The Art of Dying
a short story
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
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
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
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
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
'Is that what you think of this city?'
'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
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
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
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
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
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.
'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
'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 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
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
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
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,
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
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
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
'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
'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
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.
The Etched City
Prime Books (February 2003; ISBN: 189481522X)
Tor UK (January 2004; ISBN: 1405041609)
Spectra Books (November 2004; ISBN: 0553382918)
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