City Year 542
Everyone knew he was dying. By rights, he thought irritably, the bedchamber ought to be filled with hangers-on and low-voiced mourners waiting to catch his final words and pass them on to the packed waiting rooms outside.
Except the waiting rooms weren't packed and all he had was one fifteen-year-old valet for company. What a come-down for the leader of four million people. "It's not as if it were a bloody secret," Saul Veritie muttered.
"I beg your pardon, sir?" asked Lucius, as he stopped clearing the table of the smokeless cigarettes the councilors had left behind in their hasty departure. His whisk broom paused and he turned an inquiring expression toward the Protector.
"Where's Adrian?" Saul demanded querulously. "Doesn't he know I'm ill?"
"He was here this morning, sir. He brought you the picture." Lucius nodded toward the portrait that hung opposite the sickbed. "You spoke for an hour."
"Oh." Saul gazed at the portrait, a blamelessly correct version of a younger Saul Veritie at the head of a council meeting. "Bet Brandon picked it out for him. The boy's got more taste than to get me something so dull."
"Yes, sir." Lucius saw the pain come over Saul's face. He put down his whisk broom, walked over to the bed, and moved the pillows so that Saul could lay back. The Protector was only fifty-six, but he looked eighty. Two weeks ago the trade team had brought back a fever from their last days planetside, a bug that had gotten past the medical screening. It happened sometimes, and as usual, this one was no worse than a bad cold for most people. It was unfortunate that one of the rare exceptions to the rule happened to be the Diamond Protector. It had made the last few days very... eventful, Lucius thought, for everybody else.
Saul laid back and muttered to himself some more. Then he said -- very loudly for a dying man, Lucius thought -- "Well, where is Adrian?"
"I'm sure he'll be back as soon as he can, sir."
"I named him my successor, you'd think the least the boy could do would be to show up and fake some tears!"
Lucius didn't respond to this. He was aware of Saul's genuine fondness for Adrian. Instead he poured a few swallows of medicine into a shot glass and held it to Saul's lips. Saul pursed them like a three-year-old. "It's time," said Lucius. "The doctors said every four hours -- "
"I'm dying, dammit. I don't have to drink that stuff if I don't want to."
Lucius sighed and set the glass on the bedtable. He helped Saul to lie down again. After a moment the Protector said, weakly, "Lucius? Where's Adrian, isn't he coming today?"
"He was here this morning, sir." Lucius knew very well where Adrian was, but there was no need to burden a dying man with that knowledge.
"He was? I need to talk to him, you know. There's something I have to tell him."
"You told him, sir."
"Well, how the hell do you know?" asked Saul, in a sudden return of spirit. "You don't know what I want to tell him."
"No, sir, but when he left you led me to believe you'd given him some information."
A slow smile came over Saul's pallid face. "Did I?" He relaxed, seeming to lose interest in the conversation. Lucius took advantage of the moment to try the shot glass again; this time Saul downed it obediently.
While Saul was quiet, Lucius returned to sweeping up the remains of the deathwatch. He started into the next room to fetch a trash bag. "Lucius!" came the cry from the bed.
"I wanted to tell Adrian something, but the boy's not here. I'll have to tell you instead."
"No you don't, sir," said Lucius, in a reasonable tone, as he continued his efficient circuit toward the outer rooms. Lucius was fifteen, but he'd been born in service and had every intention of living a long and happy life in it. He had no desire to hear anything that had to be passed to the next Protector from a deathbed.
"Baret Two," said Saul hoarsely, as Lucius closed the green baize doors behind himself. "Baret Two." He stared blindly toward Adrian's gift on the wall and the young version of self who stood there in immortality. "Tell him, Baret Two. But tell him... not to be obvious about it."
Adrian Mercati jumped as the streetlamp beside him exploded. He rolled behind a transport cart and came up with his weapon in hand, peering carefully through the openings in the top of the cart. The two knights with him, Roger Breem and Streph Wolansky, had ducked as quickly as he had. Given everyone's state of nerves, it wasn't surprising. Roger was standing in the front doorway of a clothing store and Streph was behind a garbage cart. The third knight was nowhere to be seen.
The third knight, Gil Veritie, the final member of Adrian's protective squad, was the person who'd shot the streetlamp.
"Gil, you missed!" called Adrian, in the exact tone of sympathy he'd have used at a tournament.
Gil had been stupid enough to fire just as Adrian had moved, but he wasn't stupid enough to answer him now. Pity.
Fortunately there had been enough rumors of trouble coming somewhere that Mercati Boulevard was almost deserted tonight. The dimmed lamps of the City of Diamond lined rows of dark shops: Tailors, jewelers, carpet-merchants, linkhouses. The dozen levels of walkways high above them couldn't have held more than a hundred people -- nothing at all for the Boulevard on a Friday night. At least innocent pedestrians were unlikely to get shot, Adrian thought, then dismissed said innocent pedestrians from his mind.
There was no further fire from Gil Veritie, who was apparently reviewing his options. "Care to throw yourself on our mercy?" suggested Adrian. He saw Streph give him a pained look from behind the garbage cart and smiled. It was a reasonable question. If Gil's group -- now that they knew which group he belonged to -- won tonight, he'd be safe enough. If not, it was no time to be above a little groveling. After all, Gil may have taken a potshot at Saul's lawful successor, but he'd had no opportunity to call his fellow rebels and tell them where Adrian was, which was more to the point.
In about fifteen minutes, the rebels were due to storm court level. It was important they believe Adrian to be there, rather than huddling behind a transport cart on the Boulevard with a small and inconspicuous escort of friends. Brandon Fischer, Saul's First Adviser, had made this very clear to Adrian before he sent him off to hide.
"Is hiding the way to begin my duties as Protector?" Adrian had said. But he trusted Fischer, and made his complaints while packing.
"A few days only." Fischer stroked his beard, still red-gold despite his age, and frowned thoughtfully. Then he picked up a shirt Adrian had rolled into a ball, and shook it out before handing it back, for all the world like somebody's distracted mother. Adrian smiled with real affection, then tried to hide the smile. "We'll move you around a bit so they can't find out where you are. Then we'll plant a few rumors that you'll be addressing the City from the Cavern of Audience. If I know Saul's cousins, they'll be out in force -- swords, pistols, and protest signs."
"And around the Cavern -- "
"Five companies of the City Guard."
"Five?" Adrian paused in his chore. "Isn't that overkill?"
"The operative word," said Fischer grimly, "is kill."
Adrian stared into the distance, a pair of blue silk pants dangling from one hand. "I see," he said, finally.
"You want to live," said Fischer.
"Saul made me responsible for you -- "
"I said I know."
He finished packing. Five minutes later he met his three escorts, all young men of good class and background, who could easily be walking together on any street in the City without causing comment. None of them had ever been part of the anti-Adrian clique. One of them, though a Veritie by birth, had been a friend of Adrian's since they were thirteen.
Good old Gil, thought Adrian. They'd gotten drunk together a good dozen times. They'd visited the girls on Requiem Row more than a dozen times -- in fact, it was Gil who'd introduced him to the Row, he remembered. Good old backstabber Gil.
Fischer had warned him about court friendships, but Adrian had believed himself capable of telling a false heart, certainly over the course of eight long years. And Gil was an outcast among the Verities, he'd proven his loyalty a thousand times --
The broken glass of the streetlamp crunched under Adrian's boots as he changed position. He looked down, and in a slow, dreamlike movement he picked up a small piece of the glass. He wrapped it in a white handkerchief and put it in his pocket.
"Gil, give up!" Adrian called. "Your friends will be out of the picture in half an hour. I know you didn't warn them, you didn't have a chance." He paused. "Surrender now, and I promise you won't be executed. I'll have you exiled from the City at our next port of call. You can bring what you want with you. Gil!"
Damn. He was due to be in his next hiding-place, an office on the admin levels, in fifteen minutes. Fischer would be calling him there.
Assuming Fischer was still alive. There'd been no message from him in a day, and the communication links had gone down four hours ago, City-wide. Adrian's fist hit the back of the cart in frustration.
And in a matching burst of frustration, the outer edge of the cart began to sizzle, hit by a pistol-burst coming from... that butcher shop next door? A sign proclaimed the Well-Fed Pig, a gourmet food and fresh meat store, whose deep doorway would be an excellent place for an assassin to hide.
He met Streph's eyes and looked toward the shop. Streph nodded. Roger, at the clothing store, was just out of his line of sight. Adrian's inner motor started to turn over, as it always did at tournaments, at trials of strength, at anything from a swordfight to a spelling contest. He felt his body warming up, as though it had come out of a long hibernation into pure morning sunlight...
If Streph kept fire up toward the doorway, Adrian could get to the side of the store --
A cry of pain came from the doorway. Roger's head appeared in the shop next door, and the three of them looked at each other.
From the butcher's, there was only a mysterious silence. Adrian half rose, to be met by Roger's fierce, "Don't you dare!" It was hardly the way to address one's nearly liege lord, but Adrian decided this was not the time to go into that. Roger advanced, slowly, toward the shadows of the doorway.
He leaped around the corner, pistol extended in both hands, and only pulled off his aim at the last millisecond. The shot hit the pig sign, charring it to ashes at once. Roger's arms went down, and he started to laugh. Hysterically.
Streph and Adrian exchanged glances. Hitherto, Roger had given no evidence of mental illness. They rose slowly, and walked over to join him.
On the threshold of the open doorway of the Well-Fed Pig, a body lay. Gil Veritie's hand was flung out behind him, and a small pool of blood was gathering on the floor beneath his skull. Above him stood a portly, middle-aged man in a white apron with red-brown stains, holding a bat. The man was half-bald, red-faced, with dark eyes that turned now to the three in his doorway. He looked thrilled and appalled.
"I saw you from the window," he said. His eyes went wildly to Adrian. "I saw your picture last week, when Saul announced you."
"Thank you," said Adrian quietly.
The butcher relaxed suddenly. "We always liked the Mercatis around here, sir. And if you're good enough for Saul, you're good enough for me. It's his right to pick who he wants to go after him."
Adrian grinned then. "I thought so, too."
It was the Mercati family smile, the same one that his grandfather had used to become the unofficial lover of the Protector's wife. The same one his father had turned on Saul with a joyful sincerity that was almost indecent in a public person. The butcher's face turned into a mirror of Adrian's.
Roger glanced over and saw that, beneath the smudges and grime, the boy had started to glow. The boy, indeed. He'd have to stop thinking about him the way Fischer and Saul had always referred to him: Adrian was twenty now. But he'd thought the boy -- Adrian, dammit -- would be shaky from this encounter, not so... well... happy.
Roger looked into Adrian's eyes and realized with a start of horror that Adrian loved being shot at. By god, it fit with his reaction to tournament competitions. He loved being shot at, he loved having a situation come out his way, and he loved being loved; put it all together, and Adrian Mercati was glowing at this moment with enough candlepower to light the Boulevard. No wonder the shopkeeper looked ready to offer his firstborn child.
"We must do something for this fine gentleman," said Adrian, still looking at the shopkeeper. "I think I'll make him a knight. Roger, Streph, be my witnesses, would you? Mr. -- I'm sorry, what is your name, sir?"
"Leapham," said the shopkeeper, who found he couldn't stop matching Adrian's grin.
"Mr. Leapham, my dear Mr. Leapham, would you mind kneeling for a moment?"
Clearly Mr. Leapham would have stretched himself out in the gutter and acted as a bridge if he'd been asked. He knelt immediately. Roger, aware of what Fischer's reaction to this piece of work would be, tried to take action.
"Adrian, you can't just make somebody a knight. He hasn't passed the tests. He's never piloted a drop. His family -- "
Still gazing happily on his first Diamond subject, Adrian said, "Isn't that how they made knights in the old days on Earth? For valiant action in the field?"
"But this isn't the old days on Earth, and people will -- I mean, just think of what Fischer will say." Acknowledging his cowardice, Roger added, "He'll hold me responsible if I agree to witness."
Turning that same look of happiness onto his friend like a knockout blow, Adrian said simply, "But this is for me, Roger."
Roger sighed. Not that he didn't curse himself for a fool, not that he didn't anticipate Fischer's set-down, not that he didn't find the whole situation ridiculous; but denying Adrian the right to give Mr. Leapham a knighthood seemed at that moment almost like a cruelty.
And after all, if they didn't live through the night, it would be a shame not to have let Adrian have his way. If they did live through the night, this Mercati boy would be new Diamond Protector. And it would be a toss-up whether it would be worse to have Fischer or the Protector annoyed with him.
It took less than a minute to ask Mr. Leapham if he would defend the City of Diamond with his life and obey all lawful commands, and then Sir Tom Leapham was getting up, with Streph's help, looking a bit shaky.
Streph met Roger's eyes. "Can't wait till he brings his family to the next tournament." The comment was barely audible.
"Don't be a snob," began Roger, when they all froze.
Up and down Mercati Boulevard, from speakers over the shops, came the sound of bells from a recording made five centuries ago. They looked at each other, the fey glow ebbing from Adrian's face.
"He's dead," said Streph.
"I can't believe it," said Roger. He suddenly looked faintly sick. "He was there all my life." He turned blindly toward Leapham. "I thought I was prepared... "
Adrian touched his arm. "Come on. We've got a lot to do."
The voice was businesslike. Roger turned and followed him. Behind him, he heard the new knight starting to cry.
Three hours later First Adviser Brandon Fischer reactivated the commlinks and called Adrian at his secret office on the admin level. "The conspirators have all been captured."
"It sounds better than calling them rebels, Adrian. And it suggests smaller numbers than there actually were."
"And how many actually were they?" he inquired bleakly.
"Thirty-eight of the knights. Two hundred plus in all, including their paid employees. Just about all the Verities, I'm afraid, but that comes as no surprise. I'm glad for Saul's line that Gil wasn't such a fool."
"He was," said Adrian briefly.
"Oh. I'm sorry." Fischer cleared his throat. "I'll send an escort down to pick you up. You ought to address the court and security forces as soon as possible. Particularly the security forces, they did a good job for you tonight. If you'd been here instead of six companies of the City Guard, the rebels would be the ones addressing the court."
"And Saul? He's really dead?"
"He's gone." They were both silent. Fischer had been Saul's First Adviser for thirty years now, until Saul had bequeathed him to Adrian in an effort to protect his chosen successor. Fischer had not gone willingly at first.
"Was he alone when he died?"
"Well, his valet was with him."
Adrian made a sound that would have been a laugh if it weren't so unhappy. He said, "Tell them I'll be speaking in an hour."
"All right. Sir." Fischer cut the connection. It was the first time he'd ever called Adrian "sir."
Five hours after that, Fischer helped Adrian to his bed in the suite near Saul Veritie's. A corpse was laid out in there now.
"I heard about that stunt of yours with the knighthood," said Fischer.
Adrian chuckled. He pulled back the covers and let himself down, nearly groaning with the sudden relaxation of muscles. He'd been awake for the better part of three days. "Roger said you'd be upset."
"I was. I'd still be, except the commons seem delighted with it. They're putting banners out up and down the boulevard to celebrate your elevation to the Protectorship."
Adrian smiled, luxuriating in the clean sheets.
Fisher said, "I understand this fellow you raised already has a sign outside his shop with his new title on it."
The smile widened.
"Don't you think the nobles might be a little upset?"
"They never go to that kind of shop. They'll forget eventually. But the neighborhood people will pass by every day, and they'll be happy."
Fischer watched as Adrian turned his head into the pillow. On the bureau beside him was a white handkerchief and a piece of glass, where Adrian had placed them when he pulled them from his pocket before climbing into bed. "And Saul always said it was important to have their support."
"Is that why you let him give you the Protectorship?"
"Had to take it to live, Brandon. You know that."
"I was just wondering if there were any other reason."
"I beg your pardon?"
"See the Outside. No one can stop me, if I'm Protector."
Fischer blinked. This was the first time he'd heard of this. "Adrian, do you -- "
"Go away, Brandon, let me sleep. Talk to you tomorrow."
Brandon Fischer sighed and walked to the door. On the other side were City Guards, councilors from Saul's reign, and ten thousand duties. He turned at the door and looked back at Adrian's sleeping form. "Poor boy," he said under his breath. "It's damned little of the Outside you'll ever see."
City Year 545
It was Thursday, and on Thursdays Stratton Hastings Diamond always visited his mother.
He checked to make sure that the small Keith pistol was strapped securely on his forearm, and tapped the knife bulge in his soft boots from time to time as he walked down Mercati Boulevard toward the lower decks. After the third level lock, gaily decorated with its long blue banners, brought him to "E" deck he began glancing over his shoulder; and by the time he entered "G" he was scanning the balconies of the tenements on each side and watching the crowds of beggars, streetsellers, and troublemakers with a practiced eye. There was no reason to believe that his past associates were aware of his visiting pattern, or even his mother's address, but Stratton Hastings (known as Spider to friends and enemies) was a careful soul. The forty-three years of his existence had been crammed with more incident than he cared to remember, for Spider prized the quiet life. As it was he made do with the quiet moment.
He climbed the stairs to Reynardine Street and tipped his hat at the crosswalk to a man in black. "Hello, Father Brady."
"I've just come from your mother, Spider. You cause her a lot of pain."
"I know, father."
The young priest sighed. "Were you not damned, I'd bless you, Spider."
"Many thanks for the thought." Even as they were speaking he glanced up and down the street, gauging how close the other pedestrians came, noting where weapons might be hidden. "Is Mother all right?"
"Nervous palpitations, as usual. And concern over you."
"Ah. I'll be seeing you, then, Father." Spider respected the religious orders but avoided them when possible; not that Brady wasn't less abrasive than most. He produced a shameless smile for the priest, who hesitated at the Boulevard stairs as though wondering whether to spread another net for Spider's soul. "Don't want to keep Ma waiting, now, especially if she's feeling delicate."
"No, of course not." Brady buttoned the top of his black cape. "Goodbye, Spider."
Spider passed on along the narrow metal walkway, avoiding the wet laundry hung over the rails and piled on dirty gratings. His mother's compartment was third from the left. He touched the bell.
The door was flung open. "Stratton, my own." Mrs. Hastings enveloped her son in a hug. She was taller and more substantial than he and her bosom was more than ample for maternal comfort. Spider nearly disappeared in the folds of her blue housedress. "Come in, my sweet. Father Brady was just here."
"I passed him."
"He's greatly disappointed in you."
"Ma, wait till I get in before you start on me."
Mrs. Hastings grinned and took him inside. It was like being taken into the heart of an old and much-repaired doll house: A snug compartment, two rooms of soft plush chairs, a pull-out bed with a quilt, and a one-legged table with a lace cloth where a teapot and cookies were presently resting.
"Iced shortbread, sweetheart -- have some. It's the same as I gave Mrs. Cathcart and Jenny Pierce when they came by yesterday." Spider smiled and grabbed a couple of cookies as he fell back into the old armchair. His mother loved to have her cronies by to see the style in which she now lived; and he was pleased at her pride, since it was all produced from his own illegal funds. "I didn't quite know what to tell them when they asked about you, my heart."
"Tell them I'm a corporal in Inventory, respectable as anyone."
"That doesn't explain why you can't attend church."
"How should they know I don't attend church unless you tell them, Ma? Maybe I go to Saint Tom's up on court level."
His mother poured tea into a cracked china cup. "You haven't escorted me to Christmas service in two years. You're not a ghost anymore, what can I tell people?"
He stretched out his legs and examined his boots broodingly. Damned souls aren't allowed to attend church, as his mother very well knew. Mrs. Hastings said, "It's unnatural, Stratton, consorting with demons the way you do. It tears the meat from my heart whenever I think about it."
Spider did not reply to this. It was his demonic connections that made possible this snug compartment on the very border of middle-class territory, far from the level where he'd been born as the son of an unknown father and a mother on the Sin List -- for the one and only time, to hear her tell it. Ma knew as well as he that her present comforts depended on his ultimate damnation, which was why she pricked him about it, but never too hard. Ma was a practical woman.
"Heard anything from the old neighborhood?" he asked.
"Your friend Rat's been taken in the lottery."
Spider whistled between his teeth. "When?"
"Last Thursday -- probably when we were having tea, now that I think on it. Well, you can't say you're surprised, Stratton. Rat was in trouble since the day he was born; if he wasn't drunk on the church steps he was sassing somebody who oughtn't to be sassed. With all the times his name went in, it was bound to come up one day."
The cookie was dust in his mouth. Rat had never been a real friend, but he was the last of the childhood gang still living; the rest had gone to the lottery, the recycler, labor on the radiation levels, or the ghosts.
The ghosts... "Did he get away?"
"Just asking, Ma. Be fair -- if I hadn't got away to the ghosts when my name came up, we wouldn't be having tea here now, would we?"
"I heard," she said, lowering her voice, and jettisoning any pretension to moral outrage, "that he approached a runner on K level who said he'd put him in touch with some ghosts down there; but the nathy just turned him in for the reward."
"No surprise there." The shock was wearing off; Spider took another cookie. There were always people who claimed they could reach a ghost or two, but they were generally liars. Ghosts chose their contacts carefully, and not for their talkativeness. He should know; he'd lived with a ghostband for a year and half, dodging the priests and police, stealing food and clothing, sleeping in places respectable folk never knew about. He could still recall the day they came to tell him he'd come up black in the lottery -- his own damn fault for not getting that jail stint wiped off his records fast enough. Shit. What a day that had been, with Ma hysterical and himself under house arrest... Good thing Pete was right about the ghost trail he'd found, good thing he could run faster than the bored escort he'd dumped out in Reynardine Street South. Of course, he'd hadn't had these one or two extra pounds, then...
"Best hold back on the sugar, love," said his mother disconcertingly. "You're getting a bit of a paunch."
He glared at her in mild outrage. She should talk! Ma weighed two hundred and fifty, if she weighed an ounce. "Maybe I should join the ghosts again, hey? I was skinny enough then."
"Don't be difficult, Stratton. What's the news from court deck?" She settled into her chair, leaning forward just a bit to hear better.
"Busy as fleas up there, the admin decks too. Tal says we haven't officially approached Baret Two about trading, yet. He says we'll make first overtures at Baret Station so we can feel the situation out -- "
"Never mind what your demon says, Stratton, I want to hear about the wedding!" She bounced impatiently on the cushions, and the ancient chair gave an alarming groan.
"Oh." Of course. "Adrian's having a welcoming ceremony for the lady's representatives this afternoon -- right now, in fact. Tal's there, that's why he could spare me for a while."
"They let a demon go to the ceremony?" For the first time Mrs. Hastings sounded impressed with the person responsible for leading her Stratton into a life of sin.
"Ma, he's a Special Officer of the Diamond. I wouldn't be surprised if Adrian made him best man."
"No!" Clearly the scandal thrilled her. She reached into a bowl of walnuts without looking.
"Well, he'd get the ten thousand other people who think they're going to be in the wedding off his back. And he could avoid having to single out any of the families on court deck as a mark of favor. They're ripping each other's throats out over it now, I hear." Spider took another cookie without opposition, pleased he could speak so intimately about social jockeying on court level.
"And dear Adrian still hasn't seen the lady?"
"Not yet. She'll be presented in a few days."
Mrs. Hastings sighed happily, forgetting the wonders of baked goods she'd set out for her son. "You'll let me know, won't you, my own? So I can mention it, in passing, to Mrs. Cathcart."
She leaned even further forward, placing the small china plate on her knees in danger. "Is there any chance we'd be invited to the wedding?" she whispered. "There's lots of room in St. Tom's, and your demon seems to have influence with Adrian... "
"I wouldn't set my heart on it."
She pouted and leaned back in her chair. "Ah, well," she said philosophically.
There was a knock at the door. She hauled herself up from the armchair with difficulty, walked over, and slid the door open a crack.
"It's Timmy," said a young voice outside. She looked down on a small blond head and scuffed shoes.
"Only the link-boy," she called, as she turned back inside for a second, and blinked. "Stratton?" Her son had disappeared from the front room. She looked down again at the boy. "You have a message for me, Timmy?"
He nodded, producing a blue envelope from his shirt. "Came over the corner link for you just five minutes ago."
"And weren't you fast!" She pulled a coin from her dress pocket and put it in Timmy's. "Many thanks, sweetheart."
She closed the door and began opening the envelope. Spider re-appeared beside the tea tray with a questioning expression. His mother glanced at the contents, looked disgusted, and handed it to him. A smaller envelope was inside the larger, marked "Stratton Hastings."
Spider ripped it open. A short printout was there: "Meet me under St. Kit's Bridge at six o'clock. If I'm late, wait for me." No signature. He checked his timepiece -- it was only three-thirty, plenty of time for a rest and a snack.
"Nothing important," he told his mother, falling back into the armchair again.
"I suppose your demon know where I live," she said disapprovingly.
"He just knows where to reach me. It's no big deal, really." She set her mouth firmly, and Spider said, "Come on, Ma. If Tal hadn't pulled me out of the recycler line, where would your only son be?"
"Father Brady says -- "
Spider was not the sort of son who interrupted his mother, but he said suddenly, "Is Father Brady your only confessor?"
"Dear heart, I don't think that's any of your bus-- "
"I'm only wondering how many people know I'm on Tal's payroll."
"No one breaks the seal of the confessional, Stratton."
"I don't think Brady would. But it never hurts to know where you stand."
She sniffed. "As it happens, he kept after me about why he never saw you in church. I had to tell him in confession just to shut him up." She paused, seeming to hear how that sounded, and said, "Well, it was his duty."
They were both silent a moment, considering the problem. There was an automatic excommunication order, based on very old church law, on anyone who went out of their way to abet demons. Of course, no one knew of his moonlighting for Tal, so no one knew he was excommunicate. And technically, since he was damned anyway, he might as well pile sin on sin and go to church alongside the righteous. Neither Spider nor his mother thought it illogical that he would not.
Spider sighed. All right, it was true Tal was a demon -- nobody knew better than he -- but it was Tal who'd gotten him out of the execution line and given him a new chance and a new roll of cash, where the best City society could come up with was ghosthood or death. Poor Rat, the stupid bastard... One did what one could. Spider, too, was practical.
"Ma... " he said, wondering how to broach the subject. "Uh, does Father Brady know where the money comes from?"
"Are you crazy?" She looked around the cozy little room at all her dear things. "It would be 'tainted fruit.' He'd want me to have it confiscated."
Spider leaned back with his cup and grinned. Good old Ma.
Brandon Fischer watched in horror as Adrian rolled his dress shirt up into a ball and threw it across his bedchamber.
"Adrian, that suit has been approved -- "
"You approved it, Brandon." The Protector of the City of Diamond grinned, pleased with the effect he was having. He'd been far too cooperative this last week; it gave Brandon a false sense of security, of which he needed to be disabused. "You approved it, the tailor made it, and Lucius got me into it; have you ever heard about 'leading a horse to water'?"
"But -- " Fischer groped for words. "You've never complained before about my choice of costume for official affairs."
"I was never engaged to be married before." The young man and the old one looked at each other, while Adrian's valet, unimpressed, walked over to the discarded shirt, picked it up, and brushed it off. "The shirt is brown, the breeches are brown, the boots are brown. My hair is brown. My skin is brown. I look like something thrown out of the recycler."
Fischer said, patiently, "It's a very inoffensive color. No symbolic values attached to it at all. Green would have been too religious, yellow would have suggested the Veritie family colors, white -- "
"Brandon, I have as much respect for the political values as anyone, but was there some reason my personal appearance couldn't have been taken into account in this equation?"
Fischer pursed his lips. The Mercatis were known for a streak of vanity a mile wide, but the boy had never given him trouble in this area before. Finally he said, as though explaining to a student, "This is a historic meeting. I know we've been messaging back and forth incessantly, but from an official point of view -- "
"-- official being the only point of view that matters -- "
"It's the first reception of anyone from the City of Opal since the end of the Civil War. This will be their first impression of you. You will be greeting them as the Diamond Protector, Adrian, not as a fashion-plate -- "
His boy, his protégé, his pride, turned and slashed a look toward Fischer that made re-evaluate his tone. It was a look that suggested the Diamond Chief Adviser had taken leave of his senses. "Brandon," said Adrian slowly. "I am officially betrothed. They will be reporting back on what I look like to the lady in question."
Ah. Fischer controlled the smile that rose to his lips. Of course that aspect of things would be on Adrian's mind. "Believe me, they'll say only good things," he assured him. "They'd say only good things if you were a hunchback with one leg; they want the marriage to go through."
Adrian sighed, a meaningful sound that suggested it had been a long time since Fischer was twenty-three. He said, "Already one of the hangers-on in the Opal delegation told one of the Diamond hangers-on that Iolanthe's well-known for being a shrew that nobody on Opal would go near, regardless of the wedding portion." He shrugged. "It might be true. Or he could have made it up on the spot. It's remarkable how many things people come out with just to have something to say."
Fischer looked faintly shocked. "They're not supposed to be speaking to anybody before the reception! And what hangers-on?"
"Oh, some clothes-peg who came along to make the Opal delegation look a little grander. He mentioned it in passing to one of the folk we have assigned to look after them."
"How did you hear about it?"
Adrian inspected himself in his full-length mirror, a dissatisfied expression on his face. "That's not the point. The point is, what are they saying about me? The girl's only seventeen, Brandon. We don't want to scare her." He glared at the image in the mirror as though that would somehow alter it for the better. "I cannot wear this suit in public. Lucius! Don't we have another shirt somewhere?"
Lucius Stringfellow was an eighteen-year-old who moved with the careful dignity a mountain peak might possess if it suddenly became mobile. He met Adrian's gaze in the mirror. "Sir, you threw your blue silk cape and shirt at me last night and told me to put it with the pile I sent for cleaning. And they were very in need of it, too. Your white shirt of Tuesday has still not been located, but assuming it was lost here, and not... elsewhere... " Adrian seemed oblivious to this reference, but Fischer's complexion, naturally ruddy, took on a slightly pinker cast. "-- it will no doubt appear when one of the maids does the room this afternoon."
"Damn! I wish Tal were here. He always has ideas."
"He's in the outer rooms, sir," said Lucius, before Fischer could speak. "Shall I fetch him?"
"We don't need him for this, do we?" Fischer inquired.
"Call him in," said Adrian, and Lucius went away.
Fischer seated himself on the edge of a table. He did so awkwardly, with the movements of a man whose bones were aching, though he'd seemed healthy enough a moment ago. "Adrian," he began.
"Oh, that earnest tone." Adrian smiled with genuine affection. "How well I know it. Can't you leave Tal be for a while? You've been peering at him for two years, and he's done nothing to justify this constant suspicion."
"He is what he is."
"On the Diamond he is what I make him, and I've given him sixteenth rank."
Fischer shook his head. How could the boy be so blind? You'd think after that business with Gil Veritie during the rebellion, he'd be more careful with his companions. But Adrian had never mentioned Gil's betrayal again, never seemed to give it a second thought. "Tal," Fischer said, rolling it around in his throat, "Tal! He doesn't even have a last name. He's an Outsider. He's an acknowledged demon. And you spend far too much time in his company, Adrian."
The Protector smiled, his eyes distant. "Really, how can you be so conventional, Brandon? When I think of all the years you warned me against court friendships, you should be glad I've found an intimate with no pretensions to power."
Fischer followed his glance to the rather eccentric objet d'art that sat on Adrian's dressertop: A tall block of clear crystalline material with a shard of glass embedded in it. "Power comes in different forms," he snapped irritably. "Look, what is that thing, anyway? It's the only abstract piece you own. When you tossed out Saul's old pictures I thought you said you didn't want 'art' following you into your bedchamber at night."
"Just a memento of the rebellion." Adrian's gaze cleared. "Tal! Come in, I need your advice."
A figure in pearl-gray detached itself from where it lounged against the door, and came in. A visual recording would have shown the new entrant as the youngest person in the room, younger even than Lucius Stringfellow, who accompanied him; perhaps seventeen years old, on the slender side, with dark hair and gray eyes. But the other three people in the room did not see him that way. Nobody who came to know Tal for more than half an hour ever thought of him as seventeen, ever again. As for his chronological age, for all they knew, he might have been the oldest there; that information, along with his surname and place of origin, was kept to himself. It was simple prudence, in a demon.
Without a word, Adrian picked up the chocolate-colored shirt that Lucius had rescued from the floor, and held it against himself.
Tal said, "You look like something tossed out of a recycler."
Brandon Fischer threw up his hands and turned away.
"But what to do about it?" asked Adrian. "If we were closer in size, I could change shirts with you, but -- "
Tal's glance was ranging the room. He stopped. "What's this?" He walked to Adrian's bed and tugged on a scrap of white that hung from the snowy bedclothes. It turned into a sleeve. He tossed the shirt to Adrian and said, "It's fortunate you're unacquainted with neatness."
Adrian said happily, "I knew you'd come up with something. Lucius! How fast can we press this?"
"It should be washed, sir -- "
Tal took a chair, lounging back comfortably. "They won't be close enough to smell anything. You humans have underdeveloped olfactory senses, anyway."
"Press it, Lucius," said Adrian.
Fischer said, "White suggests -- "
"It suggests a chaste and proper bridegroom," cut in Tal, who patience with Diamond symbolism had clearly defined limits. His gray eyes rested coldly on Brandon Fischer's figure, where the old man sat tiredly on the edge of the walnut table, his weight eased back to take the burden from his legs. The boy, or man, known as Adrian's demon did not suffer those he considered fools gladly. More than once, he'd suggested to the Protector that an early retirement for the Chief Adviser would be in everyone's best interest; but Adrian seemed to have a sentimental attachment to the old dodderer. As if loyalty to past bonds ever got anyone anywhere. Humans lived in constant illusion; he, Tal, did not live in illusion. "What's the arrangement today?" he asked. "Any taboos I should be observing?"
"The reception is purely for show," said Adrian. "No business or policy discussion. I'll be introducing myself as a Mercati -- as though they hadn't already heard -- and we'll all accept each other as one big family."
"I do hope the family's been checked for weapons."
"It's a public reception, Tal. Ambassadors and other boring folk. I doubt if anyone's going to pull out a penknife and strike a blow for their City."
Fischer said to Tal, "We don't all have your keen grasp of how to remove obstacles."
Tal smiled. It was a different smile from Adrian's.
Adrian knelt beside his dresser and pulled a wine-colored sash from a drawer. Fischer said nothing; he was past commenting on the clothes. Adrian tossed the wine sash over his shoulder to the floor, with his usual regard for household order, and unrolled one of white. As he tied it around his waist, he asked, "What are the lower decks saying about the wedding?"
Fischer hadn't a clue what the lower decks were saying. He opened his mouth to report this, when Tal said, "The idea seems to have a lot of appeal. They're a sentimental bunch, particularly below G deck."
Tal met Fischer's startled glance blandly.
"I was not aware," said Fischer, "that your demon had some sort of information-gathering imperative."
Tal said, "I wasn't aware the Chief Adviser was required to be informed of every step the Protector takes."
Adrian looked up from the mess he was making of the sash's knot -- he knew he should leave these things to Lucius, but he was impatient to get out. "If you two are going to start referring to each other in the third person again, you can damn well leave. I've got enough on my mind today as it is."
"Nor was I aware," said Fischer, turning to face Tal, "that you possess contacts outside of court. I know you have few enough there -- "
"Maybe your focus has been too narrow."
"Maybe it should be widened."
Adrian cleared his throat, and Fischer fell silent, at least for a moment. Then he turned back to Adrian. "You've always cared too much what the lower decks think. Regardless of what Saul used to say, their approval can only go so far. The knights are the group that matters; they're the ones with weapons. Them and the bankers."
"He's probably right," said Tal.
Fischer, who had been about to continue the argument, paused, looked uncomfortable, and switched directions. "Of course, it doesn't hurt to sound their opinion," he admitted, grudgingly.
"And what about the girl?" asked Adrian. "How do they feel about Iolanthe?"
Tal said, "Oh, they're ready to accept her as a pure, untrammeled flower, a funnel of all virtues. They have every expectation that you two will fall in love at first sight, or at least do them the courtesy of faking it for their benefit. I hope you're not going to disillusion them?"
"I'll try not to," said Adrian, "but someone may have to cue the lady." He looked up, surrendering his struggle with the sash, and met Tal's eyes in the mirror. Adrian said, "You're wearing your gray lenses!"
"You asked me to."
Fischer peered into Tal's face, and stirred uneasily. "Adrian, if they've heard he's a demon... do we want to offend them? Everybody knows demons have gray eyes when they fully incarnate. Couldn't he have worn the green or brown lenses?"
For the first time Tal looked less confident. "I took your request at face value. If it was one of those aspects of humor you say escape me -- "
"No, no!" said Adrian. "That is, it was, but I meant what I said. It appealed to my own humor to have you attend with gray eyes. Come on, Brandon, take it in context. He might have attended without any lenses at all. That would get their attention."
"Adrian, I wish you would consult me before -- "
Lucius returned with the shirt, and Adrian seized it gratefully, saying, "We really must hurry, you know." There was a slight note of accusation in his voice as he looked at Tal and Fischer. One would think he'd been delayed unreasonably for hours. He tucked in the shirt hastily, while Lucius made disapproving sounds over the sash, and the demon and the Chief Adviser exchanged a rare glance of accord.
The upper corridor to the Cavern of Audience was a long one, and Adrian took the opportunity to drop back a few paces and address his demon.
"Do try not to provoke him."
"I beg your pardon?" Tal inquired.
"Brandon." Adrian nodded to where Fischer strode ahead with the three lead members of the Protector's Squad. "It's not that he's stupid, you know, it's just that he's conventional. You pluck at all his nerves."
"I pluck at his nerves just by being."
"That's my point. You could try not to rub his nose in it by always giving him the benefit of your -- unique viewpoint."
"I thought you asked me to stay because of my unique viewpoint."
Adrian smiled. "My dear demon, let me put it this way: I don't ask you to change your nature. Don't expect Brandon to change his. He is conventional. That which is outside the bounds offends him. But he knows everybody on court level, and I owe him a great deal."
Tal grunted. Adrian knew enough not to take this for assent. He said, "Three years ago -- before we had the honor of your company -- this corridor was full of rebels. Nine-tenths of Saul Veritie's inbred relatives tried to storm the Cavern. If Brandon hadn't handled the situation for me, I'd be dead." He smiled. "And by extension, so would you."
"I find it difficult to believe that one clear thought ever made it through that man's brain in his entire life."
"He finds it difficult to believe one moral thought ever made it through yours."
"We know each other so well."
Adrian laughed. One of the advantages of Tal's company was the privilege of saying anything you were thinking to him. He didn't judge anything, and nothing offended him. Meeting a demon had been one of the greatest reliefs of Adrian's life.
At the end of the corridor, the group passed through the double doors that opened onto the upper landing of the Grand Staircase. The entire Cavern was before them, a huge expanse of onyx, floor, walls and ceiling; gleaming black surfaces that curved into each other, reflecting the colors of the parties assembled below. The three-storey staircase unwound beneath them, cut out of the ebony rock six centuries ago by nonhuman engineers for whom aesthetics had been at least as important as function. Adrian, Tal, and Fischer gazed out at Diamond courtiers, admins, knights, ladies of the court, and Opal delegates, all dressed as flamboyantly as the occasion would allow. The two security guards flanking the landing were in full dress colors and ruffles.
Adrian took a step down. Tal touched his shoulder. "Wait."
Fischer watched as Adrian stopped. Certainly, he thought, for his demon he's all cooperation!
"What is it?"
"There are more Opal delegates than there should be."
Adrian murmured, "My, don't you count quickly." He looked down at the court, as more and more faces turned up to see them. "How many?"
Fischer peered at the folk below. He could barely make out gowns or breeches, from here. Of course, his eyes weren't as good as they used to be --
Adrian said, "They've only been approved to bring eleven."
Fischer opened his mouth to give the order, but Tal was already striding just outside the double doors, where a link station was active. Fischer heard his voice, " -- by order of the Protector. This is Tal Diamond, officer of the Sixteenth Rank. ...Of course we mean now, you feeble-minded idiot. Were you assuming -- " Tal delivered his invective without anger, but with a razorlike simplicity that carried its own logic. Fischer winced, grateful that he was not the object of it at the moment.
A few seconds later Tal returned.
Adrian quirked an eyebrow. "May we continue?"
Nobody else, thought Fischer, would address the boy in quite that tone and get away with it. Adrian waited patiently.
Still looking at the crowd, Tal said, "The security officer told me that they'd had to admit the extra Opallines rather than offend the Lord Cardinal. He said that they had it under control. I asked if this meant he'd brought in extra security. He said no." As they watched, about a dozen non-uniformed men entered the great bronze doors below and fanned out into the crowd. "All right. Go ahead."
"Thank you so much." Adrian took a step. "You know, Tal," he said conversationally, "the Lord Cardinal was only trying to throw a little territorial weight around. This is just a reception. Bad canapés are the worst we can look forward to."
"No harm in being careful." He and Fischer followed Adrian, two paces behind.
"Fortunately the pause added a little drama to our entrance. Knowing the boredom that lies ahead for these fine people, I couldn't begrudge them any extra excitement."
"Adrian," said Fischer reprovingly, in the same tone he'd used when the Protector was fourteen and unranked.
"Come now, Chief Advisor," said Adrian, "you know very well that if anybody says anything today that falls outside the welcome ritual, I'll eat that disgusting sash you wanted me to wear."
They'd reached the final third of the staircase and Adrian stopped talking so he could enter the court with the proper attitude of dignity. He didn't want Fischer to lecture him later. They descended into a lake of crimson and blue ball gowns, formally attired knights in the sigils of their squadrons, and court hangers-on of both Cities decked out in their most impressive silk and brocade. Primary colors were fashionable this year; the Cavern was a giant jewelbox of human artifice. At the final step, Tal and Fischer halted, leaving Adrian to walk forward and accept the embrace of Lord Cardinal Theodore Richard Arno, chief envoy and head of the Ecclesiastical Council of the City of Opal.
Arno was a big man, tall and stocky, who looked as though he'd been hauling crates all his life instead of looking after spiritual interests. Adrian hadn't expected the embrace, but he joined it, he thought, without obvious awkwardness. He felt Arno make a sketchy blessing motion as the cardinal released him, and his gaze went to Bishop Aldgate, who looked like a man gnashing his teeth. As chief bishop of the Diamond, and Adrian's official spiritual adviser, Aldgate ought to be doing any blessing that was going to be done here. More feathers to be soothed later, Adrian thought. Everybody wants to be loved. He stepped back from Arno's embrace and threw a smile toward Aldgate that shared just the right amount of pained politeness: What could one do?
"My son," intoned the Lord Cardinal, choosing a politically unfortunate term of address.
Throwing that territorial weight around again. "My dear Lord Cardinal," said Adrian. "Our beloved brother of Opal. The Diamond rejoices to see you well. Families should not be divided."
"Opal is overjoyed to hear you say so. The Separation has been far too long; though your father's wisdom in suggesting it was deep. Tensions were too high. But that was twenty-five years ago; on Opal, we all hope that unpleasantness can be forgotten, and our two Cities can live in harmony and prosperity once again."
It rolled off his tongue as any good speech should, with a practiced flair; but then, why the "father" when he spoke of Saul? The man must have been warned that this last succession had not gone to a member of the Veritie family.
Adrian kept his smile firmly in place. If Arno thought he could outdo him in hypocrisy, he was wrong; three years as Diamond Protector had not gone for nothing. "Your kindness in forgiving the past is too much," he said modestly. "My guardian, the great Saul Veritie, often wondered if he'd been too stringent in insisting on the full twenty-five years of Separation. But I gather that, at the time, the Civil War -- "
"'War' seems too harsh a term," said Arno, smiling.
"It does," Adrian agreed at once. "'Misunderstanding,' perhaps, would be better."
"At that time, as I say, tempers were strained." And strained tempers and highly explosive weapons do not go together. Maybe we should call it "The Civil Slight Disagreement In Which Eight Thousand People Were Killed in Twenty Minutes."
"Tempers always seem worse among those who truly love one another, do they not?"
"You have such wisdom. For one of your age."
"My thanks. May I present my Chief Adviser, Lord Brandon Fischer -- "
Fischer gave a scrupulously correct bow -- about one inch deeper than the one Arno returned. The cardinal said to Adrian, "We met before, briefly -- in your father's time."
Adrian's teeth showed in his return smile; more bared than showed, Fischer thought, as he glanced over to see how the boy was taking it. Arno was really pushing the father thing. Already he longed to hear what Adrian would have to say about the cardinal later.
"And Special Officer Tal Diamond," Adrian continued, unscripted, motioning for Tal to step down and join them. Fischer's eyes widened slightly. Tal was there to observe, not to be officially presented to Opal notice; this was Adrian's way of annoying where annoyance had been given.
What had Arno heard? Would he make formal recognition of a creature of hell? Fischer was appalled, but not as much as he was fascinated. He leaned forward, noting as he did that a great many of the court were doing so as well.
For a moment the Lord Cardinal seemed actually taken aback. He wet his lips. Then he said, "An honor." Tal, at least, had been coached in giving the bow of a Sixteenth Rank, and he gave it, his eyes flicking toward Adrian as he came up. Arno gazed at him. "'Special Officer?'... " He let the sentence hang.
"My personal bodyguard," said Adrian blandly.
Tal's eyes went again to Adrian, but he said nothing.
"A post of honor," said the cardinal politely. He turned back to Adrian, dropping Tal from his notice. "I hope that in the days to come, as we renew old friendships, you'll come to know all the gentlemen in my delegation; but meanwhile, will you allow me to bring our First Secretary to your notice? Officer Hartley Quince, Twelfth Rank."
A young man detached himself from the party of Opallines and stepped forward, bowing deeply. He had light gold-brown hair and even lighter brows, and a fine-boned, sensitive face, good-looking enough to border on pretty. He bowed with the gracefulness of childhood training and met Adrian's gaze just as gracefully when he came up.
"The Diamond will always be glad to welcome anyone the Lord Cardinal recommends as our friend," said Adrian, but he said it uneasily. There was something familiar about Quince, and that was impossible. He couldn't be more than twenty-two or twenty-three; and even if he were a little older, he couldn't have been more than a baby when the Separation took place. The Cities had not only been parsecs apart, there had been a complete communications blackout since the war. On different drive-times, they couldn't have communicated if they'd wanted to. Certainly pictures couldn't have been transmitted. So how could his face strike with such recognition --
Quince was smiling and saying something polite and forgettable; Adrian responded automatically in kind. Then Arno was speaking again.
" -- before your time, of course, but we who remember your father will always cherish his wisdom in setting forth the treaty."
Adrian blinked, then his lips curved. One problem at a time. "I see, my dear friend, that I have need to present myself to your notice properly. You must forgive me for being derelict. I know that my surname hasn't always been popular in your City, but as you've said, all that past unpleasantness can be forgotten. Saul was my guardian, not my father, and my name is Mercati."
Arno looked as courteously surprised as if he'd never known. "Unusual for a Protector to pass his position to someone outside his own family, is it not? Of course, the City of Opal has no hereditary posts, so perhaps I'm simply showing my ignorance."
"Oh, it's been done often enough in the past." Though not in the last hundred years. "It's only custom, not law, to pass it through the family; the Protector has every right to give the responsibility to the person of his choice."
"I do hope everyone saw it that way. No hard feelings, I mean, among the Verities."
Adrian's face went blank. "None at all."
"And I must say, your advisers have misled you if they've given you to believe the Mercati name isn't honored on the Opal."
"Oh? We have a reputation, you'll admit, for being progressive."
"Opal is a very progressive city," said Arno, in such a flat-out lie that Adrian could only admire it.
He coughed. "I trust the lady Iolanthe is enjoying good health."
"Excellent. She looks forward to her new life with you."
I'll bet she does. "Please send her my love, and give her this, if you would." He reached out a hand without looking around and Tal set something gleaming and golden into it. Adrian passed it to Arno.
It was a fine gold chain with a two hearts, each heart intricately engraven with their names, repeated over and over in miniature script.
"Beautiful workmanship," said the cardinal, peering at the tiny letters. "I know this will please her."
"I hope so." Whoever the hell she is. For a moment a succession of crone-like images flashed through his mind. He dearly wished that City etiquette allowed him to ask for her picture. It might amuse the old men on the Opal Ecclesiastical Council to tie him to a humiliating marriage, though that was unlikely. Still, he did seem to dwell on the fringe possibilities lately. When it wasn't a kinetescope of crones moving through his mind's eye, it was a slower stream of dreamlike beauties that seemed to trickle in whenever he let himself wonder about Iolanthe Pelagia. Odds were far more likely that she was some skinny, plain young lady somewhere firmly between the two extremes; and why shouldn't she be? She was just a seventeen-year-old girl. If she could stumble her way through City functions, that was the most he could reasonably ask.
Adrian said, "And now, if you'll allow me, I'll have you shown back to your suite so you can start becoming settled."
Arno planted himself firmly. "I'm sure the Protector hasn't forgotten his role in the full welcoming ritual," he said. He reached into his robe and came out with an turquoise-handled dagger. "Duty sometimes slips the mind of youth, but maturity is ever a leader."
It was a fully inscribed sacrificial knife. Oh, lord, thought Adrian, he's not actually going to insist --
He was. Adrian sighed and made sure his white satin cuff was far enough from his palm that it wouldn't get bloody. Lucius would have a fit if he ruined another shirt, and besides, this was Adrian's favorite. With an air of martyrdom, he held out his palm, saying, "Three Cities, one blood. Redemptionist knows redemptionist wherever they may meet."
Arno was not a man with qualms about cutting through skin. He slashed quite competently along Adrian's lifeline, then his own. "One truth, one family, never can be parted." He laid his palm on Adrian's.
Their eyes met. Mindless Opalline adherence to ritual the words might be, but Adrian was terribly afraid they were true.
"No hard feelings among the goddamn Verities," muttered Adrian as Tal pressed a clean cloth into his palm.
"It could have just been a shot in the dark, to irritate you," said Fischer. "It would make sense that the Verities might have been unhappy."
"The man knew," said Adrian. "I was standing next to him, I could see his face. How did he get up to date so quickly?"
Tal removed the cloth, checked to see the bleeding had stopped, and began cutting a bandage. "I'm sure Opal has plenty of spies on the Diamond." He wrapped the adhesive efficiently around Adrian's hand.
"Of course, but they haven't spoken to them in twenty-five years. Arno's been on board for three hours and he hasn't seen anybody but the people we assigned to settle them into their quarters." He looked down at the bandage. "Thank you. Under the circumstances, you can't blame me for finding the whole situation rather depressing."
Tal tossed the gauze back to the boy who'd brought it from the medical closet. "If it starts to ache, I have aspirin in my quarters."
Fischer opened his mouth, closed it, looked up and down the corridor, and turned away. "Adrian, please tell him not to say things like that in public."
He was genuinely perturbed. Adrian said, "Tal, you will not refer to interdicted drugs in public."
"All right." The demon shrugged. "I thought you should know."
Adrian sighed. "I suppose the polite thing would be to warn the delegation that I'll be asking for an official Oracle at dinner tonight."
"Surely they're expecting that," said Fischer.
"But it would be polite to warn them. In case the Oracle comes out with some bizarre statement they feel bound to respond to."
They emerged from the corridor at a high walkway overlooking the court level grounds. Below them, early spring had been enforced on the greenery at a temperature of 55 degrees Fahrenheit and a daily light-dose equivalent to Old Earth temperate latitudes in the month of March. Under this iron hand, pink and yellow buds would shortly be growing in profusion. The skinny silver band of Katherine's River wound past them. A canoe was out already, a court lady perched precariously in the rear; as they descended the stairs toward St. Kit's Walk, the aristo in the front of the canoe put down his paddle and leaned toward the lady.
Fischer leaned forward as well, with interest. He was conventional, but no prude; spring was made for breaking the Purity Laws. Then he saw Tal follow his gaze, and made himself turn back toward the stairs.
Tal said to Adrian, "We can safely assume the Oracle won't say anything specific enough to warrant attention."
"You can't predict an Oracle," said Fischer severely. He risked a glance over his shoulder; alas, the lady was simply handing her companion a sandwich. The clichés were true, youth was wasted on the young.
"Not word for word. I can predict a certain amount of vague generalization in whatever it says."
"You're an Outsider," snapped Fischer. "If you'd ever read the Book of Prophecies -- "
"I have read it, and a more irrational mishmosh of phrases would be hard to find."
Adrian increased his speed down the steps, causing the four members of the security squad to speed up as well.
Fischer said, "It predicted Olin's execution in 392."
"It predicted somebody's premature death at some time. A relatively safe bet. And a few good hits among six hundred prophecies fail to impress me. Random chance alone would dictate--"
Fischer was starting to hiss between his teeth.
"As for the writing style," Tal continued, " -- verbs with only a spurious attachment to nearby nouns, an inability to get to the point, a lack of clarity that can only reflect a lack of cognitive function -- "
"I don't need to hear literary criticism from a product of hell!" said Fischer.
"Take good criticism where you can find it," replied Tal calmly.
Fischer was starting to change color again. Adrian reached the landing just above St. Kit's, slowed down, and managed to tread on Tal's boot as he crossed. Tal looked into his face and met clear brown eyes focused on his own. Human expressions were not always fully decipherable to Tal, but somehow he decided it was time to drop this topic with Brandon Fischer. He looked down at his timepiece and back to Adrian. "It's quarter to six."
"You see, Brandon, just another example of how well-informed he keeps me."
"I meant that I have to take my leave. I've an appointment at six."
Adrian nodded. "Someday you must tell me how you spend your spare time." He made a dismissive gesture, and Tal turned and started down the last vertical walkway, toward the greenery this side of the river. "I'll expect you at the reception dinner tonight," Adrian called, knowing Tal would hear.
Adrian moved down the walkway, but Fischer put out a hand. "I think we should talk. In private, for once."
Neither of them seemed to feel their privacy would be intruded on by the four squad members standing just on the edge of earshot. They faced the railing, backs to the security guards.
Fischer said, "Was it wise to introduce him to Arno?"
Adrian seemed faintly surprised. "They know he's here. And if they didn't, they'd find out soon enough. We might as well get the socially awkward part of it over."
"I was thinking of the Book of Prophecies, which your nonhuman friend thinks so little of."
"'After darkness and silence, when demons will walk in the City'? 'Tribulation, death, sorrow?' Any of these sound familiar?"
"I do know that one." Adrian grinned. "It ends, 'The triumvirate shall find the Crown.'"
"Precious helpful that is. We don't have a triumvirate, and neither does Opal, and the Sawyer Crown's been gone for centuries. I'm talking about the tribulation and death part of it."
"You've never been an optimistic man, Brandon -- "
"'Darkness and silence' -- the communications blackout with Opal, that ends today. 'Demons walking the city.'" He pointed to Tal's figure down below, heading toward the arched bridge of St. Kit's. "Mark my words, something bad is coming. And I'll bet the Lord Cardinal knows the Book better than you or I."
Adrian hesitated. "Have you heard any speculation from the Opal delegates as to why we named Baret system as our rendezvous?"
Fischer was taken aback. "What does that have to do with the subject? Is there any reason to believe we won't be welcome at Baret Two? I thought it was a fairly peaceable planet."
"Of course. I was just wondering if you'd heard anything."
Fischer looked at what he still saw as a face too young and vulnerable. The older he got, the more Adrian appeared to be a twelve-year-old decked out in grownup's clothing. Adrian returned the gaze with one of open innocence.
"You look the way you looked when you convinced Bryan Veritie to give you his place in the 540 tournament."
Adrian burst out laughing, one of his rare all-the-way-through laughs that transformed his face like a halo. Below them, near the stairs, two young women of the court walked with two highly dressed spaniels whose fur appeared to be dyed green. The young lady in front wore a spangled headdress and sheer veil that swayed with her body; the young lady behind kept trying to gather her patterned skirt away from her spaniel's footsteps. She tripped and looked around quickly to see if anyone had seen her.
She did not look up toward Adrian, who was watching with deep appreciation. He sighed happily. "You know, Brandon, when I'm married, I'm going to give up this dallying with other women. Give it up totally, I mean -- a firm break. After all, I owe a certain responsibility to my wife. She'll be leaving all her friends behind, and we wouldn't want her to feel unwelcome." He spoke with every evidence of sincerity.
"Of course," Fischer agreed.
"I mean it! Never, ever again." The light voices of the two women fluted up from below as they argued, without rancor, in the kind of practiced rhythm that belongs to old friends. Gold hair showed beneath the hat of the girl who'd tripped. "Or certainly not for a very long time," Adrian amended.
The ladies vanished around a curve of trees. "And I'll be very discreet if I do," he added softly.
Busy watching the two young ladies, neither Adrian nor Fischer noticed Tal's figure in the distance, as it veered off the pathway to disappear under St. Kit's bridge.
"God, I'm glad it's you," said Spider, his shadow separating abruptly from the darkness of the archway. "I'm not dressed for court level. I keep thinking people are staring at me.
Tal shrugged. "If anybody stops you, just show the pass."
"Some of these guardpost types aren't above taking your pass and beating you up to kill time," said Spider, "especially if you're just a corporal in Inventory hanging around where you shouldn't be."
"Even now? Adrian will be interested in that. He's been trying to clean up the City Guard for two years now." Tal leaned against a damp wall. "Could we speed this along, Spider? We're partially visible from that lookout over the river."
Spider drew back into the shadows again. "There are two citycops on beat up there somewhere. What'll they think if they see us?"
"I imagine they'll think we're having sex."
"Are you out of your mind?" Spider disappeared further into the darkness. "Sodomy's a death offense!"
"They aren't as picky about these tribal taboos on court level, Spider. I suspect they have an entirely different set of taboos. Relax. ...How's your mother?"
"Fine." Spider did not re-emerge.
"And how are my private messages to Baret Station?"
Spider sighed and reached into his breeches pocket. "One positive response." He handed over the link replies. "In case anything comes of it, you should know I had to forge the duty officer's com-signature. A sweet job, he'll never even realize it himself, but if they ever verify these... I mean, you said you'd take care of any problems that arose if I used my initiative... Are you listening to me?"
Tal was shuffling rapidly through the messages. "Was the response from a station source, or one of the planet-side reps?"
"It was from the Kestrel. A visiting Republic ship in dock at Baret Station."
Tal looked up. "You didn't say it was a Republic ship."
"Well, I didn't know it was important to you. If you'd keep me better informed -- "
"It will make things complicated."
"I don't see why. Adrian lets you in and out of the City whenever you want. You can slip over to Baret Station, meet this person," -- he pulled one corner of Tal's papers back and consulted the message -- "this Cyr Vesant, and be back here in just a few hours."
Tal looked around and sat down on a boulder. His expression was distant. Spider went on, "Look, I know the Republic police want you, but you don't have to set foot on their territory. 'Cyr' is an Empire title, right? So this Vesant person's no Republican. I mean, technically, the ship's owners might be Republican, but they're a long way from home."
"Not that long."
"Sure they are. Hell, probably the ship's passengers are all Empire, and the Empire's never even heard of you." He paused uncertainly. "So you've always said."
"Spider, Adrian's intelligence was out-of-date. Baret System's a half-and-half."
Spider sat down, too, looking taken aback. "That can't last."
"No. Baret One went over to the Republic twenty years ago. They probably have provocateurs on Baret Two now, trying to get it to secede from the Empire."
Spider's boulder was wet, and his pants started to transmit the dampness to his skin. He'd never imagined himself hanging around under a bridge like a damned troll, talking interstellar politics. Maybe his mother was right about bad companions. "Won't that piss the Empire off? We're not getting into a war, are we? Shifting uncomfortably on his rock, he noted that moss was growing on the underside of the stone bridgework; typical of the nasty, messy places Tal liked to go to.
"This far from the action, the Imperial Senate doesn't care all that much. They have other things on their minds." The footsteps of two pedestrians clattered overhead. They waited till the sounds passed. "Try to grasp this, Spider: The reason the Kestrel is a Republic ship is because it's registered out of Baret One, a Republic planet. They have friends within hailing distance, armed friends."
"Well, I mean, still... what difference does it make to us? Since when do we care about politics?"
"Since I'll be alone on the Kestrel, we care."
Spider stared. "You're going to board the bloody ship? In the name of God, why?"
"It's a half and half system, Spider. The Republic will want to keep all its little chicks in one basket. That means they won't let passengers off at the station unless the station is their official destination -- which it isn't for Vesant. I'll have to board the ship for a meeting."
"Forget Vesant! How important can this information be? It's not worth risking your life, is it?" When Tal didn't answer, he said, "For god's sake, you're perfectly safe on the Diamond! Isn't walking around on a Republic ship just asking for trouble?"
"I'll be wearing my lenses, Spider. But thank you for your concern."
"You're an illegal person in the Republic! Anybody can do anything to you! And they know you, Tal -- "
"Not individually. I doubt if the twelve billion Republicans in this system have even heard of me... beyond a few in the police net, anyhow."
Spider hit the side of the bridge in frustration. "It's not fair! My safety depends on yours, you know."
"Does it?" Tal smiled.
"The City Guards are just waiting to pounce. I'd have to run for the ghosts again, and the ghosts don't want me."
"From what I hear, that's putting it mildly. Cheer up, Spider, I won't be taking any chances. Believe me, my safety is even more important to me than it is to you." He folded the messages up and slipped them into an inside pocket. Then he turned, left the darkness beneath the bridge, and began making his way up the side of the hill, leaving Spider to follow at a discreet interval.
He started over the bridge. It was an early spring day, designed to please, with a carefully generated series of breezes that brought the scent of wildflowers over the river. He could appreciate the aesthetics, intellectually, as well as the intricacy of planning on the part of the ancient engineers. But the lifting of the heart it was claimed to engender was beyond him, or possibly he was beyond it; biological slavery to their roots, he thought, not without contempt, glancing at the crocuses on the bank across the way.
A group of young gentlemen, well-dressed, laughing, emerged from the trees and started across the bridge from the other side. One of them had a guitar strapped to his back. Tal focused on the edge of the riverbank, a piece of body motion he had learned was useful in not provoking human males; there had been several unfortunate experiences in his past.
They met in the middle. There were five of them, and two moved to block Tal's way.
"What have we here?" called one merrily to his companions. "A Diamond in the rough, it looks like."
"Demon in the rough, I think," replied the young man with the guitar. "Don't you recognize him? It's Adrian's Outsider."
"Is that true?" asked the first speaker, a large, light-haired boy, twenty at the most. The butt-end of a pistol showed beneath his cape. "Are you a demon? They're sending them out of Hell young, aren't they?"
Tal knew this dance, the display dance of young human males as they worked themselves up to acts of violence. Tal himself did not require working up, and he always carried a Keith pistol where he could easily reach it. However, he was not supposed to be armed, and no doubt it would cause talk if he killed these five people, though his reflexes were quite capable of it. More importantly, Adrian would be bound to hear about the incident, and it would upset him.
"You hear me, demon?" said the blond-haired man.
On the other hand, the high walls of the bridge meant they were out of line-of-sight of nearly everybody. If he killed them, who would ever know?
"I believe you're mistaken," he said politely. He tried to brush past, but the aristo stood his ground. Tal heard footsteps behind him.
"I'm mistaken, am I? Who are you, then? What's your name and rank?"
The owner of the footsteps came into his peripheral vision; Spider, the idiot, no doubt feeling that a witness might keep violence to a minimum. And probably thinking, much as Tal did about Adrian, that his meal ticket was in need of protection.
"Special Officer Diamond," said Tal, "of the Sixteenth Rank, which would seem to put me ahead of anybody here. So stand aside."
"I don't want your ship-name -- how stupid do you think I am? I want your family name."
"You want?" repeated Spider. "Who are you, the bloody Inboard Revenue?"
"I didn't ask you, Corporal -- "
A voice rang out. "Can I assist you gentlemen?"
Adrian stood at the back end of the bridge. Tal's identity might be in doubt, but Adrian's face had been plastered up and down Mercati Boulevard ever since the wedding was announced. The five aristos stared at him, then at each other.
"No, thank you, sir," said the blond. "We were just crossing."
Tal positioned his hand beside his holster, nudging the Diamond Protector with his elbow. "They're armed!" he said under his breath. He didn't want them strolling past Adrian.
"I know. It'll be all right."
Tal, adrift, searched for some other verbal fact to offer, but there was nothing beyond the unanswerable logic he'd already given. Adrian's lips curved. "It'll be all right," he repeated gently. "It'll be all right."
Neither of them realized, but it was the very tone Adrian had heard the Diamond kennelmaster use with his beloved dogs for all of his court life. Tal slowly let his hand drift away from the pistol bulge near his thigh, but the shifting of his eyes showed he was far from reassured. At least, it showed it to Adrian. Not being Tal-scholars, the others would only see a brief movement in an impassive face.
Adrian turned his attention to them now, favoring them with one of his best smiles, and forcing himself with the discipline of habit to ignore the rush of pure, chemical pleasure this sudden drop into danger brought. Brandon Fischer had long ago impressed on him that discipline in that area was necessary if he was going to be the Protector; and that if he ever stopped being the Protector, he'd be dead.
The aristos filed past, warily. Adrian told himself to stop enjoying the situation. As the blond brought up the rear, Adrian addressed him: "In future, you'd be wise not to wander around a strange place without an escort. Just some friendly advice; I hope you don't take offense."
"No, sir," said the blond unhappily.
They left the bridge. Tal said, "'A strange place'?"
"They were Opalline," said Adrian. "Didn't you recognize their accents?"
"As far as I'm concerned, you all have accents."
Adrian grinned. "It would've been a major political blow if you'd killed them."
"Where do you get these ideas about me?"
The grin widened. "I could see you from the walkway, and I ordered the squad to wait down by the riverpath; I said I wanted to be alone for a minute, and I'd yell if anybody came. It would've considerably complicated things, you know, if they'd been witnesses."
"I wasn't going to kill anybody." Adrian continued to look at him. "At least, I was working to avoid it."
Adrian's grin faded. He said, seriously, "I can't refuse to give them the run of the city. We need the same privilege on Opal."
"You're telling me to watch my back."
"Good advice at any time." Adrian turned toward Spider, who'd been trying to blend magically in with the stonework, and said heartily, "Corporal Hastings, isn't it?"
Spider started. "Y-yes, sir." How in the name of the all the powers of heaven did Adrian know his name? The main purpose of Spider's life was the avoidance of notice, particularly by people with power. A demon was bad enough --
"I've heard fine things about you."
"Thank you, sir." Oh, God. I want to go home now. I want to go home now. I want to --
Adrian turned to Tal. "I'll have to get back, or in three minutes the squad will be all over the bridge. Don't be late for the reception tonight -- "
"Adrian, I need a station pass."
The Protector looked at Tal, who was expressionless. Adrian said, "There's a Republic ship in port there, my friend."
"Yes, I know."
Adrian studied his boots for a moment. "You wouldn't care to give me your reasons?"
"As usual." He sighed. "As usual, I'm going to tell you to be very careful."
"I'm always careful," Tal said, in a faintly injured tone. "It's just that sometimes my priorities are somewhat exigent."
Adrian's eyes sparkled as he controlled a grin. "I'll look that word up when I get home. All right, pick up your pass in Transport, I'll tell them to have it ready for you. How long will you need?"
"Probably a few hours. But give me a full-day one, just in case."
Adrian spread his hands as though to disassociate himself from the whole risky enterprise. Personal physical danger was one thing, but this was chancy on quite a different level, and he took no pleasure from it. "If you're arrested, please tell them we had no idea who you were."
Tal's lips quirked. "Of course, Adrian."
"And don't leave till after the reception dinner."
"Whatever you say, Adrian."
Adrian rolled his eyes, turned, and strode off the bridge. Spider's heartrate started to return to normal. "Oh, lord," he said. "The fucking Protector." He turned at once to Tal. "What did you tell him about me?"
"He said -- "
"He was just showing off his private news sources. A symptom of youth, I'm sure it will pass."
They were off the bridge now, and making their way along the waterpath. A row of ducks sailed past. "And what about that other one? The delight from Opal. He called me 'Corporal.'"
"They saw your insignia. Let's not be any more paranoid than the situation warrants."
"But my collar was folded over it. Are you listening to me? Tal!"
Another row of ducks, this time waddling out from the trees, was aiming for the water's edge. Their direction crossed the pathway. "Hold on a minute," said Spider, but Tal ignored him. Ducklings scattered as he strode ahead. Spider clicked his tongue. "Now look, you've scared them."
They walked a moment in silence, and Spider pondered the way his life seemed to get more complicated each time his salary went up. Finally he said, subdued, "A Republic ship. Jesus, Tal, sometimes I think you do these things just to make me nervous."
"Don't flatter yourself."