Piercing A Veil
The knowledge of absolute reality in relation to the comprehension of my own existence came to me [...] In that moment the following verses were revealed to my heart, from which they passed, as it were without my knowledge, to my lips:
Alban Peyl lost his right arm in a battle shortly after he arrived in Merron. Ten years later, during the chaos of the Affliction, the arm came back.
For ten days rain had pounded the city, swelling the Byrose until it topped its levees. Seizing the southern farmlands first, the river drove an odious cargo north to the flatlands of the western shore: dead pigs and goats, wagon wheels, and the splinters of grain towers. The Old Families rode down from their domed mansions in Oldtown borough to watch the debris pass. On the east end, the proper end, of Dovetail Bridge, servants pitched two walled tents of rain-warded canvas, one for the rich and one for their horses. Then the servants waited in the downpour as their masters sat and ate wheatcakes with apricot cheese. While the thunder cracked above and the river rushed within arm's reach below, the Founding Families chatted idly. Soon growing abstracted, they looked across the wooden bridge at Twopenny borough, where families of less prestige, not Founding but Foundered, huddled above the current on skewed tenement roofs.
T'skrang skiffs floated sterns-up over submerged docks in Hempline, half sunk by their short towlines. They offered their names to the clouds: Nioku's Bow, Merchant Princess, Friend of Chorrolis. Water flowed gray-brown through ashwood doorways in Schools borough. Apprentice wizards paused in their talk of spell matrices to lug grimoires to the upper floors of colleges and teahouses. One student asserted that floodwater could only improve the local tea, but no one laughed. Soon the merchant homes upriver in Keystone borough might fall, and then who would remain for the magistrates on High Hill to govern? Merron, Barsaive's jewel, City With a Thousand Hearts, my home of centuries, would lie underwater before the sun rose.
Even Nightshade borough stood quiet, its black clapboard dwellings shut, its twisting lanes still dry but empty. Nightshade lay in the rain shadow of Dovetail Bridge's western end, just north of Twopenny and a half-silver palanquin ride across the bridge from Oldtown. Yet no one passed over the river to Nightshade now. Rain had quenched Oldtown's desire for dice games, troubadours, erotomancers, dazzledust, and expiation shows in the flagellant parlors.
Rain had also drenched Nightshade's riverbank, and yet name-givers swarmed on the shore, each race working in a frenzy to protect its own enclave. Beside Antimere Asylum in the human quarter, five strong men piled burlap sandbags along the bank. Here the river had risen near the sandwall's top, high over flood stage.
A raindrop struck Alban Peyl's black everclean cloak, beaded on its gold brocade, and blew off. "More, Roodville! More bags!" he shouted from the madhouse's rear doorway. "I want another layer of bags ready for that wall before I come back, or Mynbruje knows, I shall have the lot of you before the river does!"
"Sir! Right away, sir!" On shore a tall, angular man saluted. Turning to shout at a group of exhausted nurses sprawled across a stack of burlap, he waved a long brass tube tipped with an onyx point, a stingrod. Raindrops that struck the stingrod's point sizzled into vapor. The women fearfully picked up their shovels and resumed filling bags.
"Encourage those men on the sandwall, too, Roodville!"
"Very good, sir!" The stingrod flashed, a laborer cried out, and everyone understood that much more clearly how Merron "encouraged" its workers.
"Excellent." Satisfied for the moment, Alban drew back in the doorway. Over his maroon pourpoint coat he wore the yellow sash reserved for former magistrates, and he felt glad that it still carried weight. In fact, his sash carried more weight than he liked to admit. A thick roll of flesh bulged over it, much as his black hose bulged with the fat of his thighs. His jowls grew heavier by the year, and his forehead annually encroached on his straight black hair, making Alban Peyl a shifting pattern of bulges and boundaries.
Nonetheless, at thirty-eight he had a penetrating vision common to aging males. He could look at himself in a mirror and see, under a decade of bulges, the young warrior adept. He could still think, Apart from the arm, fundamentally a sound and attractive physique.
Moaning as it passed between Dovetail Bridge's arched center span and the roiling Byrose just below, a cold wind stole over the sandwall. It raced through the doorway and into the ermine cuff of Alban's empty right sleeve, where it raised prickles across his hairless chest. With a shiver he rushed into the dark, airless madhouse.
Overseer Ennis Roodville hurried after Alban. With his dripping tunic jacket, brown hose, disordered blond hair, and doughy face, young Roodville contrasted with Alban in every particular. Side by side, thin overseer and stout merchant prince looked like line and circle. Both glanced back every few steps, as though afraid the river would leap the wall without warning and sweep them away.
None of the inmates cared about the river. Shivering in rags, they cowered in their wooden pens, men to the left, women and children to the right. Most stared vacantly as the two passed. Others babbled "Ants ants ants" or "Where's my Alachia?" One woman shrieked like a parrot as she drove a bone needle over and over into ulcerated sores on her ankle.
Threatening the noisier patients with his stingrod, Roodville spoke low and fast. "All goes well now in the filling of bags, sir. Heartily sorry for the delay I am, Landsman, and I must thank you kindly for encouraging the laggards."
"Heartily sorry you will be, if the flood destroys my whole trade." Alban's loud voice echoed in the cavernous room. Entering the men's pen and stepping rapidly around piles of filthy straw, he hurried to the wooden packing tables along one wall. Stacks of crates, addressed to Bartertown, stood nearby. "If we can't move all these extra crates you've so thoughtfully packed, the loss will hit doubly hard."
Talk of hitting hard normally fascinated Ennis Roodville. In the realm of finance, though, he preferred peaceable increase.
"Right, sir, you're indeed quite right. I only thought, seeing how the loss of the riverboats and airships gave us a few days to wait for the caravan, I might make busy hands of idle hands, so to say."
"Indeed." Moans in the huge room confirmed Alban's notion of the idle life in Antimere Asylum. He thought, At least the flood would put these wretches out of their misery, and then he chased the thought from his mind. Where could he find new packers so cheaply?
"Perhaps it never occurred to you, Roodville," Alban continued, "that this new merchandise you brought in for packing had been stacked high, dry, and safe in my Oldtown warehouse. Now I have so many crates that I must hire extra mounts, if I can find them in this weather, always presuming the river decides against looking in here tonight, and every day's delay costs me 1400 silver in Bartertown, by contract with Tinka Vodromian!"
"Ah, er," Roodville began, and then gulped. Realizing he had not said "sir," he suddenly yelped it, an explosive courtesy that echoed in the madhouse like a belch. He added weakly, "I hope the caravan arrives soon."
Rain hammered the wooden roof, and lightning flared. Alban said, "Not likely. We must arrange to move these crates before the flood hits."
"One day's cost, fourteen hundred!" Roodville found this inexpressibly exciting. "What I could do with fourteen hundred! The asylum here brings me a pittance, sir: five coppers and seven tenths per resident per diem from the Council fund, times one hundred forty-two residents currently, and I don't see how I'm to fit more in."
"Unless you float a few more just under the rafters." Alban stared pointedly back toward the river, but Roodville did not take the hint.
"Nicely put, sir, as you've put it. So we bring in eighty silver and nine copper a day total, call it eighty-one silver, making twenty-nine thousand two hundred gross per annum. Very cozy you may call that, sir, until you hear my awful tale of overhead. Food, five coppers per resident per diem, and more when the wheat crop is down. Tax on the building, a ruinous one and a tenth per centum on a grossly inflated valuation of twelve thousand nine hundred silver. A hundred forty-two silver paid each year to the Council's bloated assessors, may the Horrors eat their eyeballs! Then repairs, salaries, hiring those workers out on the shore, my stingrod --"
"Do you suppose some of those workers might start moving my crates, Roodville? The river is rising."
The overseer stopped. "Oh. Yes, sir. Well, actually, it would be a bit hard to spare anyone just now -- that is --"
Howls of excitement erupted nearby, startling both men. An emaciated male waved his bony arms over another inmate at his feet. The prone man lay naked in a fetal curl, and thin lines moved across his skin.
"'E's got ants on 'im! Ants!" Dense columns of insects marched in wavering lines over the unconscious inmate's back and thighs. Alban had taken the bony man's shriek for fear, but when other inmates rushed to the inmate's side, he realized with revulsion that the call had meant something else. Famished men picked at the ants and stuffed them in their mouths.
While Alban looked away in horror, Roodville nodded approval at this enterprising economy. A nurse ran over from the dark reaches of the madhouse floor. As she ran, her glow-gem pendant cast wild shadows on the brick walls.
"Oh, gents, let's not spoil our nightmeal, shall we?" Hoarse with exhaustion, she waved away the hungry inmates and knelt over the stranger. He had not moved.
Roodville pursed his lips. "Widow Decrevi, shall I call in the undertaker?" He murmured to Alban, "I have an arrangement with the undertaker."
Looking over her shoulder at Roodville, the nurse, Filantha Decrevi, spoke with contempt. "I'm sure the undertaker is too busy today, happy as this man's death may be for some."
"Decrevi, you speak too glibly!" Roodville raised his stingrod, but Alban held his arm.
"I meant the undertaker, sir," said the nurse sweetly. She brushed briskly at the ants. "Whoever else would be happy to see this poor man join Death?"
Most of Oldtown, to start with, Alban thought. Merron's governing class treated the madhouse as a nuisance, a drain on funds. Still, it kept Horror-maddened lunatics from hampering the city's business. "Will he die soon?" he asked.
"Unless the Passions step in," the nurse said. "I've seen it too many times, in my own family even. His mind has gone."
"Send for the undertaker, and see about moving these crates while you're about it," Alban said to Roodville. As the overseer ran for a messenger, Alban inspected Filantha Decrevi sidelong. On previous visits to the madhouse he had not met this nurse. She sounded young for a widow. She had a short, sturdy figure, full brown hair worn in a bun, and thin hands. As she knelt facing away from him, her amulet's light edged her silhouette with radiance. "This has happened in your family?" he asked Filantha.
While she attended the dying stranger, Filantha spoke in a curiously bright voice. "Sir, so much of my family has died, it's some oversight I'm still breathing. My ma died when I was seven, taken when the ferry capsized between Twopenny and the pillow factory in Keystone. Then Pa, three years after. Punched his finger on a leather awl, for he was a cobbler, you know. The wound went bad. He died of the blacklimb before the shop owner saw fit to send for a healer."
"Really." Alban knew the craft shop owners in Merron. Half would watch their own father bleed to death if it saved them ten silver.
"I raised my two brothers and sister after that," she continued. "Both Nat and Devin died of the spotting sickness five years ago. Keeta, she made it to marriage and then died on her childbed. Little daughter, my niece, she went too, even before her naming. Sad, isn't it?"
Then Alban saw Filantha's face, lit from below by the glowing crystal. He thought, Quite sad. Though clear and unlined, her profile featured a sharp and prominent nose, an equally sharp chin, and hollow cheeks under high cheekbones. An old crone still young. She glanced up and smiled: tooth, gap, tooth, tooth, gap. Diplomatically, Alban smiled back.
"Everard," she resumed. "He was the sweetest man when we married. Everard worked here, 'til he went up to fix the shingles and slipped. He survived the fall, but he couldn't move or talk. I nursed him for fifty-two days, and then one bad night I saw the light go out of Everard's eyes, just like this poor fellow. He died not long after.
"Three years ago now. You know, the shingles on this place haven't yet been fixed."
Her tone had never varied from serene calm, except for the faintest quaver at the last. Alban debated a polite response. Good that it hasn't affected you. No. How nice that you can take pleasure in tragedy. No, she sounded not pleased but tranquil. Finally he asked it outright. "How do you stay so composed?"
"It's a bit rude, isn't it, sir?" She smiled again. "I think I should tear my hair, or curl up like this poor stranger. I did that after my kin went, every one of them, sometimes for moons. But I couldn't stick at it, sir, it's not my temper. I would see a sunset over the Byrose, or hear a child laugh, or draw a breath of cold air. It's such magic just to live each moment, don't you know? Look here, he hasn't long now."
She cradled the stranger in her arms. His breath came in short gasps now, and his eyes had glazed. His lips quivered as if he desperately wanted to speak. Alban saw the stranger's face for the first time and felt a shock of recognition. Then, when he glimpsed a symbol on the man's forehead, confusion engulfed his mind. I wish I could have warned him. I had great trouble following his thoughts as they warred against one another. No, Alban saw no symbol. One part of Alban's mind convinced the other that he had never seen this man before. Still, the bridge of the nose (you've never seen him) and the jawline (you don't know him) -- Alban blinked and shook his head hard. The hair looked like -- the nose, the ears, they had a certain --
"Preposterous!" Alban spoke too loudly, and Filantha looked up, startled. Alban fumbled for words. He said sullenly, "I don't know him."
"Oh. Well, sir, nobody does, it seems. The Guards found him last night on the pavement on High Hill, naked as you see him now. No one knows who he was or how he ended up like this. I can't see why he's dying, myself. Something to do with this Affliction, it may be." Both looked out toward the rushing river. Thunder rumbled across the sky.
The overseer returned, and Alban took the chance to move away from the stranger. Alban had never seen the man before. He could not even bring the man's face to mind. Yet a weird familiarity haunted him. He cast about for a different thought. "That Widow Decrevi seems good enough," he murmured to Roodville.
"By your leave, sir, she's another obstacle to profitable operation, and no mistake. Two silver a day she costs me, for half a day of her backtalk. Seven hundred thirty silver a year, as you see her there, and three more nurses like her! They don't cost quite so dear and don't give a fraction of her lip, neither, but the residents get out of sorts, you might say, with anyone but Decrevi. Had to buy her that glow-gem too, what with her whining about `it's too dark here.' Seventy-five silver, but dear me, it's only money, isn't it?"
Other than the distastefully small sums involved, Alban could not think what in Roodville's speech disquieted him. In his own export business Alban spoke such Roodvillisms routinely. Why this unease? Had the dying stranger somehow reminded Alban of that earlier time, his young days in the warrior discipline?
Idiot! You don't know the man. Alban changed the subject. "Ants, Roodville. If that poor lout had ants all over him, they may have got into my stock too. We can leave infested crates behind when we move the rest. Fetch a crowbar."
Leaving Filantha to her deathwatch, they set to work opening crates. Peals of thunder drowned the noise as Roodville pried board from board. Entertained by the screeching, evoked for once without a stingrod, Roodville took well to the task.
"Each day's delay, fourteen hundred!" he mumbled to himself as he worked. "We've found a gentleman here, Roodville."
Ransacking the magical productions of a hundred crafters, alchemists, and minor adepts, Alban found no ants. The astendar and other t'skrang spices in their sandalwood boxes, the everfull sweet jars, eyeglow mushrooms, prismatic wine jugs, mustard seeds, philters, potions, and tonics all proved intact. Nor had ants touched the mundane delicacies, such as the jellied espagra bones and the silver-coated candies. Alban did not bother checking the ceramic hotpots, which warmed food when the owner spoke the word painted on the side, nor the roundview mirrors, firestarters, or panpipes of a hundred melodies. "All looks well," he told Roodville. "Nail them up. Where are those workers to move them?"
"They can't be spared from the wall just now, sir, really they can't. They're doing all they can just to hold back the river." Two burly inmates began repacking the crates. Some atom of discretion kept Roodville from asking Alban for a doubled fee of four coppers on each reopened box.
"Oh, very well," Alban sighed. He looked at the crates with frustration. These goods represented most of his fortune. When he'd hired the Antimere inmates so cheaply to pack his crates, he had dreamed of vast profit, enough to buy Antimere Asylum twice over if he cared to. Now, many days later, he only hoped to get his cargo out of Merron.
"Perhaps you know another merchant," he said, "who has suffered greater calamities than I have with, as you aptly call it, this impressive investment."
"Absolutely not, sir, no."
"You do not know, then, anyone who arranged shipment on a t'skrang riverboat for a bargain price? And then, twelve days before the ship date, every ship in town capsized, sank, or exploded?"
"Most people I know, sir, think the Affliction started right then."
"You do not recall other merchants who rushed to the airship yard to buy cargo space, at exorbitant rates, on the next drakkar bound for Throal? Then, not long before departure, calamitous windstorms forced every airship to leave town empty, for safe harbor in Urupa? You know of no similar case?"
"Bad luck and double bad, as they say, sir."
"I found bad luck in triples and quadruples with my caravan hire, desperate and insanely expensive as that was. Ten days of rain so far, and my caravan nowhere in sight, correct?"
"Likely they got stranded upriver, sir."
"Likely they know something, or someone, has cursed this city! Smoky poisons rising in the Schools colleges. Paving stones that grow soft and trap cartwheels. Everyone on an entire street forgetting how to talk. Now, we're an hour away from a flood."
"Say rather thirty minutes," came a voice from the front doorway.
For a moment Alban wondered if the storm itself had taken form. The huge man in the archway had wild black hair, and a close wind swept his long black beard. His sea-blue robes bore lightning bolts in glowing white thread. His white sash, hung with dewberry blossoms and yellow cinquefoil, displayed glass vials stoppered with wax and foil. Sparks leaped from plug to plug.
Although he had just come in from the rain, the adept looked dry. He spoke again in a voice that rumbled like thunder. "Soon the rain will fall harder. In thirty minutes the river will rise far above any barrier you can possibly build."
Speechless, Alban and Roodville looked at the adept's eyes, blue as the sea. They saw conviction. They saw his thick lips, pale as sandstone and pursed with resolution. They heard his voice again, and they believed him.
"Anyone here in an hour will be swimming," the magician continued. He raised a hand adorned with many rings. "Evacuate the madmen to high ground, across the bridge."
"Sir," Roodville began in a quavering voice, but Alban interrupted. He swept aside his cloak to show his yellow sash. "Elementalist, I shall consider your request. First, please identify yourself. Next, I must enlist you to improve the flood wall behind this asylum. We have little time."
"Britham Boyhan, they call me," said the elementalist, unmoved. "Before troubling about your doomed wall, Landsman Whoever-you-are, first improve your etiquette. We who shape Nature's five elements do not bend to Merron's three magistrates, nor its legions of former magistrates." He turned to leave.
"I am Alban Peyl, warrior in the Order of Inner Light!" Alban's voice rang in the cavernous asylum. All others fell silent.
"Really," said Boyhan after a moment. He walked into the room, toward Alban. Inmates silently scrambled out of his path. A breath of chill air moved with him.
"Do you know of me?" Alban asked, an instant before the magician began to speak. As warrior, magistrate, and merchant, Alban knew how to hold the initiative.
Boyhan kept a politely blank expression. "I know the tale of the warrior adept called Alban Peyl, who helped save Merron from the Theran wizard Intrantivere. As told to me, the legend ended when he left the Council of Magistrates after one term."
Roodville pointed proudly. "That one's this one! Of course, ten years have changed us all."
Alban did not take his eyes from Boyhan's. "Roodville. Take Widow Decrevi and whatever residents you can trust, and have the sandwall built higher and faster. Right now."
In seconds merchant and magician stood alone, save for the oblivious inmates. Alban looked fixedly up at Boyhan, who towered over him. "Merron's magicians have done nothing to stop the Affliction. I won't ask why."
"No? Thousands do, these days."
"Each gets some obscure non-answer about purging sickness, or cauterizing a wound, or --"
"Destroying a gangrenous limb. Apologies, Landsman Peyl." Boyhan's eyes flicked to Alban's empty sleeve, and the breeze around him licked insolently at Alban's nose. "So you do not presume on your alleged history to find answers? I admire such restraint."
"I learned the answers. I talked with Geocosm."
The magician started, and the air around him grew suddenly still. He frowned, trying to cover his surprise. "You use a term I don't recognize."
"Oh, please, Boyhan. Does it surprise you that a magistrate and adept knows of your secret guild of elementalists? And of your rivals in the guilds of nethermancers and wizards, Oneiros and Noesis?"
"Rivals! Geocosm hardly deigns to notice them." The wind around Boyhan turned warm and fitful.
"Do I hear contempt?" said Alban. "You seem to spread your contempt widely, Adept, and yet the leaders of Geocosm intimated that one magician, at least, earns the guild's respect. That magician created this flood with Geocosm's connivance. Yet the guild itself doesn't even know the flood's purpose! How can you condone this disaster?"
Open wonder showed in Boyhan's blue eyes, but suspicion followed. "You seem to know quite a bit. Why not that?" Boyhan glanced again at Alban's empty sleeve. "Do you even know `that magician's' name or purpose?"
"N-no, but --"
"Now I recall that tale's ending." The breeze around Boyhan plucked at his beard. "Alban Peyl, the new magistrate, married the wizard who had helped him win the office, Padia Villandry. Perhaps someone else actually talks with the leaders of Geocosm, hmmm?"
Alban hid frustration over his failed bluff. Boyhan's guess hit home. Magicians who ignored Alban would talk with Padia. Indeed, for years Padia had all but ignored Alban herself, except to berate him. He tried to regain ground. "I asked you a question, Boyhan. How can you sanction this disaster?"
"It seems a disaster in the narrow view of name-givers, but Nature weaves on a larger cloth, and her needle is change. The fire that bursts the pine looses seeds of new growth. Rain erodes the mountain, and from its dust comes rich black earth."
"Possibly tree and mountain object to this idea," said Alban with asperity. "Inasmuch as you elementalists don't even know why you are bringing Nature's needle down on Merron, might she do her darning somewhere else?"
"Popinjay." Boyhan tensely turned away. Dust devils whirled in his wake. He passed the crates, and their labels caught his eye.
"Oh ho." Relaxing, Boyhan laughed. "Now I understand the warrior adept's noble concern. Let the madmen drown, stack them like cordwood, but keep Nature from my pots and spices, hmmm, warrior?"
"Listen, you --"
In from the storm ran Ennis Roodville, drenched and desperate. "River's half a span higher since ten minutes ago, sir."
"Two minutes early," Boyhan whispered.
"Order a messenger onto the streets," Alban told Roodville. "Have him offer five silver to every big man he finds, or ten silver in trade goods, to help build the wall. Use my name."
"Wait," said Boyhan. "Forget the wall and evacuate the patients. This place can't survive an hour. Then everyone here will drown, and your greed is to blame!"
"I shall know whom to blame." Alban's voice trembled with restrained fury. "If we run now, the flood takes the whole borough. Everyone loses a home and a life's work. People think Nightshade iniquitous, Boyhan, but many honest families live here. I am not ready to stack those lives like cordwood." Even Alban himself did not know if he lied to excuse his willfulness, or if he spoke his true feeling, discovered as he said it. "Roodville, go!"
Lightning flashed as Roodville ran out. Light glimmered in sympathy along Boyhan's embroidered bolts. "Landsman Peyl," Boyhan said, "please understand. Geocosm provokes this flood, or aids another to do so, but we cannot stop it now. The waters rise.
"Like the Byrose in its channel," Boyhan continued, "all the substance of the world flows. Fire, air, water, wood, earth, all flow at their different rates. Each mote of matter follows simple rules that my discipline knows. Yet when collected, masses of these motes jostle each other on paths of complexity beyond any sage's prediction."
The elementalist's gaze grew distant, his voice quiet. "The river flows smooth on the flat plain, and a rock on its bed cannot spoil the current. Yet in a rapids, the same rock I place just so, high up, can change the tumbling current far downstream. A pebble I throw on flat ground does nothing. On steep slopes, it brings an avalanche. The flutter of a sparrow's wing may charge the air so that a distant storm picks out a different course.
"Elementalists find the domains of nature's stress, where a pinpoint application of the will cascades and brings the avalanche. Or the flood. We in Geocosm have long since aided the will that brings this flood."
"And you cannot revoke it."
"Revoke? Nothing is ever revoked. Only the flow changes. But no, we cannot hold back the flood."
"Maybe the one you aid could do so?"
"Yes. Possibly. Nothing is beyond that one, I think." Again Boyhan's gaze drifted to Alban's right sleeve. "How did you lose that arm?"
Startled, Alban said, "If I tell you, will you help us build the sandwall?"
The elementalist said nothing. He only ran his hand along the packed crates. He sang idly to the wood, and it oozed around his ringed fingers like molten glass.
"Oh, well," said Alban. "If you must know, it happened in the last days of the Gray Owl Company. We tracked Intrantivere from Throal to Merron. He and his thugs meant to summon a Horror to kill everyone at a sporting tournament.
"Rather close to the last minute, the Company stopped him, although truth to tell, Padia and I missed the battle. That honor fell to the rest: Denson, who led us, the magicians Wulf and Han Lun, Grimborn the Archer, and -- there was one other --"
You don't know him.
"The name's on the tip of my tongue --"
Oaf! No other. There was never another!
"Blind me, I thought they had more help." Again Alban's scrambled thoughts eluded me. Without knowing why, he glanced toward the invalid stranger across the dark madhouse. Uncomfortably, he turned away. "But my memory is fading after all these years. Where was I?"
"Left behind with Padia," said Boyhan.
"Oh, yes. We got waylaid chasing one of Intrantivere's henchmen, a wretched little ork illusionist called Vilph Axehandle. We caught his airship above the Oldtown shipyard as he tried to escape the city. It was nighttime, the star watch. While Padia fought with Vilph, I had to guard her back against a dozen air sailors armed with hawkspikes. I took care of them, but the last one, a big troll, managed to pull me overside with him.
"Owing to persistent trouble from the troll, I couldn't glide well. I hit hard, though not as hard as he did, thank Mynbruje. Vilph's crew had killed all the yard workers. I lay there in the shipyard, dead to the world, until Padia lost Vilph and flew down to search for me. She said that as she arrived, she saw someone running away holding a glowing silver cord. When I woke up, my right arm was gone. The scars showed it was taken by magic. Vilph must have wrapped the cord around my shoulder and pulled it through, like a garotte. He got away."
"Do you assume that Vilph cut off your arm?" Boyhan showed new interest at the mention of the silver cord.
"Yes, of course. He was the most vindictive and mean-spirited scoundrel I ever knew, as well as a liar and a thief. Who else would amputate my arm and leave me alive? Took my favorite amulet, too."
"Show me the scars." Boyhan stepped toward Alban, one hand outstretched.
"Here now, this isn't a Schools exhibit for student wizards. Will you help us build the sand--? Here now, stop!"
Rudely yanking back Alban's everclean cloak, Boyhan pulled open the velvet coat and exposed the right shoulder. Ten years ago Alban had defeated a dozen attackers. Now he flailed ineptly at Boyhan's muscular arms. The magician tore open the white silk undershirt and scrutinized the puckered scars at Alban's shoulder.
"Exactly," Boyhan muttered. Tiny runic letters, burned into Alban's skin like brands, circled a juncture of radial scars. "Exactly. In Theran these runes read For the good of Merron."
"Do you think I don't know that?" Alban thrashed like a mouse in a trap. "The `good of Merron,' to Intrantivere, meant the Theran Empire retaking the city! Obviously he gave the cord to Vilph."
"So why, then, do the runes read `Merron'? The Therans still call this city `Watertown,' you know. They founded it to harvest nodes of elemental Water in the Byrose."
Alban broke free, or rather, Boyhan let him go. "I know that too! How can I explain Theran magic?"
"No one denies the Therans can do such work," said Boyhan thoughtfully, "but that cord, though it comes of the craft of Thera, is not Theran. And Vilph did not cut off your arm. --But I say too much. I am glad to hear your story, for it restores my faith. I know Geocosm's actions seem strange, but we act for a reason."
"Do you now?" Alban's eyes bulged. "Your guild floods the city, drowns invalids and children, drives thousands of innocent families from their homes, lays waste to more property than an invading army, and gives us no more explanation than I'd give a dog. You commit these strange actions for a reason? For what reason?"
"For the good of Merron," Boyhan said softly.
Alban leaped. His fingers clawed at Boyhan's right eye, and his knee shot up. Air rushed like wind from Boyhan's lungs, cries of alarm rose among the inmates, and for an instant Alban felt again the exhilarating clarity that marked his battles long ago. He pulled at the magician's beard, meaning to throw him down. He could fight all his problems, the crises of life, as he fought his opponents. Beat them. Triumph!
Suddenly the wind grew, blinding Alban and shoving him back. Its howl in his ears had Boyhan's voice. Before Alban could scream, he hit a stack of crates, rolled to the stone floor, and lay still.
Anguished shouts echoed in the madhouse. Roodville, Filantha Decrevi, and the other nurses ran in from shore. "Stand still!" Boyhan shouted. The wind died at his signal, and in the silence he said, "The magistrate is learning a lesson."
Scrapes bled on Boyhan's cheek. The magician gestured, and a circle of candle-yellow flame flared around one fingertip. He pulled the fire slowly down his cheek like a blade. Then he brushed away the powdered blood to reveal fresh skin. "A lesson," he repeated, walking forward. "That the way of the adept is insight and self-mastery. That he has no more of either than any grubber of money, and less of both than a horse. That his refusal to save you all is not heroism but merely obstinate greed."
Still groggy, Alban lay in an agony of humiliation. At that moment he would have destroyed himself and his memory on Earth to escape Boyhan's words.
Kneeling by Alban, Boyhan spoke with pity and contempt. "That cord cut off more than your arm, Landsman Gutsack. Or perhaps magic does not vanish with a cord or such tricksy trappings. Perhaps you merely let discipline go and grew dull with lavish living."
In a tone of regret Boyhan added, "An ordinary person should not attack an adept. I fear I must make an example of you. This lesson is not quite over." Once more his ringed fingers reached out.
Nik-nik-nik. Boyhan froze in surprise as a low clack, like metal tapping glass, rose from his sleeve. Brown dots eclipsed the glowing threads, and they grew as they crawled toward his shoulder. Boyhan stared in horror at legs like stems, segmented bodies, compound eyes, and two twitching pairs of feelers on each triangular head. The ants' mandibles clacked, nik-uk-tik.
Flailing at his sleeve, Boyhan scrambled to his feet. Ants crawled on both sleeves, across his chest and back, and around the skirts of his robe. The insects had grown large as grapes now, and all climbed steadily toward his face. Whirling back and forth, he shouted parts of incantations. Each would bring a blizzard, or singing flame, or sheets of ice crystals, but he stopped each spell halfway. None could strike the growing ants from his robes without hurting him as well.
Lines of flame, of snow and ice, of lightning flickered around Boyhan as he struggled. The ants, now big as rats and still growing, clung to his shoulders. Nik-kikikk. One insect's swollen abdomen broke away; its thorax bled black. Boyhan writhed, and one by one, the ants' overburdened legs began to snap.
In another moment Boyhan might have found a workable spell. In a few moments the ants would have fallen under their own weight. Just then a woman's voice spoke low in the darkness. In the space between one frantic breath and the next, the ants vanished. Boyhan flailed for seconds before he realized it. He sprang from foot to foot, panting, seeking his attacker.
"Now then, Townsman Boyhan," came the woman's voice again, briskly. She appeared from the shadows by the front doorway, walking with a regal stride. Her folded fabric rain-ward dripped with each step. The trim woman wore magician's robes, but not the loose and swirling garb of an adept. She had tailored her brown, close-fitting robe in Oldtown style for her narrow waist, and over it she wore a stomacher of burnt orange. Her short black hair, touched with gray, curled under an orange skullcap crested by a small finch feather. The outfit, though impractical, followed the most exacting fashion. "I am so sorry I interfered in that abrupt way," she continued. "Do forgive my rudeness. I'm sure you see that I had to protect my husband."
"The wizard," said Boyhan dumbly. "Padia Villandry."
Padia smiled as though offering a tray of appetizers. Large eyes outlined in black gleamed above a small, thin nose. "I'm sorry, it completely escaped me that we haven't been introduced. Your friend Townsman Laverlane -- he owns those four lovely inns in Keystone and Oldtown? -- he's spoken so highly of you at the theater performances -- we keep adjacent boxes -- to the point I feel I know you already."
"Restrain that feeling," said Boyhan sharply. "Offer me one reason why I should not --!"
"Excuse me, Townsman, please hold that thought. I haven't greeted my husband." Padia left Boyhan pointing at empty air. "Alban dear, let me help you up. This coat will need cleaning. Oh, and you've torn your shirt."
She looked up at Boyhan. "Have you finished fighting this one-armed man, Townsman? Or does he still present a danger?"
If she had threatened him, begged for mercy, or called for help, Boyhan could have responded smoothly. Yet in two sentences Padia had recast the conflict so that Boyhan saw no honorable reply. One inmate laughed, but the elementalist's fiery stare silenced him. The silence lengthened.
Defeated, Boyhan drew himself up. "Overseer!"
Ennis Roodville rushed forward. "Sir! Um, I mean --"
"Not twenty minutes from now, the river will flood this asylum. Evacuate your residents to the western end of Dovetail Bridge. Questors of Garlen and Mynbruje are waiting there to help you. Landswoman Villandry, Landsman Gut-- Peyl: Farewell."
The elementalist swept out. The sky lit with lightning, and a moment later thunder shook the roof.
Straightening Alban's shirt and coat, Padia spoke quietly through gritted teeth. "Count on an elementalist for a grand exit. I thought to show you the new wand I bought from Romantin, but I didn't expect I'd use it here and now. Should I ask how you got into that idiotic tangle?"
Alban searched for a response that might restore his dignity in her eyes, but he found none. Perhaps he could put her on the defensive. What a marriage, where he must plan tactics of conversation! He would rather have Boyhan mutilate him than Padia witness his humiliation, for he would never hear the end of this. "What wand? You didn't tell me about any wand."
"May I just break in a moment, Landsman?" Roodville said hesitantly. "I suppose I'd best start pulling 'em out to the bridge, if you don't mind. Oh, and good evening to you, Landswoman Villandry." He spoke to her carefully. The two had conceived a mutual dislike, carefully concealed, since Padia had begun agitating in Oldtown society to improve the asylum's conditions.
"Let us hope this is a good evening for someone in Merron, Townsman Roodville," said Padia primly. "Alban? Shall they evacuate?"
"Evacuate," Alban repeated. The word seemed to taunt him. Evacuate, Landsman Gutsack? "Yes. I suppose so." His voice grew plaintive. "I wasn't being greedy, you know. Or at least that wasn't all of it."
"Would you collect yourself?" his wife whispered. "You are a magistrate. Act like one!"
I was a warrior, but now -- Resentment washed through Alban's mind, a bitter estrangement from Padia and this place and his life. Yet her words rang true. He breathed deeply. "Roodville, have any new men shown up to build the wall?"
"Sixteen, sir, last I counted."
"Passions! This fast?"
"As fortune has it, sir, my runner -- young Selby, the red-haired boy -- found a high-sky game in the cellar of Bondrome's Best. One player had just scrubbed the rest with a run of four twelves, and the others need a supply of ready capital."
"I see that flooding does not change some things. Relieve the laborers and nurses working on the wall. They can shepherd the residents to Dovetail Bridge. The new men should keep building the wall. The longer they hold off the flood, the better. Later they can move my goods somewhere safe."
"Done, sir." Roodville raised his stingrod and turned to go.
"Might you use a bit less of the rod, Townsman Roodville?" Padia called. Roodville turned back with an offended look. Going out into the rain, he held his stingrod down by his thigh.
Every worker in the asylum began preparing for the move. Inmates cried in fear as their pen doors creaked open. Alban and Padia stood unnoticed. Behind his eyes Alban saw himself flailing at a robed arm. "Landsman Gutsack" echoed in his mind. In torment he lashed out at the nearest target. "You have to criticize, don't you? Never mind the emergency, reform the world, that's you."
"After I pulled your belly out of that ridiculous fracas!"
Padia broke off and looked around. Wall torches guttered in the humid air, deepening the shadows. She pulled Alban into a patch of darkness by the crates and shoved him against a mildewed wall.
"I should have expected no thanks," she hissed. "No doubt you're too ashamed to think clearly. Why? Because now everyone knows what we've known for ten years? Let go of your past. Be proud of what you still are!"
"Thank you for your tender compassion. What was that wand? Haven't you enough wands in your collection already?"
"This one is quite original." From her stomacher Padia drew a copper baton with brass bindings. Etched insects coiled in a double helix along its length. Padia's irritation vanished as she admired it. "Its details of fabrication will interest specialists, but as they're rather technical, I won't trouble you with them. The wand works well, as you saw, but a spell to enlarge insects doesn't interest many customers. Romantin sold it cheaply."
Alban braced himself. "How much?"
"Nineteen hundred silver, on account."
"Chorrolis save me!" He sagged and rubbed his eyes.
Exasperation pinched the corners of Padia's mouth. "This wand has already saved you when the Passion was nowhere around. So you need to hawk another dozen hotpots. Is that a reason for cheap theatrics?"
In Alban's mind I found a torrent of murky and conflicting emotions. He complained of the wand's cost from habit, but at some level he felt proud he could still make Padia happy. Yet he resented this willingness, which she exploited. After all, with all the attention she paid to her collection and her social duties, she had neglected her discipline almost as far as he had.
His confusion had a name: love. After a decade of quarrels and betrayals, his love had not died but had gone to ground like a hunted animal, hidden so well he himself missed it. He missed it deeply.
Out of this turmoil he could bring only a bland reply. "We shall discuss your extravagance later. You really went to buy a wand in this ghastly storm?"
Padia smiled, as though to say no storm could bother an adept. "No, I happened to meet Romantin on the bridge when everyone went out to watch the river. In fact, while we watched, a rather good idea came up. I thought we might host a grand nightmeal for the Families soon, say seven or eight days from now, to benefit the poor victims in Twopenny. The flood has destroyed them, Alban. We could raise a good sum to rebuild, buy food, toys for the children, that sort of thing."
"Excellent idea, assuming the flood doesn't destroy us too."
"I doubt that. I daresay anything's possible in this Affliction, but we still ought to help." Padia paused like a diver about to launch herself off the cliff. "I thought the nightmeal could also help the asylum."
"Meaning?" Alban's voice grew cold. "I take it you want to sound the horn again about our terrible inhumanity?"
"Alban, I only said --"
"You're happy to spend my money, and then you take such righteous pride in tearing down what I've built up!" Memories welled up, images of inmates cramming ants into their mouths, of Roodville's stingrod, of twisted limbs and hacking coughs. He drove them back to the dark of his mind.
"Then you'd rather these poor wretches rot and die in these appalling conditions?" She looked at him just as Boyhan had, with disbelief and contempt.
His voice rose. "Why won't you work to improve what's in place, instead of asking Oldtown to throw it aside?" Inmates' bloodshot eyes in the dimness, Roodville's smirk, Boyhan's scornful laughter, Gutsack! He fought his thoughts like enemies.
"If you really meant that," she began, when suddenly the stranger -- the dying invalid -- spoke.
Neither of them should have heard his voice. The madhouse echoed with curses and sobs, and the dying stranger spoke softly. Still his words beckoned them as though he had shrieked. For an instant they recognized the voice, but then confusion swamped their thoughts, and they knew they had never heard it before. Even so, they both ran to him. He lay alone, for nurses had gathered the rest of the men at the front entrance.
Kneeling beside the stranger, Alban heard him desperately repeat the words: "Vilph did this to me."
"What did he do? When? Who are you?"
Every muscle in the man's body had stretched taut. He repeated the words as one possessed by a single thought: "Vilph did this to me."
Listening to the stranger, Alban half remembered saying, Blind me, I thought they had more help.
"Look, he's shivering." Padia looked around. "No blankets. What a sty. Alban, give him your cloak."
Alban hesitated. "This is my own everclean cloak." Padia's stare shamed him. "If this poor sod rolls around, he might damage the weave." Padia still stared. He floundered. "Also, my, my coat and shirt are ripped, and I'd rather not be unkempt."
"Better to be something else."
"Oh yes, play high and righteous, you with your bug wand. Its price could feed everyone here for a moon!"
Under other circumstances this would have begun an hour-long contest of wills. Then, straining upward, the stranger gasped, "Vilph did this --" The final words came out hoarsely, and the body fell limp.
The undertaker, thin as a gallows, arrived to make arrangements. Laborers wrapped and removed the body. Alban, cross-legged in a shadowed corner, paid little attention. Events seemed to flow around him, isolating him, turning him unwillingly inward to face his thoughts.
The body should not have troubled him. In his years as an adept he had seen hundreds. On reflection, though, he realized he had not seen one since Vilph, or someone, had taken his arm.
He had lost more than the arm. The silver cord had taken something deeper, intrinsic in his self. He had lost his awareness, his empathy with the Universe. Or.... Magic does not vanish with a cord. Had he wilfully cast it away?
"Everyone has left for the bridge." Padia crouched beside him, her rain-ward dripping again. "Except for the men you hired to build the wall. They've built quite high, but I think the weight of water will break the wall soon."
"Should they start moving your crates?"
Once he had fought a dozen at a time. Once he had acted with clear sight and right mind. When did he forget? He said, "I suppose we must save the goods."
"Must? Alban, what's come over you? Was it that poor man's talk about Vilph?"
"Excuse me." He stood up. "Come with me while I give the orders." They walked quickly, their steps echoing in the empty room. He asked her, "Did you know that man?"
"Definitely not. Yet there was something familiar about him. I can't place it."
Alban held the threadbare drapery aside for her to pass through the doorway. An old habit. "If Vilph has come back to Merron, we may want to hire guards. That little ork was the type who could wait ten years to settle a score."
"Yes, well, we don't know that our Vilph is the same one that man mentioned. We don't even know that Vilph left Merron to begin with," Padia said as she extended her rain-ward. Rain drummed on its fabric as they walked rapidly across the soggy flat. The day, never bright, had given way to darkness. They made for the torches at the sandwall. "Vilph wasn't much of a threat, really."
"-- Ten years ago."
"He already settled his score with you when he cut off your arm."
"I wonder. That elementalist said someone else took it."
She stopped. A cold wind whipped off the river and tried to lift her skullcap. "Boyhan? What did he tell you?"
Alban could not read her tone. Suspicion? Alarm? "He said the cord was not Theran, and Vilph did not cut off my arm. Nothing else."
Calm again, Padia led Alban down the beach, sidestepping a hundred pits. She said, "That man's death -- he had nothing physically wrong with him that I could divine. If Vilph did something to that man, what? How did Vilph kill him?"
Raindrops flew into a mist around the hood of Alban's everclean cloak. "Vilph's magic is illusion. It can't do actual harm."
"Often that's true," said Padia. "But you've forgotten that illusionists also use real effects against opponents who see through the illusions. Then, too, in the realm of the mind, the line between reality and illusion blurs."
Sheltered torches drew blurry lines of light and darkness on the sandwall. Now far taller than Alban, the wall looked fairly strong. Muddy water leaked from a dozen gaps and pooled at the wall's base. At one end burlap sacks rose by human chain up a bulging incline to the top, where many men walked back and forth. The Byrose flowed an arm's length away, and yet its roar seemed strangely distant.
They walked to the chain of men. Water poured off the workers as if they had just crawled from the river. "I'm Landsman Peyl. Where is Townsman Roodville?"
"I think he's gone with th' madmen ter bridge, sir," said a big barefoot man. He wore peg-top trousers and an open red shirt with sack sleeves. "Maybe I can help yer. Luggat, I'm called. What dyer wish, sir?"
Crashing thunder interrupted, and then Luggat went to help fish out a worker who slipped into the river. Alban had a few moments to ponder what he wished. He had come here to set the workers moving crates. As he looked down the long high wall, he felt shame at calling them from this heroic labor.
Stupid! The river will break the wall anyway. Alban watched Luggat and the others rescue their companion and then joke with him. They passed around a flask. Obviously friends, these penniless men enjoyed a companionship that Alban envied. Self-pity made him recall other envies and wants: the carefree good will of the aides at his export house, a lightwood desk for his workroom, a new display case for his weapons, more money, freedom from money, wands for Padia's collection, Padia's love, Padia's absence.
This cascade of inchoate desires ate at Alban, and yet he retained one shred from his lessons at the Order of Inner Light. He knew fulfilling these wants would not make him happy. He would just replace them with new wants. Want, attainment, want, the endless unsatisfying cycle. Yet still he wanted!
On the wall Luggat said, "Now, sir, I'm back, an' sorry for th' stall. What dyer wish, sir?"
Padia nudged Alban. "Stop dreaming. Tell him what you want."
Staring at the sandwall, Alban sighed. "I want it to stop raining."
Everyone watched a young boy, Roodville's runner, stumble across the beach and into the light. The boy, Selby, wore a castoff shirt, almost white and much too large, over rude leggings, no particular color and very small.
"Residents got loose," Selby said breathlessly. "Townsman Roodville's hurt."
Everyone cursed or froze in shock. The only adept, Padia, recovered first. "They'll be running loose in Nightshade," she said to Alban. "I'll gather them. Keep that wall up!" She caught up a soaked piece of driftwood and ran. Some way off Alban saw the wood spark and burst into flame. Padia held the torch high and vanished into the night.
Selby told the tale. Near the bridge Roodville had swung his stingrod with too much vigor. Two laborers quit and ran, and the rest could not control all the residents. After a strong peal of thunder, the inmates stampeded, trampling Roodville. The nurses carried the overseer to the bridge. Selby knew no more.
Alban thought of those lunatic men and women wandering in fear through the dark, deserted streets of Nightshade borough. He remembered thinking the flood would put the wretches out of their misery. He thought, Who made them miserable? He felt shame.
Yet he and society did not deserve all the blame. The Affliction! It had brought fear and destruction, and now it loosed madness on Merron.
He shouted. "Luggat! How long do we have?"
"Wall itself's strong for a while yet, sir. But river's risin' fast. Say five minutes, ten. Almost out o' burlap sacks."
Alban hailed another man. "Take three workers and head up the street to the t'skrang quarter. Tormathis Exports, the red brick warehouse. Tormathis sold Roodville this burlap, and she has more. Buy all you can carry at --" Alban swallowed. "-- whatever rate she quotes. Use my name. Run!" There passes the rest of my fortune, he thought.
"Selby," he told the boy, "run to the bridge. Tell every big name-giver there, and everyone you meet on the way, that Landsman Alban Peyl is paying twenty silver a head, or forty in trade goods, to help build this wall. Lead 'em back here." The boy took off at a dead run.
"Did you hear?" Alban called to the men. "Twenty silver for each of you. Just hold back this river!"
Ten minutes later Alban Peyl stood high on the sandwall and watched the river, still a span of three hands below. A crew of men, a few women, some orks and trolls, and one massive obsidiman piled sandbags in watertight lines. Never more than a step above the flood, they worked with furious energy.
Padia had not returned. Alban had heard nothing of the escaped lunatics. He had no idea how long this crew could sustain its effort.
Rain still fell, harder now, and the river rose higher by the minute. Tiny frogs, green as new leaves, hopped along the wall seeking refuge. Floods are different disasters, Alban thought. Slower but more relentless. Less fear, more despair. Fire, storms, earthquakes, eruptions, they feel like death. A flood feels like dying slowly.
For the first time all evening he felt almost comfortable. His actions made amends, in part, for his shame. Still, this effort's expense left him uneasy. He positively had to rescue his goods. Their loss would ruin him.
As he looked for Luggat, Alban thought of his old adventuring days. He'd lived by packsack and bedroll, with just enough silver to buy his next meal and a night's lodging. He'd had nothing to lose but his weapons, a few trinkets, a ceramic vial of Kelia's Antidote, and his friends. When had he last had friends? Not big-bellied nightmeal guests with wine on their breath and too many opinions, but friends in a cause?
Below, workers filled bags with sand. Over the rain Alban heard one say, "I was thirty-two years old yesterday. I'm forty today. With another night of this I'll be fifty." Another said, "Buck up. Day after that, you retire."
Alban walked on. He sensed their camaraderie in a lost cause, and he wanted to share it. He could never join them, though, and not only because of wealth and station. He remembered ordering Roodville to "encourage" the earlier crew, and he felt a stab of remorse.
Alban climbed down to the beach and found Luggat, the temporary foreman, sealing cracks with mud on the wall's farthest reach. A sheltered torch stuck between two bags cast weak yellow light. "Can you spare anyone to move some crates?"
"Well, sir, ter speak truth, it's a near thing. Wouldn't like ter pull 'em 'way if it ain't needed."
"I'm afraid it's absolutely -- well -- all right." Alban turned away in doubt.
He gazed dully at a pair of small box turtles plodding up the beach. The flood would crush them as it crushed his fortune. Then it would move on, making channels of the twisting streets; drowning madmen, vagrants, stray animals; smashing doors from their hinges, casting mementos to the current, and destroying the landmarks of centuries.
The idea revolted Alban. He could not measure it. His thoughts retreated to the turtles. Sadness welled up in his heart, and tears fell from his eyes, for -- the turtles.
"Do you think," Alban asked Luggat, "we might have even the remotest chance to maintain --?"
They heard a grinding rumble below. The sand shook beneath their feet. Water spread from the bottom of the wall in sheets. The wall sagged, and jets of dirty water sprayed from gaps. The torch fell and went out. Darkness covered them like a wave.
"Help here!" Alban called.
"Ground! Ground's soaked, givin' way!" Luggat shouted. He shoved at the wall but lost his footing. The jets strengthened. The wall buckled inward. Alban had a moment to think, This is it.
Something fell like a rock from above. Two legs like pillars sank deep in the fluid sand, and two arms hit the wall like buttresses. Against a sky bleached white by lightning, Alban glimpsed a bulbous head, looming brow ridges, and stony skin.
As if passing the time of day, the obsidiman observed, "I believe I cannot hold this wall long."
"Trolls!" Alban cried. "Orks, anybody! Here, help him!" While thunder crashed, the biggest crew members crowded to the stone man's side, propping up the wall with shovels and sticks.
Alban told Luggat, "Get everyone else up to the asylum. Half the crew will break up the resident pens. Use the pickets to shore up the wall."
"Won't hold it long, sir."
"That will serve long enough for the rest of the crew to pick up the crates along the far wall and carry them --" Despair choked Alban's voice. He felt as if an attacker had hacked off his remaining arm and both legs.
He mastered his pain and resumed. "The others will carry the crates down here and use them to stabilize the wall."
"Right, sir." Luggat shouted the orders.
Alban wandered, staggered, away. He sat on the sand as dozens of name-givers ran to the asylum. He thought nothing.
Yes, I recall the sequence correctly. Alban definitely made that decision before the Passion appeared.
Over the next ten minutes the crew placed the crates and rescued the sandwall. Although the wall outlived Britham Boyhan's prediction, water from the rising Byrose slopped over the top and drenched the crates. Workers struggled against the waterfall and the rain, trying to add new layers of bags. Only the obsidiman labored without pause. Exhaustion slowed the rest.
The crew's attitude toward Alban had changed subtly. Luggat, collapsing beside him, spoke to him as one of their own. "Ain't worried o' wall breakin' now, though it cracks m' skull ter think on th' weight o' water behind them bags. Nerrr, problem is, river's still risin' faster'n we can build."
Alban stared helplessly. "Raise the wage, perhaps? I honestly don't think I can afford it."
"Nerrr. We got all hands there is ter hire, and silver can't buy strength. Couldn't lift m' body right now for all th' goods in them crates."
"-- Now worth about ten silver in bulk to the junkheap buyer." Alban had had time to grow bitter, to sum up the ruinous penalties in his Bartertown contract. He might have to close his dispatch house and even sell Jessis, his mansion in Oldtown. Still, he found no energy in bitterness. He had fought the Affliction at every step, and the battle itself backed him into moral action. He would do it all over again.
Now it seemed he must find yet another way to hold back the river, but he had no ideas, no will. Alban had closed off his old course of life, like damming a stream. Had Padia arrived and taken him home -- had any of a hundred other gates opened then -- the current of Alban's life might have carved an ordinary channel. With all the more diligence, then, I must attend what did happen next.
The flow over the sandwall ceased. Beyond, the river's rush fell to a whisper and then to eerie silence. Rain turned to cool mist, and a fragrance of dittany spiced the breeze. Suddenly water crashed against the wall and surged upward in a plumed surf. White light wavered on its crest, then beamed to the wall's highest point and focused in an ethereal glow.
In that glow each worker saw Thystonius.
I could not perceive the Passion directly. Though I read patterns of magic as people read scrolls, the Passions draw on power of a different order. A jot of mentality from every name-giver in Barsaive goes to nourish each Passion, as countless tiny cells make up a person. Those who do not energize the Passions never know them. The workers saw Thystonius in their several ways, and I looked through their eyes.
Alban saw a tall and brawny man of many years, unclothed but heavily tattooed with bright red symbols of the Order of Inner Light: scales, chimes, staves. Silver hair and a full silver beard streamed in the wind. To Alban nothing else so clearly meant vitality, wisdom, and energy.
Standing without weight on the sandwall, the Passion spoke with the inner voice of the workers' thoughts.
Challengers! You who check the flood by strength of limb, why do you pause? Your homes stand dry, their brassy weathervanes turn yet in gusts of air and not of water, only by your courage. Still the torrent rushes. Bone-shaking thunderheads still soak the wind. The rising river does not tire, neither the cataract, and neither all the more should you. Rise, stand, fight!
Alban, Luggat, and all the exhausted workers stood up. They raised their eyes and gazed at Thystonius with reverence, and the sight lifted their hearts. They ran to the wall. In the space between steps the Passion's next words rose in them.
A moment past, I stood above another river far away, a trip of many days for mortals. There in the Caucavics, bare rough rock peaks, a plunging snow-fed rapids caught a savage, one of the local tribes who pierce their tongues in youth to show they will not use the hateful speech of foreigners. This shaven-headed woman, spare in form, full in years and fear, beat hard for shore against the icy current. I danced atop its feathery curls and urged her on, as now I urge you on, on, on!
With new energy the workers lifted their shovels and bags. Even Alban picked up a bag one-handed. He felt no surprise at his sudden strength. He heaved it toward the wall among a swarm of shouting workers. As they ran, new thoughts rose in them.
The breath that human drew in grateful draughts held sweeter taste than honeyed fruit. She truly lived. Exert yourselves! The weak and weary phantoms of your ancestors have lain a-grave a million years, and will so lie a hundred billion more. In that dusty nothing, every stroke of time they spent in seeking, striving, trying -- fighting to a lawful victory, outstripping rivals for a lover's hand -- all those contentious hours, however old their provenance, now bring those eyeless wraiths the brightest glow in memory. Before you join them, strive!
They strove in a transport of energy. Kept dry so far by his everclean cloak, Alban soon became drenched with sweat. He lost track of time and of himself. Whether Padia finally returned to report her success, and with a bemused smile left him to the Passion's work and went home, Alban did not know.
In the clamor many torches went out. The workers saw each other only as silhouettes. At one point Alban reached to take a sack his neighbor handed to him, and his hand brushed the other's. Alban felt many rings.
"Who's that?" he asked.
A pause. "Aye."
Alban thought to stop and talk, but the effort called for every hand. He turned again to work.
In normal times Merron's citizens might see each of the Passions once or twice in a year. In the days of the Affliction, when emotions ran high in every name-giver, all twelve Passions ran freely over the city by the hour. That night Thystonius appeared on every wall and barricade in Nightshade borough, enlivening the workers through the long night. With the Passion's aid they raised the barriers, kept them up, and held off the flood.
By their labor Nightshade survived.
The turning came some hours before dawn. Though rain still fell, the river rose no more. At the news from atop the towering wall, the workers cheered. Wet through and through, they now found the rain cool and comforting, the air sweeter than honeyed fruit. No one could recall when the Passion had departed.
His mind empty with fatigue, Alban pulled a torch from the wall and lurched across the beach. He found Boyhan. The adept breathed easily, and yet his glassy stare showed exhaustion of some kind. He, an elementalist, had let the rain soak him.
Alban sat beside him. "Good to see you again."
Boyhan spoke as though answering a question. "I could not use a spell to support the wall. The reasons -- no, I shall not say. That much I still honor."
Alban said nothing.
Boyhan sounded puzzled. "But -- these people worked so hard. The Byrose has taken so much. So much." He bent his head and broke into sobs.
In another mood Alban might have pressed to know more. Now he only wished to help one who had shared his work. He stood, pulled off his cloak, and clumsily draped it across Boyhan's shoulders. Oblivious, the man still cried, this man who earlier had fought him.
His heart pounding, his limbs tingling, Alban sought solitude. He walked away down the sand. For the first time all night he felt the rain, cool and cleansing. Climbing the wall, he looked out. Lightning showed the swollen Byrose, and in intervals of blackness Alban saw the lights of Oldtown across its flat expanse. Rain made the glow hazy and deceptive like demiwraith eyes.
What made his legs tremble? What brought hot blood to his face? Doctrines rose to mind that he had not recalled in ten years. The awakened warrior defeats the mind of contention. Contest nothing, and become invincible.
What made blood rush in his ears? Remembrance.
Now I must recall with care. Here. Here occurred the episode that opened a gate, that has led me to retrospect on Alban's thoughts.
Alban looked across the river at the dim lights of Oldtown. Tiny dots in immense sky, stars beyond, bleak void past that, and vast gulfs of time ahead: He saw it all. He shook with dread. He and all he loved, Passion playthings in an aimless world, would die pointlessly and lie forever lost.
Terror seized him. Shutting his eyes, he sought to hide from his thoughts. In the search for refuge he recalled the calm voice of his mentor in the Order, Roniro. Notice. The wind does not blow at you nor around you. The wind blows through you.
Yes. The recognition of emptiness. Once Alban had known it.
As the plant grows toward the sun, live in that way.
Attending to his breath, he took possession of his sole birthright: this moment.
A sublime joy filled him, rising not from Passion or deity or discipline but from his own sharp awareness. In his years in the Order, he had never experienced such a state. He had imagined it as sweeping euphoria, and yet now he felt placid. He saw with clarity.
To his eye the workers below the sandwall glowed with silver light that did not come from sky or torch or crystal. The light flowed through the name-givers, tracing their features in filigree, outlining them with a moon-colored luster.
Lifting his head and holding still, he could see these folk as swirls and eddies, transient ripples in the light stream. They formed and shivered in this single instant, so lovely, as the current dipped briefly from some higher space. In another instant all would perish. The stream that ran through them touched him in turn; he too would pass like a ripple; he did not live apart.
He felt these people suffering as he had suffered, and the solace of commiseration warmed his heart. Words rose unplanned. Murmuring, he told them, "I forgot the path that leads beyond craving to peace. I forgot the discipline of body and mind. All these years, lost without you! You are me, and I forgot you."
Something in him snapped. He wept. He fell to his knees on the sandwall, and then, numb, he toppled into the flood. The water that had cooled the molten Earth, that nurtured its million species in their progress and washed their trillion bones, that had swallowed whole cities and would swallow every city yet to come, this water closed over Alban and drew him down.
For an unknown time he drifted, assaulted by heat and cold, darkness and blinding light. He awoke on his side next to the sandwall.
The rain had stopped. Stars showed through the thinning clouds.
Luggat, Selby with a torch, and the other workers looked down at him. Luggat grinned. "Awake, are yer? Horror of a spill yer took there. Lucky we saw yer fall. All right?"
Alban coughed. "I feel different." He sat up and rubbed his eyes.
Gasping and cursing, the workers drew back.
"What is --?" Alban stopped.
He had used both hands. His right arm had returned.
His strong right hand held a short cord of glowing silver.