Bradley W. Schenck
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Posts by Bradley W. Schenck
I was in the spirit house, meditating on breath. The men of the village were in the men’s house, where Pidi had called a meeting to discuss something to do with the crops. The women were in the women’s house, brewing corn beer and making jokes about each other’s husbands and children, but keeping an eye on the men’s house across the central open space.
I did not go to the meeting; I was not a man. I did not go to where the women were gathered; I was not a woman. Besides, I knew that Pidi would come to me in due time. He was staunch for the proper ways of doing things, despite all that had befallen us and the other towns of the Nigua nation in the years since the Spaniards had passed through.
I returned to my meditation. I had been thinking about breath a great deal lately. Now it was time to consult my guide.
Under my predecessor Pallu’s tutelage, I had learned how to control my breathing, to channel and focus the life force so as to perform acts that were impossible for the untutored, unless they took the mushrooms called “the openers,” as the men did in some of their ceremonies. But the openers brought them only dreams – though sometimes those dreams could be of serious import – instead of truly opening the doors to the upper and lower worlds.
I could climb or descend into the other realms without openers, simply by regulating my breathing while repeating the secret words that Pallu had taught me after he took me into his keeping. After he prevented Manda, the father of Pidi, from dashing my infant head against a rock because of my . . . discrepancy.
Thus I had chosen today – the signs were auspicious – to go beyond meditating, to go down into the lower world and seek wisdom from my guide. Thus I was sitting cross-legged in the spirit house, with my back straight as Pallu had long ago taught me. I fixed my vision on the central post, the axis between the upper and lower worlds, and took charge of my breathing, slowing it gradually, until my abdomen and chest would scarcely have shown movement – if anyone could have been in the spirit house to see it.
The interior of the house grew brighter, one of the signs that I was becoming detached from the middle world. The blond wood of the axis post began to glow with a golden light, telling me that I was nearing the threshold of the channel to the upper world. I reached without looking for the small wooden bowl and took two small sips of the clarifying tea, then set it down and continued to concentrate on my breathing.
The tea began to work within me, opening the ways. I felt my pulse throbbing in the seven parts of my body. My torso became a great hollow tube, extending from my buttocks to the inside of my mouth, but I kept my lips tightly sealed to prevent my inner parts from rushing out; if I let them escape I knew it would take a long time to recover them. Gradually, the pressure ebbed away while the glow grew brighter and moved to envelop me, until my view of the spirit house was completely suffused by the light and I saw only gold, with the usual rim of blackness at the edge of my vision. The Old Deceivers hissed and chattered at me from the darkness, but I had long since ceased to give them any heed.
Motionless, I waited for the expanding light to absorb me completely. When I was sure I was surrounded by its warmth, I let a portion of my innermost self seep from one nostril and make contact. A lightness filled my chest and I felt as if I could float up to the thatch above me, to fly out the smoke hole and perch on the roof- it was a better perch than Pidi’s for listening in. But I resisted the urge and called instead on the one who guarded and advised me.
She came, as always, in the form of a monkey-eagle, her feathers gray above and pale below, showing bands of light and darkness as she spread her wings then closed them. I offered my own courtesy and a greeting. She turned her head and looked at me from one golden eye.
She did not speak; she never did. But I felt her presence within me and knew that she waited for me to begin the conversation. I spoke in my spirit voice, that none but she would hear, “I have been thinking about breath. And life. And fire.”
The word mystery formed in my mind.
A great mystery, said my own voice, though I knew it was speaking for her, woven through the world.
Consider the wind, my inner voice said, and what it brings.
It was a thought that had already passed through my mind a number of times. The wind was like breath, but none knew where it came from, or where it went. Did something breathe the wind? If so, whose breath was it? Or did it breathe itself? These were old questions, never answered.
But the guardian had spoken of what the wind brought, which was a new consideration, and now I said, “What does it bring?”
The answer came not in words but in a sudden sense of motion. I was rising up, as if I were a monkey seized in the eagle’s claws, though I felt no pain and knew I would not be harmed; it was not the first time I had flown like this.
We climbed through the leafy canopy, as I had often seen such birds fly in the forest, their short, powerful wings finding holes and pathways among the branches. Then we were out in the open air and still rising. Far off to the east I could see the forested hills climbing to the blue mountains, obscured today by overcast. To the west was the sea, as gray as the sky, the line where one met the other made invisible by rain. We passed over the ruined town the old chief – Manda, Pidi’s father – had led us away from in my childhood, when the spotted sickness came again. Then we flew on, out beyond the horizon, out to the deep sea where our men used to sail on balsa rafts, trading with towns three and four days sail away – towns that were all gone now.
We flew through rain and out into sun again. The water turned blue, marked with snails’ trails of currents. But now, farther out, I saw something I had never seen, though I recognized it from descriptions I had heard: it was a ship of the Spaniards, rounded at one end and squared-off at the other, with tall posts from which great swatches of pale cloth hung motionless in a windless calm. Unlike a canoe, its hollow spaces were roofed over with wooden planks, and on them were the first Spaniards I had ever seen.
I saw them with the bird’s eyes, sharper than any human’s, and the image became even clearer as my guardian tipped one wing and glided down toward the scene. I saw that they were of two sorts. There were many of the pale ones, like those who had come to our town wearing metal over their puffed-out clothing, carrying swords and the wood and iron things that smoked and shot deadly fire. How did they get fire into iron, I wondered and my thoughts went along that path until my guardian returned my attention to what was beneath us.
Besides the pale men there were dark-skinned Spaniards, men and women, walking in a circle, each with a hand on the shoulder of the one in front. Hupuka and the other men who had been taken to carry burdens had spoken of these dark Spaniards. In the high country they were common. Some were labourers, grubbing and carrying, and not just for a period, as the Quechua-speakers were forced to be for months at a time; the lowest of the dark Spaniards were worked all the time. But some were craftsmen and seemed to have some license to decide for themselves how their days would go, whereas a few others were no different from the pale Spaniards – these wore armour and carried weapons; they swaggered and caroused and beat the Quechua-speakers just like the others.
These ring-walkers were not swaggering sort. They were clothed in tatters and went barefoot. And they were watched by pale Spaniards who held swords and spears and those terrible spear-axes our men had seen do murder. Two more Spaniards stood on a raised platform at the rear of the vessel, and these held long objects of wood and iron from each of which a thin trail of gray smoke rose into the air. That caught my attention, but my guide had other interests. It tipped a wing and slid lower through the air.
A pair of pale Spaniards were hauling buckets of water from the sea and throwing them on the circling dark ones, I supposed to clean and cool them. But that was not what my guardian wanted me to see. As I looked where she looked, I saw a dark face glance up, then stare right at me. He was not one the circle-walkers, though. He was young, dressed in the padded, tightly fitted clothes that some of the paler ones wore, the sleeves ridiculously filled out. He wore shoes with squares of bright metal on them. I could see his eyes blinking as he sought to focus on me.
Now my guardian’s gaze shifted again and I saw another dark face, though this one was not looking up. This one was mature, had wielded power, and in his expression I saw rage and dignity mixed. Unlike the others, he had both hands on the man before him, and his wrists were circled by dark metal bands joined together. I knew that those hard eyes did not see the man in front of him but watched scenes that played out like shadows on the wall of his mind.
Once more my guide’s attention moved on and I found myself seeing the face of a woman who walked behind the angry man, her face still, but her eyes no less thoughtful than the man whose shoulder lay under her hand.
Then we were spiralling up into the air, the ship shrinking like a toy. We flew toward the eastern clouds. The voice spoke in my mind again: What the wind brings.
A moment later I was back in my body, the glow fading around me. I was shaking and chilled, as I often was after returning from the upper world, and my mouth was dry and foul from the tea. Near me was a calabash half-filled with corn beer. I took a mouthful, rinsed it around then spat it through the gaps in the floor. Now I drank properly, my throat narrow and normal again.
I waited until the shivers subsided, then I rose, stiff in my joints for all I had still not yet seen thirty rainy seasons. I went to the door and descended to the open space.
Only a short time had passed. The men were still in their meeting. A rack of poles served as a ladder up the door of the men’s house. I waited at the bottom and made the gesture that courtesy required. I could see some of the men seated in the common space within, passing around a jug of beer. One of them glanced down and saw me.
“Expectation is here,” he announced.
I heard Pidi’s voice say something, then the man near the door looked down at me and said, “You are not needed this time.”
I inclined my head and went back toward the spirit house. I had only briefly considered telling them about the ship and the pale and dark Spaniards. Clearly, the vision was important, but I would need to dwell upon it for some time before I could understand what it all meant. And what the wind was bringing us.
It was an epiphany: surely, the finest moment of Luff Imbry’s career as one of the premier gastronomes of Old Earth.
He sat in Xanthoulian’s fabled restaurant, imbued with that mellowness of mood that could only derive from having had his vast yet fastidious appetite fully satisfied. And not just satisfied, but unequivocally quenched. The ten-course meal, including eight collateral vintages from the restaurant’s exemplary cellar, two liqueurs, and one final essence, had been a masterpiece of the culinary arts.
Xanthoulian, challenged to meet the standards of one of Old Earth’s most discerning epicures, had compiled a menu that mixed serene balances of texture with daring contrapuntal flavors, sauces that ranged from the fiery to the sublime, and presentations that drew the eye almost as much as the dishes’ aromas coaxed the palate.
At the end of the experience, Imbry sat sated, head lolled back, eyes half-closed, mouth open in the final exhalation of ecstasy. Then he squared his great bulk in the reinforced chair and gazed across the salon to where Xanthoulian himself stood in the kitchen doorway.
“Yes,” the fat man said, with a sigh, “but it raises one question.”
The twin thickets that were the chef’s eyebrows formed a silent interrogation.
“How,” Imbry said, gesturing to the strew of empty plates, bowls and salvers before him, “will you ever surpass this moment?”
At which Xanthoulian twice touched the tip of his finger to the side of his buttress of a nose and said, “With another, I expect.”
“But how can you be sure it will not all be down the slope from here?”
“If I were sure,” said Xanthoulian, “what would be the point of doing it?”
The remark bespoke a life strategy at odds with Imbry’s. “I prefer,” he said, “to minimize uncertainty.”
Xanthoulian’s shrug was a masterpiece of minimality. “Our professions differ,” he said. “I am a simple cook, whereas you are a . . .” He let the sentence die with its last word unspoken.
“I am,” said the fat man, in a reflective tone, “an adjustor. I adjust the ownership of items of great worth. My efforts bring joy to their new possessors while delivering to their late owners valuable insights into the nature of the world.” He considered for a moment then continued, “and yet I charge nothing for those educations.”
The chef said, “Just as well. The fee might be difficult to collect.”
Imbry conceded the point. Then, with another profound sigh of satiation, he heaved himself to his surprisingly small feet and spoke to the establishment’s integrator, bidding it contact his own device and take payment. To the previously negotiated sum, he added a gratuity of twenty per cent, to which Xanthoulian bowed his acceptance. The sum was, to the fat man, now a trifle; having lately won the Murrassey Prize, he was now as wealthy as the upper tier of Old Earth’s magnatocracy. Still, he was almost ready to mount a new operation: a comprehensive defrauding of the Divestment in the County of Sherit. It was not the money that drew him, but the audacity of the swindle and a feeling that if it was something that could be done, then it ought to be done. And that he was the only one fit to do it.
“I hope,” the chef said, as Imbry progressed to the street door that led out into Vodel Close, “you will eventually present me with another challenge, so your original question can be answered.”
Sated though he was, the chef’s hope prompted a frisson of anticipation in the fat man as he descended the three steps from Xanthoulian’s door. Thus distracted, at first he thought he had not heard clearly what the young woman on the sidewalk said to him. So now it was Imbry’s turn to look a question. At the same time, he reluctantly shook off the mellowness that enwrapped him and took detailed notice of his surroundings. For was this not precisely the kind of occasion that his enemies — for no one moved through the halfworld of the blowsy old city of Olkney without incurring enmity — would choose to spring some unwelcome surprise on Imbry the thief, Imbry the forger, Imbry the perpetrator of subtle but lucrative frauds?
Seeing no threat, he looked back to the young woman and said, “What did you say?”
She was thin though not frail, and though she was dressed in a manner by no means too outré for Olkney, the details of her costume said she had acquired it on some other world. Depending from a chain around her neck was a yellow stone carved roughly in the semblance of a human face.
She swallowed and looked straight at him with wide-set pale eyes. “I said, I need your help.” She swallowed again and added, “Uncle Luff.”
Luff Imbry’s antecedents had always been a mystery to him. At an early age, he had been sent to live with two elderly women who said they were his aunts and who were consistently evasive whenever he raised a question as to the whereabouts of his parents and the estimated time of their return. When he was old enough, he was packed off to a boarding school, the question left unanswered, and eventually it became unanswerable: he was called into the chief administrator’s office to be informed that the old women had died, leaving him an annuity sufficient to see him through his formative years.
Later, the fat man made inquiries, both officially through the Archonate’s vastly knowledgeable integrators and unofficially through the channels available to a member of the halfworld. But his efforts availed him nothing. His parents, Traz and Melza Imbry, had been servants to the old women, having arrived, Melza pregnant, from some minor world far down The Spray. They had died not long after he learned to walk. No subsequent documentation about them had ever been recorded on Old Earth, nor had any trace of them been found among the Ten Thousand Worlds of The Spray.
He could not even confirm their deaths as entirely accidental. Like their son, they may have been criminals. If so, they might have run afoul of some personage within the halfworld who dealt with offenses to his dignity in a direct and conclusive manner. He knew of several individuals who had permanently dropped from view; some of them because they had attempted to borrow the shoes, as the expression went, of Luff Imbry.
So when the young woman with strawlike hair and an air of being chronically underfed addressed him as “Uncle,” the fat man’s first reaction was not to embrace her as long-lost kin. Instead, he looked carefully up and down Vodel Close, then even more carefully at the nervous creature before him. Only when he was satisfied that he faced no imminent threat did he speak.
“Who are you? What do you want of me?”
She swallowed again. “I’m . . .” She went dry and had to rally moisture behind her thin lips. “I’m Antheana. Your niece — well, great-niece, really. And I need your help.”
“My great-niece?” He looked up and down the narrow street again. If not an odd prelude to an ambush, it was conceivable, barely so, that he was being positioned as the object of some prank. There were very few participants in Imbry’s milieu that had the required unorthodox sense of humor combined with the untouchable status to attempt such antics, but he could think of two or three.
“Who sent you?” he said.
“Walvern.” She said the name as if it would explain all. It explained nothing.
“Who is Walvern?”
A worm of doubt now showed its tracks on the young woman’s brow. Instead of answering his question, she proposed one of her own. “You are Luff Imbry, aren’t you? I mean, I had only a description and that you frequented this restaurant. I didn’t think there could be two such . . .” Her voice trailed off while her arms spread as if to encompass someone of Imbry’s heroic girth.
“I am Luff Imbry,” he said, “but I know no Walvern. Nor do I know of any Antheana, nor any relative of mine. I am a singular, as all Olkney knows.”
“You’ve never heard of me? Or of Walvern — he’s my older brother. We are the children of Bohdri and Tal Imbry, and Bohdri was the first born of Dai Imbry, your father’s older brother.”
Imbry blinked. For a moment he wondered if Xanthoulian’s daring use of exotic spices gathered from jungles and seacoasts on far-flung worlds had worked a comprehensive illusion on his sensorium. He reached forward with a plump finger and gently poked the young woman’s upper arm, felt scant flesh and slim bone beneath.
“So, you’re real,” he said. He took one last look around the surroundings, saw no one but the alleged great-niece Antheana. There was no use in pointing out that the existences of Bohdri, Tal, and Dai were likewise news to him.
He stood and looked at her while she looked back at him with what could only be innocent hope. Then he said, “We had better go somewhere and talk.”
He could not take her to Quirks, his favorite club and the place he best liked to stay between operations. Non-members were unwelcome if not actively discouraged. Nor could he take her to Bolly’s Snug, the disreputable tavern in whose backrooms he usually met customers, clients, and associates; the security of Bolly’s back chambers put them in constant demand and it would take at least a day’s notice to book one.
He certainly could not take her to his operations center, hidden in a semi-derelict house in a disregarded quarter of the city and inhabited, or at least so it would seem to any burglars who might approach it, by a semi-feral hermit who spent his time ranting and issuing atrocious threats of intricate bloody revenge on the universe and any of its representatives who came within range.
He drummed his fingers on a thigh as he sought an appropriate venue. To get her into Fentle’s, his next favored club, would require tedious formalities and would generate rumors he did not care to have to quash. Bemused, he looked up and saw the palace of the Archon sprawling across the black crags of the Devenish Range north of the city. “Of course,” he said and summoned an air car.
Soon they were high above the domes and spires of Olkney. Imbry had instructed the vehicle to leave its canopy open, counting on the rush of air to discourage further conversation. He wanted no fresh revelations until certain points already raised had been settled conclusively.
They settled on the broad terrace outside the Grand Connaissarium built by the Archon Terfel III, now dead these past many millennia. But most of the great building was still in use and Imbry knew that its integrators were approachable and that their discretion was absolute. Well, not so absolute that they did not report to the Archonate bureaucracy and the Bureau of Scrutiny; but in the present case, he did not mind if those agencies shared in whatever discoveries awaited him in the form of Antheana Imbry.
Taking the young woman by the arm, he entered and led her across the wide foyer and past the current display — mist sculptures of the XVIIIth Aeon, their evanescent shapes and tenuous colors temporarily disarranged by the motions of air that attended the couple’s passage — and came to a row of sealed booths. Imbry chose a larger one, intended for parties of four or more, and gently but firmly eased his companion within. He squeezed in after, closing the door behind them.
Immediately, a voice spoke from the air. “Luff Imbry,” it said. “Always an interesting encounter. What do you seek?”
“Verification,” said the fat man, then with a sidewise glance at the young woman, “or otherwise.”
“Delineate,” said the Archonate integrator.
“This person calls herself Antheana Imbry and claims kinship–”
“I don’t ‘call myself’ anything,” said the person so described. Her earlier apprehension seemed to have been worn away by the brusqueness that had characterized their short journey together.
Imbry ignored the outburst and said to the device, “Are we related?”
“All humans are related,” said the integrator. “Indeed, you are in some degree related to the wistol trees in the park next door, as well as to all the creatures that live in them.”
Imbry resisted the impulse to sigh. The Archonate’s integrators were old, their existence measurable not just in aeons but in geological periods. It sometimes amused them to be facetiously literal. “I wish to know,” he said, “the exact degree of our consanguinity.”
A small tray slid out of the wall and the voice said, “If you will place a finger on the pad.”
Imbry pushed his finger into one of the twin dabs of some yielding substance. With a sniff, Antheana touched hers. The tray disappeared and the integrator said, “One moment.”
During the ensuing silence, the young woman showed the fat man an expression that was oddly familiar, though he could not immediately say where he had seen it again. It was only as the integrator spoke again that the realization came to him that it was exactly the look he wore when his patience was being tried.
That recognition took some of the surprise out of the integrator’s news. “You are,” it said, “closely related. Your father and her grandfather were siblings. You are her great-uncle.”
Imbry now recognized the expression on Antheana’s face. It was the mien he showed the world when a judgment of his, unjustly questioned, was proved correct.
“Thank you,” he said to the integrator and moved to open the door. It did not yield to his touch.
“Colonel-Investigator Brustram Warhanny has been advised of your presence here. He wishes to speak with you and is on his way.”
“I do not care to speak with him,” said Imbry. “Now let me—”
“He is only moments away. He is very anxious to see you.”
“Not as anxious as I am to avoid being seen.” Imbry pushed at the portal but it remained fixed. “This is illegal arrest,” he said.
“Do you think so?” said the integrator. “I will have to review all the relevant statutes. Unfortunately, some of them are impossibly ancient. I will have to wake up one of the Archonate’s older integrators to consult with it.”
The fat man turned pale. The truly ancient sentient devices of the Archonate were notorious for their tendency to wild caprice. People who dealt with them sometimes found their lives permanently altered, and rarely assessed those alterations as net improvements. “I withdraw the allegation,” he said.
“Are you sure?” said the integrator. “I believe the integrator Archon Filidor calls Old Confustible would enjoy discussing the matter with you.”
“I am completely sure,” said Imbry.
“Very well.” The door to the booth opened. Imbry stepped out to find himself in the shadow of a tall man of mature years, possessed of a long nose in an even longer face, whose ingrained aspect betrayed a wide and deep experience with the worst the world had to offer. He wore a black uniform with accents of green and the badges of a Colonel-Inspector of the Bureau of Scrutiny.
“Imbry,” he said.
“Warhanny,” the fat man said.
The scroot rocked backwards and forwards, heels to toes, a number of times, his hands clasped behind his back. “We need,” he said, “to talk.”
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