Light burst in, blinding. Palamedes pushed up his spectacles, ground the heels of his hands into his smarting eyes. He felt thick-headed, and he hated feeling thick-headed. Had he fallen asleep?
"Thank you," he said to the woman who had pulled open the drapes and admitted the glare of the cloud layer that sat on top of the atmospheric field like a sheet of solid gold. Then he felt stupid. The woman wasn't alive, she was one of the corpse servants. He suppressed his shudder of purely provincial distaste -- skeletons were more efficient and less creepy, but apparently they lacked a certain false flower of vitality that was prized here, for some reason -- and closed the tome of lethally soporific poetry he'd been trying to wade through. He'd given it a fair shake, but Dulcie had warned him there was no poetry in his soul. She'd be pleased to be right.
He found her in the kitchens, engaged in a lively debate with the cook on the finer details of disemboweling pheasants. "There you are!" she cried when he ducked in the door. "Pal is on my side, aren't you, darling?"
"In all things," he agreed gravely, bending to give her a mannerly kiss on the cheek opposite her cartilaginous cannula. Without conscious thought he evaluated its contents; serosanguinous, no sign of blood or infection, volume not too copious. "How are you, my lady?"
"Excellent," Dulcie said firmly. She looked, to his practiced eye, perhaps no worse than yesterday. Her wrists were very thin, her skin paper-pale, with the crosshatched shadows of unrestful sleep darkening her brilliant eyes. Her breathing was labored -- it had been a few months now since he'd heard her exhale without the shadow of a wheeze -- and not as regular as he would have liked. Unobtrusively he slipped two fingers over the radial artery in her left wrist where it rested on the arm of her chair. Her pulse was thready and fast, fluttering like a butterfly's wing.
"I've already had my tinctures, don't look at me like that," she said, gaily exasperated. "Go bother Cam if you're going to drag around such a long face. The two of you make a perfect pair."
“As you wish.” He smiled a little and kissed her again, this time on the temple. Her pulse beat there, too, where the skin was taut over the bone.
Camilla was waiting for him on the front terrace. Her shoulders were thrown back, her chin tilted up, her body full of restless purposeful movements. She was sharp as a skinning knife under that flat gold sky, quick-eyed and ready as a mongoose scanning the brush for snakes. Never mind that the resources of two Houses protected this estate, and the most dangerous thing for a hundred miles was the mildly toxic medicinal orchid Palamedes was breeding in the greenhouses, and the most it could do was give you a headache. Cam was as ready to meet a tranquil morning in the gardens as she would have been to meet a whole Cohort fleet descending on them with thanergy cannons booming.
"It's Admin again," she said by way of good morning, handing him a neat flimsy packet. "They want to know when you'll be back."
"You'd think a room full of the most educated busybodies in the system could manage to read a three-page contract," he grumbled, but he took the missive and slipped it into a pocket of his robes. It would be the same folderol as the last six letters: quibbling over clauses and subclauses, trying to cajole and guilt him into softening his terms. His terms were ironclad. He had written them himself, and Cam had flensed them in the proofing stage until they were unassailable. The Master Warden would return to his Library when his lady wife Dulcinea Septimus was interred in her family's gaudily trellised mausoleum, and not a minute before.
To Cam's unspoken question he said quietly, "A few months. Four at the outside. But damn if I'll tell them that, the vultures. Circling around waiting to catch a whiff of her corpse! Turns out the Sixth is as bad as the Seventh."
She said nothing, but pressed her shoulder against his as though to brace him in a howling gale. He sighed and took off his spectacles. "Dulcie's right, I am gloomy today. Comes of all that poetry.”
Seriously she said, “Maybe you should run a retrogressive analysis on something.”
He brightened. “Good idea. Are those statistics in from the Rhodes Council yet?"
"Not your secretary, Warden," Cam said lightly.
Then she went still, all at once. Palamedes, engaged in patting down his pockets for a pencil stub, felt the held-breath paralysis come over her like the leading edge of a hurricane’s eye. In that sudden silence she drew both her blades with a sibilant sound like an exhale.
He looked up.
The sky was tearing open. The impenetrable yellow clouds that had not broken since the dawn of time buckled, split, and tore before a writhing gray mass that poured in from outside. From outside, which was space. There was nothing like that in space, there couldn't be, nothing that gigantic and amorphous could possibly exist in vaccuum without dissipating. And yet it kept coming, driving open the methane shell encasing the planet, like a wedge through the skin of an orange. Only the atmopause stopped it, and the generator field was weak, it wasn't meant to withstand a solid impact --
"It won't hold," Camilla said, just as he thought it.
A great hairline fracture was forming in the sky. "It's not like glass, it's a layer of pressurized oxygen, it doesn't crack like that," he heard himself saying, but then Cam turned and drove her elbow hard into his side, sending him stumbling toward the house.
The last thing he heard her say was, "Warden, run!"
He ran as far as the door and then stopped, looked back over his shoulder at the lone gray figure, perfectly steady, standing straight and fearless with her two glorified hacking knives against some sort of incomprehensible cosmic horror. "Cam," he said, uselessly, for the atmospheric field was breaking now and the churning mass was crashing through. It would be on them in perhaps three seconds. There was no way she could fight it, yet she faced it as though she expected to lay it out with a quick jab to the solar plexus and slash to the carotid.
The atmospheric generators had failed. In about seventeen minutes the planet’s surface would lose air and pressure to become a boiling cauldron of methane fumes, which sounded like a lark.
The red-gray avalanche of horror swept across the gentle fields like a tidal wave. It was a tidal wave, taller than the house, swarming with liquid motion. Then it was on them.
He drowned --
Light burst in a blinding white flash from the ancient diode in the ceiling as he snapped its cord. Palamedes Sextus, Private Investigator, slouched back in his chair and steepled his long fingers before his face.
He kept his expression carefully schooled into mild bemusement as he peered up under the brim of his hat at the woman who had just walked into his dingy, unassuming office. She wasn't much shorter than he was, and she moved with a dancer's unselfconscious grace and unexaggerated muscle. Everything about her was sharp; the line of her long gray coat and the line of her chin-length hair both looked like they could have cut diamond.
Only her eyes were anything less than lacerating. They were of an indeterminate darkness somewhere between gray and brown, and they looked at him with neither trepidation nor greed. Those eyes gave nothing away, and would give nothing away even under the most exquisite tortures that could be dreamed up by the Triskelion bosses who ran the under-est parts of Ida's underbelly. And yet Palamedes knew that she was afraid -- not of him, but for him.
How do I know that? he asked himself, and he answered: she's tapping her fingers against the outside of her thigh in that repeating-threes pattern, she only does that when she's worried. And then he thought: I don't know what she does when she's worried. I've never seen this woman before in my life.
Aloud he said, "Well, what can I do for you? You must be in some bad trouble, to have ended up in a place like this. Is it the flesh markets? Or did you cheat a triad boss at cards?"
"You're the one in trouble," she said calmly. "That duchess you just had in here was trying to con you. She wants to lure you in, eat your soul and use it as a power source."
It was a preposterous thing to say, presented with absolutely zero evidence. His last client had called herself Cytherea, which, all right, was clearly a fake name, but aliases weren’t uncommon or necessarily sinister this low down in the asteroid. And yes, it did sound a little unlikely that she was really the exiled duchess that she’d claimed herself to be. But she’d provided all sorts of proof: unforgeable documents with unbroken necromantic seals, names of the powerful Tridentarii nobles trying to assassinate her, even a jewel that could only have belonged to her family's long-lost heir. She had begged for his help and protection, and he had granted it. And now this strange woman thought she could undo that with a word.
Most disconcerting was that he believed her. Utterly and without pause. Which was insane. He suspected necromantic tampering, but a quick check revealed that his own wards were unbroken and there was no other thanergetic residue in the area.
Carefully concealing the fact that she had clearly snared him in some kind of shared delusion, he said, "And, what, you're going to offer to have her soul quietly sucked out in a back alley somewhere if I can meet your price?"
"No price. I just want to get you out."
He snorted at this unlooked-for generosity. "Nothing’s free on the Third. If the cost isn’t up front, it’ll be collected later, most likely in blood and viscera. I prefer to know the terms of my deals in the open, and I like to see the face of anyone I make myself beholden to. Who sent you here?”
“The Warden sent me,” she said easily. The name meant nothing to Palamedes. “I’m his right hand.”
That definitely sounded like a triad title, and a lofty one. Palamedes had prided himself on his knowledge of the byzantine web of parasitisms, predations, and other inter-relationships that made up the mesh of Ida’s lawless nightside, and of the hierarchies within each bloated money-extorting machine. But he’d never heard of the Warden’s right hand before. Which meant that she was either full of shit, or very, very good.
He was inclined to believe the latter. The way she stood, the way she looked at him, still not smiling but with the faintest shadow of amusement in her eyes, like the false dawn of which a smile would be the sunrise. She could make a lot of trouble for anyone she had a mind to dislike. But she liked him.
And curiosity had always been his besetting sin. “Why should I trust you?”
“You shouldn’t,” she said promptly. “But you do.”
Damn him to the bottom of the River and back, he did. “All right, I’ll bite. Who’s the Warden’s right hand, when she’s at home?"
She said, "Camilla Hect."
The world broke and reformed. A veil that had been overlaid on his memory burned like flimsy doused in acid, and was gone. He remembered the wall of impossible water, her twin swords against that torrent. He remembered her careless vault onto the table, the brutal ease with which she'd dislocated the Second's shoulder, the blood on her gray sleeve from her wounded arm. He remembered his exams, Third Circle when she'd finally harassed him into exercising as a last-ditch attempt to get the blood flowing to his brain, Fourth Circle when she'd laughed at him and hidden all his books to make him sleep. He was standing, both hands braced on the desk. He said, "Cam!"
"I do like this one better than the last," she said, looking down at her sleek gray coat, still damp with rain. "But there's too many moving pieces. There's a triad squad coming now --"
From the street outside came a rattling staccato roar. Holes no bigger than an eye socket stitched themselves across the front windows in bursts of shattering glass. Palamedes started back, but Camilla moved forward. One hand slipped into her coat and brought out a gun (a gun!? What was she doing with that museum piece, where were her swords?). It was a flat black lethal-looking thing, spiky in some places and rounded in others with mechanisms totally opaque to Palamedes. In a move she could never have learned, she primed it, steadied it against her hip and loosed a hail of bullets into the storm.
"It's no good, Warden! You've got to get out!" she shouted. Then the first lead slug hit her below the clavicle, tearing through muscle and puncturing the lung. The second drilled through her right shoulder, the third and fourth into her abdomen, and the fifth gouged out her thigh down to the femoral artery.
She couldn't shout with a deflated lung, but the look she threw over her shoulder told him what he needed to do. There was blood on her lips. He pushed his chair back, ducked to avoid the bullets still flying, and staggered for the back door.
The windows bulged inwards like tympanic membranes and split. An ocean's worth of filthy water poured in, and as it engulfed him bloody hands congealed out of it to grasp at his joints. He drowned --
Light burst from the flash-bulb of a newspaperman who must have somehow snuck past the cordon around the crime scene. Palamedes glanced at Camilla, who stepped from his side to chase the malefactor off before his irresponsible profiteering damaged any evidence. Not, he was forced to admit, that there was much of it to damage.
The victim had been positively identified as one Sulla Bostus, a well-connected if rather uninteresting young cousin of a Fifth viscount. Known hobbies included gambling and womanizing, though nothing so egregious as to be murdered for. Yet murdered he had been; found in empty lodgings, no sign of a struggle or forced entry, no thanergetic residue, with his throat torn out and his thoracic cavity detonated from the inside.
Cam returned and knelt by the body, unrolled her kit, and began taking measurements and samples. Inspector Pyatski shifted impatiently from foot to foot beside Palamedes. "Is this how a consulting detective operates?” she began peevishly. “You have kept my necromancers out, and now you let a mere civilian do their work? Really, Mr. Sextus --"
"Your necromancers would contaminate this room with indecipherable thanergetic noise as surely as a massacre," Palamedes replied calmly. "Camilla is of more use to me than fifty of your men. Now if you wish me to solve this case for you, then you will let me use my own methods."
Pyatski was not satisfied, but she subsided. Palamedes estimated about eight minutes before she barred them both from the murder scene, unless he could produce something concrete. He paced a short circuit around the body, then took off his spectacles and cleaned them on the hem of his robes, left lens then right. Then he said, “You’ll of course have already sent spirit-talkers to the Hall of Sapphires and the Stormgrove, where our friend here has been in the last twenty-four hours, as you’d have seen if you looked at his boots. They’ll be able to find traces of his thalergy there -- or thanergy, which will tell us a great deal. He’s not wearing rings --”
“So they were stolen?” The inspector was excited at the thought.
“Hardly. You’ll find all his usual jewelry in his chambers, where he left it. In addition to an engagement ring bearing the signet of a family richer than his own -- he’ll have kept the love affair secret, but the state of his cuffs shows it plainly. A possible motive, though pedestrian. Now.” He knelt on the carpet beside the corpse of Bostus and brushed his fingers over the light brown weave. "There's cigarette ash, cheap stuff; and blood -- not his, possibly the murderer's, assuming the murderer was corporeal -- and why didn't you tell me that a delegation from Rhodes was on the planet?"
"How could that possibly be relevant?" The inspector demanded. And then, "You can tell all that with psychometry?"
"I can tell it because I have working senses and a brain." Palamedes dusted the grit he'd gathered off the carpet between his fingers. "Cigarette ash. Blood. Totally different type than his. Cancerous blood, which points to the Seventh -- any other House would have treated a malady like that, or at least left the sufferer at home."
"Undiagnosed?" Cam suggested.
"Possible, but unlikely. It's advanced. Now we just need to find out why someone would murder a minor Fifth noble and try to pin it on the Seventh heir."
The inspector squawked. "The Seventh heir?! Sextus --"
"Oh, calm down, she didn't kill him. It's too neat. Her uniquely identifiable blood just happens to be found at the scene? No. Although -- ah." He paused in the process of patting down what was left of the corpse's clothes, and to the inspector's horror and disgust, bent and sniffed in the area of the dead man's mouth. "Well, that is interesting. He reeks of rare organophosphates -- Damascena belladonna, the Rose of Summer's Death. An almost totally unknown poison made from flowers used only the in most secret precepts of the Seventh necromancer's art."
"Then the Seventh did kill him?" The inspector was now entirely bewildered.
"What, with an incredibly unique poison? Unlikely. Why blow up the chest of a man you've poisoned? Or, conversely, why poison a man whose chest you've blown up?"
Camilla looked pained. "Warden, it's a good puzzle, but it won't work. It's not sustainable. You need to --"
"Sextus!" the inspector yelped.
The decorticate body of Sulla Bostus swelled like a time-lapse image of a fruit rotting and popped with a squelch. From his chest a fountain of slimy, blood-muddied water leaped like a living thing straight at Palamedes. It tried to force its way down his throat, clinging to him like a soaked blanket dredged up from a reeking swamp. Cam hit him at a run, bearing him down as though his robes had caught fire, but it was too late. He drowned --
Light burst from his hands and struck the monster in its shoulder. It roared and writhed: five hundred tons of lizard covered in sky-blue armor-plated scales, with wings the size of towers, and a spiked tail longer than a shuttle that hit like an atomizer. And it had a name. And he knew its name. It was Agharatoth the Unnumbered, Sire of Usurpers, the Traitorous Tyrant, the Devastation of the House of the First, dread lich-dragon foe of the Emperor Undying, come to strike terror into the hearts of His servants and devour their homes with its unholy fire --
Camilla ducked a swipe from a claw that would have bisected her neatly at the level of her seventh rib, even though she was wearing chain mail. She charged in and pierced the offending foot, which was as big as she was, then leaped back and shouted, "Warden, don't get lost in the backstory! Hit it again -- it's weak to radiant damage!"
"But is it weak to my dick!" bellowed Gideon Nav. She came hurtling out of left field like a comet and laid into the beast -- the dragon, it was a dragon -- with a comically large sword that she should not possibly have been able to lift. But lift it she did, and wailed on the dragon with it, all while wearing an extraordinarily useless outfit that consisted of mostly scraps of what looked like bear fur and some dangling bones.
Which only left one member of their party unaccounted for. Palamedes looked for Harrowhark, saw her lurking in the shadow of a ruined spire, taking calm and ruthless aim with a jet-black crossbow. Her first bolt pierced one of the dragon's eyes. Her second one punctured its throat. Then she stood up and stepped effortlessly sideways into a shadow, only to reappear fifty feet away between the dragon's front feet, where she sliced its belly neatly open with a black scimitar and dodged the steaming bits of organ meat that fell out.
Palamedes Sextus, necromantic scion of the Sixth, hefted his Wand of Imminent Immolation and considered. He had energy for four more high-powered spells, he was wearing a hat that he was fairly sure he would never have willingly consented to wear even under extreme duress, and he was beginning to suspect that something was wrong.
"Not that this isn't entertaining," he said aloud to no one in particular, "but it's a little silly."
Camilla lifted a shining sword, longer than her usual blades and flatter than a rapier, and used it deflect a gout of acid that would have hit Palamedes in the face. The dragon buckled beneath the frenzy of Gideon's blows, rolled onto its back, and vomited a gigantic gush of bloody water. Palamedes braced himself, heard Cam shout "Warden!" as he drowned --
Light burst around him as his head broke the surface of a frenzied sea. Waves came down like guillotines, stopped up his nose and mouth, choked him with blood and foam. Hands gelatinous with decay gripped at his ankles, slipped away, were replaced. Darting, gnawing things brushed against him in the dark water. He tasted copper and offal. Long strands of seaweed or entrails brushed his face, threatened to tangle in his spectacles
(His spectacles? His spectacles would have fallen off immediately --)
and trailed away. His robes billowed, his bones tried to drag him down, but he did not sink. Something had a grip on the collar of his gray shirt, had pulled it around his throat like a noose
(How had he not passed out? He couldn't possibly have been breathing --)
and was dragging him forward, cutting across the heaving surf, keeping him out of the jaws of the things that waited deeper down.
(How did he know they were there?)
(Wait. Wait. He remembered. Not an ocean at all. He was in the River.)
(Focus. The body. The link. The anchor --)
It was Camilla who was towing him, stroking doggedly through the tempestuous, infinite substance of Death, with absolutely no hope of harbor or respite.
The physical and spiritual horror of the River itself paled for a beat of his nonexistent heart, was eclipsed by a greater horror that made him cry out, although it should have been absolutely impossible to speak: "Cam! How are you here?"
She shouted back, "I'm not!"
He began to struggle, trying to help her, but all he did was generate drag, and one of the slimy grasping things -- murderous revenants, by probability -- tore a chunk out of his Achilles tendon. Palamedes swore and kicked, which did nothing but spurt more of his arterial blood into the water. He heard Cam call, "Warden! Take us somewhere safe!"
He'd got the shape of it now. Imposing order on entropy. Blowing the bubble to operate under air-rules, just for a moment. A moment was enough. He sucked in a great lungful of coppery water --
Light streamed down around him: what he had come to think of as First light, gentle yellow radiance from a Dominicus that was far enough away to be a pleasure as well as a danger. He was at a desk piled deep with books, in a smallish room with cheerful off-white walls and a wide window, that looked out over stone buildings jumbled together on the slope of a grassy hill. A bell was tolling somewhere far away in the sweet mild afternoon.
A door he hadn't noticed open and shut, and Cam came in. She looked perfectly ordinary; gray shirt, gray trousers, chin-length hair like scissor-blades, unsmiling expression that nonetheless warmed him deeper than the sunlight ever could.
"God," he said, "Cam, are you -- " and stood, a little unsteadily, to reach for her.
She stepped into his embrace with a neat, quick movement, as though ducking inside the guard of a dueling opponent, then squeezed him so hard he'd have been winded if he'd still needed to breathe.
"Cam. Tell me you're not in the River. Tell me I didn't kill you." The blast could have destabilized some critical part of the structure. Or could have failed to kill the Lyctor, failed even to weaken her sufficiently, and left her to prey on Cam and the Ninth, turning all his life to waste and ruin.
"Camilla Hect is not in the River," said the spitting image of Camilla Hect. "I'm your soul's representation of her. A reconstruction."
Of course. "A sort of psychological construct," he finished. "We impose our own rules on the River, to a very limited extent. Shape it into what we expect and demand. I drowned about eight times and never lost these," he tapped the frame of his glasses, "because I conceptualize them as part of myself." He rested his chin on the top of her head. Paradoxically, the knowledge that she wasn't real had exponentially strengthened the sense of her presence, the restrained restlessness in her hands and shoulders, the way she stood always centered, ready to move in any direction at any moment, even as she leaned against him.
He said, "Guess it's no surprise what my touchstone of reality turns out to be."
"You brought me here to keep you alive," she said, "and to tell you truths that you can't see. Those other scenarios were unsustainable, Warden. You've got almost no thanergy left, and what you can draw on will have to last. Maybe for a long time. The more complicated the plot, the more likely it is to twist on you."
"So the truth I haven't been able to acknowledge to myself is that for this to have any chance of working, I have to be bored to avoid going mad. And then I have to try not to go mad from boredom. Even this scenario won’t last long -- because you’re here.” He could feel it, now that he’d oriented himself sufficiently, now that he was paying attention. Their little bubble of sunlight was thin-skinned, a glass sphere sinking into realms of alarming pressure, already mazed with cracks. This was thanergy starvation as he’d never experienced it before, even in space. The willpower and concentration bound up in remembering and recreating her, detail-perfect down to her sardonically exasperated expression, left him helpless to reinforce the outer walls. A hell of a choice.
She said, "Essentially, yes. Extreme simplicity with fixed parameters might be stable enough to survive the background chaos. Too many moving parts and the barriers break down. The River gets in."
"Right." He leaned back a little, held her at arm's length. He remembered everything he saw, he always had, but he took care to commit this moment to memory anyway. It might be a long wait. "I know you aren't her, but -- well." He cleared his throat as it tried to close up, laughed a little. “D’you remember how hard the Masters tried to teach me not to rely on anything? And all for naught. I wish I could have said -- she knows, of course she does, but still. Should have written a letter, or something.” He took off his spectacles, checked the lenses, found them perfectly clear. It was his eyes that were blurring. At last he managed to say, “You are -- she is -- the maddest, loveliest, most stubborn creature alive. Just -- stay that way.”
"This isn't goodbye, Warden," she said, with so much of Cam's indignation that he felt himself growing wild with grief, and had to take her hands to give himself a focal point or else risk going to pieces. His shattered spirit had even resurrected the calluses on her palms.
"No. No, of course it's not." He hadn't said goodbye, out there in the conglomeration of cooling gases they called the corporeal universe. She'd never forgive him for that.
As long as he got to lay eyes on her again someday in the world of the living, he didn't care if she forgave him or not.
He cleared his throat. "Well, then. I'll see you."
"Damn right you will," Cam said. She shook her fringe off her face in the way that betokened an abrupt decision, lifted onto her toes and brushed her lips against his cheek. Then she squeezed his hands and took a slight step back, tilting her chin at the window. The tidal wave was there, sweeping in across the silent city.
She was gone when he looked back. Then the River got in, shattering in the window, sweeping him up, clawing its way into his lungs. He plunged into it. One more time --
The light was himself, the radiant scream of his split atoms, the thanergetic aurora of his murderous unmaking. Push past it. Something simple. The very last thing he'd seen, imprinted on his memory with the fidelity of terminal regret and extreme adrenaline. Stripped, pared down to its basics.
He surfaced --
A small room, no bigger than his office back home, with enough space for a bed and table. A single rickety chair. On the table, a quite ugly enamel bowl and a few pieces of flimsy.
There was a pencil in the pocket of his robe, that would never wear down. Out the tiny, dim window, there was a courtyard that was dead and need never grow or change.
A few books, thank whatever kindly spirits presided over such things. Nothing good, or interesting, that would have taken too much care to render and maintain. But an afterlife with even one book in it was infinitely preferable to an afterlife without.
The rest was in her hands.
Palamedes picked up The Necromancer's Marriage Season and settled in to wait for his cavalier.
"Omnia mea mecum porto: All that is mine I carry with me." - a quote that Cicero ascribes to Bias of Priene
Before I spill the things I mean to hide away,
Gouge my eyes with platitudes and sentiment
I’ll drown the urge for permanence in certainty,
Crouch down and scrawl my name with yours in wet cement.
-"Sounds Familiar", the Weakerthans