Dinner at deviants palac.., p.10
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.10

           Tim Powers
 
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  Chapter Five

  WHEN A SUDDEN CLATTER of hoofbeats spilled Rivas out of the night’s web of dreams, he decided that he’d been premature yesterday in deciding that his fever was abating. His skin was hot and dry and tight and his breath was arid in his head and the bright morning sunlight seemed to be making faint rainbow auras around everything. His head was murky with the sort of unspecific depression left behind by a night of heavy drinking or the worst sort of nightmares.

  He rolled over into a crouch on the pile of cardboard that had been his bed, and he squinted around at the weedy yard. A collapsed, rusty swing-set leaned against a fence near him, and the cardboard freshly shoved under it reminded him that when he’d gone to sleep last night the Jaybird girl had been sleeping there. So where was she now? He stood up, feeling dangerously tall and fragile, and stumbled out of the yard to the tree he’d tied the horses to.

  One of the horses was still tied to it. Rivas peered around, blinking tears out of his eyes and wishing that his nose would either produce a sneeze or stop tingling, and finally saw her, fifty yards down the street, riding the other horse.

  “Hey!” he yelled. “Uh…” Why hadn’t he learned her name? “Hey, girl!”

  She looked over her shoulder, then reined in and rode back to the tree, which he was now leaning against. “What?” she said.

  “Where are you going?” He had to squint to look up at her against the bright blue sky.

  “The Regroup Tent,” she said impatiently. “Where did you think?”

  “Well, Christ… you weren’t going to wait for me?”

  “I thought you were sick.”

  “Oh!” he said, nodding in exaggerated comprehension. “I see. You thought I might slow you down.”

  “Right.”

  He throttled his anger by reminding himself that she was a vital stage prop in his role as a stray Jaybird… and just for a moment, though he suppressed the thought almost instantly, he knew he’d have ditched her in an instant if she’d been sick and of no use to him.

  “Well, I’m not sick,” he said. “This is just an allergy. I’m allergic to these… bushes, here. Okay? So wait for me. And don’t run off without me again, hear?”

  She blinked at him in some surprise. “It’s the duty of every strayed follower of the Lord to return to the fold as quickly as possible.”

  “Well, sure,” he said, intrigued by the hint of an Ellay accent in her voice, “but not so hastily that you’re likely not ever to get there at all. One girl alone, why… you wouldn’t get two miles before you’d run into a snake or a punch-bee or a rapist or another couple of pimps.”

  She seemed genuinely puzzled. “But my soul would be in the Lord’s hands. Why should it upset you?”

  He spread his hands and opened his eyes wide to show her how sincere he was. “Because I care what happens to you, that’s why.” She waited while he saddled his horse and got onto the animal by half climbing the tree.

  The girl didn’t speak as they rode slowly down the sunlit street, but she looked vaguely troubled.

  “Didn’t I save you from those two guys who killed your friend?” he reminded her after a couple of minutes.

  “Yes,” she said. Phone poles stood every few hundred feet along the left side of the road, and sun-rotted rope rings dangled from some of the cross pieces, way up there where only birds could get to, and a couple still held yellow sticks of forearm bones. At about every twenty-fifth hoof clop the horses passed through the shadow of another pole. “But…” the girl said after a while, “we aren’t supposed to care about each other that way…. That’s for the shepherds, rescuing is… and even they don’t do it because they care about us but just because the Lord wants us.”

  Rivas glanced at her with some respect. Very good, sister, he thought. You’ve got clear eyes for a birdy chick. She caught his look and smiled uneasily before looking away.

  Rivas let his gaze drift to the buildings in the middle distance ahead, standing out there among the heat shimmers like broken, discolored teeth in green gums, and he let his eyes unfocus so that it all became just blurs of color. As the morning wore on, he wished he’d taken Nigel’s hat as well as his slingshot. The hot sun made it feel as if his fever had spread out from him and infected the whole world, like a spilled beer gradually soaking through a whole book, so that the pages tore or stuck together in clumps, and all continuity was gone. He could remember, if he tried very carefully, who he was, how old he was, and what his purpose was in being here; but during this monotonous southward ride he didn’t need to keep all those things in mind, and so he just rocked with the motion of the horse and, unless something roused his attention, thought about nothing at all.

  Don’t put on the act for me, old boy. I know you hate ’em all, every one of ’em.

  He frowned and focused his eyes. Where had he heard that recently? Who was it that had said that to him? He couldn’t have been sober at the time, or he’d remember. Unless he’d been overpoweringly sleepy…?

  It’s me you love. Me only.

  It was last night. A dream? Yes, of course it had been a dream, a fever-warped one. He tried to remember something more about it, but couldn’t.

  At midmorning he killed two doves with Nigel’s slingshot, and as he was awkwardly butchering them another sentence from his dream came to him. You’re too ashamed to admit it, the voice had said.

  Rivas paused, the bloody knife hovering over one of the half-dismembered birds, and he tried to remember what the dream had been about and who in it had been saying these things to him. Then he remembered seeing something in the dream… a person… himself? Was he looking in a mirror? And why, of all things, did he see himself sucking his thumb?

  He finished butchering the birds, and started a fire by dampening some shredded cloth from his shirt with Currency and then banging together various rocks and bits of scrap metal until some sparks fell on the shreds and ignited the alcohol vapor. Then he spitted the doves and cooked them over a fire of powdery old lumber pieces. His companion didn’t seem surprised when he let her have one of the birds, served with a mock flourish on a Ford hubcap, but she didn’t look pleased either.

  “What’s your name?” Rivas asked her between bites as he leaned back against the big splintered sign that shaded them. He’d whimsically chosen it for their lunching spot because of the archaic message painted on it in big stark letters: ALL CANNIBLES HEREABOUTS CRUCIFYED—NO EXEPTIONS.

  She gnawed a charred breast for a few moments, then said carefully, “Sister Windchime.”

  He smiled. “I like that. I’m Brother—” What, not Pogo, “—Thomas.”

  “It’s nonessential for you to like my name,” she said irritably. Rivas remembered that nonessential was a pretty harsh term of disapproval among Jaybirds. “And why do you have that bottle of money?” she went on.

  “To sterilize wounds and start fires,” he said virtuously. “Why? You don’t think I’d drink it, do you?”

  “How long have you been a follower of the Lord?”

  “I was recruited when I was eighteen,” Rivas told her, truthfully.

  “Huh,” she said. “You can’t have taken the sacrament very often if you’re still walking around at your age.”

  Unable to think of a reply, he just shrugged.

  She leaned back against the sign and pitched the breast bone into the fire. “I don’t—what’s the matter?” she asked, frightened, for he’d leaped to his feet and his face was gray.

  “Uh—” He turned and squinted back the way they’d come. “Nothing. But we’re wasting time. Let’s get moving—if we crank, we can be at the Regroup Tent tonight.”

  He didn’t begin to relax until they were mounted and riding south down a well-preserved highway, and even then he kept glancing back anxiously; for he’d suddenly remembered a little more of his dream and he was pretty sure now that it hadn’t been a dream at all, that he really had been mockingly spoken to, very late last night, while he was feverishly half awake—
spoken to by the hemogoblin whose face was somehow a caricature of his own.

  And he was sure, too, that the glimpse he’d remembered earlier, the glimpse he’d thought was of himself sucking his thumb, had actually been a fevered memory of seeing that thing sucking its sustenance from his self-inflicted knife wound.

  When the sun was near meridian two columns of smoke appeared in the south, and a third began upwardly staining the blue sky within the next half hour. Rivas and Sister Windchime couldn’t hear anything but the grasshoppers and lizards in the dry grass around them, but every time a long straight length of street offered a chance to see some distance, Rivas stood up in the stirrups and peered, trying to see through the mirage ripples and guess whether the troubles ahead—whatever they were, some consequence of the advance of the San Berdoo army, he supposed—would obstruct his progress toward the Regroup Tent.

  After a while the street they’d been following turned sharply to the southwest, and they had to strike out across the fields and flattened housing tracts. Eventually they were fortunate enough to find a southward-snaking dry riverbed, and they rode down the middle of it for almost an hour before noises from ahead made Rivas call to Sister Windchime, softly, “Stop.”

  “What is it?” she asked, already a little nervous herself.

  “I don’t know exactly, but I’m pretty sure it’s people coming this way. Whoever it is, we don’t need ’em. Come on,” he said, quickly hopping out of the saddle to the gravelly dirt, “let’s get up the slope here.”

  Sister Windchime dismounted and they led the horses up the eroded slope. After the first few minutes of dusty scrambling they were in shade among trees, and at the crest of the slope they found a segment of narrow paved road still not quite reclaimed by colonies of tall asphalt-crumbling weeds and the downhill tug of the annual floods.

  “Quiet now,” Rivas whispered. “We’ll just let ’em move on past us and then be on our way again.”

  Over the rustling of the branches around them he could now hear a sort of windy ululation and a faint metallic clatter—but it wasn’t until the first scream raised startled crows from the trees ahead that Rivas realized what must be going on. It’s a band of hooters, he thought.

  Though he’d several times talked to people who’d survived hooter attacks and once or twice come across the remains of people who’d run afoul of them, Rivas had never seen a band of them himself, and he wasn’t eager to. He was glad he and the girl had found concealment, and he hoped everyone down there in the riverbed would be too busy to note the tracks of two horses on the dusty bank.

  Again, and more loudly now, came the eerie fluting sounds, discordant and choppy.

  “It’s hooters, isn’t it?” the girl whispered.

  “Yeah,” he said. More fervently than ever he wished he’d grabbed Nigel’s hat. The shift from motion in sunlight to stillness in shade had got him disoriented again, and thoughts were as hard to hold onto as lively fish in a bait tank. He caught one, and was able to add, “Probably running down some luckless fugitives from the troubles along the coast.”

  Branches framed a segment of the gravel riverbed below, and as the hoarse yells and thudding footsteps and the clatter of bicycles got louder, Rivas kept his eyes on it. Almost unconsciously he had taken out the loaded slingshot and hooked it over his wrist. He felt Sister Windchime’s hand close tightly on his shoulder, but he couldn’t spare her a glance to see what her expression was.

  “What are you going to do?” she whispered.

  “Nothing, don’t worry. This,” he whispered, raising the slingshot, “is just in case they try to come up here.”

  Minutes passed and the sounds grew louder and sweat tickled his forehead and neck. Damn, he thought tensely, why do there have to be all these obstacles? All we want is to get to the Regroup Tent, get back to where we belong, in the hands of the Lord. The affairs of the world are ephemeral, I believe that, and the ways of the Lord are all important, I believe that too—so why must the world’s ways always be so noisy?

  A particularly raw scream erupted only a short distance ahead, and seemed to shake the leaves. Someone was cursing exhaustedly and a child was sobbing.

  “We’ve got to help them,” Sister Windchime whispered.

  Rivas glared sternly at her. “Are you backsliding, sister? Everyone dies, and if they are of the Lord it’s a cause for rejoicing, and if they’re not then their death means less than that of a fly.” Though it’s noisier, he amended. “Perfect yourself before you take it upon yourself to improve the condition of others.”

  Tears glittered in her eyes. “Well, that’s,” she faltered, “that’s all…true, of course, it’s logical… but this”—she waved downward—“this is real.”

  “The world seems real, sister,” he told her gently. “With the cleverness of its illusions it tempts us to participate in them. Why, this show today is probably just a test which the Lord has sent to measure our strength. Be brave and do the right thing.”

  He had turned to look at her, but now a motion below made him snap his head back. A horse had appeared below; a little girl rocked in the saddle and a man was jogging alongside with the side-to-side weaving of total exhaustion. All three creatures were covered with dust and spattered with blood.

  Then a rattling, glittering construction had flashed across his view, and the man fell to his knees with a sob, and coins of bright red blood began rapidly appearing under him and around him on the smooth stones—

  —and in the same instant Sister Windchime put her heels to her horse’s flanks and went avalanching down the slope.

  Rivas, though swearing with fright and rage, was right behind her.

  The cloud of dust they raised in sliding and scrambling down to the riverbed made it hard to see anything, but to his left Rivas heard the skid and clatter of one of the hooter bikes turning around, and he lifted the slingshot and faced that direction. Then he could see the thing through the dust: the two high-wheels that stuck out to the sides at an upward angle looked like the eye-stalks of some big metal insect, and under the cross bar that connected them he could just see the rider, hunched over the pedals; the bike was still leaning way over from its sharp U-turn as it bore down on Rivas, and the starboard high-wheel was spinning from having touched ground.

  Rivas held his arm straight out, and fright made him risk the slingshot’s elastic by drawing the stone all the way back to his mouth. He let fly and then without waiting to see the effect vaulted off his horse and landed in a crouch on the gravel. As he squinted around for Sister Windchime he fitted another stone into the slingshot’s leather pouch, and when he heard quick, rhythmic fluting ahead of him he drew the stone back and peered.

  One of the marauders was off his bike and running forward, whirling his slotted sword over his head to produce the alarming, nearly musical noise, but before Rivas could aim at the man, the bike whose rider he’d shot at careened past between them, leaning all the way over so that its starboard high-wheel was rolling along on the ground and the left one stuck straight up in the air like a dish being spun precariously on top of a pole. The rider was gone. When the bike had rolled on past, Rivas saw the slotted sword glittering as it tumbled away through the air, and the man who’d held it was in the process of sitting down; the seat of his pants hit the gravel only a moment before the back of his head did, and then Rivas saw Sister Windchime—she too was off her horse, and with an expression of horror on her face was straightening up and stepping forward like a pitcher following through after a fast ball.

  The harsh squeak of pebbles grating together made him look to his right. Another of the weird bicycles was racing along a course diagonal to him, its rider pedaling furiously and holding his sword back for a chop at either the girl on the halted horse or Sister Windchime. Both possible victims looked off balance and confused.

  Knowing that he wouldn’t have time to reload and try again, Rivas turned carefully on his heel, tracking the bike and trying to aim at a point a bit ahead of the
rider and wishing he’d spent the day practicing his marksmanship. When he saw that in another moment it would be too late, he let fly, and then yelled with triumph when the rider seemed to dive off the bike; the man tumbled along right beside the riderless bicycle for a few yards, then lagged behind, rolling more slowly over the stones.

  Quickly Rivas crouched and fumbled another stone into the sling, then tensely turned all the way around, scanning both banks and the riverbed in both directions, and while he was doing that he heard the first bike roll to a stop fifty yards away, and a moment later heard the second one crash janglingly into the bank. He saw the three sprawled hooters, and Sister Windchime, and the girl, still on her horse, and the man still kneeling beside it… and there didn’t seem to be anyone else. Rivas straightened and let the slingshot’s elastic relax, and the wind that was sweeping the kicked-up dust away was suddenly cool on his sweaty face and chest.

  He tucked the slingshot back into his belt and trudged over to the kneeling man, who had begun yanking at the tail of his own shirt, presumably trying to make a bandage for the jagged, energetically bleeding gash in his upper arm.

  “Here,” croaked Rivas, then got control of his voice and went on, “let me get that with a knife.”

  “Thanks,” the man whispered.

  As he ripped Lollypop’s knife through the cloth, Rivas looked up at the little girl on the horse. She was staring off into the distance with a half frown, as if trying to remember where she’d left something. He decided that there was nothing to be gained by speaking to her and focusing her attention. He’d cut a wide strip of cloth free and was knotting it around the man’s arm when Sister Windchime gave a little startled scream.

  “This one’s still alive, brother!” she called fearfully.

  Rivas gripped the knife more firmly and looked up. The second man he’d shot had rolled up onto his hands and knees and was coughing a lot of blood out onto the stones. The line of his profile seemed too straight from forehead to chin, and it occurred to Rivas that the front of the man’s face, including his entire nose, was gone. Rivas stood up and walked over to the nearest sword, picked it up and looked at the other two fallen marauders. The first one he’d shot at was lying somewhat bunched-looking against a rock, and had pretty clearly suffered a fatal injury of the spine; the man Sister Windchime had flung a rock at was staring wide-eyed and unblinking straight into the sun, and Rivas felt safe in ignoring him too for now. He approached the crouching, retching one.

 
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