Dinner at deviants palac.., p.23
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       Dinner at Deviant's Palace, p.23

           Tim Powers
 
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  From overhead he heard a windy sighing, and looking up he saw the wooden gargoyles he’d once heard described. They were writhing and stretching out splintery arms and rolling their heads. Rivas had been told that when the things cried out it was with human voices, but tonight it was just a whispery roaring that he heard, like the voices of the trash men in Irvine.

  Through the open doors he could see a carpeted hallway. He shrugged and stepped inside.

  In a loop of a canal a few hundred feet from the structure, ripples spread as a corpse drained of blood floated to the surface.

  That’s a little better, thought the thing under the water. I can think a little more clearly now. So he thinks he can lose me by going into that place, does he? Think again, Gregorio.

  It swam closer, already faintly uncomfortable with the burning and itching, in spite of the shielding water around it. He knows I hate these places, it thought. That’s why he keeps going to them. But once I’ve got him, we’ll go where I want to go.

  It looked back and up at the floating corpse, wishing the old drunk had had more vitality. That’s what I need, it thought. If I could drain somebody strong, then I could become so strong myself, and solid, that I could simply beat Rivas into submission.

  The thing shivered with pleasure at the thought.

  Well, it told itself, get moving. You don’t want Rivas to die before you can catch up to him. It kicked its froggy feet and swam toward one of the arches in the wall of Deviant’s Palace.

  Another hooded figure approached Rivas as soon as he’d entered the low hall.

  “We meet again, Mister Rivas!” came a woman’s voice from inside the cowl. “The Lord will be pleased that you could attend on such short notice.” The hood was flung back and Sister Sue smiled crazily at him. “You should be flattered,” she said. “He nearly never troubles himself to invite anyone. Generally he just lets them drift west.”

  Rivas had managed to control, and, he hoped, conceal, his instant impulse to run. Right at the moment, he told himself firmly, there are many more dire things to fear than this girl. “Well hello, Sister Sue,” he said, deciding he might as well enter into the spirit of the evening. “Uh… what an unexpected pleasure.”

  With a clever but completely unconvincing imitation of vivacity she took his arm and led him up the hall. “During our brief acquaintance,” she said, “I’ve gathered that you’re fond of music and drink.” The former, as you perceive, is provided.” Evidently she meant the two-tone hum. “Might we furnish you with some of the latter?”

  All at once the whole awkwardly stilted pretense, from the calligraphic invitation to Sister Sue’s nearly impenetrable imitation of high society speech, made Rivas vaguely sick. “Yes, thanks,” he said tiredly. “Tequila neat, please.” At least the offer of a drink was an indication that they didn’t intend to hit him with the sacrament. The smell of the sea seemed to be even stronger inside the building.

  She led him down the hall to a flight of stairs and down these to a beautifully tiled but lopsided arch, and simultaneously a drink was put into his hand and he stepped through the arch.

  He nearly dropped the glass. He was standing on a sort of dock at the bottom of a vast cathedral of a chamber, and he almost thought he was outside again because of the damp chill and a faint mist that made the ceiling hard to see. Colored lamps dangling on long chains set the mist aglow and cast highlights on the broad and apparently deep pool that was most of the floor. Wide tiers with tables and chairs on them ringed the ascending walls at uneven intervals, and bridges spanned the gulf in several places. The arch Rivas had walked out through was the smallest of at least a dozen that ringed the chamber, and with a thrill of panic Rivas realized that the whole place looked inadequately supported—the tiers, the bridges, the vast expanses of inward-sloping stone far above his head; the structure, it seemed to Rivas, needed many more pillars.

  Big polygonal rafts drifted on the surface of the lagoon like leaves on a pond, and as Rivas’s eyes grew accustomed to the soaring volume of the place and able to focus on smaller things, he saw that there were chairs and a table and candles, and in most cases a party of diners, on each raft. Waiters in little gondolas sculled among them, occasionally raising waves and drawing curses from the diners.

  One raft held steady, perhaps anchored, way out in the middle of the lagoon, and instead of a table it had a ring of holes cut in it. All the holes were empty except the bigger central one, in which bobbed something that Rivas thought was a leather beanbag chair. The smell on the chilly air, he noticed, was the same one he’d encountered in Irvine—a mix of fish and garbage.

  Sister Sue rang a bell mounted on the arch beside them, and though the silvery note wasn’t loud, conversation stopped at all the tables. The monotonous singing stopped too, and the thing Rivas had thought was a beanbag chair straightened up, revealing itself to be the unsubmerged top half of a man—bald, brown, and fatter than Rivas would have thought a person could get.

  “Mister Rivas,” came a glutinous whisper that echoed among the canal arches. “So good of you to come.” And Rivas realized that this must be his host, Norton Jaybush himself, Lord of Irvine and Venice,

  Rivas remembered the drink in his hand, and took a sip of it. It was tequila all right, and the peppery bite of it was reassuring, evidence that a sane world did still exist somewhere outside. “Mister Jaybush, I think,” he said loudly; but when his voice echoed back at him he realized that he could speak in a conversational tone and still be heard throughout the enormous chamber—evidently the place had been built with acoustics in mind. “Or should I say Mister Sevatividam? High time we met.” Cool, he thought with some cautious satisfaction. Very cool.

  One of the gondolas swept up to the dock, and the boatman’s pole flexed as he brought the boat to a halt. With a smile, Rivas solicitously took Sister Sue’s elbow as if to help her aboard, but she smiled back—with such joyful malice that his smile became a wince—and said, “You first, brother.”

  The boatman held the gondola steady while Rivas maneuvered himself and his drink into it, and then Sister Sue swung in behind him. She prodded his back with something hard, and said cheerfully, “The Lord wants you alive, so I won’t shoot to kill—but if you want to mess around, I’ll be happy to ruin your elbow.”

  “I’m sure it’d get you all excited,” Rivas agreed.

  Again the gondolier flexed the long pole against the pool wall, and the little boat surged smoothly out onto the face of the water. They passed a raft of diners, and Rivas glanced at them curiously. They were an oddly mixed lot—some were just filthy Blood freaks that somebody had dressed up in tinfoil hats and red monkey jackets, but others had the narrow faces and elegant dinner clothes of aristocracy—but for some reason the faces of all the alert ones wore expressions of alarm as they returned Rivas’s stare.

  Though he was keeping his face twisted in a smile that he hoped looked more confident than nervous, he was estimating how many ways there might be to get out of here. Somehow the idea of drawing his knife and using Jaybush as a hostage didn’t seem feasible; the man was far too fat to be moved readily, and touching him would probably subject one to an unsought dose of the sacrament. Sue, and no doubt others too, had guns, so swimming back to the dock entrance was out. But these arches obviously connected this lagoon to the canals outside. It might be possible to swim out through one of them.

  And in through one of the eastern arches a thing came swimming, several yards under the water’s surface, its big eyes peering at the wobbling patches of light overhead. It paused, its head turning on its stalk neck as it scanned the many rafts up there.

  The gondola was nearing Jaybush’s raft, and Rivas reluctantly met the gaze of his host. The man’s eyes were nearly hidden in folds of fat, but Rivas could see mild humor in them, as though Jaybush was finding tonight’s proceedings tolerably amusing. A parent attending a school play, thought Rivas.

  “You’ve learned some things, sir,” Jaybush rumbled. “But
be careful. Knowledge is a toxin. Why, just the fact of your having spoken my true name means that quite a number of these people must die tonight.” A smile widened the huge pumpkin head as Jaybush looked around at the many rafts. Rivas was a little surprised that none of the diners did anything more than look unhappy at this hews.

  The gondola bumped up alongside the raft. “Out you go, brother,” said Sister Sue.

  Rivas finished his drink, leaned out and set the glass down on the wooden surface of the raft, and then managed to follow it without falling into the water. He crouched awkwardly on the raft, hoping that everyone couldn’t see how it made him tremble to be this close to the thing called Jaybush.

  There was, he could see now, a submerged chair hung below each of the round holes cut in Jaybush’s raft. “Do please be seated,” his host told him.

  “Uh… right. Thanks.” Rivas lowered himself into one, now feeling ridiculous as well as scared. The water was cold.

  Sister Sue climbed out of the gondola with effortless agility and slithered into another hole across the raft from him. Her smile was as sunny as ever, and she held an automatic pistol with relaxed familiarity.

  Jaybush, bobbing in the big central hole like some disagreeable centerpiece, beamed at him. “Well!” said the Messiah. “As you say, it is high time we met. I believe, in fact, sir, that you know me better than anyone else does. A number of people have taken both Blood and the sacrament, but you are the very first, I believe, to have developed procedures to shield yourself from their effects! Even in,” he paused to wink ponderously, “other places, no one ever attained the insight into my nature that you have.”

  Rivas grinned unhappily, for he’d just recognized an important reason for his having accepted the invitation—to show off. He had wanted to let this interstellar limpet eel know that he had indeed learned its secrets. If he had simply ignored the invitation and gone back to Ellay, not only would Uri be doomed, but Sevatividam would think Rivas hadn’t been bright enough to figure the invitation out.

  “Do you see the men with rifles on the small rafts around the pool’s periphery?” Jaybush went on. “They are, like the jaybush you encountered at the Cerritos Stadium, deaf. Not for the same reason, but just so that, in case the very direst sort of secrets are revealed here tonight, requiring the deaths of all hearers except myself and conceivably you, I won’t be left unattended.” He caught Rivas’s glance at Sister Sue. “Yes, my boy,” Jaybush said, “even our dear Sister Sue will have to die if certain things are spoken aloud.”

  Sister Sue’s smile didn’t falter.

  Rivas discovered that he was not tempted to shout, for example, He’s a psychic vampire from outer space!… and he thought he caught a glint of surprise in her eyes.

  “And,” said Jaybush, “since you have learned such an unprecedented amount about me, I’m going to make an unprecedented offer to you.” He was smiling—everybody at the table was smiling—and Rivas couldn’t tell if he really did have some kind of offer to make or was simply playing with him. God, the man was fat! “I want you to join me,” Jaybush said.

  “Merge with the Lord?” Rivas asked drily.

  “No, not merge with—link with. I’m sure you’ve often seen people with undeveloped twins attached to or imbedded in their bodies. I’m offering you the opportunity to become such an appendage—psychic rather than physical, of course—to me.” He chuckled. “And another five or six of our guests have become dead people.”

  Several of the guests called for drinks, and Rivas raised his hand, too. “Why don’t we let the remaining people go?” he asked, wishing he’d thought of it before.

  “How many of you would like to leave?” Jaybush asked. No one spoke and no hands were raised. He waited until Rivas’s fresh tequila was brought, then said, “How does my offer sound?”

  Rivas took a long thoughtful sip. “Let’s see,” he said finally. “It sounds insincere, impossible, and definitely, absolutely unattractive.”

  There were gasps from the surrounding rafts, and even Sister Sue looked a little shocked.

  Jaybush, though, just laughed good-naturedly, the fruity ho-ho-ho echoing away into the upper reaches of the huge chamber, where other imperiled guests peered down from the high tiers and bridges. “Ah. Well, I’ll explain it to you more fully—to the further decimation of our guests—over dinner, eh?”

  That must have been a cue, for a waiter now piloted a gondola up to the raft and deftly laid big plastic-sealed menus in front of Sister Sue, Rivas, Jaybush and two of the presently empty holes. Rivas looked at Jaybush and cocked an eyebrow.

  “Ah, my dear fellow,” Jaybush said, “you and Sister Sue being old friends, I was beginning to feel left out! So there will be some feminine company for myself, too—and since there’s so much of me, heh heh heh, I get two girls.”

  Rivas’s instant suspicion was confirmed when he looked beyond the grinning Messiah. A bigger gondola was being sculled toward Jaybush’s dining raft, and the two women passengers were Sister Windchime and—though he had to squint and wait until it got closer to be sure—Urania Barrows. Uri had obviously been weeping recently; Sister Windchime looked paler and more drawn than she had when she and Rivas had ridden together to the Regroup Tent, but her mouth was a firm, straight line.

  “Ah, but I see you know these young ladies also! You do get around, don’t you, sir?” Jaybush leaned back and indulged in a fit of laughter that set his corpulent body jiggling like a rack of carne asada on a windy day in the meat market.

  “Why are they here,” Rivas asked in a voice he managed to keep even.

  “Simply to brighten the conversation,” said Jaybush, spreading his palms ingenuously, “and to serve as examples and illustrations in a story or two I might tell.”

  When their gondola stopped beside the raft the gondolier whispered to the two women, and Sister Windchime climbed across and settled into one of the vacant holes, but Uri shook her head and fresh tears ran down her cheeks.

  “Please,” she said brokenly, “couldn’t I just go back to the—”

  The boatman touched the back of her neck, and she gasped in sudden pain and then climbed obediently onto the raft and, with a splash that wetted her four raft mates, seated herself.

  Rivas’s left hand had gone to his right sleeve before he remembered that he’d transferred his knife to the improvised pocket under his collar; and now the boatman was poling his craft away and all Rivas could do was clench his jaws together very hard.

  “There we are,” said Jaybush fondly. He picked up his menu and then glanced around with raised eyebrows, so the others, even Uri, did the same.

  Rivas was not surprised to see, when he glanced at the menu, that Deviant’s Palace specialized in the more outré forms of Venetian dining.

  “I think,” said Jaybush to the waiter, who had been holding his little boat steady since presenting the menus, “that I’ll have the sport bass livers in film-darkening sauce. Though,” he added genially to the others, “I don’t think I’d recommend such hot food for the rest of you.” He turned to Sister Sue.

  “Un plato de legumbres,” she said, handing her menu to the waiter.

  Sister Windchime had been studying the menu, and Rivas realized that she could read—like her horseback riding, it was not a common skill. “Y para mi la gallena en mole, por favor,” she said.

  Uri was blinking around unhappily. Clearly she hadn’t recognized Rivas. “I don’t know,” she quavered; “I guess a couple of tacos. Soft shell, and with extra cheese but no salsa.” And it occurred to Rivas that he couldn’t remember whether Uri knew how to read or not.

  It was his turn. May as well get something good, he thought, since it’s probably my last meal. “Let’s see,” he said, raising one eyebrow like an actor trying to look judicious. The incongruity of the whole scene—the possibly naked fat man in front of him, the underwater chairs, the handsomely printed menus, the formal clothes and tinfoil hats of the diners on the other rafts, the prospect of eating
poisonous food with the finest spices and sauces—made him want to giggle hysterically. “I’d like the camarones al diablo, please.”

  “Ah, sir,” said the waiter with a regretful smile, “that is available only with sport shrimp.” He held up his hands to show how big the sport shrimp were.

  “Fine,” said Rivas with an airy wave. “And with that, a couple of bottles of Dos Equis.”

  “And a bottle of Santa Barbara Riesling for the ladies,” added Jaybush, “and for myself and the gentleman a bottle of tequila and a pitcher of sangrita.”

  The man nodded, collected the rest of the menus and poled the gondola away.

  “Though I didn’t know what it was at the time,” remarked Jaybush to Rivas, “I could feel you participating in my memories when you used agony to clarify and disarm your inadvertent dose of Blood.” He pointed his finger at a couple of guests in turn, his thumb vertical and bending as he said, “Bang, bang.” Turning back to Rivas he went on, “So I think you’ll understand what I’m about to say. I have found knowledge in this place—technology—which, though presently neglected and disordered, leads me to believe that the shedding of the host body and the expenditure of personal energy involved in… leaving a place, can be avoided. You see? I’m convinced that it’s possible to preserve the body, to construct a machine to shelter it and carry it to… the next place.”

  Rivas just managed to restrain himself from saying, Space travel! Instead he just nodded.

  “You understand what I mean,” said Jaybush with an approving nod. “And if you happened to glance southeast during your trek through the Holy City’s back yard, you probably saw my Cape Canaveral. Bang! Bang! Bang! And I know you’ve had conversations with one of the inadvertent castings known as… well, you know what I mean. And you know the healing and recuperative powers it has, through me. So you see what I’m offering you, dear boy, is immortality, and unimaginable travel, and more knowledge than any entity other than myself has ever had!”

  Rivas took another sip of his drink, and shook his head more in wonder than refusal. “Perhaps I,” he said slowly, “withdraw the ‘impossible.’ Let’s look at the ‘insincere.’ Why me? What’s in it for you?”

 
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