Irish Papist

Irish Papist
Statute of the Blessed Virgin in Our Lady Seat of Wisdom Church, UCD Belfield

Friday, May 2, 2014

Chapter Twenty-Eight to Thirty-One of The Bard's Apprentice

For narrative reasons, I thought it would make more sense to post four chapters rather than the usual three chapters today. Fox, as you may remember, has just been magically whisked from the Ezwayna settlement to the Anarchy.

Chapter Twenty Eight

It was even colder here. People were stepping carefully on the paving-stones to avoid slipping on the frost. Little clouds of breath rose from them.

The first emotion Fox felt was panic. He had heard so many stories of the Anarchy. He expected to be attacked within seconds. But, looking about, he did not see any nervousness upon peoples’ faces. They did not look afraid. Many were smiling and joking. It was a crowd much like the crowds he had seen in the Empire, when Grandy brought him to fairs and markets.

All the same, he found himself turning around every few moments, fearful of an attack from behind. He was ready to flee if anybody so much as spoke to him. But few people even looked in his direction. When they did, their eyes lingered on his greatcoat for a moment or two, but even then they did not seem greatly interested.

Looking about, he could see why they would find his coat remarkable. The people of Arganth were dressed much more colourfully than the Ezwayna had been, or even the people of the Empire. Red, yellows and oranges were especially popular, although black featured heavily as well. Flags and streamers were everywhere, though it did not seem to be a festival day.

Steam rose from stalls selling hot drinks and cakes, and knots of people gathered around them, chatting and laughing. There was a small congregation gathered around three young men who were keeping a small ball in the air, using only their shoulders and elbows, while a young woman played a whistle of some sort.

There were perhaps four hundred people in the square. There had been as many people in the assemblies of the Ezwayna, but these were strangers. People who hardly even noticed each other. Suddenly, it was an odd and frightening idea.

The buildings at the edges the square were all three or four stories high. Most of them were built with bricks of several colours and shades. Diamond-shaped windows predominated. Many had huge, richyly-dyed curtains covering the entire front, with openings for the doors and windows.

He kept turning around, both from a desire to take it all in and a fear of being attacked.

It took him a few moments to wonder what he was going to do. He felt a wave of panic gathering power, and fought it down. An idea struck him. He’d got here by wishing. Maybe he could get back the same way. He concentrated on the Ezwayna settlement, just rousing itself from sleep now. He closed his eyes, and wished for it with all the desire he could muster.

But even before he opened his eyes, he could hear the bustle of the square around him. He tried again a few times, visualising a different part of the village each time—the tamzan he shared with some young men, the Great Hall, the Spiral House—but nothing happened. Those thousands of miles remained between him and the village. Up until this moment the distance had felt unreal, simply an idea. All of a sudden it was as true as steel or stone.

Now he was beginning to panic. Every other time the purple flash had taken him to a different place, there had been friendly faces on the other side, the faces of people he knew. Now they had all melted from his life. He was alone.

Somebody spoke behind him. He twisted around, frightened. It was a woman with greying hair and a kind face. She ran her hand along the fabric of his greatcoat, admiring it. She spoke again, looking up at him for a response. Of course, he could not understand the language she spoke. He backed away, instinctively, but smiled. She looked offended for a moment, and then confused. She smiled herself, somewhat uneasily, and hurried away.

Feeling vulnerable in the great open space, he moved towards the buildings that surrounded the square. Now there was only one course left to him. He had to find Swan.

If he’s still alive. The thought came immediately. Many of the Ezwanya had died on their journey from the Anarchy. Armala thought that many would die on their return to it. They had told stories of disease, ferocious creatures, even insects with poisonous bites. And then another anxiety struck him. What if Swan had not perished, but was still journeying through the wilderness? He felt sick to think of it. And eaten up with remorse for the wish he had made. But how was I supposed to know it would do this?, he asked himself.

The crowd thinned towards the edges of the square. There were little banks of grass, complete with trees and shrubs, planted here, along with small statues of various animals. He looked towards the buildings. Most of them had huge front doors, taller than several men. Burly doormen in uniforms were standing guard. Nonetheless, people were freely walking in and out of the open doors.

Most of the buildings had writing above the entrances, but of course, they meant nothing to him. One had symbols, however. There were four in a row; a cross with the left arm longer than the others, a leaf, a spider, and a yellow circle. Suddenly Fox recognised them. He had seen symbols like that, drawn in dirt, and on dust, and on fragments of wood. The young Ezwayna who had become fascinated with the Star had used them. This building must be dedicated, in some way, to those whose signs were west, spring, spider and yellow.

But all that really mattered was finding Swan. Luckily, Fox had a keen sense of direction, and a gift for remembering what he’d seen. He had spent a long time gazing at the street-map in the book Swan had left him, and even without understanding the street-names, he felt confident he could find the house he was seeking. Monuments had been marked on the map, and the three-handed god was one of them. Swan’s house was on the other side of the city, and it was one of the bigger cities in the Anarchy. But how big could any city be, anyway?

So he moved through the streets, trying to look as if he knew exactly where he was going while scanning the streets for landmarks. It had seemed so straightforward on the map. Buildings that were marked out there blended into their streets in reality. Statues that he had imagined as colossal were, in fact, little more than life size. Some streets seemed to have disappeared. He got lost again and again.

He was cold, and tired, and hungry, and it took most of his energy to dam the flood of despair that threatened to overwhelm his mind.

He was in a narrow street with tall buildings and no traders when he saw a little girl begging for help from passers-by. Few people even looked at her, and those who looked did not slow down.

She was well-dressed, in a long purple coat and thick boots. Her sleeves and collar were heavily frilled, and her curly black hair looked as if it had been arranged that very morning. The curls were perfectly styled and glistened with lotion. Her boots gleamed with polish, and her eyes gleamed with anxiety.

But people were just walking past her. When she grabbed their clothes, they brushed her off.

Fox walked up to her, and she took his arm in her feeble grip as soon as she saw he was moving towards her. She was perhaps seven or eight years old. She began to chatter, with a rapid and pleading torrent of words. He could not understand her, of course, but he suspected that it would be hard to make her out even if he knew the language.

She began to pull his sleeve, as if wanting to drag him. Presumably, she wanted to take him to the place where she had become separated from the fools who had lost her. He looked around, hoping to see somebody in uniform, somebody with authority. He had seen none so far, apart from the doormen. Here, there weren’t even any doormen. Nobody went in and out of the buildings, which did not have signs above the doors.

He let the girl guide him. If they found her parents, they might be grateful and help him. They seemed to be wealthy. Perhaps if he drew a picture of a swan…

She led him all the way down the end of that street—nobody even looked at them—and into another, which was even shabbier. The buildings here were in bad condition, with weathered paint and crumbling masonry. There were fewer people about here, too.

Fox realised that he was in shock, and surprised at his own shock. He knew that the Anarchy was a heartless place, didn’t he? But somehow, nothing had prepared him for the sight of a little girl wandering alone on a bone-chilling day, appealing in vain to dozens of people. It seemed like a crime against nature. The young Ezwayna who dreamed of the Seven Nations would be just as shocked, he was sure. They thought the Elders must be exaggerating when they spoke about the Anarchy. Or just plain lying. They had no experience of evil, except for the attack of the Red Dogs, who most of them hadn’t even seen, and who seemed as inhuman as wolves or disease.

The little girl tugged at his arm again. She was leading him towards a narrower lane, edged with nothing but the walls of buildings whose entrances were in other streets. Rubbish was strewn all along the ground. It was deserted, apart from a gang of girls who were playing some hopping game.

He let her draw him down it, wondering whether she even knew where they were going. Perhaps he would see Swan’s house. The explorer had described it to him. It had Swan’s own symbol above the door: a white swan against a background of purple flames. It had a green slate roof, and the tops of the garden rails were shaped to look like waves.

He was still thinking of Swan’s house, trying to remember everything Swan had told him about it, when the girls jumped at him.

Two of them grabbed him from behind. They were gripping his arms, and kicking at the back of knees to force him down. He was amazed at their strength. He tried to break free, but it was impossible. Someone else had her arm around his neck. He thought she was going to choke him, but she only held him tight.

A few more girls appeared at his front. They were perhaps fourteen or fifteen years of age. They were dirty and ragged, but their clothes seemed to be of a good quality. There was no malice in their faces. They looked at him in the same way he had seen Spiral players looking at the board, or Ezwanya farmers looking at the sky. The little girl joined them, and one of them took her hand absent-mindedly. She stared at him, her eyes bright with curiosity, but she did not seem alarmed.

The older girls spoke amongst each other for a few moments. The tallest one shook her head. They seemed confused. Then one of them, a very thin girl with a white face, started to unbutton the front of his coat.

Fear burst over him. It was so cold. He might die without his coat. He started shouting, knowing they wouldn’t understand a word, but the arm around his throat tightened. They pulled the coat from his back, letting go of his arms only long enough to release him from it. The freezing air bit his flesh immediately.

They started going through the pockets. He knew there was nothing there except for a strange, rainbow-coloured shell he had found by one of the lakes, the day before. When they found this, they marvelled over it a few moments, and he felt the grip of the girls holding him loosen for a moment. He tried to break free, but they just clutched him tighter than ever as soon as they felt him pulling away.

Now he felt arms wind around his legs, a pair of arms for each leg. The tallest girl knelt before him, and started to unlace his boots. He tried kicking her, but it was no use. He started crying, and one of the girls gave him a disgusted look.

Soon they had pulled off his boots, and gone through the pockets of his trousers. It was difficult to think straight now; he was too cold to think.

Then the tallest girl stepped forward again, wearing a solemn expression. She gazed into his face for a moment, as if she was looking for a spot there. Suddenly her fist flashed towards him, and smacked against his nose. Pain filled him, and he fell to the ground as the girls let him go.

He must have passed out for a moment or two, because when he looked up again, his attackers were running around the far corner of the lane. The well-dressed little girl, being dragged along by the hand, waved her other hand at him before she disappeared around the corner. She looked sad.

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Fox had never felt cold like this. No matter how cold he had been before, there had always been the prospect of a return home, of sitting by the hearth and feeling the warmth of the fire lapping him. Simply having nowhere to go was the most incredible, the most brutal fact in the world. All around him were buildings and fires, but he could do nothing but shrink from the icy air.

He was too cold even to feel angry himself for being so gullible. He ran his hand along his face, and looked at his fingers. They were thick with blood. He looked down, and saw that his undercoat was spattered with blood. The cold air stung his bleeding nose.

He got to his feet, and began to run back to where he had been. He ran to warm himself, instinctively. His body was tired, but his mind had never been more awake.

People looked at him for a moment, and then looked away, knowing that he was in trouble. Trouble was better ignored; it could quickly become your own.

He no longer took in the strange sights around him. He had stopped trying to remember the map. Now he was just rushing through the streets, praying to see a white swan on a purple background. Once he almost ran in front of a horse-drawn carriage, and the driver hurled angry words at him. A mocking face looked out from it, an old man with sharp features and a long beard.

He couldn’t run anymore. He was jogging now, but he moved as quickly as he could, racing away from the chill. One or twice, he felt a faintness stealing over him, and his heart beat with a hope that the purple flash was about to take him back to the land of the Ezwayna. But it was nothing more than exhaustion.

Once he tried to run into a tavern, with no aim other than to escape from the cold. The doorman grabbed him from behind, when he had made it past him into the blessed warmth. His grasp was both firm and gentle, and the words he spoke were not angry. But he pushed Fox back out onto the street, back out to the grim and waiting cold. He stood before the door, arms folded, watching the boy without hostility or sympathy. Fox moved on, amazed by the indifference of the city.

He moved through street after street, square after square. He began to cry again when he saw the same dwarf-like fishmonger he had passed an hour before, shouting something that sounded like: “Riz-a-BEEL! Riz-a-BEEL! Riz-a-BEEL!”. He was going around in circles.

And then, when he had almost stopped thinking and was moving through the streets like a beetle along the ground, he saw it. The white swan on a purple background. For a moment he felt no surprise at all. He did not even feel joy, just a dull spark of recognition. Then the cold and the pain and the tiredness melted from his body, and the relief was sweeter than anything he had tasted or felt or seen before.

It stood there, a dream made real, almost exactly as he had imagined: the black railing whose tops rose and fell like the swell of waves, the green slate roof glowing in the afternoon sun, the embled above the door richly-coloured but faded with years. Even the arch of the swan’s neck seemed to say, Welcome. Welcome home, Fox. And behind it, the painted purple flames promised warmth.

He opened the gate, and strode towards the front door. It was painted green, too, with two long windows running its length. The iron knocker was moulded in the form of flames. Fox took the ring in his hand—it was so cold to his frozen hands—hesitated for a moment, and then knocked. He remembered standing at the door of the Great Hall, on the day of Casting Off, and beating on the door with a stone. It felt like no time at all had passed between that moment and this one; as if there was really nothing in life except banging at one door or another, begging for admittance. He was so cold and tired…

The door opened, and a woman stood there.

She glared at him. She was hollow-cheeked and a little older than Jasma. She wore a snow-white apron, and a leather strap hung around her neck. It showed a cross, an apple, a bat and a painted circle of green. A shawl of dark grey was around her shoulders.

As soon as she saw him, she slammed the door.

His hope died, but it was not replaced by despair. It was replaced by a cool, hard determination. He was going to get into this house, one way or another. He was simply not going to go away.

He knocked again, louder this time. He kept knocking, once every few seconds, louder every time. He heard the maid’s footsteps coming down the hall, quick furious footsteps.

As soon as she opened the door, he lunged inside. She tried to grab him, but he pushed past her with the strength of desperation.

He was standing in a splendid hall, but he had no time to look around. He saw a staircase of broad, marbled steps and rushed towards it, leaping up it two steps at a time. The maid was chasing after him, shouting. He kept on running. He turned a corner and ran up another flight, and another, and another.

He was aware of faces looking at him from behind bannisters. He could feel the house coming to life around him. He kept running, putting all his soul into the faith that salvation lay at the top of this staircase.

Then a man was coming down it; a tall, broad man, wearing a shirt and trousers the same grey colour of the maid’s shawl. He was not running. He did not seem angry, though Fox had no time to look at his face. He looked as if stopping people was what he was made to do, the very purpose of his existence, and he found it neither difficult nor a pleasure. He was already beginning to stoop, to grab Fox in his thick arms.

Fox ducked and ran between his legs. He had passed him before he realised he had done it. He raced up the stairs even quicker, hearing female laughter coming from above. It was dangerous to make fools of strong people.

But then he was at the top of the stairs, and four or five maids in dark grey were looking at him, startled that he had made it past the guard. Fox could hear the man bounding up the stairs. He looked around, and he saw a thick red door at the end of one passage, with a worn patch in the carpet before it, where many feet had stepped. There was a table outside it, with a green bottle and a set of long glasses on top of it.

He made a dash for it, and put his shoulder to the door. It was not even shut, and gave way easily. He hurtled through it, but his fall was impeded by something soft and clinging.

He got to his feet. It was a green curtain, made of some smooth, heavy cloth. It was only a few feet past the door, and it ran the entire length of the room room. He got to his knees, and lifted it, crawling past. It was surprisingly heavy. As soon as he was through, he felt his head brush against another curtain just like it. He could hear the manservant rushing towards the door.

He did the last thing he could think of. He screamed. He screamed, “Swan! Swan! Swan!”, feeling a moment’s surprise that the sounds were coming from his mouth, remembering all the nightmares where he tried to scream but could not.

He heard the rustle of the first curtain being lifted, and even desperation died within him. But at that very moment, there was a whirring sound, and the curtains began to rise.

“Fox?”, came the voice of Cambrice Swan, sounding far-off and muffled. The curtains continued to rise. Fox felt the hand of the manservant on his shoulder, squeezing it painfully. But he didn’t care now. He’d made it. He was home.


Chapter Thirty

The curtains rose slowly. The grip of the servant on his shoulder softened.

Green light filtered through the room. Fox looked to his side and could make out the bottom of a window, exposed by the rising curtains. A green curtain hung in front of it, and the light that shone through it was lettuce-coloured.

Now the curtains had risen to the height of Fox’s head, and he could see that the room was a very large one indeed. It was more like a hall than a room. It was almost as big as the Great Hall of the Ezwayna. A person standing at one end would have to shout to be heard at the other.

And, half-way down the length of the long room, he could see Swan, dressed in gleaming white. He could not see his face yet, but he had no doubt who it was.

The servant muttered something to him. It sounded both angry and nervous. He must have begun to guess that Fox was a friend of Swan. Fox felt no anger towards anyone. He was still shivering from the cold. All he wanted was warmth, and food, and drink. Nothing seemed to matter apart from that.

Now the curtains had risen above Fox’s head, above the servant’s head. He could make out Swan’s face now. He looked startled, his strange face seeming more comical than ever. He was standing by a lectern with a thick book open upon it, but after a few moment’s hesitation, he began to pace towards Fox. His steps rang out on the hard polished floor.

The servant, seeing the recognition in his master’s expression, took his hand from Fox’s shoulder, muttered something else—apologetic, now, rather than hostile—and stepped backwards. Fox had not once turned around to look at him.

Now, as light seeped into the room, he saw that there were strange figures and symbols on the tiles of the floor, coloured-glass mosaics upon the walls, and strange spiral-shaped pillars running from floor to ceiling. At least, he presumed they stretched all the way—the curtains were still rising, though they had risen far above his head now. The house had not seemed so huge from the outside. There was a fireplace in the middle of each wall, and a fire was burning in each one.

“Fox!”, said Swan, close enough now to be heard without shouting. “What in the nameless name happened to you?”

Fox remembered his bloodied nose, his shoeless feet. “I was attacked by some girls”, he said, wiping his nose with the back of his hand, and realising that it was still bleeding. His voice came out as a croak.

“An Arganth welcome”, said Swan, as if he was embarrassed for his city.

He gave some direction to the servant, who started talking over him, a stream of apologetic and anxious words. Swan waved his hand, and made some reassuring remark. Fox heard the servant hurrying away. His foosteps managed to sound both humble and relieved.

“I’m so cold”, said Fox.

“Thunder, have you been wandering around the city like that?” Swan glanced around the room, which was still only dimly lit. He stalked off to Fox’s left, and pulled a table-cloth off an empty table that was standing behind one of the spiral pillars. “Take this”, he said, hurrying back to Fox, and wrapping it around the boy’s shoulders.

The table-cloth was thin silk, but there was lots of it, and they managed to wrap it several times around Fox’s shivering form. Fox pressed it to his body, as if he was trying to stick it into his skin. He started to cry. Suddenly, all the fear that he had held back washed over him, even though he was out of danger.

“I’m sorry”, said Swan, putting an arm around Fox’s neck and shoulders. It made Fox remember the girls’ neck around his shoulders, and he sobbed even louder. “I’m should have been watching out for you. But I just reached here a month ago myself. I never expected….how did it you get here?”

Fox didn’t say anything. He kept crying. He wouldn’t even know what words to use, to explain what had whisked him here.

“Never mind about that now”, said Swan. “And I think I know the answer, anyway. I think you need cleaning up first. I told Tadd to get a bath ready for you. Better not leap into it too soon, though.” Fox winced at the very idea. His skin was still tight and tender with the cold. “Let’s get some proper clothes onyou first, and some food and drink inside you. I’m sure there’s a gaggle of maids outside this door.”

Swan was right. They stepped back when Fox and Swan emerged, and tried to look busy for a moment, before realising it was impossible. Then one of them—the woman who he had lunged past at the front door—asked an official-sounding question, with an attempt at a pleasant smile. But she looked furious.

Swan spoke to them for a few moments. They nodded and retreated, walking backwards for a few moments and then turning and half-running away. The woman who had been at the door shot Fox a look that did not even pretend to be pleasant.

“I’m sorry you had to meet Dandelion at the door”, said Swan, his arm still around Fox’s shoulder. “It’s a painful truth that the least pleasant characters make the most reliable servants. They worship their betters, and think their inferiors should be whipped every quarter-hour.”

Fox was too busy trying to stop his sobs to answer.

“As for Tadd”, said Swan, pretending not to notice the boy’s tears, “I think he begrudges me free movement around the house. He lies awake worrying that a spider might crawl from room to room. It’s a terrible thing when a man is ruled by a single idea.”

“Where’s Jasma?”, asked Fox, wishing he could see somebody from his recent life. Swan smiled.

“She’s on the other side of the city, living with Greatcastle, who quit as my servant as soon as we got home. He’d been saving his wages for a long time, and he became part-owner of an inn. Turns out Greatcastle had a keener mind than I gave him credit for.” Swan was leading Fox down the corridor now, back towards the staircase. “I’d been wondering why he was taking notes in that Spiral House of yours. He’s brought the game to the Seven Nations, Fox. I hear it’s already quite a success.”

“Spiral?”, asked Fox. He remembered the spiral-shaped pillars in the Swan’s hall of curtains, and felt he was sliding down an enormous spiral himself. That he had been sliding down that spiral for a long time now.

“Well, that’s what he calls it”, said Swan. “I don’t know whether your grandfather would consider it proper Spiral.”

Fox shivered and sobbed again as he thought of Grandy, who surely must have died in the winter air. Right now, that seemed the worst fate imaginable.

“Here we are now”, said Swan, as he guided Fox through a door at the end of another flight of stairs. Another door, directly opposite, was standing open. Maids were coming in and out, carrying plates and trays. They were lit by the keen yellow of firelight, glowing from the room within.

The room was rather small. It had a thick brown carpet, and a cabinet of model ships in one corner. Busts and portraits hung around the walls, all showing men men with proud, intelligent faces. Over the fireplace hung a portrait of a woman. The painter had done his best to make her look beautiful, but he hadn’t succeeded. There was something apologetic about her smile.

“Is that your wife?”, asked Fox, pleased that his voice hardly shook at all.

“Yes”, said Swan, softly. “That’s her. Sit down and eat, Fox. I’m sorry we had no time to make you something hot. But I don’t think you’ll mind too much.”

There was a table laden with food in front of the fire. It held enough food for ten men, pies and cakes and sandwiches and many foods that Fox did not recognise. There were two wide, bulging mugs and a jug from which steam was rising. The smell was almost too delicious.

“Thank you so much”, said Fox, as they took their seats. The maids had already slipped a thick robe around his shoulders, and put soft slippers on his feet. Now they melted from the room, all except one who stood behind Fox. He guessed it was the woman who had opened the door to him. “Thank you for all your—“

“Don’t talk”, said Swan, taking an apple and beginning to crunch into it. “Eat”, he said, through a mouthful of fruit.

Fox was glad to follow his instructions. He filled his mug first. It was some sort of spiced wine. The Ezwayna hadn’t drunk alcohol, and he hadn’t drunk much of it in the Empire. He had never liked it back then—it was nasty stuff, like medicine—but this was much nicer, he decided, when he had taken a cautious sip. It was sweet, and warm, and it made him glow after the cold of the day.

He drank a long draft, and another, and another. “Fill her up again”, said Swan, with a little smile, and Fox was quick to do so. He drank so quickly that he choked for a moment, but he didn’t care. The wine felt like liquid salvation.

He turned to the food. For a moment he hesitated, not knowing where to begin, but a small, glazed cake caught his eye. It was dark brown with a fringe of custard along the middle. He grabbed it and chomped down on it, and it was glorious.

They sat there like two boys hidden inside a pantry, feasting and gulping, paying no attention to table manners. From behind him, Fox heard the maid sigh with disapproval every few moments. The fire crackled, and Fox found himself staring into it more than once. It reminded him of the fire in Armala’s tamzan. He drowsily imagined that all fires were the same fire, that he could walk through those flames and Armala would be on the other side.

Eventually, they were full up, and Swan smiled at Fox.

“Do you feel better?”, he asked, with an impish glint in his eyes.

“Yes”, said Fox, who couldn’t resist smiling back, as if the entire morning had been nothing but an adventure.

“Good”, said Swan. “And now there’s a bath waiting for you, and a bed after that. I think you could do with both.”

Fox hesitated. “How long can I stay here?”

“How long do you want to stay here?”, asked Swan, smiling again. “Exactly that long. You might have noticed I’m not hard up.”

“No”, said Fox, feeling almost giddy with relief. If only Grandy could be here with me

Another maid knocked on the door, and opened it when Swan said, “Enter”. She looked around and smiled at Fox. She was an older lady, and much pleasanter than the one who had opened the door. She spoke a few words, and Swan interpreted: “Time for your bath, Fox. Don’t worry. Nobody is going to watch you take your clothes off.”

Fox flushed, and laughed when Swan laughed. The maid walked into the room, extending her hand for him to take. He only felt a little bit self-conscious when he took it. It was even rather pleasant to be led by the hand; it had been a long time since anybody had held it.

Now the cold had disappeared from his body. He was warm, and safe, and full, and right now he could not imagine anything better than that. The old lady’s hand was smooth and rough, at once. She did not look back at him, but he felt her friendliness like warmth from a fire. The corridors of Swan’s house were bright and cheerful, so different from the shadowy halls of Grandy’s house in the Empire. He had loved that house, and he dreamed of it still, but he always felt like an intruder in some of its darker corners. Swan’s house welcomed him.

Two maids who looked like twins were standing before one door, watching them approach. A few words were exchanged between the three women, and one of the twins opened the white and green door. Steam wafted from it. She motioned him in, with a brisk gesture.

Fox went into the bathroom. It was a whole world away from any bathroom he had been in before. The Ezwayna had four bathing tamzans; one each for the boys and girls, and the same for the men and women. The boys’ bathroom was austere, an ancient-looking tub Fox had to squat to fit into. Lingering was not encouraged; one of the older boys stood in attendance, heating pots of water over a fire and making sure nobody stayed in the water too long. Except for the coldest times of year, the streams were much more attractive options.

In Grandy’s old house, there had been a bigger tub, but Jasma had been there to make every bath a trial, cursing every splash of water that hit the floor.

This bath seemed more like a miniature, indoor pool, sunken into the floor. It was made of green marble, and surrounded by small statues of the same material. Fox recognised them as water-sprites; he had seen water sprites in the illustrations to The Memoirs of Josper Stronghouse, the part where Josper joined the navy. Huge brass candle-holders stood all around the circular room, holding the biggest candles Fox had ever seen. They made the coloured-glass diamonds set into the walls sparkle.

A strange sound came from above him. It was like a musical sighing. He looked up and saw a series of differently-sized metal tubes hanging from the wall. Once again, the ripple of silvery noise passed through them. It took Fox a few moments to realise what they were; chimes that made music when they were touched by steam. He decided this was the most wonderful room he had ever seen.

He pulled his clothes off and stepped into the welcoming water. He was excited. Swan’s eyes were soft, but mysteries flickered there, deeper mysteries than Armala or Grandy or the Eldest would ever know. He was about to step into life.

The steam-chimes sighed with joy.


Chapter Thirty-One

They led him to a bedroom that had been made ready, and left him alone. There was one round window in the room, behind heavy blue curtains. He pulled them apart and gazed down at Arganth. It looked so different when you weren’t wandering through its streets, cold and lost and frantic. It was smaller than Silvershore, and looked somehow more compact. Once, back in the Empire, he had seen a model city in the window of an expensive toy shop. Arganth didn’t look too different from that. So pretty, and yet gangs of thieving girls roamed the street. And things far worse than thieving girls, too, he guessed.

Tiredness fell on him like a sudden shower, and he climbed into bed. He had never lain under such smooth blankets, or rested his head on such a plump pillow. He was sleep within moments, and he slept for fourteen hours.

The white-haired maid woke him with breakfast on a tray. It was fried mushrooms and eggs, with some kind of hard bread. There was a cup of something that looked like water, but tasted more like lemonade. It washed away the last of his sleepiness. He hated fried eggs, but ate them for the sake of politeness.

She came back when he was up and dressed—her timing was spooky—and led him down to a heavy mahogany door on the floor below. She rapped on it, smiled reassuringly at Fox, and headed back the way they had come. The younger maids had moved like ghosts. This woman moved less gracefully, but with more dignity. Her heavy footsteps seemed to say, I’m too old and sensible to pretend I’m not flesh and bone. Fox liked her.

“Come in, Fox”, came Swan’s voice from within, muffled by the heavy door. He turned the brass handle, and stepped inside.

It was a library. Thousands of books lined the shelves. Fox had never seen so many books. There were bookshops in Silvershore, but Grandy never took him into them. Some of the volumes were bigger than he had ever guessed books could be.

But there were more than books. Between the rows of shelves, there were tall wooden cases with glass fronts, divided into several compartments. He glanced at the nearest one. It was full of strange objects; the skull of a beast he couldn’t identify, a collection of coins, a folded banner that looked ragged and worn. There were statuettes, and knives, and a very old-looking bowl. Swan had risen from his desk at the far end of the room, underneath a heavy-curtained window, and was walking towards him.

“My antiques”, he said, following Fox’s gaze. “Not many people take an interest in the past anymore. Especially since the Legislatrix has declared it an unhealthy interest. To study wickedness breeds wickedness, that’s what she says. And there’s certainly a lot of wickedness in the past.”

“Grandy used to say something like that”, said Fox, gazing into at the nearest display-case. His face was reflected in the glass, over a monstrous-looking ceremonial mask. It was a slightly disturbing sight. “Although he used to talk about his own past all the time.”

Swan chuckled. He was wearing a light crimson robe, with baggy sleeves. “I wish the old devil had come with you”, he said.

Fox kept his face still, and said—with hardly a tremble in his voice—“I don’t even think he’s alive. He went into the wilderness, when he couldn’t play Spiral any more.”

“Oh Fox”, said Swan, turning from the display-case to look the boy full in the face. Fox didn’t want to meet his gaze. “That’s the worst thing I’ve heard in a long time. Grandy was a great man.” He said it like he meant it.

Fox only nodded. He didn’t turn around. He didn’t want to talk about Grandy. “What’s that?”, he asked, pointing at a silver medallion lying on a small black cushion. It had a green stone set in its centre. He pointed to it at random.

That belonged to the great Queen Blackletter”, said Swan. “I don’t know if you’ve heard of her.”

“I’ve heard of her”, said Fox, remembering Truevow’s history lesson in the tent, while the rain was pounding down outside. He wondered if Truevow was still making his way towards the Anarchy. He wondered if Truevow was still alive. But he didn’t like thinking of Truevow. It made him remember the cruel words he had used to him, that had stuck in Truevow’s mind.

“Where did you get all this?”, he asked, for want of anything better to say.

“I bought it, of course”, said Swan. “There’s not much you can’t get for money. Not that it cost very much. Fifty years ago it might have, but there aren’t many collectors today.”

“I like them”, said Fox, trying to imagine the great queen who had worn this medallion, who had once been as alive as he was.

“Me, too”, said Swan. Then he sighed. “But sometimes they taunt me, these old things. All the money in the world can’t buy me a passage into the past. I can never meet Queen Blackletter, or see the Congress of Five Hundred, or go to one of Prince Bridgewarder’s parties. I can never hear Ravenwit’s conversation. So much, gone forever, only to be found in books.” His words were heavy as stone, and his eyes were glassy.

“But you have this home”, said Fox. “It’s like a palace.”

“Home”, said Swan, glancing around the room with a little grimace. “Home is my least favourite word. Home is the opposite of all adventure, all discovery. Roots are for trees, not men.” Then he smiled his wide, comical smile again. His eyes twinkled. “But as homes go, it’s not a bad one, I suppose. Let me show you around, Fox. Make a lot of noise so the servants can hear us coming and pretend to work.”

They went through room after room, most of which looked like they were rarely visited. There was a smoking-room, which Grandy would have liked. Some of the pipes on the shelves were so big, they looked like they might be hard to hold up. There were four leather armchairs facing into each other, in the corner of the room. Fox sat in one and had a little trouble getting back out, it was so soft and deep. There were paintings of inns and taverns on the wall. It smelled of old men, a rich, comfortable smell.

There was a room full of model ships, which Swan had built during his maried years. He ran a flag up the post of the largest one, for Fox’s benefit. He seemed rather proud of his handiwork.

They saw the kitchen, the laundry room, the balcony, the dining room. Each one was full of curiosities and pictures that Swan had picked up over the years. They didn’t go into the servant’s quarters, though. “Even the most powerful king doesn’t dare enter into some parts of his kingdom”, said Swan, gazing down the corridor which led to his servants’ rooms. “And I am far from being a powerful king”. He laughed, and led Fox back to the stairs.

The last door they came to was the red door that Fox had pushed in, the one that led to the hall full of curtains. “This is where I spend most of my time, when I’m here”, said Swan. “I call it my Hall of Veils. Let’s have a look.”

He opened the door. The green curtains had disappeared. The hall was bare, aside from a few pieces of furniture, scattered in apparently random places; there was a table, a bookcase, a washstand. There were no curtains on the windows, and morning light poured in, shining on the spiral pillars and the many-coloured tiles. The lectern still stood in the middle of the floor, with the same heavy book on it. Fox noticed now that a thick rope ran from the high ceiling to the floor beside the lectern.

“What were you reading?”, asked Fox.

“I’ll show you”, said Swan, and he moved towards the lectern, beckoning Fox to follow.

Closer up, Fox could see that it wasn’t just one rope that hung from the ceiling. It was several ropes, bunched close together. They had coloured rings around them at various points; green, and purple, and yellow, and more.

But the book was more interesting. Its pages were edged with gold, or something like gold. The paper looked old and stiff. There was a picture in bright dyes on one of the pages lying open, a picture that showed five linked circles with a baby in the middle. Fox couldn’t read the words, of course, but they were beautifully penned.

“What is it?”, he asked.

“It’s The Twelve Moons”, said Swan, and though he smiled, his voice was solemn. “The most famous magical book in the world.”

“You can do magic with it?”, asked Fox, feeling his heart beat faster.

“No”, said Swan, laughing. “No book can teach magic, Fox. When my wife was sick, and I was searching for a cure amongst the common people, I came upon dozens and hundreds of magical remedies and spells, from spells to cure hiccups to spells for contacting the dead. The one to cure hiccups seems to work, sometimes. The one that turns water to beer, never.”

“Magic is all lies?”, asked Fox, feeling foolish.

“Oh, no”, said Swan. “There’s magic all right. I’ve seen and heard too much to doubt that. But no man has even begun to understand it. Even a book like this has little more than a few good guesses, a whisper of the truth.”

Swan sighed at that, and looked sad, so Fox asked: “What happened to the curtains?”

The sadness disappeared from Swan’s eyes, and he looked at Fox with a self-satisfied smile. “Look at this”, he said, and he reached for the tangle of ropes. “I’ve always had a fascination with wires, and pulleys, and all that kind of thing”, he said, and he tugged on one of the ropes.

There was a whirring from above. Fox looked up. The ceiling was a grid of wooden beams and cords and bunched-up fabrics, like the rigging of a ship. Now, green curtains were beginning to fall from it. The light began to dim, and Fox saw that green curtains were coming down over the windows, too. Swan looked as absorbed and proud as a little boy.

“It may be a silly toy”, he said, pulling another rope. The green curtains paused for a moment and began to rise again. “But it amuses me. And it has, um, a special meaning for me.” He pulled on another rope, and after a few moments red curtains began to descend.

“What do you mean?”, asked Fox.

“Well”, said Swan, his eyes still on the curtains, “I get so tired of being in one place. Even when I’m reading, seeing the same place around me gets so…boring. I feel that I’m turning to stone. But all I need to do is pull a string, and—hey, ho!—the world changes around me!”

Now the red curtains had reached all the way down, and Fox could see that they were of different lengths. The curtains closest to them hung barely half-way down, while the ones furthest away reached to the floor.

“It reminds me that life is all about change”, said Swan. His face glowed red from the coloured light coming through the curtains. “That no place is ever really the same place, no person is ever really the same person, from moment to moment. The stars move around us, and inside us, the soul is always changing, too.”

Fox didn’t say anything. This was too much like Armala’s talk.

Swan saw the irritation on his face, and he laughed, his seriousness gone as soon as it had come upon him. “Never mind”, he said. “Let’s go and have something to eat.”

They ate an enormous dinner again, and Fox found himself wondering how Swan could be so thin. He certainly didn’t go easy at the table. He didn’t talk when he was eating, but launched into the food, and knocked back glass after glass of wine.

But after dinner, this time, they talked. Fox was taken aback when Swan asked him, as if it was the most natural question in the world, whether he had tried to appear in Arganth.

“No”, said Fox, after a few moment’s hesitation. “I was just thinking of one of the pictures in your book…the one of the statue with the three hands…and it just happened”. He remembered the shock of that moment, and almost felt its morning cold around him again.

“I thought so”, said Swan, with a brisk nod. “Why would you whisk yourself off there, and not here? Besides, even in the fairy stories, people rarely control such a power. It just happens.”

Fox looked at the maid attending on them, uneasily. He had always hated discussing his strange powers. The maid—not the one who had tried to keep him out, thankfully—was watching them. But of course she had no idea what they were saying. She looked bored, rather than curious.

He settled back in his chair. He felt the fire warm on his face, and the spiced wine warm inside him. Suddenly, he felt an enormous sense of relief. There had been interest in Swan’s voice, but none of the wolfish curiosity with which the Ezwayna children had hounded him, or the stern tone of Grandy’s questions about his vanishing act. He didn’t feel like a freak, talking about these things with Swan. He didn’t even feel unusual. In the sparkle of Swan’s eyes, everything seemed possible. And something in the way the man laughed, or poured wine into his glass, made Fox think that he knew much more than he pretended. That he knew more than Armala did; more, even, than the Eldest did. That some great secret was waiting here for Fox, that Swan was just waiting his time to reveal it to him.

“Tell me about the Empire”, Swan said now. “And the Shaddak, and Silvershore. Tell me everything you remember about them.”

Swan wasn’t just being polite. He really did want to know everything. He kept Fox talking for hours. About the Empire; about Spiral; about the Proximator; about Piper, and Truevow, and the frolic bears. Fox didn’t mention the coldfire stones, but he told him everything else. He told him about Armala’s lessons, and the sad gap that had opened between the Elders and the young people, and Goodfellow’s embarrassed efforts to talk to him.

He talked and talked, and Swan listened and listened, and asked him endless questions. The maids brought supper, and when they had wolfed that down, they talked some more. Fox felt good; he felt purged. He felt relieved of all that had plagued him in the last months, by the simple and magical act of telling it to somebody who wanted to hear.

When Swan had at last stopped asking questions, and was sitting gazing into the fire, Fox—surprised at his own boldness—asked, “What does it all mean, Mr. Swan? Why do I have these powers? Why did I come to you?”

Swan looked up questioningly at these last words, and Fox said, suddenly more timid: “I just thought…from the first time I saw you…that you were important. Important to me. That we were…meant…to meet, somehow.”

Swan smiled his broad smile again, and shook his head. “No more tonight, Fox”, he said. “Soon, but not tonight. Sleep now. You’ve probably talked more tonight than you have in a year.”

Fox tried not to look disappointed, and rose from the table. How could he sleep with this mystery gnawing at him? It was maddening. But he could see there was no use pressing his host.

He lay awake for an hour or more, but when sleep came, it was deep. Deep, and full of dreams. All sorts of dreams; his night of talk must have stirred memories. He dreamed of Grandy playing Spiral with No-Sooner, back in their house in Silvershore. I must say, said Grandy, taking his pipe from his mouth, you’re a good player, for a dead man. No-Sooner laughed, and his eyes shone like they used to, and he said: I’m too old for death.

Then he was listening to Jasma tell tales in the old kitchen, with the smell of frying in the air, and steam rising from the clothes Jasma hung by the fire to dry. Then he was sitting by Armala in the storyteller’s tamzan, and she was saying: You can come back whenever you want, Fox. Nothing is ever gone forever..

But then his dreams became troubled. He dreamed of the gang of girls who had stolen his coat and boots, but this time they did more. They held him down, and they had knives in their hands. One of them raised a knife above him—

And then his dream changed, and he was moving through the wilderness with Truevow a little ahead of him. He was so happy to see his old friend—he knew it was him, though he could only see his back—that he hurried up to him, grabbing him by the shoulder.

Truevow turned around, and horror shot through Fox. Truevow was dead. He was standing up, and he was looking at Fox, but there was no life in his face. And instead of eyes he had coldfire stones, gleaming under the winter sun.

Truevow’s hands shot around Fox’s throat, and his dead lips moved, and he said—in a horrible imitation of his living voice—“What dark star brought you to our home, Fox?”.

Fox tried to scream, but he couldn’t. One of Truevow’s hands had clamped over his mouth.

He opened his eyes, and he tried to scream, but still he could not. Something was in his mouth, something soft was filling his mouth. He tried to reach for it, but his hands were pinned to his sides. His legs wouldn’t move, either. He could feel them bound tight at his ankles.

It was dark, but above him something glinted. It took a few more moments for his eyes to focus. For those few moments, he thought he was about to go insane.

The glint became a bar of steel, a blade. It was hanging feet above his head. There was a wooden beam above it, with ropes running from it, running down past the edges of his bed.

He heard breathing, and looked to his right. He could just about make out Swan’s face in the moonlight. Swan was looking very sad.

“I’m sorry, Fox”, he said, and his voice was as gentle as ever. “This is really the only way.”

4 comments:

  1. You know, if the library job ever pales, you could go into business designing the world's most splendid bathtubs. Steam chimes!

    As always, a most enjoyable yarn. -Molly

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  2. Thanks, Molly. I took every opportunity to write a loving description of someone taking a bath! And yes, I was very proud of the steam chimes. The irony is that I have no access to a bath myself right now. There is naught but a shower in the place I'm renting. My father has a bath but the water pressure and warmth are inadequate for a bath unless you want to climb out shivering. I've often thought that, if I was wealthy, the one luxury I would definitely procure would be a jacuzzi....

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  3. Great work Maolsheachalnn. Originally I was only going to read one chapter tonight since it was kind of late, but the story kept getting interesting.

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