Mona Skye, the duelist and poet of lately tragic fame, lay where her friends had placed her: on brocade cushions in a corner of the smoking room beneath the Amber Tree café.
Illness, allowed to run rampant, had repaid the favor with curious gifts. Fever made her long, austere face flushed and beautiful. It reddened her lips and made her gray eyes sparkle like stones. As her lean body wasted, it exhibited the strange grace of a strong thing weakened and perversely unashamed of its new frailty. Even her pale hair appeared softer and brighter.
The disease is turning her into that old cliché, the beautiful and beloved thing that can live only a short while. Vali Jermyn could taste her anger as if it were in the mildly opiated smoke she inhaled through the narghile pipe that stood on the carpet between them.
Vali had been angry since the night of the Sending of Sins back in the summer, when Mona had sworn drunkenly to let death catch her at last. She would face the grinning bastard and seduce him by being more ardent than he, so that when the end came she would take him. Mona had made this announcement before discomfited onlookers gathered on the bank of the Leopold Canal at Jubilee Point, there to place paper lanterns in the water and watch them float away down the long dark stream, past the porches of the old slumbering floodlit mansions and the new sleepless factories. The next morning she threw all her tonics and powders out onto the little courtyard below the apartment she and Vali shared.
A male voice emerged from the gloom: “She’s asleep.” A black sleeve reached across the cushions, extending pale fingers that lifted the pipe out of Vali’s hand. His features were faintly visible under a curtain of long black hair. His name was Gwynn. A sometime adventurer from Falias in the snow-swept north of the world, he and Mona had once been comrades in arms and sweethearts down in the canyon country west of the Teleute Shelf. The love affair had been uncomplicated and brief, and their friendship had endured. Parted by circumstances, separate routes had brought them to Sheol, where both had found a new métier playing in the city’s games of justice.
Gwynn drew on his own pipe and looked from his old inamorata to the woman who was now her lover.
“Why don’t you take her somewhere cleaner? Out of the city.”
“A suburban cure? Rock beats scissors, boredom beats tragedy?”
“Shouldn’t the pastoral be expected to win a battle now and then?”
“In its war with the heroic? The restorative power of grass and goats might work, but not against the power of her audience here, I wouldn’t think.”
“Then don’t bring her back to them.”
“And where should I take her?”
“Anywhere away from the evil comforts of here.” Gwynn exhaled a stream of smoke and pushed some hair back from his face, revealing pale, greenish, heavy-lidded eyes.
Vali snorted. “When will you be packing your bags and leaving, then?” He laughed lazily. “I tried once, but I got homesick. I like it here entirely too much. But that dear soul lying there is of a different quality. She was always a runner.”
Vali wanted him to be quiet. “You don’t have the right to talk about souls. You only know about bodies, Gwynn.”
Even more than his silence, she wanted a fight. She wouldn’t get one.
He laughed again, as if he didn’t mind the insult, and said, “Well, this body is tired. And so are you, I daresay. I’ll get us a cab.” Raising himself, Gwynn took up his guns and sword from the floor and buckled them on. He took a another minute to impose order on his clothing, lastly pulling on a pair of black kid gloves that he stretched over his fingers with a slightly pedantic air.
Vali watched the back of Gwynn’s damask tailcoat recede into the haze of oily lamp-lit smoke. Almost all of Mona’s friends had deserted her, fearing they could catch her illness. Embarrassment had no doubt motivated some of them. She wondered whether it was love, loyalty, or something else that kept Gwynn hovering around.
And what about you, whom she rejects along with the rest of the world? Is this only the natural course of love—the turning away from the partner and toward solipsism. And should you wear the disgrace?
She addressed her reflection in the narghile’s glass belly, as if it were an oracle with power to explain her soul. But the image, distorted by the curve of the glass, revealed only a woman in mannish clothes: dark of face, not so young, not unhandsome. The old caste scars on her cheeks didn’t show in the dim reflection. Her hair was rolled into the long, tight dreadlocks worn by the military clans of Oran, her homeland in the southeastern tropics. She had kept the style for aesthetic reasons and, also, because she had no wish to discard all of her former self.
It was a common saying that everyone in Sheol was a foreigner. Smells on the wind, Mona had called the city’s population once, on a day they sat people-watching in a briefly voguish bar on Arcade Bridge.
Vali found her boots and tugged them on. Her fingers were sluggish fastening buckles and laces. All she had got out of the night’s indulgence was torpor.
Over the sound of Mona’s troubled breathing, Vali became aware of an irregular noise behind her: a quiet scratching, like a mouse scuttling across a slate floor. She looked around and saw a reedy, fair-haired adolescent perched on the edge of a divan, writing in a notebook. Vali would have taken him for one more poet hunting inspiration had she not seen him give her the furtive, inquisitorial look of the gutter-begotten press. Well, she would see for herself what nonsense he was writing.
She rose, advanced, and, glaring, snatched the notebook out of his hand and skimmed the jottings therein. He had written:
Society Report: Mona Skye, the renowned sabreuse, sonneteer and despiser of the world, observed unconscious in a drug den on the notorious Sycamore Street strip. The end appears to be nearing for the self-destructing heroine…
At the Cutting Edge: Mona Skye’s worsening condition has cast a gloom over the demimonde and beyond. Conversations are not sparkling. Beaus and belles inhale sedatives and dress like undertakers. Expect the chic look this winter to be formal, functional and funereal.
Art Update: Is Mona Skye’s slow suicide art? Many think so. Despite the resistance of the conservative establishment, public opinion seems to be with the progressive critics who have been claiming that death as performance is the ultimate art form, an art against which there can be no appeal. They may well be right. Watching Mona Skye, one apprehends a strangely exquisite unfurling of energies, an unravelling of reality and the expected. Killer and victim are one, coexisting in a symbiosis of extended intimacy in a performance as unique as an individual life, a condensation of life as a journey toward death that all must undergo, and a logical answer to illogical life.
It was the usual drivel, but Vali couldn’t help taking it personally. She felt the pressure of fury rising like steam in a boiler. She imagined an autopsy where loafing pretentieuses clustered around Mona’s invaded body while quaffing aperitifs and gobbling hors d’oeuvres. She rubbed the pommel of the sword at her hip. But words were the only weapons permissible here and, unlike her lover, she had little talent for their use.
The boy twitched but did not try to evade her. He was wearing a suit in need of some cleaning and a leather coat at least two sizes too big. His hair had the untidy appearance of down on a wet duckling.
“Ma’am,” he said, “the last thing I want to do is offend. This city looks to your profession for inspiration in everything, including matters of taste.”
Every day she walked past children playing “Chop-Chop” and “Kill ’Um All” on the pavements. Duelists were fêted in popular culture. They were made into character dolls; their images were reproduced on household items and souvenirs. Lurid stories about their adventures and private lives fed an eager public in cheap magazines with titles like Corinthian Knights, Hearts and Blades, and Tales from the Theatre of Woe. Girls dressed up as Mona, painting their faces white and drawing ornamental trickles of rouge down their lips.
Fame had once been Vali’s, too. Like Mona and Gwynn, she had taken up professional dueling in the juridical playhouses of the city. Her convictions about justice, however, eventually compelled her to hang up her mask and withdraw from the milieu of the monomachia. These days she earned a plain living as a bodyguard and fencing tutor.
Occasionally she still saw dolls bearing her face, either on sale or collecting dust in secondhand shops. Merchandise adorned with Mona’s image, in contrast, was currently riding a wave of popularity.
No one’s more guilty of bad taste than she. She’s making a shabby exhibition of herself, and I’m accepting a part in it, thought Vali.
“I have a duty,” the kid journalist said. “The people must have information.” He drew himself up, lifting his chin pugnaciously to look Vali in the eye. “The freedom of the press is sacred, ma’am.”
Vali looked down at him. “Nothing is sacred,” she said flatly. She gave back his notebook, in which he immediately resumed writing.
“Can I quote that? Nothing is sacred?”
She was sorry she had allowed herself to get angry at a magazine hack. “Go ahead,” she said wearily.
Gwynn returned then, stepping out of the smoke and shadows. “Our chariot awaits,” he said. His gaze took in the youth and he raised a mildly inquisitive eyebrow at Vali.
“Let’s go,” she muttered.
Vali carried Mona. She followed Gwynn up the stairs and out through the back door to the lane behind the café. The youth trailed, introducing himself to their backs. His name was Siegfried and he worked for Verbal Nerve magazine. Perhaps they read it, or had seen it somewhere?
The vehicle waiting in the lane was a rickety hooded chaise harnessed to a skin-and-bones nag. Vali and Gwynn were too busy seating Mona comfortably inside to notice Siegfried preparing to get aboard. When he squeezed himself in next to Vali, she felt at a loss. Merely telling the kid to leave seemed a weak response to his effrontery, and if he refused to go, what could she do? To forcibly remove him would likely result in publicity of the least desirable kind. She could imagine the tabloid headline: Former Hero’s Brawl Shame. Gwynn ignored the incursion, evidently regarding the kid as her guest and her problem.
“Magnolia Terrace, river end,” Vali ordered the driver, a bent and leathery old woman wearing a battered tricorn and a voluminous cloak.
The beldam cracked her whip and the horse lurched off at a trot, taking them down a lane to the left and into the traffic and crowds that filled Sycamore Street even in the middle of a cold autumn night.
The seat under the canvas hood was cramped. Vali and Gwynn had twisted sideways to give Mona more room. Siegfried found himself poked by scabbards and gun butts wherever he tried to sit. Finally abandoning the seat, he positioned himself on the footboard and launched an impromptu interview.
How many people had they each killed? Did they enjoy their work? What was the duelist’s role in society? What did they do in their spare time? How were their homes decorated? What did they think of Mona’s dance with death? The youth fired questions and chased answers with relentless zeal, seemingly oblivious to the peril he would be in should one or both of his captives lose patience. If he did understand, he was stimulated by the danger.
Vali responded with monosyllables or silence. Gwynn gave their interrogator more satisfaction, responding with answers that, whether true or not, would make good copy. Vali suspected Gwynn of slightly enjoying the attention, as Siegfried scribbled away in shorthand. Her mood was too grim to be amused by any of it.
To Vali, their progress through the streets had the confused, uncontrollable quality of a dream. She felt she had slid sideways into an alternative, stupidly surreal existence crammed full of details that were at once irritating, strange, and boring. Crowds of late-night shoppers and partygoers billowed under green and red silk lanterns hanging on wires strung across the streets, hurrying around as if on missions of great and secret importance. The hag put the whip to the panting horse, white breath steaming from its nostrils and bones moving like pistons under its skin. Mona’s lovely head lolled, saliva pooling in the corners of her mouth.
They passed an open yard where a religious lynch mob was holding an auto-da-fé. Several thousand faces, screaming in rapturous frenzy, were washed in orange light thrown from the scaffold, where a human shape was visible at the centre of a blaze. A procession of hooded penitents started across the road, each pair lashing the shoulders of the pair in front of them, forcing the through traffic to stop while they passed. The old woman and a half dozen other drivers yelled imprecations to no effect on the lashers, who kept to their shuffling, ritual pace.
The noise woke Mona. Her eyes opened wide and she grabbed Vali’s arm. “Don’t take me to the house, Vali. Take me to the necropolis. I want to die there, where it’s quiet.” She looked around deliriously. “Where am I? Vali, are you here too?”
Vali stroked Mona’s hair, trying to soothe her. “Don’t fret,” she murmured. “We’ll be home soon.”
Mona clutched her hand. “No,” she rasped fiercely, “I’m dying! I saw Death!” As if to make the point she started coughing. “I want to die. Out in the air, under the stars. Take me there, Vali. Please.”
“All right,” Vali said. “All right, sweetheart.” She stuck her head around the carriage hood. Driver,” she called out, “take us to the necropolis.”
“Aye, it’s pretty this time of year,” the woman called back, and at the next intersection she turned the chaise uphill. They clattered through the city, a long uncomfortable journey, as Mona, semi-conscious, fell into frequent bouts of coughing. Every now and again she would look around glassily, and ask, “Are we there yet?”
“Soon,” Vali promised her, over and over.
Siegfried wrote it all down in his notebook.
At last they came to the dry Geulah River, which marked the end of the city proper. Nothing more than a trench filled with vegetation and rubbish, it was spanned by an ancient metal bridge, the only road to the necropolis covering the hills on the other side. Its tombs and shrines rose from the former riverbank, a dark panorama of monumental stonework stretching to the right and the left as far as visibility reached. Sheol was old, and needed extensive space to accommodate its many generations of dead. Beyond the great cemetery there was a great expanse of weeds and twisted bushes before the drop over the edge of the Teleute Shelf.
They clattered across the bridge to the end, where the beldam reined in the horse. Gwynn paid the fare while Vali gathered Mona in her arms and lifted her out.
Gwynn spoke to Siegfried, who had climbed out with them. “It might be better for you to go back,” he said.
The boy turned up the collar of his coat against the cold, which was stiffer than in the city center, and tugged on a pair of woollen gloves. “Sir, I’m not afraid of the dead.”
“The dead fear the living . . . those living who forget them and those who remember them too well.” It was Mona who had spoken, startling everyone, her gray eyes shining queerly. She wasn’t looking at Siegfried, however, whose face wore a pleased and self-justified expression.
“Take me to St. Anna Vermicula’s tomb,” she said. “And I can walk. I’m not a cripple.”
She took a few shaky independent steps after Vali set her down.
The saint was buried a good half-hour’s walk over the hills. Mona, leaning on Vali’s arm, set a slow pace for them all.
Many of the greater tombs and monuments were as large as the houses of the living. Elaborate enclosures several tiers high contained stone sarcophagi stacked in rows, of which some lay in helter-skelter collapse, many in the intermediate stages of decline. A group of tourists were clustered some distance away, visible by their bobbing lanterns.
The silence of the necropolis was palpable. The huge graveyard was entirely without trees, and so only a few nightbirds disturbed the quiet. Soft, short-bladed grass grew on the paths, muffling footsteps. The air was cold and very still; the noise of the city center was far away. The night sky was marvelously clear, with a three-quarter moon and countless bright stars that Vali fancied looked like white candles memorializing all the drowned hours in a person’s life.
Mona seemed withdrawn in a world of her own. Gwynn kept off to the side, as unobtrusive as a veteran butler. Even Siegfried seemed, for the moment at least, to have run out of things to ask or write. To her wonder, Vali felt the first touch of an unfurling peace.
St. Anna Vermicula’s tomb was a colonnaded mausoleum housing a black marble effigy of the warrior martyr, on the farthest hillside in the oldest section of the necropolis. The edge of the precipice was only a few hundred feet away from the sepulchre, across the untended land that began where the graves ended at the bottom of the hill. It was a sudden curtailing of the earth, with space and stars beyond.
Vali sat on the weathered steps of the tomb, her arm around Mona. Gwynn had walked a short distance away to smoke. Siegfried was also out of sight. It was possible to imagine that she and Mona were alone in the landscape of marble and weeds.
She felt as still and untroubled as the tombs themselves and sensed a mysterious familiarity with the stars.
Yet does it need us, any more than the seas need ships? Vali wondered this, and answered herself: It never needed us or desired us until it made us, and then we, who are its thinking creatures desired it, and so love was formed and flung.
Mona stirred, bringing Vali back from her reverie. She was whispering something. Still feeling strangely calm and adrift—had the stars moved?—Vali bent her head to listen. Then, turning around, she called out to Gwynn. He looked up from where he sat cross-legged on a sarcophagus.
“Mona wants to go down to the edge. I’m taking her. She wants you to come, too.”
Gwynn ground out his cigarette on the pitted stone, adding the butt to several already there. He swung down and looked across the ragged land towards the cliff. “Fine with me,” he said.
Wind always blustered across the barren margin between the tombs and the drop. That night, cold current seemed to blow straight down off the stars themselves. It was, in its way, a beautiful place. The lonely stunted trees possessed a sinewy and surprising grace in their wind-sculpted asymmetries and irregularities. Wildflowers grew among the untidy grasses with the charm of things never cared for or interfered with. Birds came and went here too: wild geese, finches, nightjars, and shrikes, who had found the thornbushes ideal for nesting.
Vali, with Mona on her arm, and Gwynn walked alone. They made their way across the brute ground, their hair and coats whipping in the wind. Siegfried followed several paces behind them, writing again in his notebook. More than once he tripped over rocks and pieces of fallen masonry. His hands were trembling with excitement. Verbal Nerve wasn’t going to get this article. Better publications would want it. He basked for a moment in the projected glory of a career covering the rich and dangerous, as one who had been admitted into their world. Realising he was running out of paper, he wrote as minutely as he could.
When they were about 50 yards from the edge, Mona insisted that she could walk without help.
Crossing wasteland, Siegfried jotted. Miss Skye a fragile pilgrim or refugee, Miss Jermyn gallant. At the edge—long way down.
The escarpment dropped more than a kilometer—it could have been a hundred, since nothing provided a sense of scale. It ended at a dead ocean of sand that was dark indigo in the moonlight, on which lay the faintly silver, irregular maculae of salt deposits. Here and there, the sand surrounded weathered buttes and chimneys of rock. On the horizon the curve of the planet was visible, an edge beyond the one on which they stood.
Siegfried caught up with them and stood next to Gwynn, close enough that he could smell the man’s floral aftershave. He drew himself up and squared his shoulders. Narrowing his eyes and sucking in his cheeks a little, he tried to copy Gwynn’s pensive scowl.
“They say there are more bones under those sands than in all of the necropolis,” Mona related hazily.
Vali tried to remember when she had talked about things other than death.
Mona started to say something else, but abruptly broke off coughing. A thimbleful of blood escaped her lips, beginning a long fall to the dry world below. More drops followed.
Gwynn drew Siegfried away. Vali lowered Mona to the ground and tried to shield her from the wind. “Such a mess we’ve made,” she muttered, as she took the handkerchief out of Mona’s coat pocket and put it in her hand. “A damn fine mess.” She was unsure why she included herself in the accusation, except that to separate herself from Mona, now, would be too painful.
Gwynn led Siegfried to a spot where a flat slab of stone lay in the weeds a short distance from the cliff, just far enough to give the women privacy. Gwynn sat down on the stone, flicking back his coattails, and gestured for Siegfried to sit as well. Siegfried complied, his knees feeling a little weak. Following celebrities was one thing; having a famous person actually invite his company was something else entirely. The experience was a little intoxicating. He expected Gwynn to speak, but the man’s attention was fixed on a nearby thornbush, a shrike’s abandoned scaffold where numerous tiny skeletons still hung. A spider as white as the bones themselves was busy among them, spinning, moving with opulent flourishes.
“Look at that,” Gwynn said softly. “How precisely that spider moves, how delicate she is. A natural mathematician, knowing innately the geometry she needs for her work. Do you ever take time to contemplate the wonders of nature, Siegfried?”
Siegfried shook his head. “Not really, sir.” He was surprised by the question.
“You should. Nature can be very inspiring. I’ve always found it so.”
Siegfried made a note in the last page in his notebook. “I guess I’m too much of a city boy, sir. I mean, I’d miss trees and things if they weren’t there, but this place is pretty bleak. There’s not much out here.”
“Not for a man about town, I suppose. You must know a lot of people.”
“Yes, sir. A journalist needs contacts.”
“A network of informants? What an admirable approach to human relations. By the way, there’s no need to call me ‘sir.’ I’m not a gentleman, despite what you may have read in the serials.”
Siegfried shifted his seat. “I don’t read those magazines,” he said, self-consciously. “I prefer the stimulations of adroit thought to those of sensationalism.”
“Is that so?” said Gwynn. “Well, each to his own stimulations. Personally, I’ve always favored drugs.” He reached inside the breast of his coat and took out a fancy slender case. Opening it, he offered the long, red-papered, expensive-looking cigarettes inside to Siegfried before taking one himself. Siegfried attempted to hide his pleasure as he accepted the proffered luxury. Usually he was the one bought smokes and drinks for his interviewees. Gwynn lit for them both, the yellow flame of the match briefly dancing in the dark.
The tobacco was smooth and richly aromatic. Siegfried inhaled. It gave him a rush, and he was certain it contained some kind of dope. He jotted a note that Gwynn was indeed a gentleman.
Siegfried stared at the stars and listened to the rowdy wind, before putting his thoughts to paper. Gwynn said, “So what is it that you fear from the world?”
Siegfried paused in his writing. “In general? Or right now?”
“Let’s start with now.”
“I’m not really afraid,” he said, “just excited, I guess. You know, butterflies inside? Well, maybe you don’t know the feeling. Anyway, you’re famous, and I’m not anybody yet. Like you said, I know a lot of people, but most of them aren’t very important. Interviews are one thing,” he said, dismissively waving his hand, “but we’ve gone beyond that, haven’t we? I suppose I’m starstruck.”
“Starstruck?” Gwynn smiled. “Answer me another question, Siegfried. What do you think it is about people like us—Miss Skye, our profession in general, even my unworthy self—that so fascinates the good citizens of this town? That they will take an interest in what you write tonight, I have no doubt; but out of what matrix of habit, hope, imagination, appetite?”
Siegfried had been reflecting on precisely that matter, here and among his other notes. He answered eagerly. “There are lots of reasons. You’re artists. You’re heroes. You’re not chained by ordinary fears. You have freedom and power most people only dream of.. Some people think you’re angels, sent to wipe away the faulty so that the upright can survive.”
“Ah.A generation whose teeth are like swords and whose fangs are like knives, to devour the wretched from the earth and the weak from among the people.”
“It seems you also have a poet’s disposition.”
“Those aren’t my words. That was something I once heard a man of religion say. You like it, eh?”
“Very much. I’ve always liked predators better than prey.”
“Is that a fact? Again, de gustibus.” Gwynn blew a smoke ring. The wind ruined it in an instant, while Siegfried continued, undeterred.
“All you swordslingers and knife-fighters and all—you’ve got the power of life and death. That’s a pretty fascinating power. I guess I’d like to be able to put holes through people, too, sometimes. I’ve always admired you folks.”
“Well, thank you. That’s very nice. But tell me, do you take the orthodox view that we’re enactors of divine justice—instruments of a moral universe?”
There was a change in the man’s voice, an undercurrent that Siegfried heard but could not precisely name. He hesitated, crossing out what he had started to write, and said, “I’m not really sure.”
Gwynn crushed out his cigarette and stood up. He looked around the base of the stone, where a few gentians and wild white poppies were growing. He broke off the head of a poppy and carefully tucked it into his buttonhole.
“Choose a number between one and five.”
“A number?” Siegfried was nonplussed. The man hardly seemed the type to play parlor games. He shrugged. “All right. Four. But I don’t—“
Gwynn drew one of his twin revolvers. He emptied two rounds out of the chamber, leaving four in. After appearing to give it a moment’s second thought, he removed a third and a fourth round. He spun the chamber and snapped it shut.
“Stand over there,” he said, pointing the muzzle of the gun at the open ground past the thornbush.
Siegfried swallowed hard. Was this some kind of ceremony, an initiation ritual—a test of his courage and trust? Perhaps he had to survive it to be admitted to certain secrets. He had heard of such things.
Gwynn aimed the gun at Siegfried’s face. “Move,” he said.
Siegfried’s heart vibrated as though someone had struck a gong in his chest. Slowly, he put the notebook into his pocket. There was nowhere to run, except over the cliff. He had no doubt that Gwynn’s other gun was fully loaded. Not knowing what else to do, he got up from the stone, shaking, and stood a little behind the bush.
Gwynn waved the muzzle. “Further back.”
Siegfried walked haltingly backward toward the cliff. He felt sick and weak-gutted, and wished he’d relieved himself back at the café, which now seemed to belong to another world.
“Further . . . further . . . stop!”
Siegfried couldn’t see where the ground ended, but he knew it must be close behind him. Gwynn took aim. The gunman’s hair lifted suddenly in the wind, floating up to form a black halo around his starkly moonlit face.
The shot was very loud.
Blood and brain matter erupted from the back of Siegfried’s head, as his body fell backward into the empty sky.
Gwynn stalked over to the brink of the cliff and looked down. He caught a vertiginous glimpse of the dead kid, a barely visible, diminishing speck that soon disappeared. He reloaded his gun and holstered it with a shrug.
Gwynn did not hold the orthodox view of his profession that they were instruments of divine justice. For a moment he allowed himself to imagine that he had been an instrument of humour, sans the appellation of divinity. He mused, not for the first time, that if the putative divine claimed all territories of sense and significance for itself, it fell to comedy, with its bifurcations, reversals and annulments of sense, to destroy that claim. The existence of the comic viewpoint, even if it was only an interpretation placed upon the tragedy of a world where death was king of kings, might prove the absence of an absolute divine authority.
Mona did not die, and seemed embarrassed. She started taking her medicines again, claiming publicly to have grown bored with Death as a lover.
“What made you change your mind?” Vali asked one morning. Arrows of sunlight were passing through a vase of glass flowers on the windowsill, throwing colored shadows onto their bed.
Equally colorful was the latest issue of Hearts and Blades, through which Vali was idly flicking. It featured the first installment of a serial in which Mona journeyed to the underworld to find a friend who was trapped there. The blurb for the next episode promised that “classic character” Vali Jermyn would return. It was funny, Vali thought, to know that although one day you would die, your small-press avatars, the dolls and knick-knacks fashioned in your image, would live on. You would go on existing strangely, inflated by the sentience of readers and collectors, who would re-imagine you, re-create you, perhaps with less class and cleverness and fewer of your original qualities than you might have hoped for, but still, perhaps, with more energy, delight and imagination than you, when you lived, had put into the making of yourself.
Mona stretched her back and legs, luxuriating in the mild sun and linen sheets. Her malady was slowly but steadily going into remission. Her adventure in illness had been worth it, almost, for the pleasures of convalescence that were now hers—those delicate, slightly abject stirrings of the reawakened senses. Milky tea and chicken soup, innocent aromas of bread and soap. The daily sounds of the street below fed like streams into the river of satisfaction she took in her recovery.
Mona hesitated over an answer to Vali’s question. In fact, her recollection of that moment was hazy. She rather thought she had looked out into the night beyond the end of the Teleute Shelf and had feared it. Had refused its call—had failed it, refusing in the end to go the final dance with the milk thistle ghost whose queer scornful lullabies had burned her on the mouth in the cradle and made her a poet. And then, too, there was that kid, dying as if the hour had wanted a life and had taken the first one offered.
“I always was stubborn.”
“Gwynn said you were a runner,” said Vali.
Mona snorted. She smoothed the bedspread over her legs. “I don’t know. Fashions change. I suppose I lost my nerve. Then again, sometimes the witless leaf keeps drifting, until it sees love coming to pick it up.”
Vali smiled, entirely unfooled, and rang for their boy to bring breakfast.
On a clear day early in winter the two women took a picnic lunch to the necropolis. They sat inside the shrine of St. Anna Vermicula. Mona had been taking her various physics like a model patient. She was less pale, and had begun training with her sword again.
“I’m feeling much better,” she declared, chewing delicately on a sandwich. “Wanting to die was a summer madness that lingered out of season.”
“Perhaps it was,” Vali agreed vaguely.
She could not recapture the sense of timelessness she had felt here a month ago. The world was marching on. Going out to the necropolis today they had traveled past numerous building sites. Tall brick apartment blocks were going up along the canal. Chic new bars attracted the in-crowd on Arcade Bridge.
Both women were in furs. Already there was a bite to the winter chill. Although snow rarely fell on Sheol, Vali felt this year might prove an exception.
Munching on a biscuit, she watched the tiny figures of a tour group standing near the edge, peering down at the desert. Closer, near the thornbushes, a group of children were playing “Masked Avengers.” Their high voices carried on the wind:
The men in the masks,
The ladies in the masks,
See how they kill, see how they kill—
Six-shooters and switchblades,
Swords, daggers and poison,
We all fall down,
We all fall down.