek of mingled blood, sweat, and excretion, clouded by a touch of incense.
Such torments were perhaps to be expected. What startled Bone were the identities of the tormented.
Four of Bone’s drab-robed captors surrounded him—stretched, pierced, constricted, and dripped upon.
Bone sat unrestrained. Those in the devices were, by all appearances, free to leave as well. Even the man within the little confinement box could snake his arm through a hole and release the latch. Instead, the lunatic leered through another hole at Bone. They all bore demented, predatory looks, these drab-robed ones. Here and there Bone caught sight of precise and extensive scars.
A group of more ordinary Maratracians lurked in a nearby gallery, clutching iron bars to peer more intently at the tableau. These citizens were less diligently scarred, with merely the odd missing finger or eyepatch or artistic incision.
“This is some bizarre delirium,” Bone remarked. “I’ve dallied with dreamtellers in Palmary. As that city is fashioned in the shape of a hand, it attracts all manner of soothsayers—except oddly enough the palmists, who claim the layout overwhelms them.”
“So,” said the man in the box, in decent Roil. “What did these dreamtellers say?”
Why not converse? “Dreams (such as this surely is!) toss about the elements of our psyches, as a gourmet tosses a salad. As the arrangement of rent vegetables serves the chef’s purposes, so the parts of a dream may be impossible to reassemble into their original lettuce heads.”
There were gentle snickers. “Are we the croutons then?” asked the man in the box.
“Indeed,” said Bone, warming to his topic as a mouse warms to the notion of holes smaller than cats. “You are much as old, pebbly croutons in the salad of my mind. No doubt with reflection I could find the symbolism in each of you.” He craned his neck. “You with the water dripping onto your forehead, you might be the father who demanded I join him at sea. You upon the rack might represent my desire for greater romantic prowess.”
“This is fascinating,” said she upon the rack.
“Very true!” Bone eased deeper into the chair. “Now, you inside the box might recall that unfortunate time I was apprehended robbing the delvenfolk embassy in Palmary. I was conscripted into their games of hunchball. You play in a delven-height chamber in pitch blackness, you see, and the balls are of stone.”
“And I?” said a woman upon a slab caged by needles, so tightly penned that even breathing occasioned pricking. “What do I represent?”
“Ah,” said Bone, wincing, “that is perhaps most disquieting. There is a companion of mine, who stirs unaccustomed feelings. To approach those feelings more closely inspires fear; to withdraw inspires pain.”
The woman grunted, and to Bone’s horror, she clapped, piercing her hands in the process.
“Well done!” she said. “You obviously comprehend much of this universe’s rue. Yet you hold back at the last. Why assume this is a dream? Is it so implausible that you sit here, in truth, in our mindthresh?”
Bone swallowed. This was indeed a conclusion he wished to avoid. “Were this truly real—and I assure you, many would wish me in such a room—then surely I would suffer, not my hosts.”
There were wry chuckles all around.
“You have never been to Maratrace,” said the man in the box.
“It is you who are in the compromised position,” said the woman upon the rack.
“How can that be?” said Bone. “I lack only a glass of wine and a good book.”
At a nod from the woman among the needles, a noseless citizen entered and proffered a glass of ruby liquid. An earless citizen followed with a translation in Roil of Darkfast’s Memoirs.
“I fear this only supports my argument,” Bone said after an agreeable sip.
“You are mired in illusion,” said the man being dripped upon. “You do not understand the horror that underlies reality.”
“Your comfort holds you back,” said the woman upon the rack. She coughed at one of the departing citizens, who obligingly turned the crank near her head. Bone made a point of opening and examining the book. He glanced at the line Cynics have the most fruitful sense of humor, but they get the least nourishment from it.
“We by contrast,” said the woman of the needles, “have trained ourselves to understand truth. We rise above the human condition, perceiving it fully. Pain gives us wings.”
Bone sighed. “I concede this much: you are mad enough to be real.”
“You draw nearer to understanding,” approved the man in the box.
Bone sized up the situation. “I am a prisoner then, in the torture chamber of Maratrace.”
“Your terms are crude,” said the punctured woman. “In place of prisoner, we would prefer supplicant. Instead of torture chamber, we would say mindthresh. And rather than rulers we encourage you to say Comprehenders. The citizenry follows us because they respect our abyssmitude, our knowledge of life’s pain. I, for example, have no name other than Mistress Needles.”
“And to secure my freedom, I must cultivate abyssmitude?”
Mistress Needles said, “I am impressed.”
“As am I. I appreciate your lesson. Applaud it, even. This wine, which seemed so pleasant, is now revealed as swill.” He drank it down. “Ugh. There. May I go?”
Mistress Needles sighed.
“Yes, I rather thought not,” Bone said.
“We regret confining you,” said the other woman (Mistress Rack, perhaps?) “Though I assure you, we will not significantly damage you without your consent.”
“What is significant damage?”
“Whatever we deem so. Do not be overly concerned. We are civilized folk. However, you and your companion do pose a problem.”
“What problem? We came bearing a gift—”
“Your gift,” said he who might be Master Box, “is a weapon sent by the Pluribus to destroy us.”
“Destroy you? The thing warps minds, and even its rose petals draw blood. But it’s hardly going to wreck your little madhouse.”
“How little you understand,” said the man (Master Drip?) with forehead targeted by waterdrops.
“Our founder, Captain Slaughterdark,” said Mistress Rack, “warned of this blade. It does not inflict wounds. It inflicts sweetness. It forces one to see the world through rose-tinted eyes. It is dreadful.”
Bone smirked. “On that we may agree.”
Mistress Needles said, “Then may we be in harmony, to the degree harmony exists in this cesspool of a universe. The sword’s presence may yet prove a desirable thing. For your freedom, Imago Bone, and that of the companion who brings you fear and pain, depends upon its destruction.”
“Um. How might such a thing be destroyed? We could hardly bear to release it, let alone harm it.”
“Things of magic,” said Mistress Rack, “have their own rules of being and unbeing. We believe it can be unmade, if used to destroy an innocent.”
“That demented girl you encountered,” said Master Drip. “The one who raises weeds and refuses self-injury and smiles at nothing. She is the one.”
“Yet,” Bone said uneasily, “I am given to understand your beliefs forbid doing harm without consent.”
“They forbid us,” said Mistress Needles. “You are not one of us, outlander. Yet.”
♦ ♦ ♦
Persimmon Gaunt was uncertain whom she was angriest at, herself or Bone. It was she who should be the prisoner. Did not all romances feature the damsel’s capture? (Though she disliked romances and the term damsel.) More to the point, was she not a morbid poet, able to mine the very prison stones for material?
Bone should be out here. Bone was the thief with far too many years’ experience, the burglar who scaled buildings like step-stools, the schemer who spied cracks in all defenses. But he was not here, and Bone would insist she flee.
Go on (he’d say.) The dire book is safe with the Pluribus for now. Hone your self-preservation skills. Return to poetry, count yourself lucky to be free.
But she wouldn’t abandon him. Did she love him? It almost didn’t matter. She had allowed Bone to fall for her sake. Somehow she would get him back.
She almost felt his presence beside her as she skulked through the day. She returned to the harbor district and its clutter and crowds, obtaining hunks of dry bread and moldy cheese, dressing herself in a tattered robe. She lurked like a troll beneath a dank pier, whence she heard officials (Comprehenders, the market whispers named them) harassing every merchant stall and vessel. Seeking her. The traders, drawn to Maratrace’s useful location from many lands, did not like the place or the Comprehenders; but they promised to report the auburn-haired outlander.
She breathed deeply as her bardic instructors had taught, watching the sun descend and make the sky recall the Sword of Loving Kindness.
The image kept returning, of the girl Skath and her brother Skower, and their reactions to the sword.
Gaunt’s intuition had landed her in trouble as often as out of it, but trouble was already here. She slept, her mission clear. At dawn she sought out Skath.
Gaunt shadowed the girl from her home, and caught her atop the western gate, tending another box of weeds. Although there was no city wall as such, the westward road led through this free-standing maw that snarled with metallic fangs, speared the sky with glass horns, unfurled spiky stone wings; and as the sun rose behind the city, the gate cast spiky shadows piercing the cracked and rocky margin of the desert called the Sandboil. The girl found it easy to crouch among the horns—there were dozens, sprouting like stunted glittering trees—and Gaunt saw the guards below would have great difficulty spotting Skath, let alone catching her.
As Skath knelt beside her stinkblossoms and spikeblooms, her snarlflowers and swamppetals, Gaunt said gently, “I like flowers too.”
Gaunt supposed she might have said something more fugitive-like. Make a sound and you’ll be sorry, say. But, in fact, she was the sorry one.
“Lepton,” Skath hissed, backing up against a curving, serrated glass cone. “Don’t use the sword,” the girl whispered in Amberhornish.
“I won’t.” Gaunt spread her hands. “They took it when they took Osteon. I have no weapons except words.” As the girl relaxed slightly, the poet added, “Though I suspect it’s not ordinary cuts you fear.”
“The sword is evil,” Skath blurted.
“Is that why you set your Comprehenders on us?”
Skath looked at her feet. “It hurt me. It looks like a beautiful flower, but it’s a nasty, angry thing.” She glared at her box of blooming weeds, as if to say those were what flowers should be.
“I’d have to agree,” Gaunt said. She sat, laying hands upon bent knees. She studied the deep blue stinkblossoms for a time, wrinkling her nose. “I like your secret gardens. I spotted several yesterday, hiding from the Comprehenders. I used to keep gardens too, in a way. When I lived in Palmary, I knew a dozen alleys where flowers grew. They were tough little things, like yours. I liked to bring them water. Sometimes I gave them more sun.”
Skath slowly sat, cocking her head skeptically. “How?”
Gaunt smiled. “I scrounged for broken mirrors. Then I positioned the pieces in different spots in the alleys, high and low. It didn’t work that well.”
“I guess it wouldn’t.” Skath frowned. “Why didn’t you just move the flowers?”
“They grew up through cracks and it wouldn’t have been safe to uproot them.”
“Mine will die if I don’t move them sometimes. People will find them and dump them out. My people, anyway—I have some friends by the harbor who let me use their roofs. But Maratracians, they like flowers with lots of thorns. They’ve been breeding for thorns for a long time. They hate weeds.”
“Each flower has its own rules.” After a moment, Gaunt added,
“There are flowers in gardens
Tended by wardens
Kissed by water-cans
Surrounded by cousins.
They are not my kind
They of tended ground
Of nurtured bud
In a blooming land.
Mine are of the fissure
In a cobbled corner
Starved of sun and water
In an alley with no owner.
They are hardly grown
When the wind has blown
That cuts them down unknown.
They are my own.”
Skath regarded her garden a long time. Then: “Why did you bring the sword? It’s a bad thing. I’m sorry I gave you away, I’m sorry they took Osteon. But the sword is evil, Lepton.”
“Even poets and thieves do things they regret. Tell me why the sword is evil.”
“It spoke to me... like it knew me. Had always known me. I heard it from far away, you know, weeks ago. It thinks I’m it’s chosen user, but it hates me too. It wants to change me. It thinks I’m stupid and useless. Just like my family does.”
“What does it want to do, once it’s changed you?”
Skath shuddered. “Kill everyone in Maratrace who believes in the Comprehenders’ way. Teach everyone who repents how to wash more often, dress nice, eat healthy food, build pretty houses. Sing beautiful songs. Pull up all the weeds.”
“Is this what the Pluribus wanted...?” Gaunt began.
“Who is the Pluribus?”
“The one... the ones... who sent us here. I swear to you, my friend and I know very little. We were simply hired to bring the sword. I’d wash my hands of it and leave. But not without my partner.”
“They won’t hurt him.”
“They’ll make him hurt himself.”
“Why?” Gaunt asked. “What kind of place is this?”
“My people think being hurt is good. They think it makes you strong.”
“Well, sometimes it can.”
“If you break a flower,” Skath said, playing her hand through the stinkblossoms, “it dies. It doesn’t get stronger.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Skath. I’m stronger for having endured many things.” She remembered the poor family who’d sent her to live with Swanisle’s bards; and she recalled abandoning those bards to dwell in poverty far from home. “They helped make me who I am. Yet kindness shaped me, too. I don’t hold with those who embrace cruelty.” Gaunt frowned, thinking of greedy kleptomancers and bibliomaniac goblins and homicidal mermaids. “Those who rant about hard necessity, when the greatest hardness is in their eyes. The ones who, even in paradise, would find an excuse to torture.”
Skath wore a look, Gaunt thought, of the oldest soul within the world’s five corners. Then this ancient-eyed being took Gaunt’s hand, and was merely a girl again. Gaunt said nothing but clasped Skath’s hand in turn.
She felt a surprising maternal need to spirit Skath away—to Palmary, to Swanisle, someplace where a girl who loved flowering weeds would have a fighting chance. Yet this girl had a mother, a family, a life of her own, and Gaunt had a lover to save. As she considered all this, Gaunt felt less like an adult comforting a youth than like an older child defending a younger.
If I am ever a mother, she thought, will I lose this ability to be a child’s true friend? Must I always, then, feel superior?But there could be no answer.
Then Gaunt released Skath’s hand and spun, seeing movement out the corner of her eye.
The boy Skower had entered the hiding place. He looked from Gaunt to Skath with wide eyes, and blurted, “The other outlander.... I heard it from the crowd at the Comprehenders’ tower. They’ve got him in the mindthresh. When they’re done teaching him, he’ll come outside—with the sword. He’ll come looking for you, Skath. He’s going to kill you.”
♦ ♦ ♦
I’ve been entranced in some way, Imago Bone thought, wanting to feel angry about it. Something in the wine? Perhaps. Magic? He saw nothing obvious, but he no longer trusted his perceptions.
Yet even without magic or drugs, there remained the alcohol. The heat. The long hardship of the road to Maratrace. The confinement of the mindthresh. The constant discussion. And the people who came and jabbed him whenever he dozed. Bone had known thieves who’d confessed to far worse than burglary, signed anything, simply for the right to sleep. And also the self-assured voices of his captors, and the strange rhythm of their self-tortures.
Each time the world blurred and the Maratracians poked him back awake, the chamber seemed hotter, more constricted. Eventually he dreamed with his eyes open, his thoughts guided by the Comprehenders’ remarks.
Bone had waking dreams of his father (the fisherman) and Bone’s two elder brothers (the fishermen) and his mother (the fisherman’s wife) and his sister (the fisherman’s daughter.)
The Bones of Headstone Beach, on the Contrariwise Coast, were all fishermen. It had not been objectionable that Imago be different—it had been incomprehensible.
Yet Imago had no desire to fish. It was not that he hated the sea; indeed, he could study its wavering surface and shadowy depths for hours, much as others would watch a fire. Imago’s dream was to wander that sea as an explorer, not hug the coasts. Imago’s father once or twice grumbled acquiescence to the idea. But that was before Imago’s brothers drowned.
To the boy it seemed a life sentence had fallen upon him, this assumption he must fish to sustain his family. So he asked himself, how would Slaughterdark the Pirate Lord have comported himself, and he answered Slaughterdark would do anything necessary to reach free sea.
With this notion fluttering high, Imago fashioned a mask of old sailcloth and robbed a carriage of the Skullfellows, those merchants who taxed all the trade of Headstone Beach. To his delight he discovered a knack for such work. Triumphantly he presented his father enough money to secure the family for a year.
But Effigy Bone cursed his son for a thief, and kept the money. Imago was not released; he was banished. Though he wandered the Spiral Sea’s three great islands and its gnarled mainland, Imago Bone found no delight in escape. For it is one thing to sally forth, quite another to be exiled.
Other travelers whom Bone met upon the road, alone as they were, seemed possessed of a self-assurance he could never feel. Could it be that these travelers knew the trust and love of unseen, even dead, families? While Bone knew only the contempt of his? He felt like a vessel with a gutted hull, apparently sound and yet inevitably sliding to a fate even Captain Slaughterdark could not evade.
So he turned by slow degrees from the sea. He did not understand it then, but he came to believe he did not deserve his dream. Instead he focused on enhancing the skills that bought him survival on the road. He became, not just opportunistically but occupationally, a thief.
And thanks to Joyblood and Severstrand, two equal but opposed angels of death inflicted by a pair of eager but uncoordinated enemies, his life was strangely prolonged, so that those skills became legend. Yet at heart he was a man who’d abandoned a dream, to punish himself for failing a family long dead.
Bone shuddered as he reached this conclusion, trembled with the need to relate it to his friends, the only people who could comprehend. Only dimly was he aware that he told it hunched up, within a narrow wooden box.
♦ ♦ ♦
Gaunt led the children through shadows and dust to her hiding place beneath the pier. There she hissed angry questions to Skower. “Explain yourself, boy. You turn us over to the Comprehenders, and now you want to help?”
“I love my little sister,” the boy said, with a quaver of pride. “I want Skath to be strong, proper, normal.”
“Nothing about Maratrace is normal.”
“It is our way, outlander. But Skath has never fit in. She is too gentle. With herself, with others. When she told me about her dreams of the sword, I thought she was at last growing up. Then I saw the sword in reality. I knew, somehow, Skath had to claim it.”
Skath said, “You forced me to touch it, Skower. That was wrong.”
He contemplated the muddy sand. “Yes.”
“Then you summoned the Comprehenders, and now everything is worse.”
“I got scared,” Skower said, “after Lepton hit me.” He shot Gaunt a glare. “Of the outlanders. Of the sword. Of you with the sword. But I still believe that you’re supposed to use it, that it’s your destiny. The Comprehenders want to destroy it. They think having Osteon slay you with it will do that. Maybe you embarrass me, Skath, but I can’t let him kill you. I can’t oppose the Comprehenders, but Lepton can.”
Brotherly love, Gaunt thought, but what she spoke aloud was, “I can’t let him kill you either,” and she said this as much for Bone’s sake as Skath’s. “And he will not. Skath, tell me again about your friends near the harbor.”
♦ ♦ ♦
There were nightmares in the dark, and some happened while Bone was asleep, and some while he was awake.
After a long interval he found himself atop a dark tower rippling with faux spines and sculpted ooze, spearing the air with its spikes and swellings. From this vantage he saw the sun rise obscenely over the city, exposing it like a lamp above a pustulous wound.
He could barely stomach the sight. He felt ill. He studied his own hands, his sandaled feet, noting each blemish and wart, each peculiarity of form. One toe was crooked in a way that offended him. His body seemed a lump of gristle and fat. He loathed the sound of his own rasping breath.
“You perceive,” someone said. “You understand.”
His friends the Comprehenders circled him, wearing robes that hid the nauseating truth of their bodies. They bore an identical robe for him.
He took it eagerly. Its cover compensated slightly for the sun’s oppressive eye.
When he had become as the Comprehenders, Mistress Needles said, “You have come far, supplicant. Since the days when Captain Slaughterdark established this realm, each generation has passed our founder’s abyssmitude to the next. You are not so unlike him, and you have progressed quickly. But there is yet a task required of you, our new Brother Box.”
And now his namesake approached, Master Box. As if passing a torch, Master Box unveiled the rose-red crystal rapier with its hilt sculpted like a blossom, his hands poised carefully beneath the cloth. The sword greeted Brother Box with a cheery pastel crimson glow.
Master Box said, “Behold the abomination. It teaches us to live in a shallow world of insipid pleasantries and callow smiles.”
As one, the other Comprehenders spat. And they spoke, as though intoning a liturgy.
Mistress Rack said, “Our founder plundered this sword, to his everlasting regret. It was to escape its pall that he fled to the desert. There he fed upon locusts and scoured his skin with rocks, until he cleansed his mind of the sword’s ways.”
Master Drip said, “But he accomplished far more. He broke the illusions that veil the horror of the world. Of all men, it was he who first truly Comprehended the loathsome nature of the universe. He abandoned his old life, and taught others to share his abyssmitude. And he foretold that one day our creed would encompass the Earthe, freeing all from illusion. The crusade would begin when Maratrace destroyed the Sword of Loving Kindness.”
Mistress Needles said, “You will do the deed, Brother.”
“But....” He could hardly speak, yet felt he should object.
“You fear losing your new-found perspective,” Master Box said. “We understand, Brother, and there is a risk. But if you cling to knowledge against the siren lure of ignorance, you may banish your illusions for good. We would be proud.”
Mistress Needles said, “We would be even more proud, if you could destroy the sword. Slay the girl Skath, she who tends weeds and smiles so shamelessly.”
“To sacrifice such a one with the sword,” said Mistress Rack, “would negate its claim to kindness. For whatever else the idiot Skath is, she is kind.”
“Do this,” said Master Drip, “and you’ll be free to do as you choose.”
“Even,” Mistress Rack said, “to teach abyssmitude to your beloved Persimmon Gaunt.”
“Give me the sword,” he said.
The touch of the hilt was like a hot gale, and the world seemed to spin around the Comprehenders’ tower.
A similar unbalancing shook his mind.
The sword hungered. He could almost hear it hissing its outrage. It longed to stain the Comprehenders’s drab costumes with crimson, bludgeon their followers into donning bright, cheery garb to please family and friend. It wanted the citizens to tell all their troubles at bladepoint, with the help of tea and trifles. It wanted to topple this grotesque tower and supplant it with something beautiful and airy, flanked by topiary. It wanted to replace torture chambers with padded cells, each with its complementary book of spiritual devotion.
Come! the sword seemed to sing. Let us make the world lovely, by smiting the unsightly!
But Brother Box resisted, for his newfound abyssmitude was strong.
He knew that between the cracks of the sword’s shining new world, loathsome vermin would scuttle. Moths would eat the pretty clothing, mold would claim the sweetcakes, and the beautiful happy people would, at last, rot.
“I am ready,” he said.
As the girl was known to be missing, he stalked the harbor, where a fugitive might readily hide. Mistress Needles accompanied him, with an eye to maintaining his abyssmitude.
She needn’t have bothered. These stinking, muttering bands of greedy, lecherous, sloppy traders were enough to inspire horror in any neophyte. Yes, surely Skath would hide here. Soon he would discover her and be rid of this damnable, mocking blade....
So absorbed was he, he almost missed the fleck of white flaring in an alley to his left. “Come,” he hissed, shifting that way, unconsciously seeking shadows.
Mistress Needles had seen nothing. “Eh? Where do you go, Brother?” Her voice was suspicious. But she followed him into a noxious alley cluttered with refuse, so unlike the bleak dusty paths of inner Maratrace.
He knelt beside a trash-heap and lifted a severed dandelion puff. He crushed it and peered at the rooftops. “Gaunt is near,” he said. “Skath is with her.”
He leapt upon the mound, jumped to catch a window ledge, and scrambled onto an adobe roof.
“Brother, come back!”
“You could never take Persimmon Gaunt on the heights, Sister. I trained her.”
He struck out across the rooftops, ignoring the Comprehender’s protests.
The buildings of the trading district formed a fractured maze. The Maratracians might impose starkness upon their own dwellings, but outsiders were not so rigid. As in so many lands, Maratrace could not afford to expel the foreigners it disdained, so it made do with isolating them.
All this he noted with a barely conscious sweep of observation, along with the awareness that Gaunt had set a trap.
She was not visible of course, nor was the girl. But upon a distant roof he spied the corner of a flower-bed. Despite himself he felt a distant flicker of pride. First, lure me into isolation. Then, force me to cross a long span full of ambush sites. And I must cross, for how can I be certain Skath isn’t beside that flowerbed after all?
His own abyssmitude mocked him for admiring such childish games.
The sword sang its outrage at the indignity of crossing rooftops.
His guts as unbalanced as his mind, he slunk along a roundabout path, from time to time dropping and rolling to see if the ambush was upon him. None came. Perhaps he’d bypassed it.
“Gaunt,” he murmured sadly, “you are brave and gifted. But sorry to say, I’m the master.”
A glint met his eye up ahead, and he stopped, thinking at first to see a dagger, or a crossbow, aimed his way. But no... it was just a common leather money-pouch nestled in a nook between chimneys, just as if some ambitious trader had stashed it while conducting dangerous business. A gem or two glinted through the loosened top. Only someone of keen senses, passing in just this direction, could have noticed. He licked his lips.
“Gaunt,” he called out. “I see what you are doing. But I am beyond such things. They are but stones, and I play for higher stakes.”
He leapt onward toward the flower bed.
A roof collapsed beneath him.
Sloppy, he thought as he fell. He should have noted that stairway gap, concealed though it was by a mandala-carpet covered with sand.
Tumbling down the stairs, Brother Box caught flashes of beauty foreign to Maratrace: brass statues of six-limbed gods, low oil lamps with wicks sticking out like fiery tongues, incense sticks trailing delicate smoky arms. Pain and distraction tore the sword from his grip; it lay upon another carpet of intricate swirling forms, flashing ruby light as if offended by the contemplative surroundings.
Whatever foreign merchants inhabited this home, they’d gone elsewhere. Shaking his head and wiping his eyes, Brother Box saw only Persimmon Gaunt.
Or rather, he saw the elephant-headed statue she slammed into his forehead.
Through the exploding starfield that filled his eyes he heard her say, “Sorry, O unknown deity. Sorry, Imago.” As he reeled, she padded away. He heard a clatter of beads, and when his vision cleared, the sword was gone.
He snarled and crawled through the beaded curtain into the sunlight. He saw Gaunt duck into another mud-brick home, two houses down. Dogs and chickens voiced excitement; humans gasped. The ugliness of existence slapped Bone in the face, but something deeper than his abyssmitude drove him on. He hated to lose. He got to his feet, spat at the onlookers, and ran.
As he passed the next door, the girl Skath emerged and tripped him.
Before he could recover, she darted inside.
He needed both girl and sword. Best he make her unconscious now. He rose and tumbled through the doorway in one motion.
Again an exotic interior confronted him. Red wall hangings coiling with flowing gold calligraphy trembled in a hot breeze. Monochrome scroll paintings of mountainous landscapes hung beside lacquer cases reflecting the dying light from a fireplace; these sheltered jade and ivory carvings of dragons, unicorns, and flying folk.
Something old stirred in Brother Box, a desire to investigate and inventory these unusual trinkets. Something older longed to wander those imaginary mountains beside the dragons. His abyssmitude whipped him on, however, whispering that all human works were so much junk... the calligraphy, the carvings, the paintings....
The intricate ironwork of the hot fireplace poker in Skath’s hands....
She slashed and stabbed, leaping out of nowhere. The scent of hot metal and burnt wood shot past his nose. He scuttled back. He was far, far off his game. Yet though his reflexes were muddled, Skath was no warrior. On her next jab, he swatted the poker away.
Skath kicked him, howling. He shoved her off, following with a gut punch. She toppled with an oomph.
A flash of light warned him of Gaunt’s approach. He spun.
Shaking, Gaunt advanced with the Sword of Loving Kindness. It shone with a lurid pink glow, bringing out the pigments in her rose tattoo. Rainbows sliced the air. Gaunt winced as one of the hilt’s rose-petals pierced her hand. But it seemed to cut her spirit more deeply.
“Bone...,” she murmured. “My poetry.... So foolish and morbid. I should speak of sunshine, of virtue, of weddings and dynasties....”
“The sword,” he answered, “is awake. It is too much for anyone who lacks abyssmitude.” Indeed, his perspective was clearer with the sword lost. He perceived the entropy reflected in the fire’s ashes, the decay that would inevitably claim woman and girl. There was no escape. One could only Comprehend.
“Bone, I am sorry.” Gaunt raised the weapon, and its lurid light intensified. It emitted a sound resembling a shrill birdsong, or frantic harping.
“I am Bone no longer. I am Brother Box.”
He slid beneath her swing. He sensed the sword’s eagerness to sunder his spirit.
“You are not yourself, Gaunt.” He tumbled toward the exit.
“You should talk.”
He sped into the street and ducked into the final house on the row. He must improvise some weapon.
But he found this home not just unoccupied but nearly barren. A life-sized porcelain cat with upraised paw welcomed him to a chamber bearing a little unadorned table with a miniature tree growing from a pot in its center. The very simplicity of the room drew the eye to the complexity of wood and leaf. Brother Box felt he could lose himself in that miniature world.
A trifle, a vanity, a waste of time. Lacking cover, he picked up the little tree, crouched, awaited Gaunt.
She stepped unsteadily into the room, a wary Skath beside her.
“Give up,” he told Gaunt. “You grow progressively less certain. The weapon overwhelms you.”
“Then we’re even. These madfolk have overwhelmed you.”
“Gaunt, you do not see... we were foolish, chasing the beauties of the road. For beauty does not exist.”
“No,” she said, assuming an attack posture, “we were wrong to seek beauty in wandering. We need to settle down, start a family, grow up.”
“Stop it!” wailed the girl Skath, looking from one to the other.
“I will stop it,” said Gaunt, and lunged.
Bone threw his miniature tree. Gaunt whacked it away. Skath screamed and caught it.
Gaunt jabbed again. Bone kicked the table toward her and tumbled, and thus avoided her main blow; yet a petal sliced his shoulder even as he stumbled into the porcelain cat and crushed it beneath his weight.
He barely noticed the physical pain. For he screamed with the awareness of his pointless life. He realized he was severed from the essence of existence—the business of loving, of harvesting, of raising many children, of having the tidiest house on the row. He wept, for these things now seemed glorious, not the hollow grotesqueries the Comprehenders saw.
Then the dark perceptions returned to him, whispering that the cycle of life was but a rotting millwheel, its only product a creaking noise.
Yet in the midst of the screaming and the whispering there opened a clear space deep in his mind.
And Imago Bone, who had some experience maneuvering between warring parties, found in that space a chance to know his own thoughts.
The first thought was this: that neither Comprehenders nor Sword of Loving Kindness respected the life he’d chosen.
“My life,” he murmured.
“Do you yield, Bone,” Gaunt demanded.
“To nothing... except you.” He tried to the squeeze the words out of his mouth, crystallize his new thoughts in language before they collapsed under the force of one impulse or the other.
He rose painfully, turning to Skath. “Girl.”
The young gardener stepped forward, cradling the little tree like a baby.
“The Comprehenders hate you. The sword hates you.”
“Do you not see? You must play them against each other! Make your own way.”
“But the swordis good,” Gaunt said, with a hint of uncertainty. “The sword is right.”
“Then why should it hate Skath?” Bone found his strength now, and his voice. “No. This weapon cannot tolerate whimsical little girls. Or morbid poets. Or wandering rogues. None of us three is fit for grand purposes. And so all great powers despise us.”
Gaunt stared at Bone a long while. With trembling hand she stabbed at the earthen floor and released her grip. The sword quivered there, perhaps angered by the indignity. Gaunt released a long breath.
“Skath,” she said. “Bone is right. But I know something else. Your brother is right about something. You must take up the sword.”
Skath looked mystified. “It hates me.”
“Yes,” Bone said, turning to Gaunt, then back to Skath. “And I think it’s that’s because you know your own heart. You needed no philosophy, no etiquette, to become a kind person. Your intuitions surpass its powers. The sword may fear that quality.”
“There is more,” Gaunt said. “Something I realized while wielding the weapon. I could not strike down someone I loved, even with the sword commanding it. I wonder if at its core it still carries, not just the fury of Nettileer Kinbinder, but the passion of Allos the Smith. If so, a gentle heart may be able to command it.”
“I don’t know those names,” Skath said.
“It may not matter,” said Gaunt, and she fished into her pack, and pulled out her pouch containing the powdered blood of Allos. She poured it upon the Sword of Loving Kindness.
The powder hissed, liquified, and flowed into the sword. The pink glow flickered madly and reddened. It seemed tempered now with the hard, steady quality of forge-light. It stood within the earthen floor, looking less dainty, more solid, like some miniature redwood.
“Take up the sword, Skath,” Gaunt said. “It may be your only chance to stand against the Comprehenders, and the Pluribus too.”
“Is that,” Skath asked in wonder, “what I should do?”
“If it is what you want,” Bone said.
There came the sounds of shouting and pursuit. Bone peeked outside. Beyond the crowd he caught a glimpse of drab-robed figures. “Decide soon,” he added.
Eyes shut as if testing whether she dreamt, Skath set down her miniature tree and grasped the sword. She winced in horror, teetered, but mastered herself.
“No. I will notchange. You will do what I want. I willcommand you.”
The sword’s light grew yet more natural, less lurid, like a waning desert sunset. Rainbows and sparkles subsided. Although a child, Skath now seemed somehow taller than either Gaunt or Bone.
“You do not care about people,” Skath told the sword. “But I do.”
The silence that followed was swiftly broken. Mistress Needles rushed in, four maimed citizens close behind.
“Success, Mistress,” Bone began cheerfully, as he tripped her.
Gaunt smashed the porcelain cat’s head over a citizen’s. He went down, but the remaining minions advanced upon their foes, one to a person. Given his and Gaunt’s exhaustion, Bone calculated the odds at a hair less than fifty-fifty, if Skath did not act.
Glowing crystal slashed her opponent’s arm. The Maratracian regarded Skath with shock and collapsed dead at her feet.
“What have you done?” Mistress Needles hissed, rising from the floor.
Skath pricked Gaunt’s foe in the back. He sobbed and fell still. Bone’s own opponent fled, and the final citizen ran close behind, brushing porcelain fragments from his hair.
Mistress Needles sized up the situation, spreading her hands. “We called you Brother, Imago Bone.”
“You used me.”
“Out of expediency. Are you not using this girl, now?”
The Comprehender was silent.
Skath stared at the bodies. “Lepton, are they ... dead?”
“Yes,” Gaunt answered after kneeling beside them.
“I was so angry... the sword doesn’t think their dying matters. The sword really thinks they killed themselves. By living the way they did.”
“What do you think?” Gaunt asked gently.
“I think.... I think I am tired. Lepton, Osteon—come with me?”
Bone and Gaunt trailed Skath, keeping watch on Mistress Needles. The Comprehender shuffled after them, pinching herself.
Meanwhile the crowd had become a throng, Maratracians now mixing with the foreigners. They jostled each other to behold the strange girl with the sword, but they parted for the boy Skower, who charged at his sister, ending with a jump and a shout.
“You command it!”
“Yes,” Skath murmured.
“Now you will be strong. Now you will not embarrass us, or make Mother and Father fight about you. You could become as mighty as a Comprehender. Or a pirate lord. Or a god.”
“It is not that way, Skower. I could not use the sword as you wish, even if I wanted to. I must always be careful of it.”
Skower’s smile collapsed. It was replaced—not by a frown, but by a bulging of the eyes, a set to the brow, that Imago Bone had beheld far too many times, on far too many faces. He tensed for a fight.
“Always you are weak!” Skower screamed. “You don’t deserve this sword. Give it to me. I will show you how to use it! I will show everyone!”
“Give it to me!”
He lunged at her, and she gave it to him.
But, Bone realized in horror, Skower did not understand it was a gift. The boy grabbed, brother and sister fumbled, and in a dozen places the crystal petals impaled Skower’s hands.
Bone and Gaunt rushed forward, pulling the boy away. Gaunt cradled Skower as Bone wrapped the wounded hands with his Comprehender’s cloak. Skower had been cut more deeply by yesterday’s street game. But Bone understood what it meant to suffer a single scratch from the sword. It was too late.
“I struck at kin,” Skower wailed. “There is nothing worse....”
“Skower, no,” Skath said. “It was an accident—”
“Destroy us, sister,” Skower said. “Destroy us all. We deserve....” The boy’s last breath framed no word, only the sound of surrender. His body went still.
Gaunt touched Skower’s neck, shook her head at Bone. They lay the child down.
Looking up into Skath’s face, Bone thought that Nettileer Kinbinder in her last fury could not have been more terrible. She raised the Sword of Loving Kindness and it blazed like a pyre as she confronted the crowd of people, Maratracian, Comprehender, and foreigner. They recoiled and whispered and clutched at once other, sensing at last a promise of violence that was no game.
Skath lowered the blade to underscore a command, and it dimmed like a shooting star as it fell.
♦ ♦ ♦
The interment made up in enthusiasm what it lacked in coordination, and although Gaunt and Bone shared a look that said flight was indicated, they both helped, laboring wordlessly beside Mistress Needles and the other Comprehenders.
Soon a low mound of earth rose upon a dusty street of the foreign district.
Skath had not stirred from the site, but when her brother was fully buried she knelt and scooped a hole upon the mound. Biting her lip as though about to plunge into waters deep and cold, she drove the sword into the spot.
Light flared from the weapon, and its petals spread, and its hilt bloomed. A wind rose, creaking the boats on the piers, and the new crystal flower twitched like a supple, live thing, twisting upward toward the sun. Beneath the red blossom, the blade became green. Rose-scent filled the desert air. And all those watching felt their hearts quicken, as the sword’s influence waxed. Yet although never stronger, it was not the uncompromising force it had once been.
Out of the sky descended a swarm of bees. They settled upon the changing sword for just an instant before there came a flicker like bloody lightning. The bees dispersed like dust in a running girl’s wake.
They reformed as a humanoid shape, floating in the air beside Gaunt, Bone, and Skath. It made a sound like thepurring of a hundred cats spotting a fat crippled bird, or of a thunderstorm shrunk to the size of a bear.
“This is not the desired outcome,” the Teller buzzed. “The sword called to Slaughterdark’s strongest descendant. In her hands, it should have destroyed Maratrace. Or else the Comprehenders should have destroyed it.”
“As it happens,” Gaunt said, looking at the blood and dirt covering her hands, “the sword is changed. And people still died.”
Skath had heard enough. “No more killing!” she shouted. “No more hurting! I don’t know who you are, but this is Skower’s Rose now, not some weapon!”
“You had best listen to her,” Bone said.
“The sword bears as much of Allos now,” Gaunt said, “as of Nettileer. And something of Skower and Skath as well. There is more than one kind of love in the world.”
“And as I recall,” Bone said to the Teller, “its creation was a response to your acts of Deicide. It did not like your touch.”
“Indeed not,” the Teller mused. “Intriguing: a crystal rose grows in the soil of pain.”
As the Teller spoke, it turned its constantly writhing face left and right, where the people stood silently, too overwhelmed, perhaps, to fear mere eaters of gods. “It is an unexpected alchemy. Perhaps you have changed the nature of the sword. But if you believe you will thereby redeem this city, think again. This place is a disease. The future we are shaping belongs to commerce and self-indulgence, not to misery and self-abasement. That way lies the return of gods. Beware!”
“This is Skath’s city,” Gaunt said. “And Skower’s Rose. I would not underestimate either.”
“Very well; enough. Bone and Gaunt, you have fulfilled your bargain. You saved us the trouble of finding couriers for the sword, whatever our disappointment that sword or city yet endure. You may continue using your security comb.”
“Thank you,” Bone muttered.
“This will,” the Teller said, “bear interesting nectar, at any rate.”
Gaunt watched it fly like a small lonely stormcloud to the west.
♦ ♦ ♦
They made their own departure upon the boat of Flea, who had wonder in his eyes. Under the influence of Skower’s Rose he’d released his conscripts, without quite remembering why, and retained a few as well-paid associates. He was now drinking away his loss.
Already, scores of Maratracians had camped within sight of Skower’s Rose, beginning a new, chaotic city growing within the ordered husk of the old. They planted weed gardens and spoke gently to one another. And yet, as Gaunt noted upon departure, they still displayed their mutilations.
As the scene passed out of sight, they glimpsed a man and a woman embracing a young girl, beside the mound of the Rose. Gaunt looked at her hands, clutching tight the rail.
“I wonder,” she said, watching the river slosh by, breathing in the smells of water and mud as though they were nectar and ambrosia, “if in a hundred years this change will seem an improvement. Will the world come to fear these people? For it’s a dangerous folk who honor both hearth and horror.”
“I was torn between the two,” Bone answered, watching the clouds. “And I want none of either. I only want to settle the matter of the accursed book.”
“Do you still want to rob a drunk?”
Bone glanced toward the captain’s cabin. “Soon.” He took Gaunt’s hand. “For now I only want you, free and alive.”
She touched his face. “You have not spoken quite like this before.”
He smiled. “I have finally given up following in the wake of Slaughterdark. If the Teller spoke true, Skath is his descendant, and I glimpsed within her the kind of spirit he or I might have become, in richer soil. There is more to life than larceny. There is another whose footsteps I would follow.” He touched his clever fingers to her chin. “But I warn you, I am still a thief and a scoundrel and a disappointment to my family, with little to give.”
“Give me this moment and this road and this sky,” she said, and kissed him.
“Never give me roses,” she added.
(Darkfast and his Memoirs are the inventions of Michael Wolfson.)