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THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER TEN:

 

Between waking world and Shadow:

 

The crooning of the cat ceased. John felt an overwhelming impulse to gasp, as if a smothering weight had been taken off his chest. Then the pain returned, and he dabbed his feet down towards the dusty floor.

Where am I? he thought. It’s like... just a room.

Plaster over thin laths in a style he recognized; you could see how horsehair had been mixed with the plaster as a binder. Wooden boards on the floor, and a window with tattered, yellowed curtains.

He was uneasily aware, even through the pain as he tugged at the bar running behind his neck, that this was a technique his mother’s father had used to break men down. A voice like that of his confessor scolded him to save guilt for his own, reasonably abundant, sins. Wallowing in vicarious offenses was a form of laziness and spiritual pride.

—and why... how... didn’t the others keep the enemy from carrying me off? I’m certainly here, wherever here is. Pip wasn’t far away... I hope she’s all right...

He tried to pray again, but there was a clank of fetters. The young man chained to the wall across from him looked to be about his own age, a few years on either side of twenty—you looked older when you’d been beaten and chained up—and likewise with a swordsman’s build. Brown hair but a bit lighter than John’s, and a strikingly regular face with a slight exotic cast.

John tried to speak, and found that his mouth and throat worked... more or less. Unfortunately that also made him conscious of how ragingly thirsty he was.

“Who... are you?” he croaked. “Where is this place?”

It took a moment for the man’s eyes to focus on John. They were green, with a darker green rim around the outside of the pupils.

“I’m... not sure who I am.”

John had a musician’s ear for language, aided and abetted by a life spent traveling all over Montival with his parents when they were on Progress. It didn’t take conscious analysis to spot the dialect:

Boise. Some rural part northeast of Boise City at that. An educated man but not one who’s spent much time in town.

The voice went on, a monotone of bewilderment and pain: “Part of me is here. Part of me is there. Part of me is... everywhere. Alan. Am I Alan? Or am I just pretending? Or is he pretending? Could I know if I was pretending to be me? Everthing’s mixed up here. Good and bad. Alive and dead. Me and you and him. And Him. And Him!

Crazy, poor fellow, John thought. Then: Of course, enough of this, whatever this is, would drive anyone crazy. St. Michael, aid me—and while you’re at it, this man too. Aid us against the snares of the Adversary.

He could think, but not well or quickly; it was like having a loud buzzing noise in the innermost ear of his mind, making concentration exhausting. Simply thinking that through brought extra sweat to his face, dripping down onto the worn boards of the floor around his bleeding toes.

“My ancestor,” the man who might be called Alan said. “My ancestor is here. My ancestor is near.”

The green eyes met John’s brown. Suddenly they seemed deeper, whirlpools spiraling into nothingness. He began to thrash, and there was a smell of dry dust as it stirred and made motes of light in the beams that came through the rents in the curtains...

It smelled dusty—

There was a memory. It came suddenly and it was overwhelmingly strong, and it took him instants to realize it wasn’t his memory. Riding up down into a dry valley somewhere ringed by mountains, sagebrush country, he recognized the general type from his travels with his parents and then on his own, but not the specific place. It could have been anywhere inland of the Coast Range. He was a child, eleven or twelve, riding a quarterhorse with a couple of dogs at heel and a broad-brimmed hat on his head, and a light bow across the horn of his silver-studded saddle.

The old ranch-house was hidden under the edge of a caprock ridge. It had been well-built once, adobe walls and framed windows, and dead trees showed where there had been a garden, now gone to tumbleweed and thorn and bunchgrass. The boy felt curiosity—the more so as by some freak of preservation the glass windows hadn’t been broken, and there were even pre-Change machines, a car on the rims of wheels sunk in the dirt with dust mounded up one side, and a rusted tractor by the charcoal stubs of a barn that had burned at some time.

The boy realized that it might well have stood here since the Change, though he wondered why it had been abandoned—there was good water nearby, enough to be brought by a furrow to irrigate likely-looking land, and plenty of grazing, and firewood not too far away. There was even the remains of a wind-pump by the barn, though it looked decrepit enough to have been abandoned long before the Change. Two or three wooden poles that had brought the wires of the ancient world to this place stills stood; one of them had three Harris hawks ‘stacked’ on its crosspiece, perching on each other’s backs in that way those flying pack-hunters used to spot game.

The dogs whined and hung back as he dismounted, dropping the reins to signal the horse to stand. He put an arrow to the bow and made sure his bowie knife was ready to hand as he walked up the steps to the porch and threw his weight against the door. If the place hadn’t been salvaged since the Change any number of treasures might be inside.

The smell hit him as he opened the door, ancient and dry but tightly contained in the nearly sealed space, the smell of ancient rot. The boy stared for a moment at the mummified corpses scattered about what had once been a living-room, his mind stuttering as he realized what the marks and the bonds and the positions meant. He backed up, swallowing and spitting as cold gummy saliva flooded his mouth, and cold sweat broke out on his forehead...

I have enough bad memories of my own! Why am I remembering someone else’s? How did I get chained up like this—

 

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I climbed the three dilapidated flights of stairs, which I had so often climbed before...

Wait a minute. Who am I? John thought, as he felt his feet on the worn wooden risers. Is this a hallucination, or a dream, or what? Where am I really? What am I really?

The thought was very much like teetering over a canyon, or hang-gliding at Hood River on the Columbia, but without the fun. His parents had once heard of a man who’d gone on a long journey to find himself, and had laughed uproariously together and said that if he couldn’t find himself at home, he wasn’t likely to do it by taking a caravan over the mountains. He hadn’t always been satisfied with who and what he was, but it had never been a matter of doubt.

Dreaming. You often think you’re someone else in dreams.

The thought calmed him; somewhere he could feel his heart slowing and frantic panting turning to deep breaths.

The man he dreamed...

And I’m dreaming I’m someone else dreaming I’m this man too. Someone else dreaming he’s Hildred Castaigne.

... knocked at a small door at the end of the corridor.

It opened, pulled so by a mutilated dwarf barely four feet high, and he had only the stumps of ears. They were badly covered by two grotesquely perfect wax ears, strung from a silver wire and painted a blushing pink in total contrast to the jaundice-yellow and fishbelly pallor of the man’s face. His eyes the pale color of frosted lead cast too hot and let cool, but they smoldered. Fresh deep scratches scored the skin of his face, and others in successive stages of healing or infection; all the fingers were missing from his left hand, leaving only stubs that had healed to ragged lumps.

It wasn’t the injuries that made John’s mind recoil. He knew folk as ugly whose selves made their looks irrelevant. One of his instructors in the lute had been a knight who’d taken a spray of napalm across the eyes from an airburst flame-shell at the battle of the Horse Heaven Hills, and they’d been excellent friends from the first lesson. The thought of the man’s face still brought an immediate association of warmth and shared accomplishment even now, though strangers often gave involuntary gasps the first time they saw it.

It wasn’t even the odd shape of his totally bald head, lumpy and flattened and drawn almost to a point at the rear.

The eyes, it’s something about the eyes.

They have him an unhinged feeling, as if just looking into them knocked the whole world askew, distorting the angles of things. The second sense of self within him—the man who dreamed he was Hildred Castaigne—felt a fascination mixed with dread. Castaigne himself... if that muffled wave of sensation was his... watched the dwarf with something not far short of love, seasoned with an odd mix of resignation and terror.

The room Castaigne entered was shabby in a dusty, neglected way that was somehow dirty without looking or smelling particularly filthy, things neatly placed in ways that made you confused just looking at them. It smelled of dust, old paper, ink, stale laundry and a not very well cleaned catbox.

Wilde, John thought, one of the bits that floated through the triply shared consciousness he unwillingly inhabited. The dwarf’s name is Wilde.

Wilde double-locked the door and pushed a heavy chest against it, then came and sat down in a chair with extra-long legs, while peering up into John’s face. A black cat retreated under a couch and growled faintly.

He’d handled the furniture effortlessly; he might be small but his shoulders were broad, his chest deep, and his legs stumpy but powerful. After an unnerving silent interval he picked up a massive leather-bound ledger, handling it effortlessly with his right and the fingerless stump of the right. Another stale gust hit John/Alan/Hildred’s face as it opened, and John would have sworn there was something like old fear-sweat as well, the sort of waft you got from an arming-doublet sometimes.

“Henry B. Matthews,” Wilde read. “Book-keeper with Whysot Whysot and Company, dealers in church ornaments. Called April 3rd. Reputation damaged on the race-track. Known as a welcher. Reputation to be repaired by August 1st. Retainer Five Dollars.”

He turned the page and ran his fingerless knuckles down the closely-written columns.

“P. Greene Dusenberry, Minister of the Gospel, Fairbeach, New Jersey. Reputation damaged in the Bowery. To be repaired as soon as possible. Retainer $100.”

He coughed and added: “Called, April 6th.”

The dwarf coughed and went on: “Listen. Mrs. C. Hamilton Chester, of Chester Park, New York City. Called April 7th. Reputation damaged at Dieppe, France. To be repaired by October 1st Retainer $500. Note.—C. Hamilton Chester, Captain U.S.S. 'Avalanche', ordered home from South Sea Squadron October 1st.”

“Then you are not in need of money, Mr. Wilde," Hildred said. “The profession of a Repairer of Reputations is lucrative!”

That’s a lot of money, John felt/knew, as his mind seemed to translate it into terms of rose nobles. Sort of middling-merchant guildsman money.

The colorless eyes looked up at him impassively. “I only wanted to demonstrate that I was correct. You said it was impossible to succeed as a Repairer of Reputations; that even if I did succeed in certain cases it would cost me more than I would gain by it. To-day I have five hundred men in my employ, who are poorly paid, but who pursue the work with an enthusiasm which possibly may be born of fear. These men enter every shade and grade of society; some even are pillars of the most exclusive social temples; others are the prop and pride of the financial world; still others, hold undisputed sway among the 'Fancy and the Talent.' I choose them at my leisure from those who reply to my advertisements. It is easy enough, they are all cowards. I could treble the number in twenty days if I wished. So you see, those who have in their keeping the reputations of their fellow-citizens, I have in my pay.”

“They may turn on you," Hildred suggested.

Wilde rubbed his thumb over his cropped ears, and adjusted the wax substitutes.

“I think not,” he murmured thoughtfully. "I seldom have to apply, and then only once. Besides they like their wages."

“How do you apply the whip?" I demanded.

Wilde’s eyes dwindled to a pair of green sparks. John felt his mind recoil, and even Hildred Castaigne blanched a little inwardly.

“I invite them to come and have a little chat with me," Wilde said in a soft voice.

A knock at the door interrupted him, and his face resumed its amiable expression.

“Who is it?” he inquired.”

“Mr. Steylette," was the answer.

“Come to-morrow," replied Mr. Wilde.

“Impossible," began the other, but was silenced by a sort of bark from Mr. Wilde.

“Come to-morrow," he repeated.

“Very... very well.”

He heard somebody move away from the door and turn the corner by the stairway.

“Who is that?" Hildred asked.

“Arnold Steylette, owner and Editor in Chief of the great New York Herald.”

He drummed on the ledger with his fingerless hand adding: “I pay him very badly, but he thinks it a good bargain.”

“Arnold Steylette!" Hildred repeated, amazed.

Odd, John thought; and he could feel the second man linked to him, the Boisean, agree. He thinks of a scrivener as if he were a great man, someone of power.

“Yes,” said Mr. Wilde, with a self-satisfied cough.

The cat, which had entered the room as he spoke, hesitated, looked up at Wilde and snarled, a deep rumble in its chest. He climbed down from the chair and squatting on the floor, took the creature into his arms and caressed her. The cat ceased snarling and presently began a loud purring which seemed to increase in timbre as he stroked her.

“Where are the notes?” Hildred asked; his voice was calm, but longing and desire surged through him. The Boisean echoed it, but with an undertone of revulsion.

Wilde pointed to the table, and Hildred picked up a manuscript, blazoned with a title that he whispered aloud with exultation and longing:

THE IMPERIAL DYNASTY OF AMERICA.

When Hildred had finished, Wilde nodded and coughed.

"Speaking of your legitimate ambition," he said, "how do Constance and Louis get along?"

"She loves him," I replied simply.

The cat on his knee suddenly turned and struck at his eyes, and he flung her off and climbed on to the chair opposite me.

"And Dr. Archer! But that's a matter you can settle any time you wish," he added.

"Yes," I replied.

A sudden image flooded Hildred’s mind; John could feel the straight-jacket cramping his arms, strong hands holding him as he convulsed in rage, and the blood and spittle spraying from his mouth as someone—Dr. Archer—approached with a pad of ether-soaked fabric. Then something that was Hildred imagining. Imagining the stout middle-aged doctor burning, his skin bubbling and turning black and red cracks of flame bursting through it as his eyeballs ran molted down his cheeks and he screamed and screamed and did not die...

"Dr. Archer can wait, but it is time I saw my cousin Louis," Hildred said calmly.

“It is time," Wilde agreed.

Then he took another ledger from the table and flipped through it.

“We are now in communication with ten thousand men,” he said in an abstract tone. “We can count on one hundred thousand within the first twenty-eight hours, and in forty-eight hours the state will rise en masse. The country follows the state, and the portion that will not, I mean California and the Northwest, might better never have been inhabited. I shall not send them the Yellow Sign.”

A shrill laugh stayed locked behind Hildred Castaigne’s lips, though when he spoke it was abstractly:

“A new broom sweeps clean,” he said.

“The ambition of Caesar and of Napoleon pales before that which could not rest until it had seized the minds of men and controlled even their unborn thoughts," said Mr. Wilde.

“You are speaking of the King in Yellow," Hildred said, with a pleasure mingled with terror.

A shadow moved through his mind; a figure in tattered yellow robes. John’s own memories suddenly grew clearer; the yellow figure on the ramparts of the fantastic coral castle in Baru Denpasar’s harbor.

“He is a king whom emperors have served,” Wilde said.

“I am content to serve him," Hildred replied.

Mr. Wilde sat rubbing his ears with his fingerless hand. "Perhaps Constance does not love your cousin," he suggested.

Hildred started to reply with a cold surge of venom, but a sudden burst of military music from the street below drowned his voice.

The twentieth dragoon regiment, formerly in garrison at Mount St. Vincent, is returning from the manúuvres in Westchester County, to its new barracks on East Washington Square, he thought, as he moved to look down from the window. Louis’ regiment.

John’s mind looked down as well, and whoever-it-was-from-Boise. They both saw a good-looking set of horse soldiers in pale blue, tight-fitting jackets, jaunty busbys and tight white riding breeches with a double yellow stripe. Every other squadron was armed with lances, from the metal points of which fluttered yellow and white pennons. The band passed, playing the regimental march, then came the colonel and staff, the horses crowding and trampling, while their heads bobbed in unison, and the pennons fluttered from their lance points.

The troopers rode with what John knew as the English seat; which was odd, since in his experience it was only used for sport—polo. They looked brown as berries though, the way soldiers did after campaigning or at least time in the field, and the music of their sabres against the stirrups, and the jingle of spurs and carbines delighted Hildred.

The man who played for a throne saw his cousin Louis riding with his squadron, a handsome brown-haired young man with an excellent seat, on a mount that would have done for a knight’s courser.

Mr. Wilde, who had mounted a chair by the window, saw him too from the way his pale eyes moved, but said nothing. Hildred’s cousin turned his head as he rode and looked straight at Hawberk's shop, and Hildred knew the young woman called Constance must have been at the window. When the last troopers had clattered by, and the last pennons vanished into South Fifth Avenue, Wilde clambered out of his chair and dragged the chest away from the door.

“Yes," he said. “It is time that you saw your cousin Louis."

He unlocked the door and Hildred picked up his hat and stick and stepped into the corridor. The stairs were dark. John found he could see more than he sensed Hildred could, even though they were using the same eyes; so could the Boisean. Perhaps it was that they’d spent more time outside in the dark than this city man, in places where you had to pick up subtle clues or trip over a root and plant your face in the dirt. Or just that Hildred’s mind was dazzled with savage dreams of glory and power.

Groping about, Hildred set his foot on something soft, which snarled and spat.

Cat, John thought automatically, feeling a slight stab of distress even then—he’d stepped on paws and tails now and then.

And then he saw its eyes. Lambent amber, typical enough... but there was something else there. He remembered a song for an instant, before the memory fled.

Hildred aimed a murderous blow at the cat with his cane, and John felt his own will adding to the strike. It hit the balustrade instead with a jarring impact that shuddered painfully through his wrist into his shoulder, and the beast scurried back into Wilde's room.

 

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Deor stepped back from the wall and lowered the wineglass. Pip did the same and looked at him; the scop had turned a little grey.

“What was that about?” she said, when they’d compared notes on what they’d overheard. “It’s a conversation about a plot to seize a throne, and some sort of blackmailing scheme too, I think.”

“That man... the man whose shadow we heard, speaking lines graven in the place whose shadow this is... was a... trollkjerring, they say in Norrheim. One who draws his power from death and fear. The other is his puppet.”

Deor frowned, puzzled. “But the puppet... it is as if he was more men than one. And there was a shadow... a feeling of Prince John.”

Thora turned her head sharply from where she waited by the door, and Toa gave a grunt from the window.

“Is John here?” Pip said.

Deor smiled.

Rather insufferably, Pip thought.

“Where is here?” he said. “We follow a thread through dreams. Dreams that can kill.”

“And he’s off the stairs,” Toa said, cracking the door open a little. “If we’re following him, let’s go.”

 

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Copyright © 2016-2017 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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