City of Opal is a sequel to City of Diamond, a novel which would qualify for the judgment of George IV ("Another demmed thick book -- always scribble, scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon?"). In other words, if you're just surfing for a taste of one of my novels, and you've never read Diamond, you'll be better off with some of the excerpts off my Credits page.
On the other hand, for those of you who've hung in through 600+ pages and want more, please be patient. The last couple of years have been rough, healthwise, and I've been left with a legacy of memory problems that make two-thousand page works with a dozen main characters, a cast of hundreds, and any number of different cultures and worlds a little tougher than it used to be. I love the characters, and I'm working on it slowly, but meanwhile I'm spending time on other projects because otherwise nothing would get done.
Adrian took pride in his ability to talk to anyone; charm was, after all, part of his job description. Oracles, however, were maddening creatures, and simply holding one's temper ought to be enough to satisfy any sane board of counselors.
Not that it would be. He sighed, and leaned against the doors of the lift. They would expect him to dig some logical answer out of these masters of vagueness, to find out why the first thing to greet them all upon leaving the crackle and hum of Blackout was an immediate summons to the City of Pearl.
It was unprecedented. Nobody went to Pearl; nobody who came back, anyway, except for the rare personal visit of an Oracle. Brandon had looked so endearingly worried as he stepped out of the shuttle, leaving Adrian to make the trip alone.
He wasn't sure what he'd expected. Incense and mist, priestesses with serpent necklaces, stones crying aloud from the walls and prophesying doom? He was conscious of a vague disappointment as the lift passed level after level of routine streets and administrative corridors. He might as well be on the Diamond.
You could never tell with an Oracle, the knot in his stomach reminded him. Maybe this unprecedented summons meant that something of enormous importance was about to happen. Maybe he, Adrian, had done something horribly wrong. Maybe they wanted to shoot him before he could do any more damage. (Adrian was generally confident in his own abilities, but damn it, Oracles could bring out the paranoid in anyone.)
Maybe they wanted to complain about the wallpaper in the upperdeck washrooms.
The lift opened on "A" deck and he stepped out, as per his instructions.
Nobody. How bloody typical. He was in a quad much like that in the center of the Law Courts on the Diamond; some pleasant designs in the flooring, round brickwork gardens scattered about with benches set among leafy trees. A roof overhead that went on forever, past balcony after balcony of the upper levels, all hung with bright tapestries.
And no one about but some strollers out for a walk or a sit on the benches, all dressed casually in shirts and trousers that back home would be more appropriate for one's quarters. My god, one of them was a woman! Adrian was shocked and delighted. You could make out the general shape of her legs all the way up to the crotch. He'd seen plenty of female Outsider techs in his time, but they generally wore shapeless unisex gear; and besides, with those haircuts, they looked alien to begin with. To see one of his own kind, a lady... He was so occupied staring at her that it took him a moment to realize one of the strollers was strolling toward him.
"Adrian," said the man, with the overtone and pleased smile of one recollecting an old school friend; which, since they had never met before, seemed not only presumptuous but downright strange. He looked in his early thirties; from the staff of the Chief Oracle, Adrian supposed, or whoever was in charge of the City. It would be nice if the man had come himself; sending an underling seemed an annoying way of underscoring Pearl's belief in their natural superiority.
"Sir," acknowledged Adrian, with the merest touch of frost.
"Kind of you to visit," said the greeter. He was a sandy-haired man with a slightly crooked smile and a large mole on his left cheek; but pleasant-enough looking, all in all. "I'm Shrike."
"Shrike," repeated Adrian, warily. Was that a surname?
"We take on new names in the Order when we come on board," said Shrike, as though that explained something. "Or rather, we're given them, sooner or later; nicknames, you might say."
Adrian nodded noncommitally.
"Would it please you to take a turn around the garden? There are some lovely dahlias and polycanthi."
"Er... certainly." Hell is freezing over, or you wouldn't have invited me, but you want to take a turn around the garden? He followed his couerteously cheerful guide to the the most overgrown section, where purple, pink, and white blossoms edged the pathway.
"We can make our way to the lift on the other side of the quad," said Shrike, but more as though they were wandering aimlessly on a Sunday afternoon. "Bonfire torchlilies, sir! Are you fond of them? And there, Sweet Marigold. They say the leaf was given by Aztecs to dull the senses of sacrificial victims. Are you familiar with the Aztecs, sir?"
"Mr. Shrike," began Adrian.
"Just Shrike," said his guide. "Mister is superfluous."
"Yes. Well... Shrike... the summons from Pearl was rather alarming."
"Was it?" asked Shrike, his eyebrows lifting. "My goodness! Why?"
Adrian screamed silently to himself, then put on one of his blinding smiles. "Because it has never happened before; because you insisted on this communications freeze between the Cities and the Pandora Federation; because the request" --order-- "for me to come here was worded 'at once.' The confiming printout underlined that phrase. The words were in capital letters, Shrike."
"Heavens," murmured Shrike, apparently to himself. "I must speak to the scribe."
"And given the usual laissez-faire attitude your people take about -- well, everything -- it struck us as... urgent in tone."
"I do see your point. Look! Crocus sativus!" He clearly savored the name, delivering it as an actor would his only line in a play, pointing to mauve flowers lining the sides of an arbor. "Considered an aphrodisiac," he added to Adrian, in a low voice. "We lose about half our crop every autumn. It's the old people, you know; they're worse than the children." Then he screwed his face thoughtfully, clasping his hands behind him, and walked on, staring down at his feet like a ten-year-old trying to solve a difficult problem in long division. "Yes, I do see your point. Perhaps we should go straight to the lift?" He turned to Adrian, apparently checking to see if this course of action made sense.
"By all means," Adrian agreed, as though humoring a child. "The lift."
At the end of the garden they entered a small, square room of glass, and Shrike pressed a button. They started up past the balcony levels.
There was a moment of silence which Adrian did not break, leaving it to work its pressure on Shrike.
"You see," said Shrike finally, with the air of someone addressing an embarrassing subject, "there is a problem."
Adrian put on his I'm-listening-to-you face, an expression he'd developed with all consciousness at the age of twelve. (It should be added that he made a point of really paying attention whenever he donned this face; it seemed dishonorable otherwise.)
"It's so distasteful to have to issue commands," said Shrike. "It feels so... against the field." Adrian's face didn't change, but his heart sank a bit. If Shrike was going to start talking like an Oracle, he might have done better to dictate his communication into a letter, which Adrian could give to his staff to puzzle over for the next fortnight. It would have saved a trip. "But there you are, there's no help for it."
He turned to Adrian earnestly. "It is absolutely necessary we leave the Pandora Federation. The entire area of space around it, in fact. Right away."
It took a moment to grasp. "Sir -- Shrike -- we just got here. Thirteen relentless hours of Blackout! Massive preparations beforehand! Time, expense, effort, the entire attention of millions of people! We've only been out of Blackout for two hours, and you want us to leave?"
"I know it seems a bit of an imposition."
Adrian realized he was making a growling noise, and stopped it. "The Pandora Foundation is an excellent trading partner. They are neither Republican nor Empire. They have a large Redemptionist population, perhaps thirty percent of their total. We chose the spot for its perfection. We chose it because we needed, god knows, a rest!"
"I am sorry, really."
"Sir. Two or three people die every time we engage the Curosa stardrive."
"Oh, you don't have to call me 'sir'."
Adrian's face, unmoving, suggested that a certain formal gulf had developed between them, and he had no intention of bridging it.
"Yes," said Shrike, sighing. "Well. There you are, you know."
"May one ask," said Adrian, in tones that could have left icicles on the balcony they were passing, "why you make this unusual request?"
"Oh. I'm sorry, I'd forgotten what you people -- I'd forgotten what it was like back home. I've been here since I was ten. You'd need an explanation, wouldn't you?"
"It would be nice."
"Well, the thing is -- " The lift stopped and Shrike gestured for him to step out. They were on the topmost level of the square, a place with teashops and tailors and stores with musical instruments; just like the normal world of the Diamond. "Where is that wretched girl? She should have been waiting."
He glanced around irritably and turned back to Adrian. "Something terrible has happened in the Pandora Federation."
Adrian was alert at once. "What?"
"It's difficult to say," mused the man, maddeningly. "But we do know it's terrible."
"Do you think you could be more specific?"
"Hmmm. Not really. But if we stay here, I can tell you that we'll die."
"All of us. You, me, everyone in the Three Cities."
While Adrian reeled with this information, Shrike turned and cried, "Aha, here she comes! Been checking out the bookstores, my dear, or the teashops?"
A girl about twelve years old approached them. She was a little on the chunky side, with long carroty hair, thick black glasses, freckles, and a determined expression. She was perhaps the most awkward looking little girl Adrian had ever seen, but there was something heartwinning about the way her chin jutted out.
"I had to find the right teashop, didn't I?" she inquired fiercely of Shrike. "How do you do, sir?" she said to Adrian.
Shrike said, "That's right, be sure to call him sir, Brat."
"Sticks and stones, Shrike. I'd rather have my name than yours."
"Take good care of him, now," said Shrike to the girl, affectionately. He turned back to Adrian. "The Lump here can tell you more. She's been wanting to talk to you about your destiny, anyway, so it seemed she should be the one you spoke with. You'll have to take her to tea, though; she always has cream tea before she prophesies, and she told me that by all rights you should be paying for this one."
"I never! Sir, Adrian, I never!"
Adrian continued to reel mentally.
"Cream tea," he repeated. He pulled himself together. "Shrike, I need to know what you think is happening in the Pandora Federation."
Shrike spoke to him slowly, as one addresses those proving not quite as sharp as their companions. "I told you, Lump will take care of you. She can certainly tell you far more than I can, though I fear you'll find it's not much. Not if you want to get all specific."
"Do you know," said Adrian, enunciating clearly, "I really think I would like to get specific. Is there any way I could speak to your... the head of your Order, the Chief Oracle or whatever... personally?"
Shrike looked startled. "I am the Chief Oracle."
There was a pause as Adrian tried to integrate the pieces. He felt a tug on his hand, and looked down on the head of Lump.
"Won't you come, sir? I've found us a lovely place. They have cherry jam as well as strawberry and make the cream fresh."
She led him off.
It was a very nice place, he acknowledged. Small round tables both inside and out, quick service people -- and did they really have waiters and waitresses on the City of Pearl? He'd imagined everyone as lying around constantly in a haze of divine revelation. Well, of course they had to have waiters. And people to collect the trash, and clean the floors, and cook the food. All this normalcy was a bit disorienting, however, twined as it was with the schizophrenic world of oracular thinking.
So here he was, sitting at a table near the edge of the balcony ("I like a view," Lump had said) watching a funny-looking little girl tuck into raisin scones and black tea. From the way she piled on the strawberry jam and spooned thick cream over it, you'd think she'd be more than just chunky.
"Another scone, sir?" she asked with some difficulty through a large mouthful.
"Thank you, but one was enough."
"You're missing the best part if you don't put jam on it."
"No doubt," he agreed, wondering just when he'd lost touch with reality.
Finally Lump pushed back her plate and sighed with exaultation. It was a sigh, he thought, reminiscent of that of a woman who has just rolled happily off her lover and now lies in boneless contentment on her pillow. For a spiritual person, Lump seemed to live in a world of deep sensuality.
"More jam?" he inquired, raising an eyebrow. "More tea? I can have them bring out a new pot."
"Oh, no thank you, sir."
"Perhaps another plate of scones?"
"Well, we can ask them to put what's left in a bag. But really, I've had enough."
"I'm very glad to hear it," said Adrian, resting his elbows on the table and making a tent of his fingers. He regarded his new friend thoughtfully. "Do you realize, Lump, that even as we sit here, people all over the cities of Diamond and Opal are waiting in suspense to find out why our diplomatic and trade relationship with the Pandora Federation has ground to an immediate halt?"
"Really, sir?" Her face filled with delight. "They're waiting to hear what I have to say?"
"As am I, my dear Lump."
Lump took that in. She gazed into his eyes earnestly. "People are dying in the Pandora Federation."
He was startled. "How many?"
"I don't know. A lot."
"Is it war? Civil unrest?"
"No," she said frowning, "it's something different. But they're in pain before they die."
She'd answered the question with casual knowledgeability, as though it were something she'd picked up from a textbook. But there had been a half-second there, at the beginning, that... She didn't know the answer to that until I asked her, he thought.
"Is the entire population involved?"
"I don't know, sir. I only know about the Redemptionists."
That startled him too.
"And that we'll die," she added, "if we stay even a little while."
Despite the thicket of verbal mist, that fact seemed clear enough. He pushed back his chair. "In that case, I'd better return to the Diamond and begin Blackout preparations."
"Yes, I would think you -- oh! That's right, I nearly forgot!" She jumped guiltily, as though she'd just been reminded of a duty. "I'm supposed to talk to you about your destiny."
"My what?" He didn't sit down.
"You know -- your destiny, your fate, where all the roads are leading you."
He didn't like this at all. "I really must be going. Delightful tea. Sorry we won't be meeting again -- "
"Oh, please, sir, do sit down. It'll only take a minute."
Adrian was a slave to his well-trained courtesy. He sat down, wariness in his face.
"You probably know," she said, "that we mostly can't tell the future. It's just too hard to take all the scraps of information we get from the present and the past and extrapolate from them. Well, I'm pretty good at it," she added modestly. "I'm a prophetic-level Oracle. Of course, I do know an awful lot, and the more you know, the easier it is."
"I'm sure." He paused. "I thought all Oracles could tell the future."
She nodded to the serving woman who was removing the last of the plate of scones. "In a bag to take home, please. --Well, we can't. It's just good PR."
He grunted noncommitally but encouragingly.
She said, "I've gotten hold of a lot of threads in the field, and let me tell you, your name comes up all the time."
"Shouldn't I be getting back? The crisis -- "
"I think I see a really bad time in Helium Park coming up."
Adrian turned pale. "Day or night?" he rapped out.
"Night." The world fell like a small explosive.
The Hunt? What could he do, what mistake could he make, that would lead him into an official vote of God's confidence like that? And how would he know how to avoid doing whatever it was --
"Can you tell me why?"
She shook her head. "It's the future. That part's not articulated. I'm just tracing where the routes from everything up to this minute lead."
Freezes your heart with news, but doesn't tell you anything. The kid was an Oracle, all right.
He got to his feet in a daze.
"There's another thing."
He looked at her eloquently: Good god, wasn't that enough?
"Your friend Tal. A lot of people don't like him, but you do, I think."
"I do. But if he's going to put a knife through my heart or something, I'd prefer to be told about it."
"I don't know his plans -- he's not part of the field. But you think he likes that nice lady Keylinn, don't you?"
"The thought has crossed my mind," he agreed.
"You should break them up," she said with twelve-year-old earnestness, as though she were talking about a dance. "Otherwise something terrible will happen."
He opened his mouth, and closed it. "And you can't tell me what, because it's the future."
She sighed with relief. "I was afraid you wouldn't understand."
He got up, head reeling, and started to walk away without saying goodbye.
"Did you know, I've heard some clients who call us actually get abusive if we don't tell them what they want to hear? Shrike calls it Blind Hope Syndrome." She followed him as he walked slowly to the lift.
Somewhere near the lift doors he became aware that she was still chatting beside him; and that he'd disgracefully forgotten his manners.
He turned to her. "Thank you very much for your companionship at tea, Lump. I'm sorry we won't be able to do it again, and I hope you have a very nice life."
She was about to respond when he kissed her hand, and her eyes widened in delighted shock. It must have been her first time, for it silenced her completely. Should have done that at the beginning, Adrian thought.
He stepped into the glass lift. "Sir!" said Lump, regaining her tongue, though her voice was still unsteady.
He turned suspiciously. "You're not going to talk to me about destiny again, are you?" he asked, refusing to blame himself for the touch of nervousness in his tone.
"I thought you might like the rest of the scones." She held out the bag.
He took it, noting the grease as it soaked through the bottom of the brown paper onto his fingers. "Thank you."
"Best of luck, sir."
The doors closed and he began his long descent through the world.