Excerpts from books by Matthew Hughes
Excerpt from ‘Hespira’
It was full dark by the time Chonder’s retainers had recovered the repositories and returned them to his manse in the Bells district. When he had seen them safe behind newly augmented defenses he flew me in his own cabriole back to my lodgings where we waited for news. I poured myself a glass of a calming cordial, Master Jho-su’s brilliance at the culinary arts being such as to create long-lasting effects, and meditated on the truth that different parts of the same system can have separate agendas: just because something pleased my palate was no guarantee that it would sit well with other components of my digestive tract.
I belched discreetly, but Irslan Chonder did not notice. Having refused refreshment and a welcoming armchair, he sat on a wooden stool, his torso hunched forward, his meaty forearms resting on his thighs and his hairy-backed fingers gripping each other so tightly that the flesh around the nails was squeezed bloodlessly pale. His eyes were narrowed but I knew that he gazed upon some inner vision that promised him grim satisfaction.
Now he came back from wherever his mind had taken him and turned his iron eyes toward me. “Well?” he said.
“Not long,” I assured him.
He grunted and fell back into his dark thoughts. I finished the cordial and poured myself another half-measure. The Nine Dragons continued to ramp and stamp through my innards, but I forgot the sensations when my integrator sounded a small chime and said, “We have a report.”
“Show me,” I said, and the screen appeared where Chonder and I could both view it. An image instantly filled it: one of the secluded private rooms at the rear of Bolly’s Snug. The tavern was clouded by a web of interwoven energies that led its habitues to believe that the premises were secure from all surveillance, whether by the Bureau of Scrutiny or from private pryings like mine. In that belief, they were largely correct. But I had found a way through the safeguards.
Any active surveillance device operating at Bolly’s would immediately have been detected and destroyed. But I had had success in sending in a bee that had attached itself to the clothing of someone who was heading for the Snug, working its way under a collar or into the folds of a hat. As soon as it reached the outer defenses, the bee would become inert. After waiting long enough for its unknowing host to have passed through the shields, the drone would reactivate, but only enough to become a passive receiver of sound and light as well as a few other emanations. It would store the information, since no transmission could make it out through the barriers, then go inert again when the person carrying it exited through the defenses. Once clear of the protected zone, the bee would leave its host and send a report or, if complete secrecy was desirable, it would wait until it had returned home.
This bee was now reporting as it whirred back to my workroom. I saw a small private room in the back of Bolly’s Snug, a rough table surrounded by a few chairs, a tankard on the table top, its handle in the sinewy grip of Massim Shar, clad in his customary black and gray and sitting in perfect stillness, the very image of a man who knew how to wait. Behind him stood a big fellow, corded arms folded across his broad chest, his face ornamented by rows of tattooed symbols.
“Interesting,” I said to my assistant. “Shar has acquired the services of Hak Binram.”
“The question is, said the integrator, “whether Binram has hired on is for this evening only, or for a continuing relationship.”
“Either way, it is another sign that Shar is now circulating among the uppermost strata of the halfworld.”
“Hush,” said Chonder. “Look.”
The screen now showed the door to the room opening inward. Through the doorway came the man in the glitter suit, carrying a satchel. He placed his burden on the table, performed a respectful gesture and stood expectantly. Massim Shar gestured for him to open the satchel. The man did as he was bid and the thief glanced into the opening. Then Shar signaled to Hak Binram, who approached the man in the incognito suit and applied something he held in one huge hand to the dull metal collar around the courier’s neck. The solid ring came apart and Binram removed it and tucked it into a pocket. The man in the incognito suit said not a word, but his posture bespoke great relief of tension. He turned and swiftly departed, closing the door behind him.
Hak Binram now went to stand with his back pressed to the portal, and it would have been a strong man indeed who could have opened it against the pressure of the tattooed man’s shoulders.
Massim Shar took an unhurried swallow from the tankard and set it aside. Slowly, almost leisurely, he widened the satchel’s neck then upturned the container to spill its contents out onto the table: a pile of glittering gems of several sizes, cuts and colors. The thief sorted through them then nodded in satisfaction.
“Intelligent,” my assistant said. “The ransom was converted into untraceable valuables before it was brought to Massim Shar. He cannot be connected with the extortion.”
“Indeed,” I said, watching as Shar took a dark red stone twice the size of my thumbnail and tossed it toward the man guarding the door. Binram’s hand flashed out with surprising speed and caught the glittering jewel. He pocketed it, then as Shar rose and tucked the satchel under his arm, he opened the door and paused to look out into the space beyond before signaling to his employer that all was as it should be. The last image I saw was of the thief’s wiry fingers extending toward the bee’s point of view, which told the device — hidden in Shar’s hat or cloak on a chair beside the table — that it was time to go dark again.
“Well, there it is,” I said. “But again I advise you to let the matter rest.”
Irslan Chonder was on his feet, his eyes still fixed on the air where the screen had hung. The muscles in his jaw moved as if small animals were burrowing under his skin. “No,” he said, without looking at me. Then he turned his hard gaze my way and I had to summon up an extra reserve of professional coolness not to give in to the impulse to look away. “I want you to help me with the next step,” he said.
“No,” I said, summoning fresh resources; he was not an easy man to refuse. “Your proposal is ill-considered. No good can come of it.”
I saw that his fists had bunched. Then the fingers deliberately relaxed. Without a further word, he left by the stairs that led to the roof. Moments later, I heard his big cabriole thrumming away across the top of Olkney. A few minutes later my integrator informed me that the balance of my fee had been deposited to my account at the fiduciary pool. Not long after that, the bee that had transmitted the report arrived home and went to join its fellows clustered around their vitalizer.
The one missing bee, that which I had sent out to locate my former intuitive faculty, would still be making its way to the estate where he now resided. There was nothing more to be done, so I told my assistant I was off to bed.
When I came down the following morning, clad in robe and slippers and carrying a steaming cup of punge, I found a surveillance bee waiting on my workroom table. “Is this the bee we sent to Osk Rievor?” I said.
“It is,” said my assistant.
There had not been enough time for the drone to have traveled all the way to and from where my other self lived, not to mention the time it would have had to spend recharging at some point along the course of its round trip. “Did it go only part way, then return without fulfilling its mission?”
The integrator showed me. I saw an image of my workroom table, with the usual scattering of materials relating to cases and the smaller tools of my profession. In the midst of these, the bee suddenly appeared.
“Do you wish to see that at a slower speed?” my assistant asked.
“Yes, and magnified.”
The sequence repeated. This time, the appearance of the bee was not instantaneous. It seemed to be pushed through a small rent in the air, nose first, the fissure closing the instant all of the drone had come through.
“How?” I said. Teleportation was possible, but required far more energy than Osk Rievor could command in his far-off little cottage. Besides, there was no receiver in my workroom.
“You won’t like the answer.”
“I know, but I will hear it anyway.”
Of course, it was magic. My assistant replayed the content of the message the bee had brought from my alter ego. I saw Osk Rievor gazing down from the integrator’s screen. I noticed that he now had a pointed beard and had let his dun-colored hair grow long enough to curl at the sides. He greeted me with a half smile then said, “I am sure it is no coincidence that you sent a messenger just as I was feeling that I ought to contact you. Even though we now inhabit separate bodies and reside at a distance from each other, we are still connected at some level.”
Not long before, I would have scoffed at the notion, there being no rational foundation for assuming such a connection. But now, from what I understood of the “rules” of sympathetic association, a regime that was gaining greater legitimacy as the cusp of the great change neared, he was quite right. Things that were “like” each other were linked to each other. The relationships that could not be laid out in a step-by-step sequence, but they could be “felt” by someone who had a “feel” for such things, just as in a rational universe, cause and effect could be deduced by a mind that was well versed in logic.
Osk Rievor had paused. Doubtless, he “felt” that I would take a moment to consider the ramifications of his statement. Now he continued, “I had a sense that you were about to have an encounter that offered a great risk. Had I been there, I would have counseled you to caution and to take nothing for granted.” He paused again, and his expression became that of a man consulting his inner wherewithal, then he said, “Now I sense that that moment has passed and that you have come through it without harm.”
But now a look of concern crept over his face. “But the matter is not ended,” he said. “You have stepped onto a path that leads toward both peril and opportunity. Again, you must exercise caution in the coming days. Not everything is as it seems.”
My other self had a fortune-teller’s flair for vague prognostication. But I had learned to trust his insight, just as I had trusted it when it had been a component of my own psyche. And, truly, I had inserted myself into a dispute between a newly made kingpin of Olkney’s half-world and one of thelouche old city’s most ruthless magnates. I could not be certain that Massim Shar would respect the conventions that ought to hold me blameless for practicing my profession to his detriment; on the other hand, I was sure that Irslan Chonder bore me a grudge for not blithely leaping aboard his vendetta as it was leaving the dock. I decided that it would be a good idea to offer the world a low silhouette for the time being.
“This bee was a good way to reach me,” Osk Rievor’s image was saying. “How do you like the method of its return? It’s an Eighteenth-Aeon spell called Phalderian’s Reversion. It allows me to send an object, or even a living creature, to any place it has already been, or to any person with whom it is closely associated. Something to do with resonances. Once I’ve learned how to generate enough essential fluid, I should even be able to project myself over a great distance. Then I may come and visit you.
“In the meantime, perhaps you could send some more bees, and I’ll return them to you whenever I have something urgent to pass on.”
He concluded with a salute that conveyed ironic affection, and my assistant closed the screen.
“Hmm,” I said. “We had better send him some bees.”
I wasn’t sure how many I could spare, but one does not show indecision to one’s integrator. I said, “We will consider that after lunch.”
“Will you take his warning to heart?” the integrator said.
“I will,” I said. “I hope it can never be said that Henghis Hapthorn does not learn from experience.”
“Then shall I cancel your luncheon at Xanthoulian’s?”
I had had the integrator make the booking after receiving the first half of Chonder’s fee. “Let it also never be said that Hapthorn panics and starts at shadows.”
My assistant reminded me that there were some buns and preserves in the refresher and suggested that the wiser course would be to stay in and catch up on my correspondence.
“An opportunity to dine at Xanthoulian’s is not to be lightly tossed aside,” I said, “but I will take you with me and you will warn me of any lurking dangers.”
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