Ancients of Days: The Second Book of Confluenceby Paul J. McAuley
On an artificial world created and seeded with ten thousand bloodlines by the long-vanished Preservers, young Yama's ancestry is unique, for he appears to be the last remaining scion of the Builders, closest of all races to the worshipped architects of Confluence. And on a day near the end of the world, Yama must finally acknowledge the power he neither
On an artificial world created and seeded with ten thousand bloodlines by the long-vanished Preservers, young Yama's ancestry is unique, for he appears to be the last remaining scion of the Builders, closest of all races to the worshipped architects of Confluence. And on a day near the end of the world, Yama must finally acknowledge the power he neither anticipated nor desires.
In the dust of many crumbling bureaucracies, Yama searches for an identity and a history-awed and fearful of his ever-growing capacity to awaken the terrible machines of destruction that his world's absent gods left slumbering. To the common folk-the unshaped and aboriginalhe is the fulfillment of age-old prophecies. To the functionaries of the Department of Indigenous Affairs, he is a weapon to be molded and used in the bloody civil war raging at the planet's midpointa seemingly endless battle that pits those who revere the Preservers' laws against the dangerous Heretics who would obliterate all antiquated values and codes of conduct.
But there are still others who have taken notice of Yama as he pursues the hidden secrets of his past. Intelligent powers older than the Builders-as old, perhaps, as the Preservers themselvesare pursuing Yama in turn. And they will stop at nothing to control his presentand, as a result, the future of everything that livesin anticipation of the ultimate triumph of the Ancients of Days.
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PANDARAS ENTERED THE shadowy arena of the Basilica just as one half of the defense force charged at the other. Tamora led the point of the attacking wedge, screaming fearsomely; Yama ran up and down behind the double rank of the defending line and shouted at his thralls to stand firm.
The two sides met with a rattle of padded staves against round arm shields. Shadows shifted wildly as fireflies swooped overhead like a storm of sparks. For a moment it seemed that the attack must fail, but then one of the thralls in the defending line gave ground to Tamora's remorseless blows. Instead of closing the gap as the man went down in the press, the first rank wavered and broke, stumbling backward into the second. Yama shouted the order to regroup, but his thralls fell over each other or simply dropped their shields and staves and ran, and the wedge formation of the attacking force dissolved as thralls began to chase each other around the Basilica.
In the middle of the confusion, Tamora threw down her stave in disgust, and Yama blew and blew on his whistle until everyone stopped running. Pandaras came toward them, trotting over the pattern of chalked lines Tamora had carefully drawn on the marble floor that morning. His two fireflies spun above his small sleek head. He said cheerfully, "Did they do something wrong? I thought it was very energetic."
"You should be in the kitchen with the rest of the pan scourers," Tamora said, and went off to round up the thralls so that she could tell them exactly what they haddone wrong. Her own fireflies seemed to have caught some of her anger; they flared with bright white light and whirled around her head like hornets sprung in defense of their nest. Her long queue of red hair gleamed like a rope of fresh blood. She wore a plastic corselet, much scratched and scored, and a short skirt of overlapping strips of scuffed leather that left her powerfully muscled legs mostly bare.
Pandaras said, "They are armed with sticks, master. Is that part of your plan?"
"We do not dare give them proper weapons yet," Yama told the boy. Like the thralls, he wore only a breechclout. The floor was cold and gritty under his bare feet, but he was sweating in the chill air, and his blood sang. He could feel it thrilling under his skin. His vigorous black hair was bushed up by the bandage around his forehead. A ceramic disc, of the kind believed to have been used as coins in the Age of Enlightenment, hung from his neck on a leather thong. At his back, his knife hung in its goatskin sheath from a leather harness that went over his shoulders and fastened across his chest.
He said, "We had them at drill most of the day. You should see how they keep in step!"
Pandaras looked up at his master, affecting concern. "How is your head, master? Is the wound making you feverish? You seem to think an army of polishers and floor sweepers, armed only with sticks, can frighten away the crack troops of the Department of Indigenous Affairs by putting on a marching display."
Yama smiled. "Why are you here, Pandaras? Do you really have something to tell me, or have you come expressly to annoy Tamora? I hope not. She is doing the best she can."
Pandaras looked to either side, then drew himself up until his sleek head was level with Yama's chest. He said, "I have learned something. You may have exiled me to the bowels of this broken-backed, bankrupt and debauched department, but I have still been working hard for you."
"You chose your place, as I remember."
Pandaras said, "And now you may thank me for my foresight. I have news which affects our whole scheme here, and I beg to be allowed to lay my prize at your feet. I don't think you'll be displeased."
"You have been spying, Pandaras. What did you find?"
"It was in the mausoleum they call the Hall of the Tranquil Mind," Pandaras said. "While you two have been playing soldiers with the hewers of wood and drawers of water, I've been risking my life in intrigue. A deadly game with the worst of penalties for losing, but I have had the good fortune to learn something that affects our whole scheme."
The Hall of the Tranquil Mind was a black, windowless edifice carved out of the basalt wall of the big cavern which housed the Department of Vaticination. Yama had thought that it was locked up and derelict, like so much of the Department.
He said, "I suppose you went there to meet your sweetheart. Are you still chasing that scullion? You are dressed for the part."
Pandaras had washed and mended his ragged clothes and polished his boots. He had found or stolen a red silk scarf which was knotted around his long, flexible neck with such casual elegance that Yama suspected he had spent half the morning getting it just so. His two fireflies spun above his head like living jewels.
He winked and said, "Chased, caught, wooed, won. I didn't come to boast of my conquests, master. It's an old tale oft told, and there's not time. We're in mortal peril here, if I'm any judge of the situation."
Yama smiled. His self-appointed squire loved to conjure drama from the slightest of events.
Pandaras said, "There is a gallery that runs along one side of the Hall of the Tranquil Mind, under the rim of the dome. If you happen to be standing at the top of the stairs to the gallery, and if you place your ear close to the wall, then you can hear anything said by those below. A device much favored by tyrants, I understand, who know that plotters often choose public buildings to meet, for any gathering in a public place can be easily explained away. But fortune favors the brave, master. Today I was placed in the role of tyrant, and I overheard the whispered plotting of a pair of schemers."
Pandaras paused. Yama had turned away to look across the shadowy Basilica. Tamora was marshalling the reluctant thralls into three ranks. Her voice raised echoes under the shabby grandeur of the vaulted dome.
Pandaras said, "It is more important, master, than playing at soldiers."
"But this is important, too. It is why we are here, to begin with, and besides, it is useful to stay in practice."
Yama did not add that it helped satisfy something in him that hungered for action. His sleep had been troubled by bloodthirsty dreams ever since he had entered the Palace of the Memory of the People, and sometimes an unfocused rage stirred up headaches that filled his sight with jagged red and black lightnings, and left him weak and ill. He had been hard-used since he had reached Ys and escaped Prefect Corin, and he had been wounded in an ambush when they had first arrived outside the gates of the Department of Vaticination. He needed rest, but there was no time for it.
He said, "I must hear what Tamora has to say. Walk with me, Pandaras."
"The blow to the head has given you delusions, master. You believe yourself a soldier."
"And you believe that you are my squire, so we are equally deluded. Hush, now. We will speak of what you heard when Tamora has finished with our poor warriors."
Tamora had jumped on to a square stone plinth which had once supported a statueonly its feet remained, clad in daintily pointed slippers which still retained traces of yellow pigment. She looked at the six decads of thralls who had gathered around her, allowing scorn to darken her small, triangular face. It was a trick she had taught Yama. To be a teacher, she said, was to be an actor first. Unless delivered from the heart, no lesson could be convincing.
The thralls were all of the same bloodline, lean and long-armed and bowlegged, with loose gray skin that hung in heavy folds from bony joints. They had long, vulpine faces, untidy manes of coarse black or umber hair that tumbled down their bent backs and muddy yellow or green eyes that peered out from beneath heavy brows. They were a stupid and frustratingly obdurate bloodline. According to Syle, the Secretary of the Department of Vaticination, their families had served here for more than twenty thousand years. But although they were naturally servile, the unaccustomed drill had made them sullen and mutinous, and they took every opportunity to make it clear that Tamora and Yama had no real authority over them. They glared at Tamora, sharp teeth pricking their thin black lips, as she told them how badly they had done.
She said, "You have all taken your turn at defense, and you have all taken your turn at attack. You should know that if you are to win through or stand firm, you must stay in formation. A defending rank is only as strong as its weakest member. If he falls, someone must immediately take his place. If an attacking formation breaks through a line, it must stay together."
One of the thralls said, "They ran and we chased `em down, mistress. What's wrong with that?"
Tamora stared at the man until he lowered his gaze. She said, "There might be reserves waiting behind a turn in a corridor. If your disorganized rabble ran into them, then you'd be quickly slaughtered."
"But there wasn't anyone else," the thrall mumbled, and those around him muttered in agreement.
Tamora raised her voice. "This is an exercise. When you fight for real, you can't assume anything. That's why you must fight as you're told, not as you want. It's very easy to kill one man on his own, much harder to kill him when he's part of a formation. When you fight shoulder to shoulder, you defend those on either side of you, and they defend you. That way you don't have to worry about the enemy getting behind your back, because to do that they'd have to get around the line. And they won't, not in the corridors. Elsewhere, in the open, you fight in squares, as you tried yesterday."
When Tamora paused for breath, a thrall stepped out of the front rank and said, "We'd do better, mistress, if we had proper weapons."
"I'll break open the armory when you've mastered those sticks," Tamora said. "From what I've just seen, I've a mind to take the sticks away."
The thrall did not back down. He was taller than the rest, if only because he was straight-backed. There were streaks of gray in his long mane. Most of the thralls possessed only one or two dim fireflies, but six hung in a neat cluster above his head, burning nearly as brightly as Tamora's. He said, "We won't be fighting with these sticks, so why do we practice with them?"
The thralls muttered and nudged each other, and Pandaras told Yama, "That's what they've been complaining about, down in the kitchens."
Yama felt a sudden hot anger. He strode forward and confronted the gray-maned thrall. "It is discipline, not weapons, that makes a fighting force," he said loudly. "Between all of you, there is not the discipline to attack a nest of rats."
The thrall returned Yama's glare. He said, "Beg your pardon, dominie, but we do know a bit about rat-catching."
Some of the other thralls laughed and Yama lost the last of his temper; it was easily lost these days. "Come on," he said. "Come on then, rat-catcher! Show me how well you fight!"
The thrall looked around at his fellows, but none were willing to support him. He said uneasily, "It's not you I want to fight, dominie."
"You cannot choose who to fight!" Yama asked Tamora to lend him her sword, and presented it hilt-first to the thrall. "Take this! Take it right now!"
The thrall dropped his stave and spread his empty hands. "Dominie ..."
From above, Tamora said sharply, "Do as he commands or slink away like the cur you are."
Yama thrust the hilt of the sword at the thrall until he had to take it or have it fall on his feet. "Take it! Good. Now hold it up. It is not a broom. It is a weapon. You can kill with the point or with the cutting edge, and if you do not have the taste for blood, you can render your enemy insensible with a blow to the head with the flat of the blade. However, I do not recommend you try the last against anyone less skilled than you. The man who wounded me that way lost most of his fingers when I countered his stroke. Hold it up. Keep the tip of the blade level with your eyes."
Tamora said, "If you're any kind of man, you must know that the higher the angle the better the thrust. Obey your master! Show him you're a man!"
The other thralls had broken ranks and backed away, forming a rough circle around Yama and the gray-maned thrall. They laughed now, and Yama scowled at them and told them what Sergeant Rhodean had told him so many times.
"Do not mock an armed man unless you wish to fight him." He pointed at the gray-maned thrall and thumped himself just below the breastbone. "Now thrust at me. Aim here. If you miss the heart, you might get a lung. Either way you will have killed me. Come on!"
The thrall made a tentative jab that did not carry more than halfway. Yama batted the square point of the sword aside and leaned forward and shouted in the thrall's face.
"Come on! Kill me, or I will tear out your eyes as a lesson! Do it!"
The thrall yelled and sprang forward, swiping wildly. Yama stepped inside the swing and caught the thrall's arm at the elbow, pivoted in a neat half-turn and threw him from his hip. The thrall let go of the sword when he fell; Yama had it before it could ring on the marble floor and with a smooth swing laid the edge at the thrall's throat. For a moment, he struggled against the urge to complete the motion.
The thrall looked up at him, his yellow slitted eyes glaring behind the agitated orbits of his six fireflies. In the moment of shocked silence, Yama looked around. None of the other thralls would meet his gaze. He smiled and reversed the sword and presented it to Tamora.
She sheathed it, jumped down from the pedestal, and helped the thrall to his feet. "Bravely tried. Better than anything anyone else has done." She looked around at the others. "I don't mind if you hate us, but I do mind if you can't get angry. Without anger you'll have only fear when it comes to a fight. We can't teach you how to get angry, but if you can manage it we can teach you how to direct your anger. Tomorrow we begin again. Now get out of my sight. Go on! Run!"
Pandaras applauded languidly as the thralls dispersed around him, their claws clicking on marble. He said, "A bold display, master. I had not thought you could play-act so well."
Yama shrugged. Now it was over he felt self-conscious. His head wound throbbed. He said, "I was not play-acting. I lost my temper."
Tamora said, "Like I said, that's what's needed. You're getting an edge to you, Yama. That's good. We'll make you into something like one of the Fierce People, eh? The thralls have been servants for thousands of generations, and we've been treating them like volunteers. We have been too kind. They take up arms not because they want to, but because they have been told to. Grah, they will not do anything unless they are told, and then they do what they are told and no more. They can march in perfect formation all day long without losing step, but they haven't the heart to fight."
Tamora was angry with herself, and so all the more unforgiving. Nothing had gone right since they had been ambushed by hired ruffians when they had arrived at the Gate of Double Glory.
She added, "We're just a couple of caterans. We'll do our best with what we've been given, but in the end it won't matter. Indigenous Affairs will march right in and slaughter the thralls and take this place inside a day. This is a poor diversion in your search, Yama. I'm sorry for it."
"Without this subterfuge, I would not have been able to enter the Palace without being questioned. Besides," Yama said, "I enjoy these exercises."
It was true. The sound of padded staves thumping on shields and the smell of chalk and sweat had brought back happy memories of all the afternoons he had spent training with Telmon and Sergeant Rhodean in the gymnasium of the peel-house. The practice fights satisfied a fierceness he had not known he had possessed.
Tamora said, "I forget how young you are, and how hopeful. We might make these poor fools believe they have the heart for a fight, but it'll delay their deaths by no more than a minute. They know they're going to die, and they know that their wives and children will be killed too, or put into slavery. We'll be ransomed, but because our ransoms have already been paid into bond with the Department of Internal Harmony, we'll be freed and given our wages, and that'll be the end of that."
"I pray you are right. I think that Prefect Corin is still searching for me, and he is a high official in Indigenous Affairs."
They had talked about this before. Tamora said with exaggerated patience, "Of course I am right. It is how it has always been, since the world was made. If it were not for the ancient protocols, there would be constant civil war here. Your Prefect will not be able to interfere. I am sure the Indigenous Affairs sent those fools to ambush us, and perhaps Prefect Corin had a hand in it, but now we are inside the boundary of this Department he will dare do nothing else.
"Listen. Here is the problem. Not your Prefect, but the real problem. We fight because we're paid. Once captured no harm will come to us. But the thralls fight because they've been told to fight, and they've been told to fight because that fat fool who rules this place and claims to see into the future predicts victory. The thralls know in their guts that she is wrong. That is why they are so sullen."
Yama said, "We do not know that Luria does not have the powers she claims."
"Grah. She knows that she doesn't, and so does Syle, and so do the thralls. And the other pythoness is no more than a whey-faced wet-brained child stolen from her cradle. I have not heard her speak a single word since we came here."
Pandaras said, "From what I hear, Daphoene might be young, but she does have power, and that's why she is forbidden to speak. Luria fears her because she thinks that one day innocent Daphoene will expose her fraud. Master, I must speak with you about what I heard."
Yama said, "Daphoene is very young. She may appear to keep her own counsel, but perhaps she has none to offer."
Tamora laughed. "Yama, you're so innocent that you're a danger to all around you. For once your pet rat has said something sensible. If Daphoene does have true foresight, then Luria has every reason to keep her quiet. Syle too, and that bloodless wife of his. For Daphoene will know how badly the defense of this place will go."
Yama said, "Well, we will see her at work soon enough."
In two days, the oracle would be opened for public inquisition, and the pythonesses would answer the questions of their petitioners. It might be the last time the ceremony was held, for ten days after that the deadline for challenging the quit claim would run out. The Department of Indigenous Affairs would be allowed to march on the crumbling glory of the High Morning Court of the Department of Vaticination, and occupy the place where once Hierarchs had swum amongst maps of the Galaxy's stars, ordering the voyages of ships that fell from star to star through holes in space and time.
Pandaras told Tamora, "My master has paid you to help him find his bloodline, and it is a better and more honorable task than this game of soldiers. As you will at once see, if you let me tell my tale."
"You run if you want," Tamora said. "I'd like to see you run, rat-boy. It would prove what I've always thought about you."
Pandaras said, with an air of affronted dignity, "I'll ignore the slights on my character, except to say that those who attribute base motives to all around them do so because they expect no better of themselves. But while you have been playing at soldiers, I have been risking my life. Master, please hear me out, I must tell you what I heard."
"If this is more kitchen gossip," Tamora said, "then hold your yap. You'd inflate the breaking of a glass into an epic tragedy."
"Neh, and why not? It's a painful death for the glass concerned, leaves its fellows bereft of a good companion, and makes them aware of their own mortality."
Yama said, "Pandaras claims to have overheard a conspiracy."
"Master, she will not believe me. It is not worth telling her."
"Out with it, Pandaras," Yama said. "Forget your injured dignity."
"There were two of them. They were whispering together, but I heard one say, `Tomorrow, at dawn, Go straightaway, and come straight back.' This was a woman. The other may have been a servant, for he simply made a noise of assent, and the first said, `Do this, and I see a great elevation. Fail, and she lives. And if she lives we all may die.' Then they both moved off, master, and I heard no more. But it is enough, don't you think?"
Tamora said, "We should expect nothing less. These old departments are rats' nests of poisonous intrigues and feuds over trifles."
Pandaras said, "If we can trust no one here, why must we stay? We should cut our losses and run."
Yama said, "You have not told us who these plotters were."
"Ah, as to that ..."
Tamora scowled. "Grah. You were scared, and didn't dare look."
"Had I leaned out over the gallery rail, I might have been seen, and the game would have been up." Pandaras batted at the pair of fireflies which circled his head; they dipped away and circled back. "These cursed things we must use instead of candles would have given me away."
"As I said, you were scared."
Yama said, "It does not matter. The gate is closed at night, and opens again at sunrise. Whoever leaves when it opens tomorrow will be our man."
Tamora said, "And when we catch him we can cut the truth from him."
"No," Yama said. "I will follow him, and learn what I can. If there is a conspiracy, of course. There may be an innocent explanation."
Drilling the thralls was all very well, but Yama had done little else in the three days since they had arrived here. He was beginning to feel as if he was suffocating in the stale air of the Department of Vaticination, with its meaningless ceremonies and its constant reverent evocation of the dead days of its long-lost glory. He wanted to see more of the Palace. He wanted to find the records of his bloodline and move on. He wanted to go downriver and plunge into the war at the midpoint of the world.
"It's obviously some plot against the fat bitch," Tamora said thoughtfully. "It's because of Luria's refusal to bargain with the Department of Indigenous Affairs that we're here. Without her, there would be no dispute."
"`Fail, and she lives. And if she lives we all may die,'" Pandaras said.
"When your rat-boy agrees with me," Tamora told Yama, "then you know I must be right. Perhaps the best thing to do would be to do nothing. In any case, you should not leave this place, Yama. We are protected by law and custom only as long as we stay within the boundaries of the Department of Vaticination. I know that you want to begin your search for the records of your bloodline. But be patient. In a decad, the Department of Indigenous Affairs will take this place, no matter how well we train the thralls. Then we can search together, as we agreed. You're already wounded, and we have been misled about the kind of troops we were to command, and our employers plot against each other. It's clear someone here has allied themselves to Indigenous Affairs, and hopes to make a bargain after assassinating their rivals. It doesn't matter who is plotting against who, for there's no honor to be won here. The defense is simply a matter of form before the inevitable surrender. Like all of Gorgo's little jobs, this has nothing to commend it. Another reason to kill him, when we are done here."
Gorgo was the broker who had given Tamora this contract. He had tried to kill Yama because Yama had cost him the commission on a previous job and because he suspected that, with Yama's help, Tamora might free herself of her obligation to him. Yama had killed him instead, riddling him with a hundred tiny machines, but Tamora had not seen it and she did not or would not believe in what she called Yama's magic tricks.
"If we find out more," Yama said, "then we can end the plot before it begins."
"Grah! And if you leave here before the end of the contract, you'll be assassinated. You will stay here, for your own safety."
"I can take care of myself."
Tamora said sharply, "How is your wound? Does it trouble you?"
"A headache now and then," Yama admitted.
He had the beginning of a headache now. He felt as if his skull was too small to contain his thoughts, as if his brain was a bladder pumped up by a growing anger. Red and black sparks crawled at the edge of his vision. He had to stifle an impulse to draw his knife and do some harm.
He said, "I will not make the same mistake again. And I will do as I will."
Pandaras said, "Perhaps my master should leave now. Go and find the records of his bloodline, for that's why he is really here."
Tamora suddenly whirled, smashing her stave against the plinth with such force that it snapped in two. She glared at the splintered stub in her hand, then threw it hard and fast down the length of the Basilica. "Grah! Go then! Both of you! Go, and accept what falls out. Death, most likely. Even if you dodge the hirelings of the Department of Indigenous Affairs, you know nothing about the Palace, and it is a dangerous place."
"I will come back," Yama said. "I promised that I would help you and I was taught to keep my promises. Besides, I hope to learn something here. Is not one of the attributes of this Department the ability to find lost things?"
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