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The Art of Dying

a short story
by KJ Bishop


Not counting school assignments, "The Art of Dying" was the first story I ever wrote. Readers of The Etched City will recognise Gwynn, and might see adumbrations of other characters. Galuth is a sort of beta version of Ashamoil (the city in The Etched City). A nameless version of Galuth appears in the epilogue of the book.

The story was first published in Aurealis #19 in 1997. For this electronic edition I tried to fix it up without drastically changing it. Though I brought a couple of things into line with The Etched City, the story still takes place in a world slightly different from that of the book, not that the latter is exactly fixed in concrete.

N.B. 1: The names Galuth and Geulah are Hebrew words, galuth meaning exile/alienation, geulah meaning redemption.

N.B. 2: I don't know why the river doesn't flow over the cliff, except that this is dreamland.

The Art of Dying

In a corner of the smoking-room under the Amber Tree cafe, recumbent on brocade cushions, lay Mona Skye, the duellist and poet of tragic fame.

She was the city's pre-eminent invalid. Fever made her long, austere face beautiful. It reddened her lips and made her grey eyes gleam and smoulder. As her lean body wasted towards frailty it had come to exhibit the strange sensual grace of a strong thing weakened and perversely unashamed of its new tenderness. Even her pale hair appeared softer and brighter.

The disease turns her into that old cliché, the beautiful and beloved thing that can live only a little while ... Vali Jardine experienced the taste of anger as if it were sour honey smeared on the mouthpiece she suckled. The narghile sat in the middle of their little circle, an antique of engraved glass with three velvet-covered pipes. Opiate smoke bubbled drowsily through rose-water inside it.

Anger had been a close companion to Vali since the summer night of the Lantern Crossing, when Mona had drunkenly sworn to catch her death at last. They were standing on the bank of the Geulah at Jubilee Bridge, surrounded by the crowd who were gathered to watch the thousands of paper lanterns floating down the river beneath the backdrop of floodlit palaces.

She would humble Death, the grinning bastard -- she said -- by being more ardent than he, so that in the end, when it came, it was she who would take him, rather than the opposite. It made no sense to Vali, nor to most of the discomfited onlookers.

The next morning Mona had refused her medicines. She threw the bottles of drugs down onto the stone courtyard below the apartment she and Vali shared, smashing them all.

'She's asleep.' A male voice came softly out of the gloom on Mona's other side. A black damask sleeve reached across the cushions and slim fingers in black suede gloves lifted the pipe from her hand. His own pipe conducted the smoke to lips invisible in the shadow cast on his face by a curtain of blue-black hair.

The man, who reclined on a silk mattress, went by the name of Gwynn. He and Mona both were sometime adventurers from cities in the cold north, half the world away. Once they had been comrades-in-arms and sweethearts, down in the canyon country east of the Teleute Shelf. Their love affair had been uncomplicated and brief. Parted in the aftermath of a civil war, they had come by separate routes of adventure to Galuth-on-the-Edge, where both had found their metier playing the patrician city's games of justice.

Gwynn drew on the pipe and regarded his old inamorata and the woman who was now her lover.

'Why don't you take her somewhere cleaner? Out of the city.'

'A pastoral cure?' Vali supposed the pastoral must now and then win a battle in its ancient war with the heroic. 'Rock beats scissors, boredom beats tragedy ... ? The famous restorative power of trees and goats might work, but only while she was away from her audience here, I think.'

'Then don't bring her back to them.'

'And where should I take her?'

'Anywhere away from the evil comforts of prison.' Gwynn exhaled a stream of smoke and pushed his hair back from his face. His pale greenish eyes were slitted.

'Is that what you think of this city?'

'At times.'

'I don't see you packing your bags and moving out, Mr. Sage Advice.'

He laughed dryly. 'My contrary soul has found a home here. As has hers, perhaps ... '

She wanted him to be quiet. 'You don't have the right to talk about souls. You only know about bodies, Gwynn.'

Not his silence but a fight, she realised, was what she actually wanted, and wouldn't get.

'I know this body is tired. I'm getting a cab,' he said.

'Make it a ride for three.'

Gwynn raised himself and straightened his apparel. Vali watched the back of his damask tailcoat retreat into the haze of oily lamp-lit smoke. Most of Mona's friends had deserted her. They feared her awakened illness and were also, perhaps, embarrassed by her. They were people who loved winners, and she was parading herself as a loser. Vali wondered what it was -- whether love, loyalty or something else -- that kept Gwynn hovering near her.

And what about you, whom she rejects along with the rest of the world? Is this only the natural course of love -- the secret turning away from the partner who meets not a fraction of the lonesome human's need, the guilty unconfessed solipsism, indulged everywhere but never willingly disclosed, held up in public sight, at last, here?

She addressed her reflection in the narghile's glass belly, as if it had some power which could explain her own soul to her. But the image, distorted by the curve of the glass, showed her no oracle, only a woman in mannish clothes: dark of face, not so young, not unlovely. The old scars on her face did not show in the dim reflection.

Her hair was rolled into the long, tight dreadlocks worn by the military caste in the Ivory Kingdom, her homeland in the south-eastern tropics. She had kept the style for aesthetic reasons and, also, because she had no wish to discard her former self.

It was a common saying that everyone in Galuth was a foreigner.

And we drift here like fallen leaves, and sometimes we find love ... Mona's words, in autumn, a year ago in a briefly voguish bar.

Vali found her boots among the cushions and tugged them on. Her fingers worked torpidly to fasten buckles and laces. She speculated that if some enemy were to choose this moment to attack her, the management would be cleaning her out of the carpet for a week.

Over the murmur of low conversation and the troubled sound of Mona's breathing, Vali became aware of a rapid scratching noise behind her, as of a mouse scuttling over slate. She looked around and saw a reedy, fair-haired teenager -- another foreigner -- perched on the edge of a divan, writing in a notebook. He was wearing trousers too short for his legs and a leather coat too wide for his shoulders. Vali would have taken him for one more desperate poet seeking inspiration in pipe dreams, if she had not caught him looking furtively across at her with fully alert eyes. The damned press! Well, she would see what lies this one was writing. She rose, advanced, and, glaring, snatched the notebook out of his hands. She skimmed the pages:

Society Report: Mona Skye, the renowned sabreuse, sonneteer and despiser of the world, observed unconscious in a drug den on the notorious Sycamore Street strip: it seems the end is near for the self-destructing heroine.

At the Cutting Edge: Mona Skye's worsening condition has cast a gloom over the demimonde and beyond. Conversations are not sparkling. The beautiful people inhale sedatives and exude ennui. Beaus and belles dress like undertakers. Expect the chic look this winter to be formal, functional and funereal.

Art Update: Is Mona Skye's slow suicide art? Many think so. In the face of predictable resistance from the conservative establishment, some progressive critics are announcing that death as performance is the ultimate art form, an art against which there can be no appeal, the perfect expression of the present zeitgeist. They may well be right. Watching Mona Skye, one apprehends a strangely exquisite unfurling as, like a dancer discarding veils, her body discloses new details of its degenerative journey. Killer and victim are one, coexisting in a symbiosis of extended intimacy, the epitome of the tragically hip...

It was only the usual drivel, but Vali felt the pressure of fury rising inside her like steam in a boiler. Her mind threw up an image of an autopsy conducted while pretentious types clustered around the slab drinking trendy wines and picking at hors d'oeuvres.

Her hand fingered the pommel of the sword at her hip. But words were the only permissible weapon here, and unlike her lover she had little talent in their use.

She said icily, 'It is in bad taste to serve up a person's suffering as entertainment for the chattering classes.'

The boy twitched nervously, but he looked her in the eye. 'Ma'am,' he said, 'the last thing I want to do is offend. This city looks to Miss Skye's profession for inspiration in everything, including matters of taste.'

He spoke the truth. Every day, Vali walked past children playing 'Chop-Chop' and 'Kill 'Em All' out on the pavements. Duellists were fêted in popular culture. Their images were made into character dolls and reproduced on household items and souvenirs. Wildly fictionalised, melodramatic stories about their adventures and private lives were printed for an eager public in cheap magazines like Corinthian, Hearts and Blades and Tales from the Theatre of Woe.

This fame had once been Vali's as well. Like Mona and Gwynn, she had employed herself as a professional duellist in the juridical playhouses of the city. However, her beliefs concerning justice had caused her eventually to hang up her mask and withdraw from the milieu of the monomachia. These days she made a plainer living as a bodyguard and fencing tutor.

Sometimes she saw dolls with her face in secondhand shops, going cheap. Merchandise featuring Mona's image, on the other hand, was currently riding a wave of popularity.

It is she who is guilty of bad taste; she's making a shabby exhibition of herself, and I'm accepting a part in it, thought Vali.

'I have a duty to the people,' the kid journalist said. 'They must have information.' He drew himself up and tilted his head to look Vali in the eye. 'The freedom of the press is sacred, ma'am.'

Vali looked down at him. 'Nothing is sacred,' she said flatly. She handed him back the notebook, and he immediately began writing in it again. She had the impression that he was recording the incident which had just occurred.

'Can I quote that? Nothing is sacred?'

Vali was sorry she had allowed herself to get angry at a magazine hack, of all insignificant people. 'Go ahead,' she said wearily.

Gwynn returned then, emerging out of the smoke and shadows. 'Our chariot awaits,' he said. His gaze took in the pen-wielding youth and he raised an eyebrow at Vali.

'Let's go,' she muttered.

Carrying Mona, Vali followed Gwynn up the stairs and out through the back door to the yard behind the cafe. The youth trailed them, introducing himself to their backs. His name was Siegfried and he worked for Verbal Nerve magazine. Perhaps they had perused it once or twice? He was honoured, in any case, to make their acquaintance.

He was ignored.

The vehicle waiting for them in the street was a hooded chaise with one seat behind the driver, a bent and leathery beldam wearing a three-cornered hat and a voluminous cloak. She held the reins of a brown nag whose wretchedly starved condition was typical of Galuth's cab-horses. Its breath steamed in the night's chill air. Vali and Gwynn were too busy getting Mona into her fur coat and seating her comfortably to notice Siegfried positioning himself to get aboard. When he squeezed in next to Gwynn, Vali expected Gwynn to do something about it; but he ignored the boy, evidently regarding him as her guest and her problem. Vali felt herself at a loss. Merely telling the kid to leave seemed a weak reaction to his bizarre rudeness, and if he refused to go, what could she do? She could imagine the tabloid headlines if she resorted to main force -- Former Hero's Brawl Shame -- and then there'd be whatever things the kid himself would write. Vali resigned herself to accepting it as yet another strange and uncomfortable situation to be endured, and gathered up her dignity.

'Magnolia Terrace, river end,' she ordered the driver. The old woman cracked her whip and the horse lurched off at a trot, taking them into the crowded traffic that filled Sycamore Street at all hours of the night.

With its four passengers the seat under the canvas hood was unpleasantly cramped. Vali and Gwynn were both twisted sideways to make more room for Mona, and the assorted firearms and blades the three carried (sick as she was, Mona still wore her sword) made the crowding of bodies even more uncomfortable.

While they were arranged thus, Siegfried conducted his first-ever celebrity interview. Mona being still unconscious, he questioned the other two. How many people had they each killed? Did they enjoy their work? How did they see their respective roles in society? What did they do in their spare time? Would they mind describing what their homes looked like inside? The youth fired questions and chased answers with relentless zeal, seeming oblivious to the peril he would be in should one or both of his captive subjects lose patience. Or, if he did understand, he was stimulated by the danger.

Vali responded with monosyllables or silence. Gwynn gave his interrogator better satisfaction, responding with answers which, whether true or not, would make good copy. Siegfried filled pages with shorthand notes. Vali knew, naturally, that Siegfried was more interested in Gwynn than in her; it was only her closeness to Mona that made her newsworthy these days. She suspected that Gwynn was not merely trying to keep the young news hound off her back, but was at least slightly enjoying the attention. However, her mood was too grim and grieving to allow her to be amused.

To her, their progress took on the confused, uncontrollable quality of a dream. She started feeling that she had slid sideways into an alternative, stupidly surreal existence crammed full of details that were irritating, strange and tedious all at once. Late-night shoppers and partygoers surged under green and red silk lanterns hanging on wires across the streets, hurrying as if on missions of great and secret importance. The hag cried out and thrashed the horse, which panted like a demon-beast, white breath steaming from its nostrils and bones moving like pistons under its skin. Mona's lovely head lolled, saliva pooling at the corners of her mouth.

They passed an open yard where a religious lynch-mob was holding an execution. Several hundred faces, screaming in rapturous hysteria, were washed in orange light from the scaffold where a human shape was visible at the centre of a blaze. A procession of hooded penitents moved across the road, each pair lashing the shoulders of the two in front of them, forcing the through-traffic to stop while they passed. The old woman screamed at the shuffling lashers. The noise woke Mona. Her eyes opened wide and she grabbed Vali's arm.

'I'm dying!' she gasped. 'I saw it! I saw Death. I've been dreaming. Take me to the marble streets, Vali. Take me to the necropolis. I want to die there, where it's quiet.' She looked around deliriously. 'Where am I? Vali, are you here too?'

Vali stroked Mona's hair, trying to soothe her. She murmured, 'Don't fret,' and kissed Mona's fever-hot cheek. 'We'll be home soon.'

Mona clutched her hand. 'No!' she rasped fiercely, 'I'm dying!' As if to make the point she began coughing wetly. 'I want to die in peace,' she whispered. 'Out in the air, under the stars. Take me there, Vali. Please.'

'All right,' Vali said. 'All right, sweetheart.' To the beldam she called out, 'Driver! Take us to the necropolis.'

The old woman acknowledged her and turned the chaise uphill at the next intersection. They clattered through the city, leaving the pleasure quarters for dimmer streets, with Mona falling in and out of consciousness between bouts of harsh coughing. At times, when she was awake, the celebrated duellist looked around glassily and asked, like a child, 'Are we nearly there yet?'

'Soon,' Vali promised her over and over.

Siegfried wrote it all down in his notebook.

After a long time had passed like this, they reached the canal spanned by the ancient metal bridge that was the only approach to the city of the dead.

The necropolis covered the hills on the other side of the canal's empty, untended bank. The city proper ended here. Beyond the great cemetery there was only a no man's land of weeds and twisted bushes before the drop over the Edge.

The old woman reined the horse to a halt before the bridge. On the other side, the necropolis was a long, outstretched, dim panorama of tombs, shrines and monumental statues, with colonnade crowding stair crowding arch crowding pediment crowding obelisk crowding dome for as far as the eye could see to either side.

Vali lifted Mona out of the chaise while Gwynn paid the driver.

'Wait,' Vali said. They were going to need the horse. The old woman refused at first, making a great show of being afraid to stay waiting alone, until Vali paid her more than plenty for her time.

While the beldam unshackled her nag and Vali helped Mona onto its back, Gwynn spoke to Siegfried, who had climbed out with them. 'It might be safer for you to go back,' he suggested.

'I don't fear the dead, sir,' the boy replied. He turned up the collar of his coat against the cold, which was brisker than it had been in the city, and wriggled his hands into a pair of fingerless woollen gloves that he took out of a pocket.

'The dead fear the living ... those living who forget them and those who remember them too well ... The dead fear truth and untruth, speech and silence ... ' It was Mona herself who answered, her grey eyes shining queerly.

Siegfried gave a credible bow. 'Madam, I'm honoured to be acknowledged.'

Vali and Gwynn exchanged silences.

Mona wanted to be taken to St. Anna Vermicula's tomb. From Vali's memory, the saint was buried a good hour's walk over the hills towards the barrens. Looping the long reins, she carefully led the frail horse with its frail rider.

The necropolis was a city in more than name alone. Many of the greater tombs and monuments were as large as the houses of the living, while smaller sarcophagi were stacked in tiered enclosures many levels high. Stone stairs provided access for those who wished to pay their respects, or who were simply sightseeing. A group of tourists with lanterns were clustered around a large tomb some way distant.

The silence of the necropolis was a tangible presence in the air, as if it were not merely an absence of sound but a thing with its own substance. There were no trees in the huge graveyard, no streams or pools, and therefore few birds to disturb the quiet. Soft, short-bladed grass grew on the paths, muting footsteps. The urban noise of Galuth was remote. The night sky was marvellously clear, with a gibbous moon and stars that Vali fancied looked like white candles burning in reproachful memory for all the drowned hours in a person's life. Mona was quiescent, and even Siegfried seemed, for the moment at least, to have run out of talk. To her wonder, Vali felt the tentative first touch of an unfurling peace.

St. Anna Vermicula's tomb was a colonnaded mausoleum housing a black marble effigy of the warrior martyr, on the farthest hillside in the oldest section of the necropolis. The Edge was only a few hundred metres away across the barrens of wild grass, thistles and thorn bushes which began where the graves ended at the bottom of the hill. It was visible as a sudden curtailing of the earth, with space and stars beyond and all around.

Vali sat on the weathered steps of the tomb, her arm around Mona. Gwynn had walked a short distance away to smoke. The horse was back on the path, eating grass. Vali couldn't see Siegfried. It was possible to imagine that she and Mona were alone in the landscape of marble, which was no longer soundless but filled with the drone of the wind that lived out here on the open sky-coast of the Teleute Shelf.

The no man's land showed an embattled beauty. The ragged grasses and the urchin wildflowers that grew among them had the careless charm of things never cared for or interfered with by anyone, and the lonely stunted trees with their wind-gnarled branches had the shapeliness of driftwood.

Vali grew immersed in the neglected landscape. Slowly she fell into a sense of being as still and untroubled as the tombs, as if Time were a woman and she a babe on Time's back, and Time had put her down. She came to thinking that she and Mona were no more castaways than the stars themselves, lying out there in the black sky like coins in a wishing well, flowers springing from a ploughed field, a multitude of pyres (for wasn't the life of a star one long immolation?). She felt a sense of wonder at her thoughts, not for their own sake but for the sake of the universe which had these thoughts because she, a mind in the universe, had them.

Yet does it need us, any more than the seas of the world need ships? Vali wondered this, and answered herself, It did not need or desire us until it made us and then we, who are it, desired communion with the spheres sundered from us, desired a bridge, and so love was formed and flung ...

Mona stirred, bringing Vali out of her reverie. The sick woman was whispering something. Feeling strangely calm and adrift still -- had the stars moved? -- Vali bent her head down to listen.

When Vali called out, Gwynn looked up from where he sat cross-legged on a sarcophagus. Vali relayed the message that Mona wanted them all to walk down to the Edge together.

Gwynn swung down and looked across the barrens. 'Fine with me,' he said. 'Less crowded over there.'

They made their way across the ragged margin of the land, their hair and coats whipping in the wind. Vali carried Mona. Siegfried followed, still scribbling in his notebook. More than once he tripped over rocks and pieces of fallen masonry he had failed to see, but he hardly noticed his barked shins and stubbed toes. His hands were trembling with excitement. He wasn't going to give this article to Verbal Nerve. Better magazines would want it. He basked for a moment in the vision of a career reporting on the lives of the famous and dangerous, as one who had been admitted into their world. Realising he was running out of paper, he wrote as minutely as he could.

When they were about fifty yards from the Edge, Mona insisted that she could walk.

Crossing wasteland, Siegfried jotted. Miss Skye delicate, Miss Jardine gallant. At the Edge -- long way down.

It was indeed a long way. Over a kilometre the giant escarpment dropped -- but it might have been a hundred miles, for distance lost meaning at that height -- down to a dead ocean of sand that the moonlight painted wanly blue, and on which the paler maculae of salt lakes lay like dappled light. Here and there the sand surrounded weathered buttes and chimneys of rock. On the horizon the curve of the planet was clearly visible, another edge beyond the one on which they stood.

Siegfried stood next to Gwynn. He drew himself up and squared his shoulders. He was beginning to feel part of the team now, a companion to heroes. He narrowed his eyes and sucked in his cheeks a little, trying to copy Gwynn's pensive scowl.

'They say there are more bones under those sands than in all of the necropolis,' Mona related hazily.

Vali tried to remember when Mona had talked about things other than death.

Mona started to say something else, but abruptly broke off coughing. Vali gripped her arms tightly to steady her. Flecks of blood appeared on her lips.

Vali was grateful when Gwynn drew Siegfried away. She lowered Mona to the ground and shielded her from the wind. 'It's all a mess, Mona,' she murmured. 'It's all a damned stupid mess. If we ever had control, we've lost it.' But still she felt calm, and she wondered if she was developing apathy as an instinctive stratagem for survival, withdrawing from all care like a threatened snail retreating into its shell.

Gwynn led Siegfried to a spot where a flat slab of stone lay in the weeds a short distance from the cliff, far enough away to give the women privacy without being out of earshot. Gwynn sat down on the stone, flicking back his coattails, and gestured for Siegfried to sit as well. Siegfried complied with a certain weakness of knee. Following celebrities was one thing; having a famous person actually invite his company was something else entirely. He had never had the experience before, and he found it a little intoxicating. He was expecting Gwynn to speak, but the man's attention was fixed on a nearby thorn bush, where a spider was busy spinning a handsome web in the barbed branches.

'Look at that,' Gwynn said softly. 'How precisely that spider unreels her filament, innately knowing the mathematics she needs for her work. Do you ever take time to contemplate the wonders of nature, Siegfried?'

Siegfried shook his head. 'Not really, sir.' He was surprised by the question.

'You should. Nature can be very inspiring. I've always found it so.'

Siegfried put pen to the last page in his notebook. 'I guess I'm too much of a city boy, sir. I mean, I'd miss trees and things if they weren't there, but this place is pretty bleak. There's not much out here.'

'A man about town. You must know a lot of people.'

'Yes, sir. A journalist needs contacts.'

'A network of informants? Very commendable. Incidentally, you needn't call me "sir". I'm not a gentleman, despite what you may have read in Hearts and Blades.'

'I don't read those magazines,' Siegfried said, and added a bit self-consciously, 'I prefer the stimulation of adroit thought to that of sensationalism.'

'Really?' said Gwynn. 'To each his own. I prefer the stimulation of chemicals, myself.' He reached inside the breast of his coat, taking out a very fancy gold and enamel cigarette case, which he opened and proffered first to Siegfried. It was full of slender cigarettes wrapped in burgundy paper. Like the case, they looked fine and expensive.

'Thanks,' Siegfried said, trying to look nonchalant as he took one. Usually he was the one who had to buy smokes and drinks for his interviewees.

Gwynn lit for them both and Siegfried inhaled with abandon.

It was wonderful dope. The smoke tasted rich, filthy rich, and it felt like a numen of luxury pampering Siegfried's every nerve. Siegfried noted in his book that Gwynn was indeed a gentleman, whatever his claims to the contrary.

For a while they were silent as they smoked. Siegfried stared at the tranquil stars and listened to the rowdy wind, until Gwynn said, 'Answer me another question, Siegfried. In your opinion, what is it about us -- Miss Skye, and our entire profession -- that so fascinates the good people of this city?'

Siegfried had been putting to paper his own thoughts on exactly that matter, here and there among his other notes, since he had first followed the three into the Amber Tree's basement room.

He answered eagerly. 'There are lots of reasons. You're artists. You're heroes. You're not chained by ordinary fears. You have freedom and power most people only dream of. Some people think you're angels, sent to wipe away the faulty so the upright can survive.'

'Ah. A generation whose teeth are as swords, their jaws as knives, to devour the unworthy from off the earth and the weak from among men.'

Siegfried was impressed. 'It seems you too have a poet's disposition.'

'Those words aren't mine. That was something I once heard a man of religion say. You like it, eh?'

'Very much. I've always liked predators better than prey.'

'Is that a fact? Again, de gustibus ... ' Gwynn tapped ash onto the ground as Siegfried kept talking enthusiastically.

'All you swordslingers and knife-fighters and all -- you've got the power of life and death. That's a pretty fascinating power.'

'Indeed. But tell me, then, do you take the orthodox view that we're enactors of divine judgement, instruments of a moral god?'

There was a change in the man's voice, an undercurrent which Siegfried heard but could not identify. He hesitated in his writing, pen arrested over paper. He said, 'I'm not really sure.'

Gwynn extinguished his cigarette and stood up. He looked around the base of the stone, where wild white poppies and harebells grew. He broke off the head of a poppy and carefully tucked it into his buttonhole. He gave Siegfried a foxy look.

'Choose a number between one and six.'

'A number?' Siegfried was nonplussed. Gwynn didn't seem the type to go in for parlour games. Siegfried shrugged. 'All right ... four. But I don't -- '

Gwynn drew one of the two pistols he wore and emptied the chamber. He spun the chamber and, when it stopped, replaced one bullet in the fourth hole from the top. He spun the chamber again and snapped it shut.

'Get up and stand over there,' he said, pointing the muzzle of the gun at the open ground in the direction of the cliff.

Siegfried swallowed hard. Was this some kind of ceremony, an initiation ritual? Perhaps he had to survive this in order to be admitted to certain secrets. He had heard of such things happening.

Gwynn aimed the gun to point at Siegfried's face. 'Move,' he said.

Siegfried's heart vibrated as if someone had struck a gong inside his chest. His mind couldn't keep up with his body. His body put the notebook in a pocket and stood up. There was nowhere he could run to, except over the cliff. He had no doubts that Gwynn's other gun was fully loaded. He took a couple of shaky steps away from the stone slab.

Gwynn waved the pistol. 'Further back.'

Siegfried walked haltingly backwards, towards the Edge. He felt sick and weak-gutted, and wished he had relieved himself back at the cafe, which now seemed to belong to another world.

'Further... Further... Stop!'

Siegfried couldn't see the end of the ground, but he knew it was close behind him. Have I been a fool? he wondered. Gwynn was taking aim. The gunman's hair lifted suddenly in the wind, floating up to form a black halo radiating around his starkly moonlit face.

The shot was very loud.

Blood and matter erupted from the back of Siegfried's head, and his body fell backwards into the empty sky.

Gwynn stalked to the verge of the cliff and looked down. He caught a vertiginous glimpse of the dead kid, a barely visible speck that vanished in the space of a breath. He re-loaded his gun and holstered it with a philosophical shrug.

Gwynn did not hold the orthodox view of his profession. For a moment he allowed himself to imagine that he had been an instrument of humour, sans the appellation 'divine'. He mused, not for the first time, that while the putative divine claimed all sense and significance for itself, it fell to comedy, with its bifurcations, reversals and annulments of sense, to destroy that claim.

Mona did not die, and seemed embarrassed. In a few days she started taking her medicines again, claiming publicly that she had grown bored with dying, and admitting privately to Vali that she felt a fresh enthusiasm for life.

'What made you change your mind?' Vali asked, when they were alone one morning, sitting in bed. The early sun was shining gloriously through a vase of glass tulips on the windowsill, strewing petals of coloured light over the carpet and the bedspread.

Mona stretched her back and legs, luxuriating in the feeling of the mild sun and the linen sheets on her skin. Her malady was slowly but steadily going into remission. Her adventure in illness had been worth it, almost, for the pleasures of convalescence that were now hers -- those delicate, slightly abject pleasures of the reawakened senses. Milky tea and chicken soup, innocent aromas of bread and soap, the daily sounds of the street below, these all fed like streams into the larger river of the sensual pleasure she took in returning to health.

She hesitated over Vali's question. The simple answer was that she had looked out into the night beyond the end of the Teleute Shelf and had feared it. And then there was the kid, dying as if the hour had wanted a life and had taken one.

'It came to me that Death isn't a lover worthy of attention,' she eventually replied, and then wanted to say something more to Vali, who was too proud to ask for more, not with a look or even with silence. 'Sometimes the witless leaf keeps drifting,' Mona said, 'until it sees love coming to pick it up.'

Vali smiled wisely, unfooled but content, and rang for their boy to bring breakfast. While they waited, Vali flicked through the latest issue of Corinthian, which featured the first instalment of a serial in which Mona journeyed to the underworld to find a friend who was trapped there. The blurb for the next episode promised that 'classic character' Vali Jardine would return. It was funny, Vali thought, to know that although one day you would die, your small-press avatars, your dolls and knick-knacks, would live on. You who were no longer sentient would exist strangely, borrowing the sentience of readers and collectors, who would re-imagine you, re-create you, perhaps with less class and cleverness than you would have wished, but still with more energy and delight than you, while you lived, had ever put into the making of yourself.

On a cold but clear day in winter, the two women went out on horseback to the necropolis. They sat inside the shrine of St. Anna Vermicula and ate a picnic lunch. Mona had been taking her various physicks like a model patient. She was less pale, and had begun training with her sword again.

'I'm feeling much better,' she declared, chewing delicately on a sandwich. 'Wanting to die was some strange summer madness that lingered on out of season, I think.'

'Perhaps it was,' Vali agreed a little vaguely.

She could not recapture the sense of timelessness she had felt a month ago. The world was moving at speed. On the way to the necropolis they had ridden past numerous building sites. Tall brick apartment blocks were going up along the Geulah. The bars had new names and served new drinks.

Both women were in furs. Although snow rarely fell on Galuth, Vali felt this year might prove an exception.

Munching on a biscuit, she watched the tiny figures of a group of tourists standing near the Edge, peering down at the desert. Closer, in the middle of the no man's land, a group of children were playing 'Masked Avengers'. Their high voices carried on the wind:

The men in the masks,
The ladies in the masks,
See how they kill, see how they kill --
Six-shooters and switchblades,
Swords, daggers and poison,
We all fall down,
We all fall down.

© KJ Bishop 1997, and this revised version 2004.

The Etched City by KJ Bishop (Prime) The Etched City by KJ Bishop (Tor UK)The Etched City by KJ Bishop (Spectra)

The Etched City is published by:
Prime Books (February 2003; ISBN: 189481522X)
Tor UK (January 2004; ISBN: 1405041609)
Spectra Books (November 2004; ISBN: 0553382918)

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