tegeus-Cromis, sometime soldier and sophisticate of Viriconium, the Pastel City, who now dwelt quite alone in a tower by the sea and imagined himself a better poet than swordsman, stood at early morning on the sand dunes that lay between his tall home and the grey line of the surf. Like swift and tattered scraps of rag, black gulls sped and fought over his downcast head. It was a catastrophe that had driven him from his tower, something that he had witnessed from its topmost room during the night.
He smelled burning on the offshore wind. In the distance, faintly, he could hear dull and heavy explosions: and it was not the powerful sea that shook the dunes beneath his feet.
Cromis was a tall man, thin and cadaverous. He had slept little lately, and his green eyes were tired in the dark sunken hollows above his high, prominent cheekbones.
He wore a dark green velvet cloak, spun about him like a cocoon against the wind; a tabard of antique leather set with iridium studs over a white kid shirt; tight mazarine velvet trousers and high, soft boots of pale blue suede. Beneath the heavy cloak, his slim and deceptively delicate hands were curled into fists, weighted, as was the custom of the time, with heavy rings of nonprecious metals intagliated with involved cyphers and sphenograms. The right fist rested on the pommel of his plain long sword, which, contrary to the fashion of the time, had no name. Cromis, whose lips were thin and bloodless, was more possessed by the essential qualities of things than by their names; concerned with the reality of Reality, rather than with the names men gave it.
He worried more, for instance, about the beauty of the city that had fallen during the night than he did that it was Viriconium, the Pastel City. He loved it more for its avenues paved in pale blue and for its alleys that were not paved at all than he did for what its citizens chose to call it, which was often Viricon the Old and The Place Where the Roads Meet.
He had found no rest in music, which he loved, and now he found none on the pink sand.
For a while he walked the tideline, examining the objects cast up by the sea: paying particular attention to a smooth stone here, a translucent spiny shell there, picking up a bottle the colour of his cloak, throwing down a branch whitened and peculiarly carved by the water. He watched the black gulls, but their cries depressed him. He listened to the cold wind in the rowan woods around his tower, and he shivered. Over the pounding of the high tide, he heard the dull concussions of falling Viriconium. And even when he stood in the surf, feeling its sharp acid sting on his cheek, lost in its thunder, he imagined it was possible to hear the riots in the pastel streets, the warring factions, and voices crying for Young Queen, Old Queen.
He settled his russet shovel hat more firmly; crossed the dunes, his feet slipping in the treacherous sand; and found the white stone path through the rowans to his tower, which also had no name: though it was called by some after the stretch of seaboard on which it stood, that is, Balmacara. Cromis knew where his heart and his sword lay--but he had thought that all finished with and he had looked forward to a comfortable life by the sea.
When the first of the refugees arrived, he knew who had won the city, or the shell of it that remained, but the circumstances of his learning gave him no pleasure.
It was before noon, and he had still not decided what to do.
He sat in his highest room (a circular place, small, the walls of which were lined with leather and shelves of books; musical and scientific objects, astrolabes and lutes, stood on its draped stone tables; it was here that he worked at his songs), playing softly an instrument that he had got under strange circumstances some time ago, in the East. Its strings were taut and harsh, and stung his finger ends; its tone was high and unpleasant and melancholy, but that was his mood. He played in a mode forgotten by all but himself and certain desert musicians, and his thoughts were not with the music.
From the curved window of the room he could see out over the rowans and the gnarled thorn to the road that ran from the unfortunate city to Duirinish in the Northeast. Viriconium itself was a smoke haze above the eastern horizon and an unpleasant vibration in the foundations of the tower. He saw a launch rise out of that haze, a speck like a trick of the eye.
It was well-known in the alleys of the city, and in remoter places, that, when tegeus-Cromis was nervous or debating within himself, his right hand strayed constantly to the pommel of his nameless sword: then was hardly the time to strike, and there was no other. He had never noticed it himself. He put down his instrument and went over to the window.
The launch gained height, gyring slowly, flew a short way north while Cromis strained his eyes, and then began to make directly toward Balmacara. For a little while, it appeared to be stationary, merely growing larger as it neared the tower.
When it came close enough to make out detail, Cromis saw that its faceted crystal hull had been blackened by fire, and that a great rift ran the full length of its starboard side. Its power plant (the secret of which, like many other things, had been lost a thousand years before the rise of Viriconium, so that Cromis and his contemporaries lived on the corpse of an ancient science, dependent on the enduring relics of a dead race) ran with a dreary insectile humming where it should have been silent. A pale halo of St. Elmo's fire crackled from its bow to its stern, coruscating. Behind the shattered glass of its canopy, Cromis could see no pilot, and its flight was erratic: it yawed and pitched aimlessly, like a waterbird on a quiet current.
Cromis's knuckles stood out white against the sweat-darkened leather of his sword hilt as the vehicle dived, spun wildly, and lost a hundred feet in less than a second. It scraped the tops of the rowans, shuddered like a dying animal, gained a few precious, hopeless feet. It ploughed into the wood, discharging enormous sparks, its motors wailing. A smell of ozone was in the air.
Before the wreckage had hit the ground, Cromis was out of the high room, and, cloak streaming about him, was descending the spiral staircase at the spine of the tower.
At first, he thought the entire wood had caught fire.
Strange, motionless pillars of flame sprang up before him, red and gold, and burnished copper. He thought, We are at the mercy of these old machines; we know so little of the forces that drive them. He threw up his arm to guard his face against the heat:
And realised that most of the flames he saw were merely autumn leaves, the wild colours of the dying year. Only two or three of the rowans were actually burning. They gave off a thick white smoke and a not-unpleasant smell. So many different kinds of fire, he thought. Then he ran on down the white stone path, berating himself for a fool.
Unknown to him, he had drawn his sword.
Having demolished a short lane through the rowans, the launch lay like an immense split fruit, the original rent in its side now a gaping black hole through which he could discern odd glimmers of light. It was as long as his tower was tall. It seemed unaffected by its own discharges, as if the webs of force that latticed the crystal shell were of a different order than that of heat; something cold, but altogether powerful. Energy drained from it, and the discharges became fewer. The lights inside its ruptured hull danced and changed position, like fireflies of an uncustomary colour.
No man could have lived through that, Cromis thought. He choked on the rowan smoke.
He had begun to turn sadly away when a figure staggered out of the wreckage toward him, swaying.
The survivor was dressed in charred rags, his face blackened by beard and grime. His eyes shone startlingly white from shadowed pits, and his right arm was a bloody, bandaged stump. He gazed about him, regarding the burning rowans with fear and bemusement: he, too, seemed to see the whole wood as a furnace. He looked directly at Cromis.
"Help!" he cried. "Help!"
He shuddered, stumbled, and fell. A bough dropped from one of the blazing trees. Fire licked at the still body.
Cromis hurled himself forward, hacking a path through the burning foliage with his sword. Cinders settled on his cloak, and the air was hot. Reaching the motionless body, he sheathed the blade, hung the man over his shoulders like a yoke, and started away from the crippled launch. There was an unpleasant, exposed sensation crawling somewhere in the back of his skull. He had made a hundred yards, his breath coming hard as the unaccustomed exertion began to tell, when the vehicle exploded. A great soundless gout of white cold fire, locked in the core of the launch by a vanished art, dissipated itself as pure light, a millennium after its confinement.
It did him no harm: or none that he could recognise.
As he reached the gates of Balmacara, something detached itself from the raggy clothing of the survivor and fell to the ground: a drawstring pouch of goat shagreen, full of coin. Possibly, in some dream, he heard the thud and ring of his portion of the fallen city. He shifted and moaned. There was at least one more bag of metal on him; it rattled dully as he moved. tegeus-Cromis curled his upper lip. He had wondered why the man was so heavy.
Once inside the tower, he recovered quickly. Cromis ministered to him in one of the lower rooms, giving him stimulants and changing the blood-stiffened bandage on the severed arm, which had been cauterised negligently and was beginning to weep a clear, unhealthy fluid. The room, which was hung with weapons and curiosities of old campaigns, began to smell of burned cloth and pungent drugs.
The survivor woke, flinched when he saw Cromis, his remaining hand clawing at the blue embroidered silks of the wall-bed on which he lay. He was a heavy-boned man of medium height, and seemed to be of the lower merchant classes, a vendor of wine, perhaps, or women. The pupils of his black eyes were dilated, their whites large and veined with red. He seemed to relax a little. Cromis took his shoulders, and, as gently as he was able, pressed him down.
"Rest yourself," he told him. "You are in the tower of tegeus-Cromis, that some men call Balmacara. I must know your name if we are to talk."
The black eyes flickered warily round the walls. They touched briefly on a powered battle-axe that Cromis had got from his friend Tomb the Dwarf after the sea fight at Mingulay in the Rivermouth campaign; moved to the gaudy green-and-gold standard of Thorisman Carlemaker, whom Cromis had defeated single-handed--and with regret, since he had no quarrel with the fine rogue--in the Mountains of Monadliath; came finally to rest on the hilt of the intangible-bladed baan that had accidentally killed Cromis's sister Galen. He looked from that to Cromis.
"I am Ronoan Mor, a merchant." There was open suspicion in his eyes and in his voice. He fumbled beneath his clothing. "You have strange tastes," he said, nodding at the relics on the wall. Cromis, noting the fumbling hand, smiled.
"Your coin fell as I carried you from your launch, Ronoan Mor." He pointed to where the three purses lay on an inlaid table. "You will find that all of it is present. How are things in the Pastel City?"
It could not have been the money that worried Ronoan Mor, for the wariness did not leave his face. And that was a surprising thing. He bared his teeth.
"Hard," he muttered, gazing bitterly at his severed limb. He hawked deep in his throat, and might have spat had there been a receptacle. "The young bitch holds steady, and we were routed. But--"
There was such a look of fanaticism in his eyes that Cromis's hand, of its own accord, began to caress the pommel of the nameless sword. He was more puzzled than angered by Mor's insult to the Young Queen. If a man normally given to dreaming of bargain prices and a comfortable retirement (if of anything at all) could show this measure of devotion to a political cause, then things were truly out of joint in the land. Immediately, he found himself thinking: And did you need to know that, Sir Cromis? Is it not enough that the Pastel Towers shudder and fall overnight? There must be further proof?
But he smiled and interrupted Mor, saying softly, "That is not so hard, sir."
For a moment, the survivor went on as if he had not heard:
"--But she cannot hold for long when Canna Moidart's Northern allies join with those patriots left in the city--"
There was a feverish, canting tone in his voice, as though he repeated a creed. Sweat broke out on his brow, and spittle appeared on his lips. "Aye, we'll have her then, for sure! And caught between two blades--"
He held his tongue and studied Cromis closely, squinting. Cromis stared levelly back, endeavouring not to show how this intelligence affected him. Mor clawed himself into a sitting position, trembling with the effort.
"Wise to reveal yourself, tegeus-Cromis!" he cried suddenly, like an orator who singles one man from a crowd of rustics. "Where does your service lie?"
"You tire yourself needlessly," murmured Cromis. "It matters little to me," he lied, "for, as you see, I am a recluse. But I admit myself interested in this tale of the Old Queen and her Northern cousins. She has a large following, you say?"
As if in answer, Ronoan Mor's good hand fumbled in his clothing again. And this time, it drew forth a twelve-inch sliver of flickering green light that hissed and crackled:
He drew back his lips, held the ancient weapon stiffly before him (all men fear them, even their users), and snarled, "Large enough for you, sir. You see"--he glanced sideways at the trophies on the wall--"others may hold forceblades. Northerners, they tell me, have many such. With whom does your service lie, tegeus-Cromis?" He twitched the baan so it sparked and spat. "Tell me! Your evasions weary me--"
Excerpted from Viriconium by M. John Harrison. Copyright © 2005 by M. John Harrison. 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.