It was an infernal afternoon at the start of the swelter season, but the crowd racketing in the street outside the Vonahrish Residency in ZuLaysa appeared immune to heat. Of course, the crowd was Aveshquian, its members born to the climate. The steambath atmosphere so ennervating to foreign administrators damped neither native vitality nor native hostility. Whizzing rocks pelted the outer wall of the Residency compound, and the air sizzled with howling abuse. Some of the insults were wonderfully inventive, but their beauty was lost upon the Vonahrish recipients immured within, who comprehended little of the local dialect. The accusations were likewise unintelligible, but their menace required no translation and, behind the wall, the Residency windows were shuttered tightly.
Similarly shuttered and barred were buildings all throughout this section of ZuLaysa known as Little Sherreen, in honor of the distant Vonahrish capital. The houses, shops, and offices--all neoclassically symmetrical in de-sign, all constructed of imported cherry-colored brick, all seemingly lifted straight off the tree-lined boulevards of Sherreen--today appeared almost absurdly out of place under the glaring eastern skies. The streets ordinarily filled with pallid expatriates today belonged to golden Aveshquians alone. The natives--for the most part a docile lot, as their creed dictated--now displayed uncharacteristic fury, and a westerner afoot in their midst might justly have feared for his fair skin. Fellow countrymen went unmolested for the nonce, even those clothed in the livery of the Vonahrish overlords, but that could change in an instant.
The Aveshquian guards stationed before the Residency's big front gates were cognizant of peril. The uniformed figures stood motionless and upright, while the faces beneath the stiffened visors of flat-topped dhurlies were professionally blank. But the dark eyes in the bronzed visages shifted uneasily, and many a hand gripped many a carbine with unnecessary force. Still, for all flying rocks and dung, the only missiles hitherto aimed directly at the guards had been verbal, and even these consisted less of taunts than of pleas for racial solidarity.
A seething upheaval marked a point of fresh disturbance. Someone was pushing his way through the crowd. For a few moments, loud commotion marked the newcomer's progress, and then a lone figure stepped forth to conront the guards.
He was tall, by Aveshquian standards; lean, and graced with the fluid eastern ease of motion so foreign to the straight-spined, stiff-jointed Vonahrish. His voluminous tunic and baggy breeches of weightless, sand-colored qunne might have belonged to anyone. Equally anonymous was the pendant bronze ushtra, ubiquitous triskelion symbol of Triumphant Submission. But the embroidered insignia decorating the polychrome zhupur wound and intricately knotted about his waist identified him as a member of the moderately prestigious Order of Divergence. A wide-brimmed hat of woven waterfiber shaded his face, but couldn't disguise the glitter of keen eyes, their apparent blackness belied by green highlights. The black-green eyes, together with prominent facial bones and a long, thin, arrogantly aquiline nose, marked the newcomer as a northerner, possibly one of the mountain tribesmen. The lines etching the eyes suggested an age near thirty. But the mouth, chin, and jaw, which might have revealed so much, were shrouded in gauze dust-wards deng from the hat.
He made straight for the gates, and the exhortations arising in his wake failed to slow his progress. Pleas and reproaches soon gave way to vituperation. "Traitor" was the commonest term of derogation, followed by "lickspittle," "yahdeen-vomit," and others of far more exotic description. The northerner appeared deaf, but not blind. When a beetlebrowed graybeard sporting the gold-starred insignia of the professional Birthwitness attempted to trip him with an outstretched parasol, he effortlessly sidestepped the obstacle.
"Servant of chaos!"
"Nameless, prinked-up Nameless!"
The furious voices beat at his back, but the northerner ignored them. When the guards halted him, he drew some sort of paper from one of the folds of his zhupur. They scanned it briefly, and let him go in.
The wooden gates groaned shut behind him and the clamor subsided but the shouting remained quite audible. Before him rose the Residency, irreproachably elegant, restrained in design, alien to this place. The grounds were manicured but uniformly ochre in hue, for the sprinkler system, powered by native muscle, and required to maintain a Vonahrish-style green lawn, had recently failed. The ornamental shrubberies, clipped into ruthlessly regular form, were as yellow-brown as the grass.
The native guards patrolling the parched courtyard paid no heed to the newcomer; save for legitimate credentials, he would never have won his way past the gate. Thus he proceeded without incident to the front door, where his pass was reexamined. Again he was admitted, and now found himself in the formal foyer incongruously echoing the pretentious proportions of the Palace of Justice, in Sherreen.
The place was unusually empty. The petitioners, malcontents, and entrepreneurs of all varieties wont to haunt the premises were not in evidence today. He made his way unchallenged across the foyer. Nobody troubled him as he mounted the broad central staircase. He was halfway to the second story before the inevitable hand descended upon his shoulder, and the inevitable angry voice demanded, "Here--where d'you think you're going?"
The intruder turned innocent green-black eyes upon his interlocutor--a hefty Vonahrish corporal of the Second Kahnderulese Regiment of Foot, clad in the authentic Vonahrish buff and gray, none of your native hirelings--a real Esteemed. He gaped.
"You drunk? You stupid?" the corporal inquired. "None of your kind beyond the foyer. Go back. Understand? Forbidden." There was no response, and he spoke louder. "FORBIDDEN!You hear?"
Hearing was one thing, comprehension another. The native shrugged and waggled ingratiatingly, a course guaranteed to stoke the other's rage.
"Get out! You'll be whipped! You'll be written up in the book! You'll be locked up and notated! You'll take a number!"
"Number? Esteemed?" the intruder breathed.
This last unflattering epithet referred to the subtle golden tone of the Aveshquian complexion, but the newcomer's ignorance deflected insult. Flexing another winsome shrug, he resumed progress up the stairs, and the corporal waxed wroth.
"HALT!" The bellowed command produced no result. The corporal roared upon a different note, and uniformed figures converged upon the intruder.
"Throw that thing out," the corporal directed.
"Esteemed--most Esteemed--" A fervent flapping of wrists conveyed Aveshquian distress. "This one seeks the ear of the august Protector--"
"The most tremendous Protector vo Trouniere. If I might be admitted presence--"
"Forgive your servant, Esteemed. This worthless one implores a moment--but a single, fleeting, insignificant moment--with Protector vo Trouniere."
"Listen, Pissie," the corporal suggested. "The Protector's time is valuable. Too valuable to waste on pig-shit like you. Now you just haul your sorry ass out of here while you can still walk."
"But I beg you, Esteemed--upon my very knees, if you desire it--for I bear a message of grave import--"
"Grave's the word--yours, if you're lying. What message? Who from? Let's see it."
"But it is meant for the tremendous one alone."
"You just give it here to me. If it's worth reading, I'll see it delivered." "No, no, Esteemed, I am most strictly charged--"
"Search him," the corporal ordered, and a couple of his men stepped forward to lay hands upon the intruder.
"Ah, spare your servant this shame! I am of Divergence, do not defile my Order!" Piteous, singsong accented pleas rang through the foyer. An interested group of guards gathered at the foot of the stairs.
"Check that rag around his middle," the corporal directed. "That's where they hide things."
"Gentlemen--Esteemed--you wrong me--" The captive wriggled violently.
"Sir, he's slippery as an oozie," one of the soldiers complained. "Permission to bash 'im a good one?"
"Not worth bruising your knuckles on. Just strip it raw and throw it out. Teach it some decent respect. Then you can search through the clothes."
"No! Pity, gentlemen, pity" The wriggling grew frantic. "By every god there is, by the Source and Finality Himself, I swear to you--"
But the nature of the oath was lost, for a sharply authoritative new voice now cut in to demand, "What is this, a carnival? Corporal, explain yourself."
Soldiers and captive looked up. Several steps above them stood a burly, barrel-bodied figure attired in civilian garb of dandified perfection: lightweight linen frock coat of elegant Vonahrish cut, checked strap trousers over polished boots, fashionable fawn moire waistcoat, ivory silk cravat, gold-headed walking stick clasped in one coarsely formed, beautifully manicured hand. His starched shirt tabs, sharp and pointed as lethal weapons, stood mercilessly erect. The face above them was broad and wide-mouthed, its peasant bluntness of feature mitigated by exquisitely groomed reddish moustache, imperial, and side whiskers. Hair and garments exuded a powerful waft of expensive imported perfume.
"Assistant Secretary Shivaux. Sir." The corporal snapped a salute conveying all the respect due from a lowly noncom of the Kahnderulese Second to an official of the governing Aveshquian Civil Service, and one of the Protector's right-hand men, to boot.
"Intruder, sir. This here Pissie--beg pardon, sir, this yellowfellow, that is, this native,
he just came barging up the stairs, cool as sherbet, demanding to see the Protector."
"Claimed to be carrying a message. Wouldn't show it to anyone--"
"Save the tremendous one," the culprit interjected. Both Vonahrishmen ignored him.
"And so," the corporal concluded, "we were searching him, naturally."
"Naturally. And then?"
"Then?" The corporal appeared mystified. "Throw 'im out, of course."
"I see." Assistant Secretary Shivaux reflected a moment or two before inquiring mildly, "Without interrogation?"
The corporal, sensing quicksand, said nothing.
"Those savages out there in the street are ready and eager to drink blood," Shivaux continued in the same pensive tone. "They are vicious and treacherous at the best of times, and doubly so now. Has it never occurred to you, Corporal, that this native's intrusion, at such a juncture, is scarcely coincidental?"
"Spy, sir?" the corporal inquired.
"Drawing the attention of the entire Residency upon himself? Hardly. Diversion, perhaps."
"Whose, sir? Assassin?"
"Quite possible. If so, we shall want the names of his confederates."
"Being as there are any, sir."
"Oh, be certain there are. Have you not wondered, Corporal, how this yellow-fellow gained entry today?"
"Bamboozled the guards at the gate. They're fools, sir. I'll twist their tripes.
"They are quite probably blameless," Shivaux opined. "The yellow-fellow presented them with false documentation of some sort. You will discover it when you search him."
"Depend on it, sir."
"And where should such a thing as this acquire counterfeit credentials, without assistance?"
"You make it sound like plots, sir."
"Pissies don't hatch plots. They haven't the brains for it," the corporal declared.
"There you are quite mistaken. These Aveshquians are barbarous and generally inferior, but never devoid of cunning. Many, in fact, possess a kind of convoluted subtlety beyond comprehension of the rational western intellect. It is in their blood, no doubt. Never underestimate the native powers of duplicity, Corporal."
"As for this fine fellow here"--Shivaux descended to prod the captive's shoulder playfully with the head of his stick--"I don't doubt he'll prove communicative."
"He will by the time we're done with him, sir," the corporal promised.
"Your assistance will not be required. Watch. I shall demonstrate. Now, boy--" Shivaux addressed the captive directly. "You have recognized the error of your ways?"
"I am dust, Esteemed." The culprit bowed his head.
"Precisely. You wish to cleanse your spirit?"
"Ah, most truly!"
"There's a good boy. You will redeem your name and Order, and possibly save your own filthy little life into the bargain, should you succeed in satisfying me now. You will do so by answering all questions put to you, completely and without reservation. You will begin by telling me your name, your intention, and the names of your accomplices."
"Accomplices? Esteemed? This word?"
"Do not pretend ignorance. It is a crooked course, and dishonorable to your Order. Why are you here?"
"Esteemed, I bear a message consecrated to the Protector's vision. I carry no poison in my heart, for I am loyal to the glorious Republic of Vonahr, and--"
"Who dispatched you?"
"I am sworn to secrecy."
"May I not persuade you to reconsider?"
"Esteemed, I am sworn--"
"So am I, and I will cleave to my oath. Look at this." Shivaux raised his gold-headed cane. "What do you see?"
"A stick, handsome and costly, as is all that belongs to the Esteemed, even unto the heavenly fragrance, gorgeous and potent as the breath of ten thousand gardens, gracing the Esteemed one's person and garments--"
"Enough of that. Atop the stick?"
"The golden head of a Vonahrish falcon. Very beautiful, very finely wrought "
"Just so, boy, but you miss an essential point. The falcon is a bird of prey. Note the raptor's killing beak, the wicked point, the cutting edge, all sculpted and honed to perfection. Beneath the gilded covering lies tempered steel, strong as any blade. Can you imagine the result, should such a golden beak impinge upon a human eyeball?"
"Don't speak. Only consider, briefly. Use your imagination. I will not disturb your cogitations."
"Esteemed, you confuse me--"
"Then I will state the matter very simply. Answer my questions, or I will thrash you with my stick. In the heat and confusion of the moment, an accident may possibly occur, involving the falcon's beak and one or both of your eyes. Are you still confused?"
"Alas, I am lost! Aoun-Father, guide me! Am I mad, or are there not international treaties, charters, contracts, and other such awesome inky magics prohibiting the mutilation of my countrymen?"
"Difficult to say, boy." Shivaux shook his curled head. "Alas, I am no lawyer. You yourself are free to investigate the matter, upon your departure. I am told that the public Hall of Records in the city of Lanthi Ume, some three months' journey by land and sea to the west, contains facilities for the use of the blind. Perhaps you will find them useful."
"Oh, Esteemed, I--"
"You will state your name. Your name, boy!" The gilded falcon hovered.
"Softly, Shivaux--you already know it." The alteration in the captive's voice commanded attention. The singsong
Excerpted from The Gates of Twilight by Paula Volsky. Copyright © 1996 by Paula Volsky. Excerpted by permission of Spectra, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.