uite right, but it is the closest I can come in a single word. Jaan is my husband.”
Ruark nodded. “Gladly, gladly. Pleasure in doing for friends, and both of us are friend to Gwen, are we not?”
“Uh,” said Dirk. “I thought, somehow, that I would stay with you, Gwen.”
She could not look at him for a time. She looked at Ruark, at the ground, at the black night sky, before her eyes finally found his. “Perhaps,” she said, not smiling now, her voice careful. “But not right now. I don’t think it would be best, not immediately. But we’ll go home, of course. We have a car.”
“This way,” Ruark put in, before Dirk could frame his words. Something was very strange. He had played through the reunion scene a hundred times on board the Shuddering during the months of his voyage, and sometimes he had imagined it tender and loving, and sometimes it had been an angry confrontation, and often it had been tearful—but it had never been quite like this, awkward and at odd angles, with a stranger present throughout it all. He began to wonder exactly who Arkin Ruark was, and whether his relationship with Gwen was quite what they said it was. But then, they had hardly said anything. Without knowing what to say or to think, he shrugged and followed as they led him to their aircar.
The walk was quite short. The car, when they reached it, took Dirk aback. He had seen a lot of different types of aircars in his travels, but none quite like this one; huge and steel-gray, with curved and muscled triangular wings, it looked almost alive, like a great aerial manta ray fashioned in metal. A small cockpit with four seats was set between the wings, and beneath the wingtips he glimpsed ominous rods.
He looked at Gwen and pointed. “Are those lasers?”
She nodded, smiling just a little.
“What the hell are you flying?” Dirk asked. “It looks like a war machine. Are we going to be assaulted by Hrangans? I haven’t seen anything like that since we toured the Institute museums back on Avalon.”
Gwen laughed, took his bag from him, and tossed it into the back seat. “Get in,” she told him. “It is a perfectly fine aircar of High Kavalaan manufacture. They’ve only recently started turning out their own. It’s supposed to look like an animal, the black banshee. A flying predator, also the brother-beast of the Ironjade Gathering. Very big in their folklore, sort of a totem.”
She climbed in, behind the stick, and Ruark followed a bit awkwardly, vaulting over the armored wing into the back. Dirk did not move. “But it has lasers!” he insisted.
Gwen sighed. “They’re not charged, and never have been. Every car built on High Kavalaan has weapons of some sort. The culture demands it. And I don’t mean just Ironjade’s. Redsteel, Braith, and the Shanagate Holding are all the same.”
Dirk walked around the car and climbed in next to Gwen, but his face was blank. “What?”
“Those are the four Kavalar holdfast-coalitions,” she explained. “Think of them as small nations, or big families. They’re a little of both.”
“But why the lasers?”
“High Kavalaan is a violent planet,” Gwen replied.
Ruark gave a snort of laughter. “Ah, Gwen,” he said. “That is utter wrong, utter!”
“Wrong?” she snapped.
“Very,” Ruark said. “Yes, utter, because you are close to truth, half and not everything, worst lie of all.”
Dirk turned in his seat to look back at the chubby blond Kimdissi. “What?”
“High Kavalaan was a violent planet, truth. But now, truth is, the violence is the Kavalars. Hostile folk, each and every among them, xenophobes often, racists. Proud and jealous. With their highwars and their code duello, yes, and that is why Kavalar cars have guns. To fight with, in the air! I warn you, t’Larien—”
“Arkin!” Gwen said between her teeth, and Dirk started at the edged malice in her tone. She threw on the gravity grid suddenly, touched the stick, and the aircar wrenched forward and left the ground with a whine of protest, rising rapidly. The port below them was bright with light where the Shuddering of Forgotten Enemies stood among the lesser starships, shadowy everywhere else. Around it was darkness to the unseen horizon where black ground blended with blacker sky. Only a thin powder of stars lit the night above. This was the Fringe, with intergalactic space above and the dusky curtain of the Tempter’s Veil below, and the world seemed lonelier than Dirk had ever imagined.
Ruark had subsided, muttering, and a heavy silence lay over the car for a long moment.
“Arkin is from Kimdiss,” Gwen said finally, and she forced a chuckle. Dirk remembered her too well to be fooled, however; she was not one bit less tense than when she had snapped at Ruark a moment before.
“I don’t understand,” Dirk said, feeling quite stupid, since everyone seemed to think he should.
“You are no outworlder,” Ruark said. “Avalon, Baldur, whatever world, it doesn’t matter. Your people inside the Veil don’t know Kavalars.”
“Or Kimdissi,” Gwen said, a little more calmly.
Ruark grunted. “A sarcasm,” he told Dirk. “Kimdissi and Kavalars, well, we don’t get on, you know? So Gwen is telling you I’m all prejudiced and not to believe me.”
“Yes, Arkin,” she said. “Dirk, he doesn’t know High Kavalaan, doesn’t understand the culture or the people. Like all Kimdissi, he’ll tell you only the worst, but everything is more complex than he would credit. So remember that when this glib scoundrel starts working on you. It should be easy. In the old days, you were always telling me that every question has thirty sides.”
Dirk laughed. “Fair enough,” he said, “and true. Although these last few years I’ve begun to think that thirty is a bit low. I still don’t understand what this is all about, however. Take the car—does it come with your job? Or do you have to fly something like this just because you work for the Ironjade Gathering?”
“Ah,” Ruark said loudly. “You do not work for the Ironjade Gathering, Dirk. No, you are of them, you are not—two choices only. You are not of Ironjade, you do not work for Ironjade!”
“Yes,” said Gwen, the edge returning to her voice. “And I am of Ironjade. I wish you’d remember that, Arkin. Sometimes you begin to annoy me.”
“Gwen, Gwen,” Ruark said, sounding very flustered. “You are a friend, a soulmate, very. We have tussled great problems, us two. I would never offend, do not mean to. You are not a Kavalar though, never. For one, you are too much a woman, a true woman, not merely an eyn-kethi nor a betheyn.”
“No? I’m not? I wear the bond of jade-and-silver, though.” She glanced toward Dirk and lowered her voice. “For Jaan,” she said. “This is really his car, and that’s why I fly it, to answer your original question. For Jaan.”
Silence. The wind was the only noise, moving around them as they fell upward into blackness, tossing Gwen’s long straight hair and Dirk’s tangles. It knifed right through his thin Braqui clothing. He wondered briefly why the aircar had no bubble canopy, only a thin windscreen that was hardly any use at all. Then he folded his arms tight against his chest, and slid down into the seat. “Jaan?” he asked quietly. A question. The answer would come, he knew, and he dreaded it, just from the way that Gwen had spoken the name, with a sort of strange defiance.
“He doesn’t know,” Ruark said.
Gwen sighed, and Dirk could see her tense. “I’m sorry, Dirk. I thought you would know. It has been a long time. I thought, well, one of the people we both knew back on Avalon, one of them surely has told you.”
“I never see anyone anymore,” Dirk said carefully. “That we knew, together. You know. I travel a lot. Braque, Prometheus, Jamison’s World.” His voice rang hollow and inane in his ears. He paused and swallowed. “Who is Jaan?”
“Jaantony Riv Wolf high-Ironjade Vikary,” Ruark said.
“Jaan is my . . .” She hesitated. “It is not easy to explain. I am betheyn to Jaan, cro-betheyn to his teyn Garse.” She looked over, a brief glance away from the aircar instruments, then back again. There was no comprehension on Dirk’s face.
“Husband,” she said then, shrugging. “I’m sorry, Dirk. That’s not q
Dirk, huddled low in his seat with his arms folded, said nothing. He was cold, and he hurt, and he wondered why he was there. He remembered the whisperjewel, and he still wondered. She had some reason for sending for him, surely, and in time she would tell him. And really, he could hardly have expected that she would be alone. At the port he had even thought, quite briefly, that perhaps Ruark . . . and that hadn’t bothered him.
When he had been silent for too long, Gwen looked over once again. “I’m sorry,” she repeated. “Dirk. Really. You should never have come.”
And he thought, She’s right.
The three of them flew on without speaking. Words had been said, and not the words that Dirk had wanted, but words that had changed nothing. He was here on Worlorn, and Gwen was still beside him, though suddenly a stranger. They were both strangers. He sat slumped in his seat, alone with his thoughts, while a cold wind stroked his face.
On Braque, somehow, he had thought that the whisperjewel meant she was calling him back, that she wanted him again. The only question that concerned him was whether he would go, whether he could return to her, whether Dirk t’Larien still could love and be loved. That had not been it at all, he knew now.
Send this memory, and I will come, and there will be no questions. That was the promise, the only promise. Nothing more.
He became angry. Why was she doing this to him? She had held the jewel and felt his feelings. She could have guessed. No need of hers could be worth the price of this remembering.
Then, finally, calm came back to Dirk t’Larien. With his eyes tight shut, he could see the canal on Braque again, and the lone black barge that had seemed so briefly important. And he remembered his resolve, to try again, to be as he had been, to come to her and give whatever he could give, whatever she might need—for himself, as well as for her.
He straightened with an effort, unfolded his arms, opened his eyes, and sat up into the biting wind. Then, deliberately, he looked at Gwen and smiled his old shy smile for her. “Ah, Jenny,” he said, “I’m sorry too. But it doesn’t matter. I didn’t know, but that doesn’t matter. I’m glad I came, and you should be glad too. Seven years is too long, right?”
She glanced at him, then back at her instruments, and licked her lips nervously. “Yes. Seven years is too long, Dirk.”
“Will I meet Jaan?”
She nodded. “And Garse too, his teyn.”
Below, somewhere, he heard water, a river lost in the darkness. It was gone quickly; they were moving quite fast. Dirk peered over the side of the aircar, down past the wings into the rushing black, then up. “You need more stars,” he said thoughtfully. “I feel as though I’m going blind.”
“I know what you mean,” Gwen said. She smiled, and quite suddenly Dirk felt better than he had for a long time.
“Remember the sky on Avalon?” he asked.
“Yes. Of course.”
“Lots of stars there. It was a beautiful world.”
“Worlorn has a beauty too,” she said. “How much do you know of it?”
“A little,” Dirk replied, still looking at her. “I know about the Festival, and that the planet is a rogue, and not much else. A woman on the ship told me that Tomo and Walberg discovered the place on their jaunt to the end of the galaxy.”
“Not quite,” said Gwen. “But the story has a certain charm to it. Anyway, everything you’ll see is part of the Festival. The whole planet is. All the worlds of the Fringe took part, and the culture of each is reflected here in one of the cities. There are fourteen cities, for the fourteen worlds of the Fringe. In between you’ve got the spacefield and the Common, which is sort of a park. We’re flying over it now. The Common is not very interesting, even by day. They had fairs and games there in the years of the Festival.”
“Where is your project?”
“The wilderness,” Ruark said. “Beyond the cities, beyond the mountainwall.”
Gwen said, “Look.”
Dirk looked. At the horizon he could vaguely make out a row of mountains, a jagged black barrier that climbed out of the Common to eclipse the lower stars. A spark of bloody light sat high upon one peak, and it grew as they drew near. Taller and higher it became, though not more brilliant; the color stayed a murky, threatening red that reminded Dirk somehow of the whisperjewel.
“Home,” Gwen announced as the light swelled. “The city Larteyn. Lar is Old Kavalar for sky. This is the city of High Kavalaan. Some people call it the Firefort.”
He could see why at a glance. Built into the shoulder of the mountain, rock beneath it and rock to its back, the Kavalar city was also a fortress—square and thick, massively walled, with narrow slit windows. Even the towers that rose behind the city walls were heavy and solid. And short; the Mountain loomed above them, its dark stone stained bloody by reflected light. But the lights of the city itself were not reflected; the walls and streets of Larteyn burned with a dull glowering fire of their own.
“Glowstone,” Gwen told him in answer to his unvoiced question. “It absorbs light during the day and gives it back at night. On High Kavalaan, it was used mostly for jewelry, but they quarried it by the ton and shipped it off to Worlorn for the Festival.”
“Baroque impressive,” Ruark said. “Kavalar impressive.” Dirk only nodded.
“You should have seen it in the old days,” Gwen said. “Larteyn drank from the seven suns by day and lit the range by night. Like a dagger of fire. The stones are fading now—the Wheel grows more distant every hour. In another decade the city will go dark as a burnt-out ember.”
“It doesn’t look very big,” Dirk said. “How many people did it hold?”
“A million, once. You’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg. The city is built into the mountain.”
“Very Kavalar,” Ruark said. “A deep holding, a fastness in stone. But empty now. Twenty people, last count, us including.”
The aircar passed over the outer wall, set flush to the cliff on the edge of the wide mountain ledge, to make one long straight drop past rock and glowstone. Below them Dirk saw wide walkways, and rows of slowly stirring pennants, and great carved gargoyles with burning glowstone eyes. The buildings were white stone and ebon wood, and on their flanks the rock fires were reflected in long red streaks, like open wounds on some hulking dark beast. They flew over towers and domes and streets, twisting alleys and wide boulevards, open courtyards and a huge many-tiered outdoor theater.
Empty, all empty. Not a figure moved in the red-drenched ways of Larteyn.
Gwen spiraled down to the roof of a square black tower. As she hovered and slowly faded the gravity grid to bring them in, Dirk noted two other cars in the airlot beneath them: a sleek yellow teardrop and a formidable old military flyer with the look of century-old war surplus. It was olive-green, square and sheathed in armor, with lasercannon on the forward hood and pulse-tubes on the rear.
She put their metal manta down between the two cars, and they vaulted out onto the roof. When they reached the bank of elevators, Gwen turned to face him, her face flushed and strange in the brooding reddish light. “It is late,” she said. “We had all better rest.”
Dirk did not question the dismissal. “Jaan?” he said.
“You’ll meet him tomorrow,” she replied. “I need a chance to talk to him first.”
“Why?” he asked, but Gwen had already turned and started toward the stairs. Then the tube arrived and Ruark put a hand on his shoulder and pulled him inside.
They rode downward, to sleep and to dreams.
He got very little rest that night. Each time he started off to sleep, his dreams would wake him: fitful visions laced with poison and only half-remembered when he woke, as he did, time and time again throughout the night. Finally he gave up. Instead, he began to rummage through his belongings until he found the jewel in its wrappings of silver and velvet, and he sat with it in the darkness and drank from it
s cold promises.
Hours passed. Then Dirk rose and dressed, slid the jewel into his pocket, and went outside alone to watch the Wheel come up. Ruark was sound asleep, but he had the door coded for Dirk, so there was no problem getting in or out. He took the tubes back up to the roof and waited through the last dregs of night, sitting on the cold metal wing of the gray aircar.
It was a strange dawn, dim and dangerous, and the day it birthed was murky. First, only a vague cloudy glow suffused the horizon, a red-black smear that faintly echoed the glowstones of the city. Then the first sun came up: a tiny ball of yellow that Dirk watched with naked eyes. Minutes later, a second appeared, a little larger and brighter, on another part of the horizon. But the two of them, though recognizably more than stars, still cast less light than Braque’s fat moon.
A short time later, the Hub began to climb above the Common. It was a line of dim red at first, lost in the ordinary light of dawn, but it grew steadily brighter until at last Dirk saw that it was no reflection, but the crown of a vast red sun. The world turned crimson as it rose.
He looked down into the streets below. The stones of Larteyn had all faded now; only where the shadows fell could the glow still be seen, and there only dimly. Gloom had settled over the city like a grayish pall tinged slightly with washed-out red. In the cool weak light the nightflames all had died, and the silent streets echoed death and desolation.
Worlorn’s day. Yet it was twilight.
“It was brighter last year,” said a voice behind him. “Now each day is darker, cooler. Of the six stars in the Hellcrown, two are hidden now behind Fat Satan, and are of no use at all. The others grow small and distant. Satan himself still looks down on Worlorn but his light is very red and growing feeble. So Worlorn lives in slow-declining sunset. A few more years and the seven suns will shrink to seven stars, and the ice will come again.”
The speaker stood very still as he regarded the dawn, his boots slightly apart and his hands on his hips. He was a tall man, lean and well-muscled, bare-chested even in the chill morning. His red-bronze skin was made even redder by the light of Fat Satan. He had high angular cheekbones, a heavy square jaw, and receding shoulder-length hair as black as Gwen’s. And on his forearms—his dark forearms matted with fine black hair—he wore two bracelets, equally massive. Jade and silver on his left arm, black iron and red glowstone on his right.