Lightspeed: Edited by John Joseph Adams




The Only Death in the City

It was named the City of Lights. It had known other names in the long history of Earth, in the years before the sun turned wan and plague-ridden, before the moon hung vast and lurid in the sky, before the ships from the stars grew few and the reasons for ambition grew fewer still. It stretched as far as the eye could see . . . if one saw it from the outside, as the inhabitants never did. It was so vast that a river flowed through it, named the Sin, which in the unthinkable past had flowed through a forest of primeval beauty, and then through a countless succession of cities, through ancient ages of empires. The City grew about the Sin, and enveloped it, so that, stone-channeled, it flowed now through the halls of the City, thundering from the tenth to the fourteenth level in a free fall, and flowing meekly along the channel within the fourteenth, a grand canal which supplied the City and made it self-sufficient. The Sin came from the outside, but it was so changed and channeled that no one remembered that this was so. No one remembered the outside. No one cared. The City was sealed, and had been so for thousands of years.

There were windows, but they were on the uppermost levels, and they were tightly shuttered. The inhabitants feared the sun, for popular rumor held that the sun was a source of vile radiations, unhealthful, a source of plagues. There were windows, but no doors, for no one would choose to leave. No one ever had, from the day the outer walls were built. When the City must build in this age, it built downward, digging a twentieth and twenty-first level for the burial of the dead . . . for the dead of the City were transients, in stone coffins, which might always be shifted lower still when the living needed room.

Once, it had been a major pastime of the City, to tour the lower levels, to seek out the painted sarcophagi of ancestors, to seek the resemblances of living face to dead so common in this long self-contained city. But now those levels were full of dust, and few were interested in going there save for funerals.

Once, it had been a delight to the inhabitants of the City to search the vast libraries and halls of art for histories, for the City lived much in the past, and reveled in old glories . . . but now the libraries went unused save for the very lightest of fictions, and those were very abstract and full of drug-dream fancies.

More and more . . . the inhabitants remembered.

There were a few at first who were troubled with recollections and a thorough familiarity with the halls—when once it was not uncommon to spend one’s time touring the vast expanse of the City, seeing new sights. These visionaries sank into ennui . . . or into fear, when the recollections grew quite vivid.

There was no need to go to the lower levels seeking ancestors. They lived . . . incarnate in the sealed halls of the City, in the persons of their descendants, souls so long immured within the megalopolis that they began to wake to former pasts, for dying, they were reborn, and remembered, eventually. So keenly did they recall that now mere infants did not cry, but lay patiently dreaming in their cradles, or, waking, stared out from haunted eyes, gazing into mothers’ eyes with millennia of accumulated lives, aware, and waiting on adulthood, for body to overtake memory.

Children played . . . various games, wrought of former lives.

The people lived in a curious mixture of caution and recklessness: caution, for they surrounded themselves with the present, knowing the danger of entanglements; recklessness, for past ceased to fascinate them as an unknown and nothing had permanent meaning. There was only pleasure, and the future, which held the certainty of more lives, which would remember the ones they presently lived. For a very long time, death was absent from the halls of the City of Lights.

Until one was born to them.

Only rarely there were those born new, new souls which had not made previous journeys within the City, babes which cried, children who grew up conscious of their affliction, true children among the reborn.

Such was Alain.

He was born in one of the greatest of families—those families of associations dictated more by previous lives than by blood, for while it was true that reincarnation tended to follow lines of descendancy, this was not always the case; and sometimes there were those from outside the bloodline who drifted in as children, some even in their first unsteady steps, seeking old loves, old connections. But Alain was new. He was born to the Jade Palace Family, which occupied the tenth level nearest the stairs, although he was not of that family or indeed of any family, and therefore grew up less civilized.

He tried. He was horribly conscious of his lack of taste, his lack of discrimination which he could not excuse as originality: originality was for—older—minds and memories. His behavior was simply awkward, and he stayed much in the shadows in Jade Palace, enduring this life and thinking that his next would surely be better.

But Jade was neighbor to Onyx Palace, and it was inevitable that these two houses mix upon occasion of anniversaries. These times were Alain’s torment when he was a child, when his naïve and real childhood was exposed to outsiders; they became torment of a different kind in his fourteenth year, when suddenly his newly maturing discrimination settled upon a certain face, a certain pale loveliness in the Onyx House.

“Only to be expected,” his mother sighed. He had embarrassed her many times, and diffidently came to her now with this confession . . . that he had seen in this Onyx princess what others saw within their own houses; an acuteness of longing possessed him which others claimed only for old recognitions and old lovers of former lives. He was new, and it was for the first time. “Her name,” his mother asked.

“Ermine,” he whispered, his eyes downcast upon the patterns of the carpets, which his aunt had loomed herself in a long-past life. “Her name is Ermine.”

“Boy,” his mother said, “you are a droplet in the canal of her lives. Forget her.”

It was genuine pity he heard in his mother’s voice, and this was very rare. You entertain me, was the kindest thing she had yet said to him, high compliment, implying he might yet attain to novelty. Now her kind advice brought tears to his eyes, but he shook his head, looked up into her eyes, which he did seldom: they were very old and very wise and he sensed them forever comparing him to memories ages past.

“Does anyone,” he asked, “ever forget?”

“Boy, I give you good advice. Of course I can’t stop you. You’ll be born a thousand times and so will she, and you’ll never make up for your youth. But such longings come out again if they’re not checked, in this life or the next, and they make misery. Sleep with many; make good friends, who may be born in your next life; no knowing whether you’ll be man or woman or if they’ll be what they are. Make many friends, that’s my advice to you, so that whether some are born ahead of you and some behind, whether sexes are what they are . . . there’ll be some who’ll be glad to see you among them. That’s how one makes a place for one’s self. I did it ages ago before I began to remember my lives. But I’ve every confidence you’ll remember yours at once; that’s the way things are, now. And when you’ve a chance to choose intelligently as you do in these days, why, lad, be very glad for good advice. Don’t set your affections strongly in your very first life. Make no enemies either. Think of your uncle Legran and Pertito, who kill each other in every life they live, whatever they are. Never set strong patterns. Be wise. A pattern set so early could make all your lives tragedy.”

“I love her,” he said with all the hopeless fervor of his fourteen unprefaced years.

“Oh, my dear,” his mother said, and sadly shook her head. She was about to tell him one of her lives, he knew, and he looked again at the carpet, doomed to endure it.

He did not see Onyx Ermine again that year, not the next nor the two succeeding: His mother maneuvered the matter very delicately and he was thwarted. But in his eighteenth year the quarrel Pertito had with uncle Legran broke into feud, and his mother died, stabbed in the midst of the argument.

Complications, she had warned him. He stood looking at her coffin the day of the funeral and fretted bitterly for the loss of her who had been his best and friendliest adviser, fretted also for her sake, that she had been woven into a pattern she had warned him to avoid. Pertito and Legran were both there, looking hate at one another. “You’ve involved Claudette,” Pertito had shouted at Legran while she lay dying on the carpet between them; and the feud was more bitter between the two than it had ever been, for they had both loved Claudette, his mother. It would not be long, he thought with the limits of his experience in such matters, before Pertito and Legran would follow her. He was wise and did not hate them, wrenched himself away from the small gathering of family and wider collection of curious outside Jade Palace, for he had other things to do with his lives, and he thought that his mother would much applaud his good sense.

But while he was walking away from the gathering he saw Ermine standing there among her kin of Onyx.

And if she had been beautiful when they were both fourteen, she was more so now. He stood and stared at her, a vision of white silk and pearls from the Sin, of pale hair and pink flushed skin. It was Ermine who drew him back to his mother’s funeral . . . Claudette, he must think of his mother now, by her true name, for she had stopped being his mother, and might at this moment be born far across the City, to begin her journey back to them. This mourning was only ceremony, a farewell of sorts, excuse for a party. It grew, as they walked the stairs past the thundering waters of the Sin, as more and more curious attached themselves and asked who had died, and how, and the tale was told and retold at other levels. But it was the kin who really knew her who did the telling; in his own low estate he kept silent and soon grew disaffected from all the empty show . . . his eyes were only for Ermine.

He moved to her side as they walked constantly down the long stairs which wrapped the chute of the Sin. “Might we meet after?” he asked, not looking at her, for shyness was the rule of his life.

He felt her look at him; at least he perceived a movement, a certain silence, and the heat crept to his face. “I think we might,” she said, and his heart pounded in his breast.

Never set strong patterns, Claudette had warned him; and before her body was entombed her voice seemed far away, and her advice less wise than it had seemed. After all, she had passed that way, and he was about to live life on his own.

I shall be wise, he promised her ghost. Claudette would be a child of his generation, surely . . . perhaps . . . the thought stunned him, perhaps his own with Ermine’s. She would be very welcome if she were. He would tell her so many things that he would have learned by then. It would be one of those rare, forever marriages, himself with Ermine; Ermine would love him . . . such a drawing could not be one-sided. The feeling soaring in him was the whole world and it was unreasonable to him that Ermine could go unmoved.

He was four years wiser than he had been, and filled with all the history he had been able to consume by reading and listening.

Pertito and Legran argued loudly near him. He paid them no heed. They reached the level of the tombs, far below the course of the Sin, and with great solemnity—all of them loved pomp when there was excuse for it—conveyed Claudette to her tomb. The populace was delighted when Pertito accused Legran of the murder; was elated when the whole funeral degenerated into a brawl, and the Pertito/Legran quarrel embroiled others. It found grand climax when knives were drawn, and uncle Legran and Pertito vowed suicide to expiate the wrong done Claudette. This was a grand new turn to the centuries-old drama, and the crowd gasped and applauded, profoundly delighted by a variation in a vendetta more than thirty centuries old. The two walked ahead of the returning crowd, and from the tenth level, leaped into the chute of the Sin, to the thunderous applause of much of the City. Everyone was cheerful, anticipating a change in the drama in their next lives. Novelty—it was so rarely achieved, and so to be savored. The souls of Pertito and Legran would be welcomed wherever they incarnated, and there would be an orgy to commemorate the day’s grand events, in the fond hope of hastening the return of the three most delightsome participants in the cycles of the City.

And Jade Alain fairly skipped up the long, long stairs above the thundering flood of the Sin, to change his garments for festal clothes, his very best, and to attend on Onyx Ermine.

He decked himself in sable and the green and white stones of his name, and with a smile on his face and a lightness in his step he walked to the doors of Onyx Palace.

There were no locks, of course, nor guards. The criminals of the City were centuries adept and not so crude. He walked in quite freely as he had come in company to the great anniversaries of the houses, asked of an Onyx child where might be the princess Ermine. The wise-eyed child looked him up and down and solemnly led him through the maze of corridors, into a white and yellow hall, where Ermine sat in a cluster of young friends.

“Why, it’s the Jade youth,” she said delightedly.

“It’s Jade Alain,” another yawned. “He’s very new.”

“Go away,” Ermine bade them all. They departed in no great haste. The bored one paused to look Alain up and down, but Alain avoided the eyes . . . looked up only when he was alone with Ermine.

“Come here,” she said. He came and knelt and pressed her hand.

“I’ve come,” he said, “to pay you court, Onyx Ermine.”

“To sleep with me?”

“To pay you court,” he said. “To marry you.”

She gave a little laugh. “I’m not wont to marry. I have very seldom married.”

“I love you,” he said. “I’ve loved you for four years.”

“Only that?” Her laugh was sweet. He looked up into her eyes and wished that he had not, for the age that was there. “Four years,” she mocked him. “But how old are you, Jade Alain?”

“It’s,” he said in a faint voice, “my first life. And I’ve never loved anyone but you.”

“Charming,” she said, and leaned and kissed him on the lips, took both his hands and drew them to her heart. “And shall we be lovers this afternoon?”

He accepted. It was a delirium, a dream half true. She brought him through halls of white and yellow stone and into a room with a bed of saffron satin. They made love there all the afternoon, though he was naïve and she sometimes laughed at his innocence; though sometimes he would look by mistake into her eyes and see all the ages of the City looking back at him. And at last they slept; and at, last they woke.

“Come back again,” she said, “when you’re reborn. We shall find pleasure in it.”

“Ermine,” he cried. “Ermine!”

But she left the bed and shrugged into her gown, called attendants and lingered there among the maids, laughter in her aged eyes. “In Onyx Palace, newborn lover, the likes of you are servants . . . like these, even after several lifetimes. What decadences Jade tolerates to bring one up a prince! You have diverted me, put a crown on a memorable day. Now begone. I sense myself about to be bored.”

He was stunned. He sat a good long moment after she had left in the company of her maids, heart-wounded and with heat flaming in his face. But then, the reborn were accustomed to speak to him and to each other with the utmost arrogance. He thought it a testing, as his mother had tested him, as Pertito and Legran had called him hopelessly young, but not without affection . . . He thought, sitting there, and thought, when he had dressed to leave . . . and concluded that he had not utterly failed to amuse. It was novelty he lacked.

He might achieve this by some flamboyance, a fourth Jade death . . . hastening into that next life . . . but he would miss Onyx Ermine by the years that she would continue to live, and he would suffer through lifetimes before they were matched in age again.

He despaired. He dressed again and walked out to seek her in the halls, found her at last in the company of Onyx friends, and the room echoing with laughter.

At him.

It died for a moment when she saw him standing there. She held out her hand to him with displeasure in her eyes, and he came to her, stood among them.

There was a soft titter from those around her.

“You should have sent him to me,” a woman older than the others whispered, and there was general laughter.

“For you there is no novelty,” Ermine laughed. She lolled carelessly upon her chair and looked up at Alain. “Do go now, before you become still more distressed. Shall I introduce you to my last husband?” She stroked the arm of the young woman nearest her. “She was. But that was very long ago. And already you are dangerously predictable. I fear I shall be bored.”

“Oh, how can we be?” the woman who had been her husband laughed. “We shall be entertained at Jade’s expense for years. He’s very determined. Just look at him. This is the sort of fellow who can make a pattern, isn’t he? Dear Ermine, he’ll plague us all before he’s done, create some nasty scandal and we shall all be like Legran and Pertito and poor Claudette . . . or whatever their names will be. We shall be sitting in this room cycle after cycle fending away this impertinent fellow.”

“How distressing,” someone yawned.

The laughter rippled round again, and Ermine rose from her chair, took his burning face in her two hands and smiled at him. “I cannot even remember being the creature you are. There is no hope for you. Don’t you know that I’m one of the oldest in Onyx? You’ve had your education. Begone.”

“Four years,” someone laughed. “She won’t look at me after thirty lifetimes.”

“Good-bye,” she said.

“What might I do,” he asked quietly, “to convince you of novelty and persuade you, in this life or the next?”

Then she did laugh, and thought a moment. “Die the death for love of me. No one has done that.”

“And will you marry me before that? It’s certain there’s no bargain after.”

There was a shocked murmur among her friends, and the flush drained from the cheeks of Onyx Ermine.

“He’s quite mad,” someone said.

“Onyx offered a wager,” he said. “Jade would never say what it doesn’t mean. Shall I tell this in Jade, and amuse my elders with the tale?”

“I shall give you four years,” she said, “since you reckon that a very long time.”

“You will marry me.”

“You will die the death after that fourth year, and I shall not be bothered with you in the next life.”

“No,” he said. “You will not be bothered.”

There was no more laughter. He had achieved novelty. The older woman clapped her hands solemnly, and the others joined the applause. Ermine inclined her head to them, and to him; he bowed to all of them in turn.

“Arrange it,” she said.

• • •

It was a grand wedding, the more so because weddings were rare, on the banks of the Sin where alone in the City there was room enough to contain the crowd. Alain wore black with white stones; Ermine wore white with yellow gold. There was dancing and feasting and the dark waters of the Sin glistened with the lights of lanterns and sparkling fires, with jewel-lights and the glowing colors of the various palaces of the City.

And afterward there was long, slow lovemaking, while the celebrants outside the doors of Jade Palace drank themselves giddy and feted a thing no one had ever seen, so bizarre a bargain, with all honor to the pair which had contrived it.

In days following the wedding all the City filed into Jade to pay courtesy, and to see the wedded couple . . . to applaud politely the innovation of the youngest and most tragic prince of the City. It was the more poignant because it was real tragedy. It eclipsed that of the Grand Cyclics. It was one of the marks of the age, an event unduplicatable, and no one wished to miss it.

Even the Death came, almost the last of the visitors, and that was an event which crowned all the outré affair, an arrival which struck dumb those who were in line to pay their respects and rewarded those who happened to be there that day with the most bizarre and terrible vision of all.

She had come far, up all the many turnings of the stairs from the nether depths of the City, where she kept her solitary lair near the tombs. She came robed and veiled in black, a spot of darkness in the line. At first no one realized the nature of this guest, but all at once the oldest did, and whispered to the others.

Onyx Ermine knew, being among the oldest, and rose from her throne in sudden horror. Alain stood and held Ermine’s hand, with a sinking in his heart.

Their guest came closer, swathed in her robes . . . she, rumor held it, had a right to Jade, who had been born here—not born at all, others said, but engendered of all the deaths the City never died. She drank souls and lives. She had prowled among them in the ancient past like a beast, taking the unwilling, appearing where she would in the shadows. But at last she established herself by the tombs below, for she found some who sought her, those miserable in their incarnations, those whose every life had become intolerable pain. She was the only death in the City from which there was no rebirth.

She was the one by whom the irreverent swore, lacking other terrors.

“Go away,” the eldest of Jade said to her.

“But I have come to the wedding,” the Death said. It was a woman’s voice beneath the veils. “Am I not party to this? I was not consulted, but shall I not agree?”

“We have heard,” said Onyx Ermine, who was of too many lifetimes to be set back for long, “we have heard that you are not selective.”

“Ah,” said the Death. “Not lately indeed; so few have come to me. But shall I not seal the bargain?”

There was silence, dread silence. And with a soft whispering of her robes the Death walked forward, held out her hands to Jade Alain, leaned forward for a kiss.

He bent, shut his eyes, for the veil was gauze, and he had no wish to see. It was hard enough to bear the eyes of the many-lived; he had no wish at all to gaze into hers, to see what rumor whispered he should find there, all the souls she had ever drunk. Her lips were warm through the gauze, touched lightly, and her hands on his were delicate and kind.

She walked away then. He felt Ermine’s hand take his, cold and sweating. He settled again into the presence hall throne and Ermine took her seat beside him. There was awe on faces around them, but no applause.

“She has come out again,” someone whispered. “And she hasn’t done that in ages. But I remember the old days. She may hunt again. She’s awake, and interested.”

“It’s Onyx’s doing,” another voice whispered. And in that coldness the last of the wedding guests drifted out.

The doors of Jade Palace closed. “Bar them,” the eldest said. It was for the first time in centuries.

And Ermine’s hand lay very cold in Alain’s.

“Madam,” he said, “are you satisfied?”

She gave no answer, nor spoke of it after.

• • •

There were seasons in the City. They were marked in anniversaries of the Palaces, in exquisite entertainments, in births and deaths.

The return of Claudette was one such event, when a year-old child with wise blue eyes announced his former name, and old friends came to toast the occasion.

The return of Legran and Pertito was another, for they were twin girls in Onyx, and this complication titillated the whole City with speculations which would take years to prove.

The presence of Jade Alain at each of these events was remarked with a poignancy which satisfied everyone with sensitivity, in the remarkable realization that Onyx Ermine, who hid in disgrace, would inevitably return to them, and this most exquisite of youths would not.

One of the greatest Cycles and one of the briefest lives existed in intimate connection. It promised change.

And as for the Death, she had no need to hunt, for the lesser souls, seeking to imitate fashion in this drama, flocked to her lair in unusual number . . . some curious and some self-destructive, seeking their one great moment of passion and notoriety, when a thousand thousand years had failed to give them fame.

They failed of it, of course, for such demises were only following a fashion, not setting one; and they lacked inventiveness in their endings as in their lives.

It was for the fourth year the City waited.

And in its beginning:

“It is three-fourths gone,” Onyx Ermine said. She had grown paler still in her shamed confinement within Jade Palace. In days before this anniversary of their wedding she had received old friends from Onyx, the first time in their wedded life she had received callers. He had remarked then a change in her lovemaking, that what had been pleasantly indifferent acquired . . . passion. It was perhaps the rise in her spirits. There were other possibilities, involving a former lover. He was twenty-two and saw things more clearly than once he had.

“You will be losing something,” he reminded her coldly, “beyond recall and without repetition. That should enliven your long life.”

“Ah,” she said, “don’t speak of it. I repent the bargain. I don’t want this horrid thing, I don’t; I don’t want you to die.”

“It’s late for that,” he said.

“I love you.”

That surprised him, brought a frown to his brow and almost a warmth to his heart, but he could muster only sadness. “You don’t,” he said. “You love the novelty I’ve brought. You have never loved a living being, not in all your lifetimes. You never could have loved. That is the nature of Onyx.”

“No. You don’t know. Please. Jade depresses me. Please let’s go and spend the year in Onyx, among my friends. I must recover them, build back my old associations. I shall be all alone otherwise. If you care anything at all for my happiness, let’s go home to Onyx.”

“If you wish,” he said, for it was the first time that she had shown him her heart, and he imagined that it might be very fearsome for one so long incarnate in one place to spend too much time apart from it. His own attachments were ephemeral. “Will it make you content?”

“I shall be very grateful,” she said, and put her arms about his neck and kissed him tenderly.

They went that day, and Onyx received them, a restrained but festive occasion as befitted Ermine’s public disfavor . . . but she fairly glowed with life, as if all the shadows she had dreaded in Jade were gone. “Let us make love,” she said, “oh, now!” And they lay all afternoon in the saffron bed, a slow and pleasant time.

“You’re happy,” he said to her. “You’re finally happy.”

“I love you,” she whispered in his ear as they dressed for dinner, she in her white and pearls and he in his black and his green jade. “Oh, let us stay here and not think of other things.”

“Or of year’s end?” he asked, finding that thought incredibly difficult, this day, to bear.

“Hush,” she said, and gave him white wine to drink.

They drank together from opposite sides of one goblet, sat down on the bed and mingled wine and kisses. He felt strangely numb, lay back, with the first intimation of betrayal. He watched her cross the room, open the door. A tear slipped from his eye, but it was anger as much as pain.

“Take him away,” Onyx Ermine whispered to her friends. “Oh, take him quickly and end this. She will not care if he comes early.”

“The risk we run . . .”

“Would you have her come here? For three years I have lived in misery, seeing her in every shadow. I can’t bear it longer. I can’t bear touching what I’m going to lose. Take him there. Now.”

He tried to speak. He could not. They wrapped him in the sheets and satin cover and carried him, a short distance at first, and then to the stairs, by many stages. He heard finally the thunder of the falls of the Sin, and the echoes of the lower levels . . . heard the murmur of spectators near him at times, and knew that none but Jade might have interfered. They were all merely spectators. That was all they wished to be, to avoid complications.

Even, perhaps, Jade itself . . . observed.

They laid him down at last in a place where feet scuffed dryly on dust, and fled, and left silence and dark. He lay long still, until a tingling in his fingers turned to pain, which traveled all his limbs and left him able again to move. He stirred, and staggered to his feet, cold in a bitter wind, chilled by the lonely dark. From before him came the dim light of lamps, and a shadow sat between them.

“You are betrayed,” the Death said.

He wrapped his arms about him against the chill and stared at her.

“She doesn’t love you,” said the Death. “Don’t you know that?”

“I knew,” he said. “But then, no one ever did. They’ve forgotten how.”

The Death lifted her hands to the veils and let them fall. She was beautiful, pale of skin, with ebon hair and a blood-red stain of rubies at her brow. She held out hands to him, rising. And when she came to him, he did not look away. “Some change their minds,” she said. “Even those who come of their own will.”

The eyes were strange, constantly shifting in subtle tones . . . the fires, perhaps, or all the souls she had drunk, all the torment. “I bring peace,” she said. “If I did not exist, there would be no way out. And they would all go mad. I am their choice. I am possibility. I am change in the cycles.”

He gazed into the flickerings, the all-too-tenanted eyes. “How is it done?” he asked, fearing to know.

She embraced him, and laid her head at his shoulder. He flinched from a tiny sharp pain at his throat, quickly done. A chill grew in his limbs, a slight giddiness like love.

“Go back,” she said releasing him. “Run away until your time.”

He stumbled back, found the door, realized belatedly her words.

“Go,” she said. “I’ll come for you . . . in my agreed time. I at least keep my word, Jade Alain.”

And when he would have gone . . .

“Jade Alain,” she said. “I know you have moved to Onyx. I know most things in the City. Tell your wife . . . I keep my promises.”

“She fears you.”

“She is nothing,” the Death said. “Do you fear me?”

He considered. The question found him numb. And for all his numbness he walked back to her, faced the dreadful eyes. He tested his courage by it. He tested it further, took the Death’s face between his hands and returned the kiss she had given three years before.

“Ah,” she said. “That was kind.”

“You are gentle,” he said. “I shall not mind.”

“Sad Jade prince. Go. Go away just now.”

He turned away, walked out the grim doorway into the light, walked up the stairs, a long, long walk, in which there were few passersby, for it was what passed for night in the City now, and of that he was very glad, because of the shame which Onyx had dealt him and the anger he felt. Those who did see him stared, and muttered behind their hands and shrank away. So did those at the doors of Onyx, who blanched and began to bar his way.

But the doors opened, and Ermine’s several friends stood with knives.

“Go away,” they said.

“That was not the bargain,” he replied.

“Your wife is the bargain,” the oldest woman said. “Take Ermine back to Jade. Don’t involve us.”

“No,” Ermine wailed from the hall beyond; but they brought her to him, and he took her by the hand and dragged her along to his own doors. She ceased struggling. They entered within the ornate halls of Jade Palace, and under the fearful eyes of his own kin, he drew her through the maze of corridors to his own apartments, and sealed the door fast behind them.

She was there. There was no possible means that she could be . . . but there the Death stood, clothed in black, among the green draperies by the bed. Ermine flung about and cried aloud, stopped by his opposing arms.

“Go,” the Death said. “I’ve nothing to do with you yet. Your wife and I have business.”

He held Ermine still, she shivering and holding to him and burying her face against him. He shook his head. “No,” he said, “I can’t. I can’t give her to you.”

“I’ve been offended,” the Death said. “How am I to be paid for such an offense against my dignity?”

He thought a moment. Smoothed Ermine’s pale hair. “The year that I have left. What is that to me? Don’t take Ermine’s lives. She cares so much to save them.”

“Does Ermine agree?” the Death asked.

“Yes,” Ermine sobbed, refusing to look back.

He sighed, hurt at last, shook his head and put Ermine from him. The Death reached out her hand, and he came to her, embraced her, looked back as she put her black-robed arm about him. Ermine cowered in the corner, head upon her knees.

“Cousin,” the Death whispered to him, for she was once of Jade. He looked into the shifting eyes, and she touched her finger first to her lips and to his; it bled, and left the blood on his lips. “Mine,” she said. “As you are.”

He was. He felt cold, and hungry for life, desired it more than ever he had desired it in his youth.

“I also,” the Death said, “am once-born . . . and never die. Nor shall you. Nor have a name again. Nor care.”

“Ermine,” he whispered, to have the sight of her face again. She looked.

And screamed, and hid her face in her hands.

“When the lives grow too many,” the Death said, “and you grow weary, Ermine . . . we will be waiting.”

“Whenever you wish,” he said to Ermine, and slipped his hand within the Death’s warm hand, and went with her, the hidden ways.

• • •

Pertito shook his head sadly, poured more wine, stroked the cheek of Legran, who was his lover this cycle, and Claudette’s sister. Below their vantage, beyond the balcony, a pale figure wavered on the tenth level stairs, where the Sin began its dizzying fall. “I’ll wager she’s on the verge again,” he said. “Poor Ermine. Thousands of years and no invention left. Never more years than twenty-two. When she reaches that age . . . she’s gone.”

“Not this time,” Legran said.

“Ah. Look. She’s on the edge.”

Legran stretched her neck to see, remained tranquil. “A wager?”

“Has she whispered things in your brother’s ear, perhaps? Lovers’ confidences?”

Legran sighed, smiled lazily, settling again. She sipped at her cup and her smoky eyes danced above the rim. A crowd was gathering to watch the impending leap.

“Do you know something?” Pertito asked.

“Ah, my tragic brother, to be in love with Ermine. Three lifetimes now he could not hold her . . . Wager on it, my love?”

Pertito hesitated. A hundred lifetimes without variance. It was a small crowd, observing the suicide indifferently, expecting no novelty from Ermine.

“This time,” Legran said, eyes dancing more, “there is a rival.”

“A second lover?”

The white figure poised delicately on the topmost step of the chute. There were sighs, a polite rippling of applause.

“A very old one,” Legran said. “For some months now. Ah. There she goes.”

There were gasps, a dazed silence from the crowd.

Past the falls, this time, and down and down the stairs, a gleam of white and pearls.

Enjoyed this story? Consider supporting us via one of the following methods:

C. J. Cherryh

C J CherryhC. J. Cherryh, three-time Hugo Award winner, is one of today’s best-selling and most critically acclaimed writers of science fiction and fantasy. The author of more than fifty novels, including the popular Foreigner series, she makes her home in Spokane, Washington.