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THE SEA PEOPLES

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER EIGHT:

 

Between waking world and Shadow

 

Pip looked around the chamber where she and Toa emerged, poised for threats and then feeling a rush of relief when it proved empty. That didn’t make the environment actually as unthreatening as it looked—she’d absorbed that lesson quite literally at her mother’s knee, listening to her stories—but it was nice for a start. Thora boiled up out of the trapdoor on Toa’s heels, pulling Deor who followed and promptly collapsed into a sprawl, panting.

Presumably this is harder on him, since he’s the one who knows about this and has to pay attention to the bits behind the scenery, Pip thought. Amazing how real this all feels... right down to the splinter in my thumb. Except the parts where I sort of see a lioness in the background, or feel as if I am one. Best not to think about that. God knows what Mummy would have said about her daughter turning into a large beast of prey. Of course, metaphorically speaking Mummy was a large and very successful beast of prey herself, but I think literalizing the metaphor would have offended her sense of the fitness of things.

She dug the splinter out with her teeth as she took in their surroundings. It was daylight, at least, bright beams through shuttered windows and around the edges of the door. That didn’t mean the situation was any better than in the doomed and nighted city of madness and hatred they’d left, but it made her feel a bit more cheerful, and she’d take any sort of cheerfulness going. It was also distinctly cool, as cool as she could ever recall being except for a trip to Tasmania once where there had actually been frost, but fresh and comfortable enough with the long-sleeved dress.

She prodded at the wall with her...

“It’s an umbrella now?” she asked—rhetorically, but with genuine anger in her voice. “I like that cane! I had it made specially and developed my own techniques for whacking at people with it!”

I got my own ship so I could be in command, she thought. Now I can’t even control what I’m wearing. And I’m preggers... always thought I would, someday, but not unexpectedly! Think of the trouble it’s going to take to find a decent nanny God-knows-where!

Then with an effort of will:

Now, don’t let that make you testy, Miss Philippa. Manners Mayketh Woman.

The last part of the thought had the tone of one of her teachers at Rockhampton Grammar School For Girls, a place which was supposed to give you polish and where she’d undoubtedly learned a good deal, not all of it on the official curriculum.

I never liked Miss Gresham. Rather a sour old bitch, as I recall.

Closer examination showed that it was still a stout stick of Makassar ebony with a heavy ridged knob on one end, and that the ferrule of the brolly was a triangular steel spike; she could use this if she had to, either for hitting or like a fencing epee. Looking down she saw that the dress was much the same as it had been in the first vision of New York, except that there was a petticoat beneath it, the skirt was a bit longer, and the buckles on the shoes weren’t silver skulls but just silver buckles.

Which is all to the good. I’ve no objection to skulls as a fashion statement, but I suspect they were more in the nature of a mark of your religious commitment back there.

Toa went straight to the door; he was still in dungarees, but this time his spear was more or less a long-handled navvy’s shovel... which would do nicely for gutting and cutting if needs must, almost as much as the original. The more so as the edge bore the telltale waving line that revealed it had been carefully sharpened.

“Still in town,” he said.

There was disapproval in his gravelly Ocker-accented voice; he disliked cities, having grown up where the only ones around were ruined and deserted. Cities made it too easy to sneak up on you, though he did approve of the broader variety of pubs.

“Cities have their points—bloody hell, I’m wearing a corset!” Pip said; a quick investigation with a finger revealed that it was a light cloth one.

But still! This is ridiculous.

“You’ve got a corset at home,” Toa pointed out. “Saw it on that stand once when you came back from that school. All frilly grundies, with ribbons and those little chiming bells.”

“That was a theatrical costume,” Pip said loftily. “And for needlework practice.”

In fact you might say it had been sporting goods, since she and a friend had taken turns wearing it at Rockhampton in amateur theatricals of their own devising. The boarding school had been rather isolated out in the sleepy countryside, and you had to make your own entertainment after classes. She’d enjoyed chess and open-air perspective drawing and the Mathematics Club, but it didn’t do to be completely cerebral and you could only steeplechase or play Extreme Field Hockey or haunt the salle d’armes so many times a week.

“So’s that droog thing with the suspenders and bowler hat a costume,” Toa said, keeping his eye to the slightly open door.

“No, that’s working clothes,” Pip said lightly, touching her hair, which was worn rather long and piled up in an elaborate do under a broad-brimmed hat this time. “I’ve won fights on land and sea wearing it, haven’t I? It’s nicely terrifying. Well, I’m terrifying when out on a bovver but it helps.”

“Makes the opposition fall about laughing. That helps when you put the toecap into their ghoolies.”

She’d been surveying the room while he kept his eye to the shutters and watched the outside. They were definitely in a workman’s storehouse of some sort, bare brick walls with racks and shelves, half-empty sacks of plaster with labels in English, buckets of paint, boxes of nails, and sundry brushes and trowels and boards and other tools, along with folding ladders. The smell was familiar since like any substantial Station Tanumgera had carpenters working and something building at any given time, giving the air around the supplies an atmosphere turpentinish and medicinal. And another earthy one beneath it, the scent of setting mortar. Someone had been building.

A grimy newspaper lay on one of the shelves. She looked at it; the New York Herald again, but the date was in early April of 1920. Reading it without conspicuously marking what she was wearing required holding it out at arm’s length since it was very dusty and spattered with dried daubs of paint.

Though the headlines were less apocalyptic they were still very strange. History hadn’t been her favorite subject, particularly not the deeply boring history of the last pre-Blackout century or so, but she knew that her version of 1920 hadn’t seen a Russian invasion of Sweden, or a civil war in Austria-Hungary, or anything meriting a Communards Storm Paris, Louvre in Flames leader. Nor had there been a President Winthrop in the United States.

She was pretty sure he’d been named Wilson; either that, or Williams.

Still, this feels less... less as if the tentacles are showing. It’s more like what led to me. I think something terrible happened here, something to throw the world on the path to... what we saw in the last place.

Deor still looked fairly rocky as he knelt on the round metal trapdoor, and Thora had stayed beside him.

“Fire,” he whispered. “A world of poisoned fire. The powers of Gods, in the hands of men less than beasts, worse than eoten.”

Well, that’s very poet-y and Northern and doomy, Pip thought; she’d read Beowulf and the Prose Edda... in translation. I’ll just say that place gave me the galloping creeps, nearly as much as the wrecked autos.

“Like the sword of Sutr, carried burning to Vígríðr plain on the last morning of the world,” Thora said quietly.

Then he shook himself and smiled crookedly. “No point in grieving for something that never happened... not in our cycle of the worlds,” he said.

He was wearing a suit that differed only in details from the one he’d been in before; if anything the collar looked even more uncomfortable, which was revenge for the corset. From the way Thora had started twisting and running a hand inside her dress to find out what was strapped around her, she’d never worn one even to play Distressed Victorian Maiden, though compared to armor it couldn’t be too bad.

“This is still New Nightmare City, pardon me, New York,” Pip said holding up the newspaper. “The same one, I think, but a lot earlier.”

Deor grinned at her a bit crookedly. “And for the question in your mind, Captain Pip: why are we being led through the ages here, as well as across continents and seas, as we journey towards the Prince? I don’t know. Let’s just say that paths in the Otherworld don’t follow the rules of those in the world of common day. There are more purposes than ours at work here, and they may be very subtle.”

“I’ll keep thinking about that for consolation as we’re devoured by monsters,” Pip said, and smiled back at him.

“Looks like we could get out of here without anyone much noticing,” Toa said. “Crowd looks safe enough if you don’t mind they’re all pākehā.”

“You’re very tolerant that way,” Pip observed ironically.

“Too right, I never even mention the pākehā smell or the bad teeth or the no-chins bit or the way they’re mostly hunchbacked midgets. They’re all looking at some bloody parade or other out there right now.”

Pip gave the room one last glance-over. “Why don’t you carry that package?” she said, pointing to a large one wrapped up with string. “It’ll make you less conspicuous.”

The Maori grinned, an alarming expression. “You mean they might not notice the Tā moko?” he said, flicking a sausage-like thumb at the swirling patterns on his face, as individual as a fingerprint. “I’ll blend right in.”

He lolled his tongue and made his eyes bulge for a moment, like the beginning of a war-haka. Then he hefted the parcel, which clinked dully, and hoisted it on one shoulder and put the shovel over the other. That did make it necessary to really peer closely before you caught the full effect of features, tattoos and scars.

“Ready?” Pip said.

I hope this works. No matter what his mother’s mother was, nobody’s going to mistake Toa for a pākehā. The people we meet seem real, but are they? And if they are, are they really seeing us, or are we part of a backdrop to them?

Deor nodded, settling the bowler on his head; it really didn’t look right for someone named Deor Godulfsson. Toa swung the door open and Deor led them out; Pip followed, with Toa bringing up the rear. She approved of that. He had a sense for when he was being followed, and it had saved both their lives more than once.

Outside the sky was clear, and the little building they’d been in was shown to be a simple brick rectangle with a slate roof and Parks and Maintenance Department, Municipal Government of Greater New York in cast-iron letters above the door. It was mid-morning and they were on the south side of a broad tree-lined street, with a park to its north; over the tops of the elms there she could see a great triumphal arch. The city-rumble was there in the background, the familiar modern sounds of horses and wagons and carriages, thickly interspersed with the rumble of motor vehicles like something out of an old story-book.

The traffic’s been blocked out of these streets, though, Pip thought.

She recognized the signs from occasions in Townsville City with her parents or grandfather, though this metropolis was vastly larger.

Parade or something else official.

The southern side where they stood was also a park, but you could tell that it was a newer one, and from the look of the rest of the neighborhood she suspected that buildings had been torn down to make room for it—the layout was a regular north-south grid, and the architecture of the blocks she could see was a curious mixture of busy-looking and sooty brick and newer, lighter-colored structures in a much more uniform neo-Classical style.

The flower-banks of the new park were very pretty, a blaze of forsythia and crocus and yellow daffodils, and the fountains raised skywards in graceful arcs, but the trees were new and smallish, the pathways still pristine, each of the blue and red bricks beneath their feet sharp-edged. A fairly dense crowd was scattered through the park, but they were obeying signs that read:

It Is Forbidden To Walk On The Grass.

And all focused on the ceremony going on in the center of the open space. The whole city block was enclosed by an ornate gilded iron railing about head-high on her, with a line of outward-leaning points in the shape of leaves and vines at the top, and broad paths met in the center of it like a Greek cross. Where they joined stood a small circular building of glistening white marble, topped by a shallow copper dome and surrounded by thickets of flowers. It stood on a six-foot circular platform of the same stone, worked in shallow relief with figures of robed and hooded women with their arms before their faces in a gesture of mourning. In front of the stairs was a sculptural group, three female figures in ancient Greek robes, on spinning out a thread, the second measuring it, and a third about to make a cut.

The Fates, she thought; even tense and looking for threats she could see it was fine work if you liked a naturalistic style.

Either the Fates, or the Sixth Form prefects at work.

Six Ionic columns supported the roof, and the single door was a tall sheet of worked bronze at the top of a graceful semicircular staircase. Each half of the door held a design of a pomegranate tree. A temporary speaker’s platform draped in the flags of the old...

Well, not so old in 1920, she thought.

... American republic stood behind the statues, with a group of dignitaries on it; all men of middle age or more, some in archaic-looking rigs of black cutaway coats and waistcoats and top-hats, some in elaborate military uniforms, both types she recognized from history books.

A regiment’s of cavalry were drawn up in a hollow square around the building, sitting their mounts silently with the sun bright on the pennants and the blades of their lances, which might account for the extremely orderly, not to mention silent, disposition of the crowd. None of them wore armor except for rather odd-looking brass helmets, polished and with horsehair crests, and they all had revolvers at their belts as well.

Their uniforms were blue with gold piping, elaborate with corded decoration, and their jackboots polished to a mirror sheen. Those were as nothing compared to the smaller group of cavalry around the speaker’s platform itself; hussars in tight red breeches that fastened up the outside seam with jet buttons, boots with gold tassels, short fur-edged midnight-blue jackets worn slung over one shoulder in the style of a cape, clasped with a woven-silver cord adorned with gold and silver braiding and several rows of multiple buttons. Under that was a dolman also decorated in braid, on their heads were tall fur busbies, and their embroidered saddlecloths had four long points. It all made the pictures she’d seen of the King-Emperor’s court in far Winchester look drab, or even the Pope’s in Badia.

Well-mounted, though, she thought.

The horses were long-legged hunter types, their coats gleaming with health and good grooming, the leather of saddles and tack as immaculate as the uniforms of the troopers. It was undoubtedly a ceremonial occasion, but the lancers and hussars looked as if they knew how to ride, at least. Being the granddaughter of Townsville’s Colonel meant she’d grown up around horse-soldiers. All the successor-states in Oz had plenty of empty country covered in grass.

But why lances and sabers, if they have working firearms here?

One thing that was familiar was the sonorous politician’s blather of the speechmaker delivered by one of the top-hatted dignitaries, at least in tone if not content.

"The laws prohibiting suicide and providing punishment for any attempt at self-destruction have been repealed. The Government has seen fit to acknowledge the right of man to end an existence which may have become intolerable to him, through physical suffering or mental despair. It is believed that the community will be benefited by the removal of such people from their midst. Since the passage of this law, the number of suicides in the United States has not increased. Now the Government has determined to establish a Lethal Chamber in every city, town and village in the country. It remains to be seen whether or not that class of human creatures from whose desponding ranks new victims of self-destruction fall daily will accept the relief thus provided."

“Well, if someone wants to do away with themselves...” Pip murmured dubiously.

“There is ill-wreaking here,” Deor said. “This thing... somehow it’s tied to Prince John’s loss. How, I do not yet know, but it is.”

The politician paused, and half-turned to indicate the round columned building behind him. The crowd had been quiet; now the silence in the street was absolute.

"There a painless death awaits him who can no longer bear the sorrows of this life. If death is welcome let him seek it there."

Aha, she thought. Painless death... but in that later New York, the Eternal Emperor said Lethal Torment Chambers. I suppose this is what they mean by a slippery slope, what?

He turned to one of the uniformed officers on the platform: “I declare the Lethal Chamber open.”

Then to the crowd: “Citizens of New York and of the United States of America, through me the Government declares the Lethal Chamber to be open.”

An officer barked a command, a bugle echoed it—Pip even recognized the sequence of notes—and the hussars fell in behind the carriages that drew up to take the dignitaries and commanders. The lancers wheeled neatly, the tall steel-tipped shafts swaying and reforming like a thicket of reeds bowing to a breeze, and clattered off with an endless rumbling clop of shod hooves on pavement. The crowd began to break up, voices slowly filling the void.

“There,” Deor said quietly, pointing out one nattily-dressed young man. “Him. Follow him.”

“That I can do,” Pip said. “Mummy had the Police chief in Townsville City run me through an urban surveillance course once and gave me pointers herself—said you never knew when that sort of thing would come in handy.”

The man Deor had pointed out wasn’t remarkable. About thirty, medium in stature—an inch or less taller than Pip, who’d inherited much of her father’s height—with reddish-brown hair worn trimmed above the collar and parted in the center and a clipped mustache, and faded green eyes. He was handsome in a slightly wasted way, but slim in a manner that suggested he’d been more active once and with the pallor of someone who spent most of their days indoors. His clothing was black except for a silver-gray waistcoat, and a dark-gray homburg hat, but fitted as if it had been done by a very good tailor.

He was ordinary for this time and place, until you saw his eyes. They skipped over Pip without acknowledging her, then lingered for a moment on Toa as if slightly puzzled. Once you saw those eyes he didn’t look ordinary at all. They seemed to open on vistas, across a sea whose waves were cloud...

Pip fought down a snarl and made herself retract her claws...

Wait a minute, I have claws? she thought, startled. I mean I literally have claws?

For a moment she thought she did, claws like curved knives that could rip flesh apart with a drive of shoulders stronger than Toa’s.

Pip would have liked to dismiss the idea as a fancy, but she wasn’t fanciful.

And I’m in a place where the usual rules don’t apply. Though after months on Baru Denpasar I’m starting to think those are a bit more elastic than I’d always assumed anyway.

The man walked on, walking with the stride of a man who knew where he was going but wasn’t in a hurry.

“Bunch around me,” Pip said quietly. “Talk a bit. You don’t think a group is following you.”

“You don’t?” Thora asked conversationally.

“Not on a city street. One tail is more conspicuous there. It’s completely different from countryside tracking, according to my instructor.”

Thora and Deor closed up, with Toa still bringing up the rear. He was attracting the odd glance, once from what was apparently a mounted policeman, to judge from his cloth-covered bobby-style helmet and long riot-stick, but then the eyes flicked to the folk ahead of him and lost suspicion.

Bet if he was here alone it would be a difficulty, Pip thought. Though more of a difficulty for anyone who tried to accost him!

The man moved through the crowds easily. The clump with Pip had a little more difficulty, but she’d noticed before that if you moved without the slightest doubt that people would get out of your way, they usually did. It helped if you were well-dressed, too, and judging from the passers-by the clothes they’d... arrived in... were the local equivalents of the gentry’s costume.

Pip noted the street signs and memorized them; they crossed one called South Fifth Avenue, and walked along its western side to a Bleecker Street. There was the same mix of older and newer buildings she’d noticed around the Lethal Chamber, and then it was solidly older; five or six story brick buildings divided into apartments and attached shops. The crowds were thicker, and less well-dressed, with many more cloth caps and women in dowdy, tired-looking dresses longer than what she or Thora wore. Now and then the man they were following attracted sullen-hostile glances, or jeers from ragged urchins, and the narrower streets had a number of pushcarts selling anything from sausages she wouldn’t have tried on a bet to old clothes.

Beside one door was a row of signs. The first and largest read:

HAWBERK, ARMOURER.

Thora snorted, and Pip spared her a glance and a raised eyebrow: they were both inwardly groaning at the obvious pun, since hauberk was precisely what you called a mail shirt... though she thought the term was more common in everyday use in Montival, which from what she’d heard and John confirmed had a taste for terminology culled from history.

Or historical novels, she thought, with a slightly snide edge to her mental tone. Whereas in Oz, we call it a mail shirt or a fence-wire pullover.

The man they were following went through the part-glass door, giving a glimpse of a long dim hallway ending in a stairwell. The entrance rang a bell as it opened. On its heels came a hearty voice crying:

“Come in, Mr. Castaigne!”

Then a continuing murmur of voices as it closed, ringing the bell again; she thought she could hear another voice, a man’s, and then a woman’s, but too muffled to catch what was said.

Pip slowed, dawdling, watching the street for a little until she could see out of the corner of her eye that their target wasn’t just inside, then held up two fingers and went through the door. Deor followed, while Toa leaned on his shovel and held the box so that it shadowed his face, while Thora pulled a piece of paper out of her handbag and pretended to read it... or possibly really did.

It would help if I knew what I was supposed to do with this thing once we catch it, Pip thought. As the dog said when he took out after the stagecoach!

The dim hallway within had a door to the armorer’s shop, left slightly ajar; the distinctive tinka-tinka-tinka of a metalworkers’ hammer sounded within, absurdly familiar in this alien place, and then voices. On the wall opposite was a list of other establishments, not terribly different except in detail from Townsville or Cairns or Darwin or even Hobart; tailors, cobblers, a used and antiquarian book-shop, a maker and repairer of musical instruments (at which she could feel Deor twitch with interest) and one truly strange one reading:

 

A. Wilde, Repairer of Reputations, 3rd floor.

 

Deor didn’t twitch at that one; he stared at it fixedly, then slowly lifted his grey gaze to the stairs.

“Carefully,” he said, his voice almost a murmur. “We’re in the right place, but gang very carefully from here. There is that here which might know what we are, and destroy us if we’re unwary.”

Pip nodded.

“That is a lovely piece of embroidery,” the voice of the man they’d been following said through the doorway to the armorer’s shop.

“It’s the arms of the last Duke of Burgundy,” the woman’s voice said. “See, I’m doing it from this colored plate in the Metropolitan Museum’s collection of European royal families’ arms; it will go with a suit my father has restored.”

Someone about my age, Pip thought. And sounding genuinely enthusiastic.

Pip had a better-than-nodding acquaintance with heraldry, through her parents. The Abercrombies had a perfectly genuine and rather complex coat from the College of Heralds which they’d brought with them to Queensland when Queen Victoria was middle-aged; the Balwyns’ was so old it was simple, a red lion rampant dexter. One of her ancestors had worn it on his shield when he followed Godfrey de Bouillon over the walls of Jerusalem in 1099, screaming Ville Gagne! with the best, slaughtering anything that moved, and looting the place bare.

Embroidery, though... I’d rather fight giant squid in a bathtub full of large-curd cottage cheese.

“See, it’s Philip the Bold’s.”

“Complex arms,” the man said again.

“Yes, they became very elaborate then, towards the beginning of the Renaissance. One and four quartered azure, semé-de-lys or, a bordure compony of argent and gules; two per pale, bendy of six or and azure, a bordure gules and sable, a lion or, armed and langued gules; three per pale, bendy of six, or and azure, a bordure gules and argent, a lion gules, armed and langued or. Overall, or, a lion sable armed and langued gules. Distinguished from his father’s because it’s brisured by a label argent.”

Heraldry attack! Pip thought. Then: She’s nervous, but chattering because she’s trying to hide it.

The young woman spoke under the sound of the other man’s hammer, and then a metallic clicking and rustling; adjusting tiny bolts and rivets, she thought, and the jingle of mail, and the scuffa-scuffa of a polishing cloth and emery used to remove rust.

“Who is this for?” the first man asked.

The deeper voice replied, listing a complex search for a suit that was apparently of historic value to some collector; it all sounded a bit old-country and odd, since Pip had been brought up in a world where armor was a new craft patterned on designs pulled from books, and valued for its ability to keep your hide unpunctured by the slings and arrows and lances and spears and boomerangs and whatever of outrageous fortune. As embodied in your neighbors.

And he’s nervous too. An older man... and he’s got a different accent. Rather like Mummy’s or mine, in fact. English, and very well-born. Odd, here in New York, and working at an artisan’s craft. But then again, Mummy spent most of her life after the Blackout until she married Daddy on the opposite side of the planet from England, doing some rather déclassé things, or ones that would have been if buccaneering weren’t such an old tradition in our family. The girl sounds the same way; the Yank sounds like a Yank, except a bit plummy and old-fashioned, like a book talking. No contractions.

Pip knew what American accents sounded like; Auntie FiFi had a twanging one that she proudly described as Original Western Trailer-Trash, and there were a variety of others sprinkled thinly about the parts of Oz she’d seen, mostly rather elderly by now. The people with John mostly had very distinctive and different patterns of speech, apparently grown up since the Change, though Captain Feldman’s was more like the pre-Change standard.

The American continued to the English armorer: “Did you continue the search so persistently without any certainty of the greave being still in existence?”

“Of course,” the posh Englishman replied coolly.

“It was worth something to you.”

“No," the older man with the English accent replied, laughing. “My pleasure in finding it was my reward.”

“Have you no ambition to be rich?” the American asked, with a sly smile in his voice.

The tone put Pip slightly on edge, as if it were a cat toying with something small and helpless.

“My one ambition is to be the best armorer in the world," the Englishman answered gravely.

The conversation ended and Deor hissed: “In here! He mustn’t see us!”

They opened the door on the opposite side. Pip gave a brilliant smile at the proprietor, sitting at a desk piled high with the musty-smelling books that crowded the shelves all about. They were ancient-looking for the most part, the leather of their binding wrought in ridges or tooled, often cracked and dried with age. They were the sort of thing the Bunyip aristocracy of Station-Holders in Townsville would have paid through the nose for if some salvager could get them out of the dead cities.

He peered at her over reading glasses with narrow lenses and cackled. “Not often we see a young miss like you in here! What might I help you with?”

Behind them the door to the armorer’s shop clinked open and shut. Footsteps went down the hall to the stairwell, and then up it with a tap of shoeleather on boards and a creak.

“What’s that you have there?” Deor asked, nodding his head at the slim volume the old man was reading.

“Oh, just something French,” the man said, smoothly sliding another book across it.

From the brief glance at the page it was a printed play with stage directions and dialogue.

And with naughty pictures, probably, Pip thought; though what she’d seen had been only a chastely-robed woman gesturing wildly. Now what?

“Follow,” Deor said.

The filed out—Toa reluctantly putting down a book on Gothic cathedrals, a style for which he had a passion—and went to the stairs. Pip put her hand into the bag over her shoulder, reaching for her slingshot. Somewhat to her surprise, it was still there rather than being transmuted to some fascinatingly archaic firearm of the ancient world.

Deor put a hand out as they filed up the stairwell, Toa walking crabwise next to the wall so the steps would creak less. Pip paced up quickly on quiet cat-feet, the slingshot clamped in her hand. The building was strange, obviously old and run down, but equally obviously built in the modern fashion for natural ventilation and lighting from windows, lanterns and candles, though electric lights had been added later in a slapdash fashion.

Deor stopped at the top of the stairs. Thora followed him, hand on the gun as it would have been on the hilt of her sword, and pointed to a door. Deor nodded, then made a sign towards the next one down the corridor; it had a disused air, and he listened at it and then nodded again. Thora tested the knob, then began to lean against it, her leanly muscular arm tensing. Pip stepped forward:

“Let’s be subtle, shall we, eh?” she said.

Thora stepped aside, frowning faintly. Pip felt slightly abashed for a moment at the implied professionalism.

Tsk, tsk, girl. Mind on the prize, what?

She pulled her lockpicks out of the bag—they were there, and in the same chamois-leather wrap she usually kept them in, an indentical replacement for her mother’s.

Perhaps it’s better that I’m not Supreme Goddess after all, she thought mordantly as she unlimbered two of them; the lock as a straight French, the antique straight-through type with two studs on the end of the key and much easier to jigger than a Yale style. I seem to be rather unimaginative even when I’m in a sodding spirit realm and can make things by thinking about it!

Her fingers moved carefully, slow steady pressures and then...

Click.

Picking locks is not for the nervous, as Mummy said, she thought, rocking back on her heels as Thora went through with a nod and her hidden hand undoubtedly clenched on the gun-butt.

They all followed, Toa last and closing the door delicately, with a hand that made the chipped glass knob look like a bead. Then he braced the door with his long-handled shovel, digging the point into the battered, splintered boards of the floor.

The others fanned out to search the suite of rooms. Most of whatever furniture it had had was gone, or draped in dingy sheets. There were four rooms, and one included a toilet and tub. The water wasn’t connected, and the tub was coated with a thin film of what Pip thought was actual marble. Thora exclaimed from another room, and she went into it. The Bearkiller woman was looking at a flower in a vase...

Except that it wasn’t a rose, as she first thought. It was a carving, done in marble too, a creamy white color. The work was exquisitely detailed, and she wouldn’t have thought it was possible to catch the fleshy delicacy no matter how skillful you were. She looked at it in fascination and reached a finger out towards it.

“No!” Deor said sharply, his eyes fixed on the rose.

“It’s a dangerous carving of a rose?” Pip asked in exasperation.

“It’s not a carving at all,” Deor said. “That was a rose, and it has been changed. So it begins, here, and leads to that day we saw, the day of fire.”

Pip snatched her hand back.

He found a set of wineglasses on a table. “Toa, keep watch. The rest of you, listen with these. We’ll all get something, and we can put what we hear together.”

Pip took up the tulip-shaped glass—rather dirty, with red-wine crystals at the bottom—and set it against a spot where the plaster had fallen off the lath of the wall. A murmur of voices came through as she pressed her ear to the base.

She caught a name. Castaigne, she thought. Might be useful.

 

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