LIKE THE THEATER DISTRICTS OF so many great cities across the Imajica, whether in Reconciled Dominions or in the Fifth, the neighborhood in which the Ipse stood had been a place of some notoriety in earlier times, when actors of both sexes had supplemented their wages with the old five-acter-hiring, retiring, seduction, conjunction, and remittance—all played hourly, night and day. The center of these activities had moved away, however, to the other side of the city, where the burgeoning numbers of middle-class clients felt less exposed to the gaze of their peers out seeking more respectable entertainment. Lickerish Street and its environs had sprung up in a matter of months and quickly became the third richest Kesparate in the city, leaving the theater district to decline into legitimacy.
Perhaps because it was of so little interest to people, it had survived the traumas of the last few hours better than most Kesparates its size. It had seen some action. General Mattalaus' battalions had passed through its streets going south to the causeway, where rebels were attempting to build a makeshift bridge across the delta; and later a party of families from the Caramess had taken refuge in Koppocovi's Rialto. But no barricades had been erected, and none of the buildings burned. The Deliquium would meet the morning intact. Its survival, however, would not be accorded to general disinterest; rather to the presence at its perimeter of Pale Hill, a site which was neither a hill nor pale, but a circle of remembrance in the center of which lay a well, used from time immemorial as a repository for the corpses of executed men, suicides, paupers, and, on occasion, romantics who favored rotting in such company. Tomorrow's rumors would whisper that the ghosts of these forsaken souls had risen to defend their terrain, preventing the vandals and the barricade builders from destroying the Kesparate by haunting the steps of the Ipse and the Rialto and howling in the streets like dogs maddened from chasing the comet's tail.
With her clothes in rags and her throat uttering one seamless supplication, Quaisoir went through the heart of several battles quite unscathed. There were many such grief-stricken women on the streets of Yzordderrex tonight, all begging Hapexamendios to return children or husbands into their arms, and they were for the most part given passage through the lines, their sobs password enough.
The battles themselves didn't distress her; she'd organized and viewed mass executions in her time. But when the heads had rolled she'd always made a swift departure, leaving the aftermath for somebody else to shovel up. Now she had to tread barefoot in streets that were like abattoirs, and her legendary indifference to the spectacle of death was overtaken by a horror so profound she had several times changed her direction to avoid a street that stank too strongly of innards and burned blood. She knew she would have to confess this cowardice when she finally found the Man of Sorrows, but she was so laden with guilt that one more fault or less would scarcely matter.
Then, as she came to the corner of the street at the end of which lay Pluthero Quexos' playhouse, somebody called her name. She stopped and looked for her summoner. A man dressed in blue was rising from a doorstep, the fruit he'd been peeling in one hand, the peeling blade in the other. He seemed to be in no doubt as to her identity.
"You're his woman," he said.
Was this the Lord? she wondered. The man she'd seen on the rooftops at the harbor had been silhouetted against a bright sky; his features had been difficult to see. Could this be him?
He was calling someone from the interior of the house on the steps of which he'd been sitting, a sometime bordello to judge by its lewdly carved portico. The disciple, an Oethac, emerged with a bottle in one hand, the other ruffling the hair of a cretinous boy child, naked and glistening. She began to doubt her first judgment, but she didn't dare leave until she had her hopes confirmed or dashed.
"Are you the Man of Sorrows?" she said.
The fruit peeler shrugged. "Isn't everybody tonight?" he said, tossing the uneaten fruit away.
The cretin leapt down the steps and snatched it up, pushing the entire thing into his mouth so that his face bulged and the juice ran from his lips.
"You're the cause of this," the peeler said, jabbing his knife in Quaisoir's direction. He glanced around at the Oethac. "She was at the harbor. I saw her."
"Who is she?" the Oethac said.
"The Autarch's woman," came the reply. "Quaisoir." He took a step towards her. "You are, aren't you?"
She could no more deny this than she could take flight. If this man was indeed Jesu, she couldn't begin her pleas for forgiveness with a lie.
"Yes," she told him, "I'm Quaisoir. I was the Autarch's woman."
"She's fucking beautiful," the Oethac said.
"What she looks like doesn't matter," the fruit peeler told him. "It's what she's done that's important."
"Yes," Quaisoir said, daring to believe now that this was indeed the Son of David. "That's what's important. What I've done."
"The executions ..."
"The purges ..."
"I've lost a lot of friends, and you're the reason."
"Oh, Lord, forgive me," she said, and dropped to her knees.
"I saw you at the harbor this morning," Jesu said, approaching her as she knelt. "You were smiling."
"Looking around and smiling. And I thought, when I saw you—"
He was three paces away from her now.
"—your eyes glittering—"
His sticky hand took hold of her head.
"—I thought, those eyes—"
He raised the knife—
"—have to go."
— and brought it down again, quick and sharp, sharp and quick, pricking out his disciple's sight before she could start to scream.
The tears that suddenly filled Jude's eyes stung like no tears she'd ever shed before. She let out a sob, more of pain than of grief, pushing the heels of her hands against her eye sockets to stem the flow. But it wouldn't cease. The tears kept coming, hot and harsh, making her whole head throb. She felt Dowd's arm take hold of hers and was glad of it. Without his support, she was certain she would have fallen.
"What's wrong?" he said.
The answer—that she was sharing some agony with Quaisoir—was not one she could voice to Dowd. "It must be the smoke," she said. "I can barely see."
"We're almost at the Ipse," he replied. "But we have to keep moving for a little while longer. It's not safe in the open air."
That was true enough. Her eyes—which at present could only see pulsing red—had been laid on enough atrocities in the last hour to fuel a lifetime of nightmares. The Yzordder—rex of her longings, the city whose spicy wind, blowing from the Retreat months before, had summoned her like the call of a lover to bed, was virtually in ruins. Perhaps that was why Quaisoir wept these burning tears.
They dried after a time, but the pain lingered. Though she despised the man she was leaning upon, without his support she would have dropped to the ground and remained there. He coaxed her on, step by step. The Ipse was close now, he said: just a street or two away. She could rest there, while he soaked up the echoes of past glories. She barely attended to his monologue. It was her sister who filled her thoughts, her anticipation of their meeting now tinged with unease. She'd imagined Quaisoir would have come into these streets protected, and that at the sight of her Dowd would simply retreat, leaving them to their reunion. But what if Dowd was not overtaken by superstitious awe? What if, instead, he attacked one or both of them? Would Quaisoir have any defense against his mites? She began to wipe at her streaming eyes as she stumbled on, determined to be clear-sighted when the moment came, and primed to escape Dowd's leash.
His monologue, when it ceased, did so abruptly. He halted, drawing Jude to a stop at his side. She raised her head. The street ahead was not well lit, but the glow of distant fires found its way between the buildings, and there, crawling into one such flickering shaft, she saw her sister. Jude let out a sob. Quaisoir's eyes had been stabbed out, and her torturers were coming in pursuit of her. One was a child, one an Oethac. The third, the most blood-spattered, was also the most nearly human, but his features were twisted out of true by the pleasure he was taking in Quaisoir's torment. The blinding knife was still in his hand, and now he raised it above his victim's naked back.
Before Dowd could move to stop her, Jude screamed, "Stop!"
The knife was arrested in mid-descent, and all three of Quaisoir's pursuers looked around at Jude. The chiid registered nothing; its face was an imbecilic blank. The knife wielder was equally silent, though his expression was one of disbelief. It was the Oethac that spoke, the words he uttered slurred but ripe with panic.
"You... keep... your distance," he said, his fearful glance going back and forth between the wounded woman and this echo of her, whole and strong.
The blinder found his voice now, and began to hush him, but the Oethac rattled on.
"Look at her!" he said. "What the fuck is this, eh? Look at her."
"Just shut your trap," the blinder said. "She's not going to touch us."
"You don't know that," said the Oethac, picking up the child with one arm and slinging it over his shoulder. "It wasn't me," he went on, as he backed away. "I never laid a finger on her. I swear. On my scars, I swear."
Jude ignored his weaselings and took a step towards Quaisoir. As soon as she moved, the Oethac fled. The blinder, however, held his ground, taking courage from his blade.
"I'll do you the same way," he warned. "I don't care who the fuck you are, I'll do you!"
From behind her, Jude heard Dowd's voice, carrying an authority she'd never heard in it before.
"I'd leave her be if I were you," he said.
His utterance brought a response from Quaisoir. She raised her head and turned in Dowd's direction. Her eyes had not simply been stabbed out but virtually dug from their sockets. Seeing the holes, Jude was ashamed to have been so troubled by the little ache that she felt in sympathy; it was nothing beside Quaisoir's hurt. Yet the woman's voice was almost joyful.
"Lord?" she said. "Sweet Lord, is this punishment enough? Will you forgive me now?"
Neither the nature of the error Quaisoir was making here nor its profound irony was lost on Jude. Dowd was no savior. But he was happy enough to assume that role, it seemed. He replied to Quaisoir with a delicacy as feigned as the sonority he'd affected seconds before.
"Of course I'll forgive you," he said. "That's what I'm here to do."
Jude might have been tempted to disabuse Quaisoir of her illusions there and then, but that the blinder was usefully distracted by Dowd's performance.
"Tell me who you are, child," Dowd said.
"You know who the fuck she is," the blinder spat, "Quaisoir! It's fucking Quaisoir!"
Dowd glanced back at Jude, his expression one of comprehension rather than shock. Then he looked again at the blinder.
"So it is," he said.
"You know what she's done same as me," the man said. "She deserves worse than this."
"Worse, you think?" Dowd said, continuing to advance towards the man, who was nervously passing his knife from hand to hand, as though he sensed that Dowd's capacity for cruelty outstripped his own a hundredfold and was preparing to defend himself if need be.
"What worse would you do?" Dowd said.
"What she's done to others, over and over."
"She did these things personally, you think?"
"I wouldn't put it past her," he said. "Who knows what the fuck goes on up there? People disappear, and get washed up again in pieces... ." He tried a little smile, plainly nervous now. "You know she deserved it."
"And you?" Dowd asked. "What do you deserve?"
"I'm not saying I'm a hero," the blinder replied. "I'm just saying she had it coming."
"I see," said Dowd.
From Jude's vantage point, what happened next was more a matter of conjecture than observation. She saw Quaisoir's maimer take a step away from Dowd, repugnance on his face; then saw him lunge forward as if to stab Dowd through the heart. His attack put him in range of the mites, and before his blade could find Dowd's flesh they must have leapt at the blinder, because he dropped back with a shout of horror, his free hand going up to his face. Jude had seen what followed before. The man scrabbled at his eyes and nostrils and mouth, his legs giving out beneath him as the mites undid his system from the inside. He fell at Dowd's feet and rolled around in a fury of frustration, eventually putting his knife into his mouth and digging bloodily for the things that were unmaking him. The life went out of him as he was doing so, his hand dropping from his face, leaving the blade in his throat as though he'd choked upon it.
"It's over," Dowd said to Quaisoir, who had wrapped her arms around her shuddering body and was lying on the ground a few yards from her tormentor's corpse. "He won't hurt you again."
"Thank you, Lord."
"The things he accused you of, child?"
"Are you guilty of them?"
"I am," Quaisoir said. "I want to confess them before I die. Will you hear me?"
"I wil!," Dowd said, oozing magnanimity.
After being merely a witness to these events as they unraveled, Jude now stepped towards Quaisoir and her confessor, but Dowd heard her approach and turned to shake his head.
"I've sinned, my Lord Jesu," Quaisoir was saying. "I've sinned so many times. I beg you to forgive me."
It was the despair Jude heard in her sister's voice, rather than Dowd's rebuff, that kept her from making her presence known. Quaisoir was in extremis, and given that it was her clear desire to commune with some forgiving spirit, what right did Jude have to intervene? Dowd was not the Christ Quaisoir believed him to be, but did that matter? What would revealing the father confessor's true identity achieve now, besides adding to the sum of her sister's suffering?
Dowd had knelt beside Quaisoir and had taken her up into his arms, demonstrating a capacity for tenderness, or at least for its replication, that Jude would never have believed him capable of. For her part, Quaisoir was in bliss, despite her wounds. She clutched at Dowd's jacket and thanked him over and over for doing her this kindness. He hushed her softly, saying there was no need for her to make a catalogue of her crimes.
"You have them in your heart, and I see them there," he said. "I forgive them. Tell me instead about your husband. Where is he? Why hasn't he also come asking for forgiveness?"
"He didn't believe you were here," Quaisoir said. "I told him I'd seen you down at the harbor, but he has no faith."
"Only in himself," she said bitterly. Dowd began to rock backward and forward as he plied her with further questions, his focus so devoted to his victim he didn't notice Jude's approach. She envied Dowd his embrace, wishing it were her arms Quaisoir was lying in instead of his.
"Who is your husband?" Dowd was asking.
"You know who he is," Quaisoir replied. "He's the Autarch. He rules the Imajica."
"But he wasn't always Autarch, was he?"
"So what was he before?" Dowd wanted to know. "An ordinary man?"
"No," she said. "I don't think he was ever an ordinary man. I don't remember exactly."
He stopped rocking her. "I think you do," he said, his tone subtly shifting. "Tell me," he said. "Tell me: What was he before he ruled Yzordderrex? And what were you?"
"I was nothing," she said simply.
"Then how were you raised so high?"
"He loved me. From the very beginning, he loved me."
"You did no unholy service to be elevated?" Dowd said.
She hesitated, and he pressed her harder.
"What did you do?" he demanded. "What? What?" There was a distant echo of Oscar in that expletive: the servant speaking with his master's voice.
Intimidated by this fury, Quaisoir replied. "I visited the Bastion of the Banu many times," she confessed. "Even the Annex. I went there too."
"And what's there?"
"Madwomen. Some who killed their spouses, or their children."
"Why did you seek such pitiful creatures out?"
"There are ... powers ... hidden among them."
At this, Jude attended more closely than ever.
"What kind of powers?" Dowd said, voicing the question she was silently asking.
"I did nothing unholy," Quaisoir protested. "I just wanted to be cleansed. The Pivot was in my dreams. Every night, its shadow on me, breaking my back. I only wanted to be cleansed of it."
"And were you?" Dowd asked her. Again she didn't answer at first, until he pressed her, almost harshly. "Were you?"
"I wasn't cleansed, I was changed," she said. "The women polluted me. I have a taint in my flesh and I wish it were out of me." She began to tear at her clothes, till her fingers found her belly and breasts. "I want it driven out!" she said. "It gave me new dreams, worse than before."
"Calm yourself," Dowd said.
"But I want it out! I want it out!" A kind of fit had suddenly taken her, and she flailed so violently in his arms she fell from them. "I can feel it in me now," she said, her nails raking her breasts.
Jude looked at Dowd, willing him to intervene, but he simply stood up, staring at the woman's distress, plainly taking pleasure in it. Quaisoir's self-assault was not theatrics. She was drawing blood from her skin, still yelling that she wanted the taint out of her. In her agony, a subtle change was coming over her flesh, as though she was sweating out the taint she'd spoken of. Her pores were oozing a sheen of iridescence, and the cells of her skin were subtly changing color. Jude knew the blue she saw spreading from her sister's neck, down over her body and up towards her contorted face. It was the blue of the stone eye, the blue of the Goddess.
"What is this?" Dowd demanded of his confessee.
"Out of me! Out of me!"
"Is this the taint?" He went down on his haunches beside her. "Is it?"
"Drive it out of me!" Quaisoir sobbed, and began assaulting her poor body afresh.
Jude could endure it no longer. Allowing her sister to die blissfully in the arms of a surrogate divinity was one thing. This self-mutilation was quite another. She broke her vow of silence.
"Stop her," she said.
Dowd looked up from his study, drawing his thumb across his throat to hush her. But it was too late. Despite her own commotion, Quaisoir had heard her sister speak. Her thrashings slowed, and her blind head turned in Jude's direction.
"Who's there?" she demanded.
There was naked fury on Dowd's face, but he hushed her softly. She would not be placated, however.
"Who's with you, Lord?" she asked him.
With his reply he made an error that unknitted the whole fiction. He lied to her.
"There's nobody," he said.
"I heard a woman's voice. Who's there?"
"I told you," Dowd insisted. "Nobody." He put his hand upon her face. "Now calm yourself. We're alone."
"No, we're not."
"Do you doubt me, child?" Dowd replied, his voice, after the harshness of his last interrogations, modulating with this question, so that he sounded almost wounded by her lack of faith. Quaisoir's reply was to silently take his hand from her face, seizing it tightly in her blue, blood-speckled fingers.
"That's better," he said.
Quaisoir ran her fingers over his palm. Then she said, "No scars."
"There'll always be scars," Dowd said, lavishing his best pontifical manner upon her. But he'd missed the point of her remark.
"There are no scars on your hand," she said.
He retrieved it from her grasp. "Believe in me," he said.
"No," she replied. "You're not the Man of Sorrows." The joy had gone from her voice. It was thick, almost threatening. "You can't save me," she said, suddenly flailing wildly to drive the pretender from her. "Where's my Savior? I want my Savior!"
"He isn't here," Jude told her. "He never was."
Quaisoir turned in Jude's direction. "Who are you?" she said. "I know your voice from somewhere."
"Keep your mouth shut," Dowd said, stabbing his finger in Jude's direction. "Or so help me you'll taste the mites—"
"Don't be afraid of him," Quaisoir said.
"She knows better than that," Dowd replied. "She's seen what I can do."
Eager for some excuse to speak, so that Quaisoir could hear more of the voice she knew but couldn't yet name, Jude spoke up in support of Dowd's conceit.
"What he says is right," she told Quaisoir. "He can hurt us both, badly. He's not the Man of Sorrows, sister."
Whether it was the repetition of words Quaisoir had herself used several times—Man of Sorrows—or the fact that Jude had called her sister, or both, the woman's sightless face slackened, the bafflement going out of it. She lifted herself from the ground.
"What's your name?" she murmured. "Tell me your name."
"She's nothing," Dowd said, echoing Quaisoir's own description of herself minutes earlier. "She's a dead woman." He made a move in Jude's direction. "You understand so little," he said. "And I've forgiven you a lot for that. But I can't indulge you any longer. You've spoiled a fine game. I don't want you spoiling any more."
He put his left hand, its forefinger extended, to his lips.
"I don't have many mites left," he said, "so one will have to do. A slow unraveling. But even a shadow like you can be undone."
"I'm a shadow now, am I?" Jude said to him. "I thought we were the same, you and I? Remember that speech?"
"That was in another life, lovey," Dowd said. "It's different here. You could do me harm here. So I'm afraid it's going to have to be thank you and good night."
She started to back away from him, wondering as she did so how much distance she would have to put between them to be out of range of his wretched mites. He watched her retreat with pity on his face.
"No good, lovey," he said. "I know these streets like the back of my hand."
She ignored his condescension and took another backward step, her eye fixed on his mouth where the mites nested, but aware that Quaisoir had risen and was standing no more than a yard from her defender.
"Sister?" the woman said.
Dowd glanced around, distracted from Jude long enough for her to take to her heels. He let out a shout as she fled, and the blind woman lunged towards the sound, grabbing his arm and neck and dragging him towards her. The noise she made as she did so was like nothing Jude had heard from human lips, and she envied it: a cry to shatter bones like glass and shake color from the air. She was glad not to be closer, or it might have brought her to her knees.
She looked back once, in time to see Dowd spit the lethal mite at Quaisoir's empty sockets, and prayed her sister had better defenses against its harm than the man who'd emptied them. Whether or no, she could do little to help. Better to run while she had the chance, so that at least one of them survived the cataclysm.
She turned the first corner she came to, and kept turning corners thereafter, to put as many decisions between herself and her pursuer. No doubt Dowd's boast was true; he did indeed know these streets, where he claimed he'd once triumphed, like his own hand. It followed that the sooner she was out of them, and into terrain unfamiliar to them both, the more chance she had of losing him. Until then, she had to be swift and as nearly invisible as she could make herself. Like the shadow Dowd had dubbed her: darkness in a deeper dark, flitting and fleeting; seen and gone.
But her body didn't want to oblige. It was weary, beset with aches and shudders. Twin fires had been set in her chest, one in each lung. Invisible hounds ripped her heels bloody. She didn't allow herself to slow her pace, however, until she'd left the streets of playhouses and brothels behind her and was delivered into a place that might have stood as a set for a Pluthero Quexos tragedy: a circle a hundred yards wide, bounded by a high wall of sleek, black stone. The fires that burned here didn't rage uncontrolled, as they did in so many other parts of the city, but flickered from the tops of the walls in their dozens; tiny white flames, like night-lights, illuminating the inclined pavement that led down to an opening in the center of the circle. She could only guess at its function. An entrance into the city's secret underworld, perhaps, or a well? There were flowers everywhere, most of the petals shed and gone to rot, slickening the pavement beneath her feet as she approached the hole, obliging her to tread with care. The suspicion grew that if this was a well, its water was poisoned with the dead. Obituaries were scrawled on the pavement—names, dates, messages, even crude illustrations—their numbers increasing the closer to the edge she came. Some had even been inscribed on the inner wall of the well, by mourners brave or broken-hearted enough to dare the drop.
Though the hole exercised the same fascination as a cliff edge, inviting her to peer into its depths, she refused its petitions and halted a yard or two from the lip. There was a sickly smell out of the place, though it wasn't strong. Either the well had not been used of late, or else its occupants lay a very long way down.
Her curiosity satisfied, she looked around to choose the best route out. There were no less than eight exits—nine, including the well—and she went first to the avenue that lay opposite the one she'd come in by. It was dark and smoky, and she might have taken it had there not been signs that it was blocked by rubble some way down its length. She went to the next, and it too was blocked, fires flickering between fallen timbers. She was going to the third door when she heard Dowd's voice. She turned. He was standing on the far side of the well, with his head slightly cocked and a put—upon expression on his face, like a parent who'd caught up with a truant child.
"Didn't I tell you?" he said. "I know these streets." "I heard you."
"It isn't so bad that you came here," he said, wandering towards her. "It saves me a mite."
"Why do you want to hurt me?" she said. "I might ask you the same question," he said. "You do, don't you? You'd love to see me hurt. You'd be even happier if you could do the hurting personally. Admit it!" "I admit it."
"There. Don't I make a good confessor after all? And that's just the beginning. You've got some secrets in you I didn't even know you had." He raised his hand and described a circle as he spoke. "I begin to see the perfection of all this. Things coming round, coming round, back to the place where it all began. That is: to her. Or to you; it doesn't matter, really. You're the same."
"Twins?" Jude said. "Is that it?"
"Nothing so trite, lovey. Nothing so natural. I insulted you, calling you a shadow. You're more miraculous than that. You're—" He stopped. "Well, wait. This isn't strictly fair. Here's me telling you what I know and getting nothing from you."
"I don't know anything," Jude said. "I wish I did."
Dowd stooped and picked up a blossom, one of the few underfoot that was still intact. "But whatever Quaisoir knows you also know," he said. "At least about how it all came apart."
"How what came apart?"
"The Reconciliation. You were there. Oh, yes, I know you think you're just an innocent bystander, but there's nobody in this, nobody, who's innocent. Not Estabrook, not Godolphin, not Gentle or his mystif. They've all got confessions as long as their arms."
"Even you?" she asked him.
"Ah, well, with me it's different." He sighed, sniffing at the flower. "I'm an actor chappie. I fake my raptures. I'd like to change the world, but I end up as entertainment. Whereas all you lovers"—he spoke the word contemptuously—"who couldn't give a fuck about the world as long as you're feeling passionate, you're the ones who make the cities burn and the nations tumble. You're the engines in the tragedy, and most of the time you don't even know it. So what's an actor chappie to do, if he wants to be taken seriously? I'll tell you. He has to learn to fake his feelings so well he'll be allowed off the stage and into the real world. It's taken me a lot of rehearsal to get where I am, believe me. I started small, you know; very small. Messenger. Spear-carrier. I once pimped for the Unbeheld, but it was just a one-night stand. Then 1 was back serving lovers—"
"You hated him, didn't you?"
"No, I was simply bored, with him and his whole family. He was so like his father, and his father's father, and so on, all the way back to crazy Joshua. I became impatient. I knew things would come around eventually, and I'd have my moment, but I got so tired of waiting, and once in a while I let it show."
"And you plotted."
"But of course. I wanted to hurry things along, towards the moment of my ... emancipation. It was all very calculated. But that's me, you see? I'm an artist with the soul of an accountant."
"Did you hire Pie to kill me?"
"Not knowingly," Dowd said. "I set some wheels in motion, but I never imagined they'd carry us all so far. I didn't even know the mystif was alive. But as things went on, I began to see how inevitable all this was. First Pie's appearance. Then your meeting Godolphin, and your falling for each other. It was all bound to happen. It was what you were born to do, after all. Do you miss him, by the way? Tell the truth."
"I've scarcely thought about him," she replied, surprised by the truth of this.
"Out of sight, out of mind, eh? Ah, I'm so glad I can't feel love. The misery of it. The sheer, unadulterated misery." He mused a moment, then said, "This is so much like the first time, you know. Lovers yearning, worlds trembling. Of course last time I was merely a spear-carrier. This time I intend to be the prince."
"What do you mean, I was born to fall for Godolphin? I don't even remember being born."
"I think it's time you did," Dowd said, tossing away the flower as he approached her. "Though these rites of passage are never very easy, lovey, so brace yourself. At least you've picked a good spot. We can dangle our feet over the edge while we talk about how you came into the world."
"Oh, no," she said. "I'm not going near that hole."
"You think I want to kill you?" he said. "I don't. I just want you to unburden yourself of a few memories. That's not asking too much, is it? Be fair. I've given you a glimpse of what's in my heart. Now show me yours." He took hold of her wrist "I won't take no for an answer," he said, and drew her to the edge of the well.
She'd not ventured this close before, and its proximity was vertiginous. Though she cursed him for having the strength to drag her here, she was glad he had her in a tight hold.
"Do you want to sit?" he said. She shook her head. "As you like," he went on. "There's more chance of your falling, but it's your decision. You've become a very self-willed woman, lovey, I've noticed that. You were malleable enough at the beginning. That was the way you were bred to be, of course."
"I wasn't bred to be anything."
"How do you know?" he said. "Two minutes ago you were claiming you don't even remember the past. How do you know what you were meant to be? Made to be?" He glanced down the well. "The memory's in your head somewhere, lovey. You just have to be willing to coax it out. If Quaisoir sought some Goddess, maybe you did too, even if you don't remember it. And if you did, then maybe you're more than Joshua's Peachplum. Maybe you've got some place in the action I haven't accounted for."
"Where would I meet Goddesses, Dowd?" Jude replied. "I've lived in the Fifth, in London, in Notting Hill Gate. There are no Goddesses."
Even as she spoke she thought of Celestine, buried beneath the Tabula Rasa's tower. Was she a sister to the deities that haunted Yzordderrex? A transforming force, locked away by a sex that worshiped fixedness? At the memory of the prisoner, and her cell, Jude's mind grew suddenly light, as though she'd downed a whisky on an empty stomach. She had been touched by the miraculous, after all. So if once, why not many times? If now, why not in her forgotten past?
"I've got no way back," she said, protesting the difficulty of this as much for her own benefit as Dowd's.
"It's easy," he replied. "Just think of what it was like to be born."
"I don't even remember my childhood."
"You had no childhood, lovey. You had no adolescence. You were born just the way you are, overnight. Quaisoir was the first Judith, and you, my sweet, are only her replica. Perfect, maybe, but stilt a replica."
"I won't... I don't... believe you."
"Of course you must refuse the truth at first. It's perfectly understandable. But your body knows what's true and what isn't. You're shaking, inside and out...."
"I'm tired," she said, knowing the explanation was pitifully weak.
"You're feeling more than weary," Dowd said. "Admit it."
As he pried, she remembered the results of his last revelations about her past: how she'd dropped to the kitchen floor, hamstrung by invisible knives. She dared not succumb to such a collapse now, with the well a foot from where she stood, and Dowd knew it.
"You have to face the memories," he was saying. "Just spit them out. Go on. You'll feel better for it, I promise you."
She could feel both her limbs and her resolve weakening as he spoke, but the prospect of facing whatever lay in the darkness at the back of her skull—and however much she distrusted Dowd, she didn't doubt there was something horrendous there—was almost as terrifying as the thought of the well taking her. Perhaps it would be better to die here and now, two sisters extinguished within the same hour, and never know whether Dowd's claims were true or not. But then suppose he'd been lying to her all along—the actor chappie's finest performance yet—and she was not a shadow, not a replica, not a thing bred to do service, but a natural child with natural parents: a creature unto herself, real, complete? Then she'd be giving herself to death out of fear of self-discovery, and Dowd would have claimed another victim. The only way to defeat him was to call his bluff; to do as he kept urging her to do and go into the darkness at the back of her head, ready to embrace whatever revelations it concealed. Whichever Judith she was, she was; whether real or replica, natural or bred. There was no escape from herself in the living world. Better to know the truth, once and for all.
The decision ignited a flame in her skull, and the first phantoms of the past appeared in her mind's eye.
"Oh, my Goddess," she murmured, throwing back her head. "What is this? What is this?"
She saw herself lying on bare boards in an empty room, a fire burning in the grate, warming her in her sleep and flattering her nakedness with its tuster. Somebody had marked her body while she slept, daubing upon it a design she recognized—the glyph she'd first seen in her mind's eye when she'd made love with Oscar, then glimpsed again as she passed between Dominions—the spiraling sign of her flesh, here painted on flesh itself in half a dozen colors.
She moved in her sleep, and the whorls seemed to leave traces of themselves in the air where she'd been, their persistence exciting another motion, this other in the ring of sand that bounded her hard bed. It rose around her like the curtain of the Borealis, shimmering with the same colors in which her glyph had been painted, as though something of her essential anatomy was in the very air of the room. She was entranced by the beauty of the sight.
"What are you seeing?" she heard Dowd asking her.
"Me," she said, "lying on the floor ... in a circle of sand...."
"Are you sure it's you?" he said.
She was about to pour scorn on his question, when she realized its import. Perhaps this wasn't her, but her sister.
"Is there any way of knowing?" she said.
"You'll soon see," he told her.
So she did. The curtain of sand began to wave more violently, as if seized by a wind unleashed within the circle. Particles flew from it, intensifying as they were thrown against the dark air: motes of the purest color rising like new stars, then dropping again, burning in their descent, towards the place where she, the witness, lay. She was lying on the ground close to her sister, receiving the rain of color like a grateful earth, needing its sustenance if she was to grow and swell and become fruitful.
"What am I?" she said, following the fall of color to snatch a glimpse of the ground it was falling upon.
The beauty of what she'd seen so far had lulled her into vulnerability. When she saw her own unfinished body, the shock threw her out of the remembrance like a blow. Sud-, denly she was teetering on the wall's edge again, with Dowd's hand the only check upon her falling. Icewater sweat filled her pores.
"Don't let me go," she said.
"What are you seeing?" he asked her.
"Is this being born?" she sobbed. "Oh, Christ, is this being born?"
"Go back to the memory," he said. "You've begun it, so, finish it!" He shook her. "Hear me? Finish it!"
She saw his face raging before her. She saw the well, yearning behind. And in between, in the firelit room awaiting her in her head, she saw a nightmare worse than both: her anatomy, barely made, lying in a circle of perverted enchantments, raw until the distillates of another woman's body put skin on her sinew and color in that skin, put the tint in her eyes and the gloss on her lips, gave her the same breasts, belly, and sex. This was not birth, it was duplication. She was a facsimile, a likeness stolen from a slumbering original.
"I can't bear it," she said.
"I did warn you, lovey," Dowd replied. "It's never easy, reliving the first moments."
"I'm not even real," she said.
"Let's stay clear of the metaphysics," came the reply. "What you are, you are. You had to know sooner or later."
"I can't bear it. I can't bear it."
"But you are bearing it," Dowd said. "You just have to take it slowly. Step by step."
"Yes," he insisted. "A lot more. That was the worst. It'll get easier from now on."
That was a lie. When memory took her again, almost without her inviting it, she was raising her arms above her head, letting the colors congeal around her outstretched fingers. Pretty enough, until she let one arm drop beside her and her new-made nerves felt a presence at her side, sharing the womb. She turned her head and screamed. "What is it?" Dowd said. "Did the Goddess come?" It was no Goddess. It was another unfinished thing, gaping at her with lidless eyes, putting out its colorless tongue, which was still so rough it could have licked her new skin off her. She retreated from it, and her fear aroused it, the pale anatomy shaken by silent laughter. It too had gathered motes of stolen color, she saw, but it had not bathed in them; rather, it had caught them in its hands, postponing the moment it attired itself until it had luxuriated in its flayed nakedness.
Dowd was interrogating her again. "Is it the Goddess?" he was asking. "What are you seeing? Speak it out, woman! Speak it—"
His demand was cut suddenly short. There was a beat of silence, then a cry of alarm so shrill her conjuring of the circle and the thing she'd shared it with vanished. She felt Dowd's grip on her wrist slip, and her body toppled. She flailed as she fell, and more by luck than design her motion threw her sideways, along the rim of the well, rather than pitching her within. Instantly, she began to slip down the incline. She clutched at the pavement. But the stone had been polished by years of passage, and her body slid towards the edge as if the depths were calling in a long-neglected debt. Her legs kicked empty air, her hips sliding over the well's lip while her fingers sought some purchase, however slight—a name etched a little deeper than the rest; a rose thorn, wedged between stones—that would give her some defense against gravity. As she did so she heard Dowd cry out a second time, and she looked up to see a miracle.
Quaisoir had survived the mite. The change that had come over her flesh when she rose in defiance of Dowd was here completed. Her skin was the color of the blue eye; her face, so lately maimed, was bright. But these were little changes, beside the dozen ribbons of her substance, several yards in length, that were unraveled around her, their source her back, their purpose to touch in succession the ground beneath her and raise her up into a strange flight. The power she'd found in the Bastion was blazing in her and Dowd could only retreat before it, to the edge of the well. He kept his silence now, dropping to his knees, preparing to crawl away beneath the spiraling skirts of filament
Jude felt slip what little hold her fingers had and let out cry for help.
"Sister?" Quaisoir said.
"Here!" Jude yelled. "Quickly."
As Quaisoir moved towards the well, the tendrils' lightest touch enough to propel her forward, Dowd made his move, ducking beneath the tendrils. He'd mistimed his escape, however. One of the filaments caught his shoulder and, spiraling around his neck, pitched him over the edge of the well. As he went, Jude's right hand lost its purchase entirely, and she began to slide, a final desperate yell coming from her as she did so. But Quaisoir was as swift in saving as dispatching. Before the well's rim rose to eclipse the scene above, Jude felt the filaments seize her wrist and arm, their spirals instantly tightening around her. She seized them in return, her exhausted muscles quickened by the touch, and Quaisoir drew her up over the edge of the well, depositing her on the pavement. She rolled over onto her back and panted like a sprinter at the tape, while Quaisoir's filaments unknitted themselves and returned to serve their mistress.
It was the sound of Dowd's begging, echoing up from the well where he was suspended, that made her sit up. There was nothing in his cries she might not have predicted from a man who'd rehearsed servitude over so many generations. He promised Quaisoir eternal obedience and utter self-abnegation if only she'd save him from this terror. Wasn't mercy the jewel in any heavenly crown, he sobbed, and wasn't she an angel?
"No," Quaisoir said. "Nor am I the bride of Christ."
Undeterred, he began a new cycle of descriptions and negotiations: what she was; what he would do for her, in perpetuity. She would find no better servant, no humbler acolyte. What did she want, his manhood?; it was nothing; he would geld himself there and then. She only had to ask. If Jude had any doubt as to the strength Quaisoir had gained, she had evidence of it now, as the tendrils drew their prisoner up from the well. He gushed like a holed bucket as he came. "Thank you, a thousand times, thank you."
In view now, he was in double jeopardy, Jude saw, his feet hanging over empty air and the tendrils around his throat tight enough to throttle him, had he not relieved their pressure by thrusting his fingers between noose and neck. Tears poured down his cheeks, in theatrical excess.
"Ladies," he said. "How do I begin to make amends?" Quaisoir's response was another question. "Why was I misled by you?" she said. "You're just a man. What do you know about divinities?"
Dowd looked afraid to reply, not certain which would be more likely to prove fatal, denial or affirmation. "Tell her the truth," Jude advised him. "I served the Unbeheld once," he said. "He found me in the desert and sent me to the Fifth Dominion." "Why?"
"He had business there." "What business?"
Dowd began to squirm afresh. His tears had dried up. The drama had gone from his voice.
"He wanted a woman," he said, "to bear him a son in the Fifth."
"And you found one?"
"Yes, I did. Her name was Celestine."
"And what happened to her?"
"I don't know. I did what I was asked to do, and—"
"What happened to her?" Quaisoir said again, more forcefully.
"She died," Dowd replied, trailing that possibility to see if it was challenged. When it wasn't he took it up with fresh gusto. "Yes, that's what happened. She perished. In childbirth, so I believe. Hapexamendios impregnated her, you see, and her poor body couldn't bear the responsibility."
Dowd's style was by now too familiar to deceive Jude. She knew the music he put into his voice when he lied, and heard it clearly now. He was well aware that Celestine was alive. There had been no such music in his early revelations, however—his talk of procuring for Hapexamendios—which seemed to indicate that this was indeed a service he'd done the God.
"What about the child?" Quaisoir asked him. "Was it a son or a daughter?"
"I don't know," he said. "Truly, I don't."
Another lie, and one his captor sensed. She loosened the noose, and he dropped a few inches, letting out a sob of terror and clutching at the filaments in his panic.
"Don't drop me! Please God, don't drop me!"
"What about the child?"
"What do 1 know?" he said, tears beginning again, only this time the real thing. "I'm nothing. I'm a messenger. A spear-carrier."
"A pimp," she said.
"Yes, that too. I confess it. I'm a pimp! But it's nothing, it's nothing. Tell her, Judith! I'm just an actor chappie. A fucking worthless actor chappie!"
"Then good night," Quaisoir said, and let him go.
The noose slipped through his fingers with such suddenness he had no time to take a faster hold, and he dropped like a dead man from a cut rope, not even beginning to shriek for several seconds, as though sheer disbelief had silenced him until the iris of smoky sky above him had closed almost to a dot. When his din finally rose it was high-pitched, but brief.
As it stopped, Jude laid her palms against the pavement and, without looking up at Quaisoir, murmured her thanks, in part for her preservation but at least as much for Dowd's dispatch.
"Who was he?" Quaisoir asked.
"I only know a little part of this," Jude replied.
"Little by little," Quaisoir said. "That's how we'll understand it all. Little... by ... little."
Her voice was exhausted, and when Jude looked up she saw the miracle was leaving Quaisoir's cells. She had sunk to the ground, her unfurled flesh withdrawing into her body, the beatific blue fading from her skin. Jude picked herself up and hobbled from the edge of the hole.
Hearing her footsteps, Quaisoir said, "Where are you going?"
"Just away from the well," Jude said, laying her brow and her palms against the welcome chill of the wall. "Do you know who I am?" she asked Quaisoir, after a little time.
"Yes," came the soft reply. "You're the me I lost. You're the other Judith."
"That's right." She turned to see that Quaisoir was smiling, despite her pain.
"That's good," Quaisoir said. "If we survive this, maybe you'll begin again for both of us. Maybe you'll see the visions I turned my back on."
Quaisoir sighed. "I was loved by a great Maestro once," she said. "He showed me angels. They used to come to our table in sunbeams. I swear. Angels in sunbeams. And I thought we'd live forever, and I'd learn all the secrets of the sea. But I let hurt lead me out of the sun. I let him persuade me the spirits didn't matter. Only our will mattered, and if we willed pain, then that was wisdom. I lost myself in such a little time, Judith. Such a little time." She shuddered. "I was blinded by my crimes before anyone ever took a knife to me."
Jude looked pityingly on her sister's maimed face. "We've got to find somebody to clean your wounds," she said.
"I doubt there's a doctor left alive in Yzordderrex," Quaisoir replied. "They're always the first to go in any revolution, aren't they? Doctors, tax collectors, poets...."
"If we can't find anybody else, I'll do it," Jude said, leaving the security of the wall and venturing back down the incline to where Quaisoir sat.
"I thought I saw Jesus Christ yesterday," she said. "He was standing on a roof with his arms open wide. I thought he'd come for me, so that I could make my confession, That's why I came here: to find Jesu. I heard his messenger."
"That was me."
"You were ... in my thoughts?"
"So I found you instead of Christos. That seems like a greater miracle." She reached out towards Jude, who took her hand. "Isn't it, sister?"
'Tm not sure yet," Jude said. "I was myself this morning. Now what am I? A copy, a forgery."
The word brought Klein's Bastard Boy to mind: Gentle the faker, making profit from other people's genius. Is that why he'd obsessed upon her? Had he seen in her some subtle clue to her true nature and followed her out of devotion to the sham she was?
"I was happy," she said, thinking back to the good times she'd shared with him. "Maybe I didn't always realize I was happy, but I was. I was myself."
"You still are."
"No," she said, as close to despair as she could ever remember being. "I'm a piece of somebody else."
"We're all pieces," Quaisoir said. "Whether we were born or made." Her fingers tightened around Jude's hand. "We're all hoping to be whole again. Will you take me back up to the palace?" she said. "We'll be safer there than here."
"Of course," Jude replied, helping her up.
"Do you know which direction to go?"
She said she did. Despite the smoke and the darkness, the walls of the palace loomed above them, massive but remote.
"We've got quite a climb ahead of us," Jude said. "It may take us till morning."
"The night is long in Yzordderrex," Quaisoir replied.
"It won't last forever," Jude said.
"It will for me."
"I'm sorry. That was thoughtless. I didn't mean—"
"Don't be sorry," Quaisoir said. "I like the dark. I can remember the sun better. Sun, and angels at the table. Will you take my arm, sister? I don't want to lose you again."