(It's more fiction.)
Someone smashes in the back of my skull, I see my brains hit the water before I do. Sink into it. Dark for a while. Fish eat my eyes, then nips of skin. Once they’re inside it goes quickly. Six months or so till the last rags of flesh are gone and then I sit up.
Something must have broken off in there I think. Can’t find it. Thin bulge of bone above the spine is all cracked. Soft inside. I worry, brains? But I look in the white basketwork that’s now my hands and see only mud and fat jubilant worms. I put my hand back there and scoop around. Mud oozes from my eye sockets and nose, drips down my chin, then my fingers poke out of my eyes.
I sit up slow, ribs full of mud. Can I stand? I do. Rich black stuff seeps out.
I am in the river. Its day. Everything around me is alive. Bees are active in the flowers. A kingfisher blurs the air into a hovering gem. The birds are loud and they don’t notice me. Can’t see far, sight blurs at fifty strides. I’m in the water but I don’t feel cold.
I feel little. Like sitting at home in a silent room and recalling swimming the morning before. The memory of the water over skin, that’s what I feel, but as it happens. The last night I remember his fingers over mine, but that flesh is gone. Sight comes directly and the chuckling water echoes oddly in my muddy skull but touch is just a ghost.
I try walking and fall. Under the water it’s clear and dark and I can see everything. I crawl towards the deep centre of the stream where the water is strong and let it carry the mud from my now-active bones. It slowly plumes away like smoke from burning clothes and leaves me clean, white and empty within. I roll on my back and look up at the sunlight rippling on the surface of the stream. Sky-framing tree-limbs undulate oddly like hands in the optical mix. I remember near-blonde hair.
I could just wait here. I don’t need to eat, I don’t need to breathe. I could just hold here for a year through winter’s crystal tomb then let the torrent of spring take me away to the sea.
I wonder where he is now and I stand back up and look for my sword in the mud.
The sword is there. Pitted and black and ready to break at any time, but in one piece. It holds an edge of sorts. Cloak and clothes and boots are partly gone. I sieve the mud and find some coins. Lay it all to dry and look at where I died. I try to remember the steps behind me and the position of each man. Who killed me?
Yeo was there, he brought me to the place (never trust a man called ‘Yellow’ by his friends.) Yanez (Julio to me) was by the horses, I think. Kulwar Wolters, a gloved man I suspect to be a Cliothaum, can and could be anywhere.
Cliothaumy’s an illegal skill, rare and hard to learn. It lets you burn memory to twist the world in certain ways. The more you use it, the less you know why. Magic never gives you anything back, there’s always a trick. Kulwar Wolters used it rarely, if at all. But his fingertips were burnt, I think.
They took the Isogyre, of course. That’s why, but who? It had to be them all. No-one called out. They all saw it done and none of them called out so it had to be them all, even Julio. Which means everything he whispered to me was a lie.
Up till now I hadn’t been as excised as you’d think about the death of Hans Thoemmes. I sat up with his memories, in his bones, but it seemed to me it happened to another man and I was something else. Like a long waiting. But now, thinking about Julio K, Yanez with the near-blonde hair and the quiet joke he always had around him, I feel the memory of a heartbeat in my chest and the recollection of a thumping vein.
I pick up my sword and walk.
After a few steps I come back for the rags of my cloak and clothes.
The City of the Yellow Eye is long and lean, and blinks just like its namesake, in the moon. When the wind changes, the mirror-whiskered kites that every building flies on pain of death, shift, and the mirrors that they carry gleam as one with the reflection of whatever fills the space between the stars.
Once, (it’s said) a God loved it and the City stole his heart, which was of ruby and of gold, and used the wealth to build itself anew on the opposite side, escaping a terrible fate. At night the God still searches for the City of the Yellow Eye. They fly the mirrors in the dark to blind his sight.
Which all makes no sense at all, but there the ruined city is one the opposite bank, like the corpse of a twin found in the dawn, and any house that fails to fly a mirror is burnt down by maddened crowds.
I slip into the river some way out and let it carry my bones down past the city in the day. At night I crawl out and walk without fear on the wrong side for the first time. I watch the living city and wait.
For a dead man to find a liar in the city of his kin is like hitting falling leaves by throwing stones. You must predict the fall, and wait. Rags can make me a begging leper, and my sword a kind of staff. I listen for the footfalls of his slow descent from wealth. I catch them in flurries of talk falling from the doors of gambling houses and bars. Each time I orbit closer. I find him by water. It’s night.
I feel I have a voice to say his name and so I do.
He’s looking at the stars in the water and starts like a faun.
“What? River-creeper, malingering mugger-man? Oh. Or poor un-warned one eaten early by the jaws of time? Did I, do I, know you in decent flesh before your regrettable wasting? You know my name-of-the-streets? Fear not friend here’s a coin for you, of Gold, come close, you see I do not blanch from your curse, we are all fated you see and may not brook it. Do I know you?”
The hand without a coin is reaching for a blade beneath his cloak. I pull the rags from my face.
“You know me Yellow Yeo.” I say.
His eye-dots dawn blackly and fast. The big muscle in his thigh begins to twitch.
“The Susjin contract. The Isogyre.” I say.
“Hhh Hans. Hans Thoemmes.” He replies.
“The tomb with things like me. Escape, in which I save your life. A body in the river in the hills that wasn’t there, then was.”
“We gave it to Webb-Ivory. It doesn’t work.”
Generations ago Gupta Webb-Ivory turned Cliothaum for unstated reasons and burnt his way up the crime-ladder of the City of the Yellow Eye in the space of a year. Unlike others, he made it stick.
“Guptil? Oh but it did and it does. I have been waiting on its action, as you see.” I run my tips across my skinless face.
“Hans. Hans, how sorry I am to see you so reduced. Was my first thought so distant from the mark? Leprosy would be ascension I think? You have returned. How like you, and you are upset.”
“I am not upset Yellow.”
“Oh Hans, you were very foolish to trust that pretty boy.”
“Is it so? Does the knife warn against the empty hand? And yet too late, you see the cut is made. Please do not doubt my vision in the dark. Keep your hand from your hilt.”
“You blame me? I am a coward Hans, you know that! What choice did I have? The three of them, Yanez, Kulwar Wolters and behind them, Guptil Webb-Ivory. My life! My family!”
“You have no family Yellow.”
“Secret! Hidden in avoidance of just such a threat. I am a pawn! A poor pawn abandoned and betrayed!”
He weeps and falls to his knees. But not. He keeps his balance on the balls of his feet and bends like a spring.
“Yellow, I only seek one thing..”
Too late, he draws and swings.
“Die grave ghoul! Back, simulator!”
I turn and block on the half-draw from my scabbard of rags. Yellow dances back a step and a half too far and lunges. He was always fast, and always afraid. I bow my bones, the blade reaches a half-inch from where my flesh would be. I step-turn and complete the draw, carry through and hack at his hand where it grasps the hilt. Fingers hit the river. He doesn’t say much but leaps back holding the mess. I look at him there for a second. He runs, fast. Always a talent with Yellow. I pursue.
In my passing blots of horror spread like ink. A living death, a fleshless man. Time for me is running out and soon the mob will swarm.
I chase Yellow to a kiteless block with empty streets. I enter and walk through quiet suspicious rooms. A door slams. I follow. At the back a door is locked. I kick it, bounce off. I weigh a fifth of what I did. Fuck this, there’s a window and I need fear no cut.
I shatter the glass at a run and fall, fragments in my rags. An open space, hidden in the centre of the city block. A low, lit pavilion in the dark. Two men ready outside the door I bounced off, swords drawn, they see what I am and do not run.
Fast. One spears me as I rise. I turn and twist the blade caught in my ribs out of his hand. The second one is thinking and pulls his still-scabbarded sword to swing its hilt like a bone-cracking maul. I run him through. The swordless man rushes me. We go down. No muscle sheathes me from harm, a rib cracks as I hit. He’s heavier, but confused for a second, how to kill me? I grab his throat till he turns blue, bounce his head off the ground and leave him there asleep. The dying man is moaning with my black sword in his guts.
“Sorry” I say “you want me to finish it?”
He stares at me, panting through his teeth.
“An exchange then. You keep mine.” I pull his sword from my ribs and go towards the pavilion.
Kulwar Wolters is there waiting for me. His bare fingers are black.
“Kulwar. You with Webb-Ivory now?”
“Right. And Yanez?”
“You should have sold out Susjin Hans.”
“I know. But I like Susjin. You look bad Kulwar. It give you much?”
“Not much. Yellow.”
I realise too late he’s not talking to me. Yellow steps from his hiding place, bleeding, and flings. A weighted bolas flies. But I can see so much better in the dark now, and this new sword is razor sharp. I lunge precisely and swing. The bolas flies apart in the air.”
“Kulwar!” he screams. Typical Yellow.
“Yellow fucking Yeo.” Kulwar mutters to himself, he raises his burnt hands.
“Don’t…” but I’m too late.
A vertical ribbon of riverwater forms held between his ashy hands. It grows hugely, like the ground that runs to meet a falling man. It’s the river that they put me in. It dances across the grass, growing deeper and more real as it comes on. I see impossible sun-fragments in its rills. Agony shoots through my head. The water pulls me in and I am caught, suspended in the upward-running strand. I see Kulwar holding the memory while it burns his hands. Trapping me for the seconds Yellow needs to reach and tie my limbs. As the knot tightens he lets go and the river disappears. He has burnt the memory of my murder and now I can never ask him what he did. He doesn’t know.
“For a corpse to find a criminal is simple, the two tend to keep company.” Yellow laughs and kicks my rags.
Kulwar is looking down on his black hands, and now wrists too.
“Shut up Yellow. Take him inside.”
They drag me though some double doors. The Isogyre is here, its black radials crackling imperceptibly. A man, old and hard, black limbs and charred scarwork reaching all the way
to his face. Guptil Webb-Ivory. And a girl, about eighteen, dead, frozen in a rectangular lattice of ice and living crystal that can only be the product of deep magic.
Webb-Ivory looks down at me. “You were Hans Thoemmes.”
He turns to Kulwar. “You killed him?”
Kulwar just stares “I .. I..”
Yellow breaks in “Mr Wolters is burnt. I performed the service at the time.”
Kulwar looks at Yellow like he wants to kill him.
Guptil turns to me. “Why does it work for you and not for her?” He points to the girl.
“Have you tried caving her skull in?”
He rips three fingers off my hand and stamps them to shards.
“Why for you and not her? That’s what it does. It brings people back. Finding Susjin cost me. Robbing him cost more. That’s what all this is for. To bring her back. Fifty years. Waiting. Why you and not her?”
He goes to crush my skull.
“Stop! Stop. I think I know. I think I know why it worked, and when. Who is she?”
Guptil looks at the girl again “Ivory Weyr”
“Did you freeze her?”
“I think so.”
“I don’t know that any more” Webb-Ivory replies “She has to tell me.”
“Something changed when I woke up. It was changing for a long time and then a week ago it went all the way. I woke up and came here. That change is why. What happened a week ago?”
Guptil says “He didn’t like what happened out there. Got flaky. Breakdowns. Spiralled.” He looks at Kulwar “you spoke to him.”
“Left in the morning” replies Kulwar “haven’t seen him since. Kept talking about his life, some mistake, but I don’t know what.”
There’s a fragment of window glass between my fingertips. I say “You see Yellow finishing a man?”
“No.” says Webb-Ivory
“Then that’s why it won’t work for her.”
“Why?” he says.
“You didn’t kill her and you don’t love her.”
Webb-Ivory looks at the frozen girl. He’s quiet for a little while. “Makes sense. There’s always a trick to it.”