During an afternoon hunt, Khutulun spotted the soldiers, their metal headdresses and garments gleaming in the sunlight, riding giant lizards toward the city known as Amphissa Nova.
Large and strange as the beasts were, Khutulun felt a sharp stab of homesickness as she gazed at them. It had been a long time since she'd seen anyone riding an animal for transportation, and even longer since she'd ridden one herself.
Not that this was surprising. She'd rebelled against the Vanguard and failed. The humiliation of being forced to walk everywhere—she, Kublai Khan's niece, the one-time owner of ten thousand horses!—was part of her punishment. Oh, the Vanguard had told her that when she felt deep remorse for even wishing to harm them, let alone causing them harm, they would give her a beast to ride again and a wide, windy steppe on which to gallop. But she had known—as they had not—that she could no more repent of battling her captors than she could repent of breathing.
The members of her...what to call them? Her tribe? Her army? Whatever they were, they weren't repentant either.
Lying in the tall grass of the open plain a few miles from Amphissa Nova, Khutulun gazed at the beasts the metal-clad men were riding. They certainly didn't resemble the feathered lizards she was hunting, which weren't much taller than a babe who was just learning how to walk and were no brighter than a duck or goose. No, these creatures looked as if they were covered in rock. Some had spikes of stone up and down their backs, which made Khutulun wonder how any man could ride such a beast astride; it seemed a painful choice. Other creatures had three dagger-like horns on their faces and huge collars of bone covering their entire necks. Khutulun wondered bitterly if the Vanguard had designed the creatures that way to make them both deadlier and harder to kill. It would be like them.
One of the soldiers was riding ahead of the others on the furry back of what looked like an unpleasantly large bat with a bird's beak. He alternated between shouting down to the others and signaling them with a red banner. At least, Khutulun deduced that the flapping of the banner meant something, because whenever it moved, the men shouted and pointed in the direction of the city. So much for stealth and subtlety. But then again, with their metal clothes and their stone-and-leather lizards, perhaps they don't feel that they need either.
The army marched on for a long time, but Khutulun remained hidden in the grass until all of the creatures, even the gigantic bat, had vanished beyond the horizon. Only then did she head back in the direction of her own camp, pausing only to check the few snares she'd set before the army had appeared. It was what passed for night on this planet before she returned to her own campfire, a night in which the sky was filled, not with stars, but with a glowing mist the color of fresh blood.
Hypatia was huddled near the campfire when Khutulun approached. She didn't look away from the fire—Hypatia never did, at night—but as her left arm flung a twisted dagger at Khutulun's feet, the other tightened on something unseen. Khutulun, with the experience of long practice, dove to one side, dodging the dozens of spears and arrows fired at her by Hypatia's doúli, her servants of metal.
Hypatia was not a violent person by day, but nights on this planet were bad. The Vanguard had a knack for finding people at the end of their lives—or even after—and restoring them to youth, health and life. In most cases, that wasn't too bad. Khutulun had died in her mid-forties during a war of succession with her rebellious brothers, who didn't care that their father had named her Khan. While the war itself had been unnecessary, dying in battle was the best that a Mongol could hope for.
Could have hoped for. Thousands of years had passed between her death and her resurrection. She had to remember that.
Princess Pingyang had died around twenty-four or twenty-five of a sudden illness; she never spoke of that memory, save to say that life and health were better than the alternative. The pasty-pale woman called both George and Aurore had died at seventy-one, presumably because she was seventy-one. Khutulun had heard no complaints from her about being resurrected and placed in a much younger body that had all of her old memories.
But Hypatia of Alexandria—not Greek, despite her name, but a small Egyptian woman with many dark braids and shadowed eyes--had been murdered. A mob, led by a political rival, had dragged her out of her chariot, physically ripped her apart, hacked what remained to pieces and burned the wreckage outside the walls of her city.
And she remembered every minute of it.
Not the horror that had occurred after her death, though Khutulun had the feeling that this was no more than an accident. The Vanguard had odd ideas about what they thought their human toys should recall. But Hypatia remembered, with dreadful clarity, having her limbs and organs torn from her body, though she rarely spoke it while she was awake. Most of what the others had learned had emerged over months on this planet: her fear and hatred of the blood-red night sky of their prison, to the point of refusing to look at it; her revulsion at being touched; her habit of sleeping curled in on herself, her arms wrapped tightly around her chest; and her nightmares, punctuated by screams of inhuman pain.
Khutulun and the others did their best to accommodate Hypatia, appointing her cook and healer so that, between preparing food and preparing elixirs and ointments, she'd have an excuse for remaining near the fire at night. They refrained from touching her. Most of all, they--well, Khutulun and Pingyang, as George had no love of this idea--encouraged her to attack, silently and without warning, anyone and anything approaching their camp.
Princess Pingyang, the firelight casting a yellowish-orange glow on her bald head, had told Hypatia this in three short sentences after their first night on this world. "It will keep us alert. It will help keep you safe. And it will make you feel better, knowing that you can fight back."
Looking at the astonished relief in Hypatia's expression, Khutulun had rarely felt so thankful for the universal translators embedded in their throats and ears. Imagine being imprisoned here with three people whose languages were so different that you would never be able to speak to them as long you lived.
But there were inconveniences--like having to battle metal servants every time that you returned from a hunt and approached the campfire.
"Adelfi i," she called out in the gentlest tone she could manage...which, since she'd spent most of her life as a warrior woman who intimidated potential suitors by beating them at wrestling, wasn't very gentle. "Sister. I'm back from the hunt."
There was a long, long pause. Then Hypatia relaxed, squeezing her right hand tight again. As the doúli—which looked like the unholy coupling of sausages and spiders—scurried forward to reclaim the spears and arrows that they'd shot at Khutulun, Hypatia spoke in a soft, somewhat detached voice. "You're late. Did you find anything?"
"Three goose-lizards," Khutulun said, handing them to her. There was no blood on them today, so she could do that. "Two for the fire, and one for you."
Again, it was an accommodation, for Hypatia and George—neither of whom had been soldiers before the Vanguard appeared—tended to be uneasy about eating such strange food that might be dangerous. It had been a long battle, but eventually, Khutulun and Pingyang had agreed to provide Hypatia with dead animals to dissect and live animals to feed plants and meat that they weren't sure about. Khutulun had grumbled loudly about the waste of food...at least until Hypatia had discovered that fully half the animals and plants on this planet were poisonous to humans. One more detail that the Vanguard hadn't expected them to figure out.
"Good. I could use some fresh ingredients for potions." Hypatia studied her face. "Something has happened. What is it?"
"I'll tell all of you over dinner, for it's a tale worth telling." And much better to tell all of them at once than the most fragile member of the team first. "Maybe our bard can even get a song out of it."
Hypatia said nothing...but she gave Khutulun a sharp sliver of a smile.
As each of them munched on a goose-lizard wing or drumstick, Khutulun told the tale of the invading armies and their wondrous beasts. "They were not moving swiftly," she admitted, "but that scarcely matters, given the size and strength of the beasts they were riding."
"I wish I'd seen the flying dragon," George said, a faraway expression lighting her eyes. "Even if it didn't look like a dragon."
"You'll likely get the chance," Hypatia replied, gazing at the fire and stirring a lopsided pot of stewed fruit.
"Four women are hardly an army," Princess Pingyang said reprovingly. "As little as I like it, I fear that the people of Amphissa Nova are on their own. At least they have the strength of numbers—and solid walls."
"At least until the dragon flies over them," George said, frowning. "How easy would it be for the beast to fly above the city and the scout to drop into a tree or onto a ledge?"
"Not that easy," Khutulun said, taking a long draught of the black, bitter beverage Hypatia brewed from boiled herbs. "The soldiers are wearing metal clothing."
"The scout might not be," Princess Pingyang replied. As she dipped her goose-lizard wing into her clay bowl of stewed fruit, she looked thoughtful. "It is difficult to convince the enemy that you are not prepared for war when you are armed and armored."
"Are you sure the scout was a man?" Hypatia said, still staring into the fire. Her voice was uncurious; she might have been asking if anyone wanted more flatbread.
Khutulun shrugged. "The creature was flying too high for me to see more than the shadow of a person on its back. A human-shaped person," she added, because the Vanguard and a great many of their forces were distinctly alien. Humans only existed out here because the Vanguard found humans—whether as individuals or in different cultures—endlessly amusing. As a result, humans were almost always the descendants of those kidnapped from Earth and abandoned on alien worlds to see what they would do, rebels or their descendants, or the resurrected, like themselves. The resurrected and the rebels, however, were rarely allowed much in the way of weaponry or large populations. The Vanguard believed in keeping their enemies small and weak. "Why does it matter if their scout is a man or a woman?"
Hypatia didn't answer for a few minutes. Then, poking at the fire with a stick, she spoke.
"Before I found the three of you…after the…This happened after I told them I wouldn't help them."
Khutulun nodded a trifle impatiently. Theirs had been the least organized rebellion in history, chiefly because, by human standards, it hadn't been a civil war or even a moment of mob rule. Each of them had been asked to put her own particular talents at the service of the Vanguard—in exchange for what they most wanted. They'd promised her freedom—just as though those who had a valuable captive would willingly let her go.
She'd cursed them in the names of her fathers and by the blood of her mothers. Then she'd spat in their eyeless, tentacle-covered faces.
Khutulun had no idea what they'd offered the others. George had said that she had met the Devil and therefore no longer feared him. Then she had asked Princess Pingyang what she had done when the Vanguard made their offer.
The princess had lifted her head. "They tried to convince me to forget my family, my country and my honor." A long pause. "That was a mistake." And that was all she would say about it.
Hypatia had never spoken of that time…until now.
"After they'd abandoned us here for defying them," she said, her face expressionless, her voice tense, "I wandered for a long time. I didn't look for anyone else. I didn't know there was anyone else. I half-thought that I was…was still in Alexandria, on—that day. I thought the...the pain had driven me mad. Well. Madder.
"I don't know how I lived. I couldn't sleep in the red light. For a long time, I didn't eat until famine drove me to it. I barely drank the water I found. I was in a prison, after all. The wardens had no reason to be kind. I did not think they would kill me, though, not after—after all the effort of…restoring me. I thought that they would let this world take me apart, and then come and collect the broken thing that was left."
Khutulun exchanged unhappy glances with Pingyang and George. She wished that she could say something both true and reassuring, and she was sure that the others felt the same. Unfortunately, the Vanguard was more than capable of doing what Hypatia had feared…and they all knew it.
"And then one day," Hypatia said, lifting her gaze from the fire to each of the other three in turn, "I found the city. Amphissa Nova. It didn't resemble Alexandria, for which I was grateful. And its gates were open."
"Weren't you told not to enter that city?" George asked. "Because I found it at one point, and I tried to enter. But the closer I got to the gates, the more terrified I became. I knew that I needed to enter, that I could find food and medicine there…but I couldn't. I turned to jelly inside just thinking about it. Finally, I couldn't control the panic any longer, and I bolted like a scalded cat."
"I could not make myself enter," Pingyang said, scowling. "The city stank of disease, demons and death."
"For me," confessed Khutulun, "the very walls seemed to be made dead and dying horses, while the air was thick with the buzzing of flies."
Walls made of her dead and dying tribesmen would have frightened her far less; that merely would have told her that the residents of the city were insane, for they had dared to slaughter the forces of herself and her uncle. Khutulun knew about vengeance, and she knew how to make it count. But the dead and dying horses had said: Your numbers, your weapons, even the beasts that rank so high in your esteem are nothing to us. Your power and skill are worthless. We will use everything you have against you. Go. Now. Task us no more, or we will crush you like the flea that you are.
"So that was why I never saw any of you there," Hypatia murmured, gazing at the fire once again. "I did wonder, once I met you. I was there for nearly three years, as they count time. "
"Three years?" George stared at her in obvious disbelief. "But how did you force yourself to go in? And stay in? Didn't you see anything?"
"I often see things." This was said in a flat monotone that warned George not to pursue this line of questioning. "But I was starving, sick, and had last swallowed a mouthful of water from a mud puddle. If I was going to survive, I needed people…even though the only thing I wanted to do was flee in the opposite direction." An eerie smile fluttered across her face for a moment. "I was weary of fear—and angry at it, too.
"I did not get far. The guards seized me—I suppose they wanted to evict me in case I was ill with some pestilence—and I tried to lash out." As the orange light from the flames danced over her face, she poked the fire with a stick. "I passed out instead.
"I was ill for a long time, but the women of the city were…kind." Hypatia said this as if kindness from city dwellers was not only unexpected but impossible. "When I could remain conscious long enough to have a conversation and remember it, I asked a few questions. I've told you some of their answers—the name of the city, for example. And how proud they were of being good Romans. I didn't tell them that the original Amphissa was in Greece."
This meant nothing to Khutulun, who exchanged perplexed looks with Pingyang.
"It's something on the level of saying that, because the Chinese and the Mongols come from roughly the same region, they are also the same people," murmured George. "Though I don't suppose the Vanguard cared. I take it that the founders of the city on this world were Roman?"
Hypatia nodded. "All women. And plucked from their time, as we were. They were given but one advantage by the Vanguard…most likely because the creatures thought that they'd never understand how to make it work, and that their failure would be—amusing." She glanced at her metal doúli, now inert, encircling the fire. "They—we—proved more capable than the Vanguard had hoped. Though if they hadn't, the first generation would have been the last. There isn't a man or boy in the entire city."
"That is impossible," said Pingyang, the shadows from the fire playing over her I-disapprove-of-illogic expression to make her look, momentarily, less like an elegant, bald princess and more like an irate hawk. "How would they have children?"
Hypatia shrugged. "When a married pair wished to have children, they went to the operator of a special machine. The machine would take some very small bits of them—less than in a flake of skin—split the bits, and then splice them back together in a way that could make a healthy girl-child. I never understood more than that, and I tried! But they took it very much as a matter of course; how else, they asked me, could a woman conceive a child?"
There was a long silence in which Khutulun, Pingyang and George tried to wrap their minds around this concept. Pingyang was the first to break it. "If they can do that, then horned beasts in armor and men riding giant bats will surely be no threat to them. That—that enchantment that bars their gates will surely turn away the entire army, even the scout."
Khutulun wondered if she was the only one who heard that touch of disappointment in the princess's voice.
Hypatia shook her head. "They have never cared much for inventions of war. They prefer to scare enemies away rather than destroy them. Their soldiers double as the City Watch—which means, as there's little crime, that the soldiers get little practice. They aren't ready for the kind of army that Khutulun described."
A conquering army. No need to wonder who had bidden the soldiers to march on Amphissa, either. Pitting an all-male army equipped with weapons and wondrous beasts against an all-female city with machines and inventions that gods could not dream of…that was meat and milk to the Vanguard.
And some of them would be on the planet by now as well, relaying the news of the oh-so-entertaining incipient war to their fellows on ships and bases scattered amongst the stars.
People were about to die…for the amusement of monsters.
Killing rage flowed through Khutulun's veins, and she opened her mouth to say, We have to stop this. But Hypatia spoke first.
"I wish it weren't spring."
"What difference does that make?" Khutulun shouted. "Are we going to sit about like infants and grandmothers, too weak to think of stopping such butchery, or are we women—and well-armed with brains?"
"It makes a difference." Hypatia's tone was as dead as before, but now each word seemed weighted with iron. "Listen. Each spring, for three weeks after the first planting of grapevines, and each autumn, for three weeks after the harvest, there are festivals honoring their goddess, Dionisia. The women go out of the city in waves, singing and dancing, to give themselves to the goddess. To them, this is like breathing. They can't understand why anyone would refuse." Revulsion flickered over her face; she swallowed several times, and then continued. "And during those weeks…every gate to the city is open and all the machine-spells of fear are banished. Everything is focused on the goddess and those honoring her. Everything."
And it was time for that now. It had to be. The Vanguard had given the machines to the Amphissan women as a joke, but the women had figured out how the machines worked. They had taught Hypatia. They could probably build new machines if the old ones vanished. The Vanguard didn't like the way this particular "experiment" was going. Yet, at the same time, they couldn't smash Amphissa Nova without risking a second rebellion.
So they weren't smashing it…directly. They had aimed another "experiment" at the women's city, trusting it to destroy everything—or at least everything important. And now…now they were probably just standing back and waiting for the humans to destroy each other.
Judging by the mask-like fury of Hypatia's face, the cold determination in Pingyang's and the passionate outrage in George's, they found this no more acceptable than Khutulun herself did.
Pingyang stood up and brushed herself off. "I regret that we will have to travel by night," she said softly. "But we will have to move as fast as we can if we mean to reach the city before the army does and stop a pointless war."
Three days later in Amphissa Nova, D. Rutilia Lupa was standing in the city observatory bidding farewell to her best friend and sometime lover, C. Aemilia Mamerca.
They were a picture of opposites. The first, who would have been attractive but for a promontory of a nose, was clad in a bluish-green stola with an off-white garment over it that resembled a cross between a tunic and an apron, her dark brown hair upswept and efficiently bound with thin yellow woolen bands, the very model of businesslike order. The second, clad in a gown of diaphanous white, garlands of wildflowers woven into a waist-long fall of riotously curly black hair, might have been a nymph who had danced out of a temple fresco.
"You could come with me to the Grove. It would do you more good than staying in this stuffy old observatory. Please, Decima?"
Decima shook her head. "You forget, Gaia. I went when the festival began. I've honored Dionisia. And now it's time to return to work."
Gaia's eyes were beginning to gleam with the feverish excitement that always filled Dionisia's followers, sooner or later. "Oh, yes, you celebrated—because it was your duty to do so! Dionisia demands more than duty, Decima—she demands wildness! Freedom!"
If she does not get to the Grove soon, Decima thought, we will be honoring the goddess on the observatory floor. And how I would explain that to my colleagues is anyone's guess.
"Perhaps when you return from the festival, I can attempt some wildness with you," she said aloud, smiling."I have little skill in being free with just anyone, you know that." Or at least you do when the spirit of the goddess isn't running through your veins.
"Stubborn," Gaia scolded, but a teasing note crept into her voice as she did so. "So relentlessly orderly."
Shrugging, Decima smiled back. "I am as Dionisia and her sisters made me. Presumably, they knew what they were doing; as the proverb says, 'someone must bake the bread ere it's served.' And you should go if you wish to reach the Grove before all the wine is drunk."
"As if anyone would run out of wine at a wine festival," scoffed Gaia. "You'll talk of us running out of forest next! You just want me to be gone so that you can fling yourself into the arms of your calculations and equations. Until I met you, I never knew that astronomy could be such a demanding mistress."
Decima chuckled, then strode over to the doorway, tipped Gaia's head back for a moment and kissed her lightly on the lips. "Yes. I love you too. Go enjoy yourself; I'll be here when you get back."
Gaia gazed up at her, the goddess-fever in her eyes dimming a fraction. "It would be more fun if you came with me." She sounded almost wistful.
It would—and it wouldn't. Decima wasn't good at orgies, even goddess-ordained ones. If she made a concerted effort, she could join in, but she never felt comfortable in doing so. Gaia, on the other hand, reveled in religious ecstasy. She wouldn't understand such reluctance any more than she'd comprehend Decima's expression of suppressed rage when Gaia flung herself into the arms of another woman. Or two. Or three.
Assuming that Gaia, in that state, noticed Decima's jealousy at all.
Not the sort of thing she wanted to discuss with a woman who was, at the moment, three-quarters Maenad.
"Enjoy yourself," she repeated. Though not too much. "I'll see you in a few days. Do you think you can find the lifting room from here?"
Gaia bit her lip. "Um."
Decima was not surprised. It was hard to think rationally when in the goddess's grip; remembering where machinery was and what it was for was a huge part of that. Even she had trouble during the festivals, at least until she celebrated in the Grove. One more reason for getting the celebration over with as soon as possible, as far as she was concerned; she disliked being unable to reason. It made her feel as if she were only half-real. And she had never experienced anything close to Gaia's ecstasy.
"This way," she said gently, taking Gaia's right elbow and leading her out of the observatory into the corridor. Then she opened the ornate bronze doors of the lifting room, motioned Gaia inside, and pushed the button for the ground floor—the turtle. Legend had it that their foremothers, whirled across time and space for the amusement of tricksters with no face or form, had been abandoned on a barren rock of a planet with a chest filled with books and devices they didn't understand. But the "rock" had turned out to be the shell of Chelys Mater, the mother-turtle, and she had laid eggs from which had hatched the water, the plants and the beasts to save them and any who might follow them. Ever since then, the image of a turtle had stood for "ground" or "earth."
Not the most logical of stories, Decima reflected, walking back to the observatory as the lifting room began to descend. On the other hand, our world isn't that logical either. Fetching a bowl of honey-drenched palmulae from the cold pantry adjoining the observatory, she sat down in a chair near a simple telescope (nothing close to the complex magno-aetheric one that she and other Amphissan astronomers used to study the heavens) and began to keyboard equations onto her tablet. But she'd scarcely started to work when she spotted a fast-moving shadow outside the observatory window.
Clouds don't move that fast. And there aren't any birds that big. What…?
Sighing—I just sat down!—Decima stood up, peered out the window…and stared straight at impossibility.
It had taken the four women three days to reach Amphissa Nova, and Khutulun had barely stopped gritting her teeth for a single moment.
The most maddening part of the journey had been their speed…or lack of it. She was accustomed to missing horses and to wanting to ride one again, but never, since her death, had she needed a horse so badly. Trying to race mounted cavalry while on foot was delusional even if you were the swiftest, stealthiest runner on Earth (or off of it, she thought sourly); trying to do so beside two women who were decidedly not athletes was not merely delusional but actually insane. Attempting to outrun such troops when, despite Pingyang's proclamation, one of these women fell down shaking after trying to walk under the red night sky was worse than useless.
And yet, if they were to have any chance of saving the women of Amphissa, she had no choice.
"Could you build us some doúli shaped like horses?" she'd asked Hypatia on the morning of the second day. An idle question. She had not even expected Hypatia to answer.
But she had. "Possibly. It is an intriguing thought." She looked almost happy as she considered it, but then she gave a sharp sigh. "But not here. I would require more metal, both for the parts and for the exteriors—and more time than we currently have. Perhaps if we get to Amphissa Nova on time, and persuade someone to give me access to one of the city laboratories, I might get a chance."
"Without horses of some sort, how are we to get there in time?"
Hypatia had tugged at a dark braid and shrugged. "With bloody feet."
"I can tolerate the bloody feet," George had interrupted, her skin the greenish pallor of someone driven to nausea by too much exercise, "as long as nothing else decides to turn bloody."
"I hope not," Pingyang had said, frowning. "We do not know how well trained those armored lizards are; they may be able to cope with the smell of blood, but they may not. Even if they are trained, they may not have much practice doing so. Who do these soldiers have to fight save each other?"
Fortunately, none of them had been inconvenienced by moon blood. Even more fortunately, Hypatia had known several shortcuts that led to one of the city's side gates. The gate took them along a twisting path to a small garden with a large brass sundial in the center and three passageways in front of the sundial. After that, it was a question of riddles, logic and knowledge of plants, elements and stars…all of which nearly drove Khutulun mad.
"Well, it is the Porta Menrvae," said Hypatia, tension all but vibrating in her voice. "And it leads into the Science Quarter. Are you surprised that a gate dedicated to a goddess of intelligence would use reason and knowledge as keys?"
"If we could get to where we're going a bit quicker?" George asked with a heavy sigh. "I know it's difficult for you to hurry, Hypatia, but I would prefer to have entered the city by the time the invading armies arrive."
Before the other invaders arrive, you mean, for the scout—or the dragon he was riding—has been following us for a day and a half. Yes. And before the night arrives, too, and fills Hypatia's mind with horrors. And before you choke on your own sickness. Again.
"We are almost there," Hypatia said in a patient but weary tone. "This is the last door. Once I open this, we will be able to enter the city. Now hush. It is noisy enough inside my head without you chattering as well."
George looked highly affronted, but she obeyed. This did not keep her from watching Hypatia with avid curiosity as the inventor muttered over the final puzzle-lock, a square filled with sliding bronze bars that were embossed with the forms of an Amphissan woman and Vanguard spaceships.
There must have been another gate we could have used, Khutulun thought as Hypatia moved the spaceships back and forth without freeing the woman. We have no time to waste playing with children's toys—not if we are to save the city.
Then Hypatia paused, moved one spaceship down beside the woman, shoved a second all the way to the left…and pushed the bar with the woman on it out of the square, away from spaceships and door latch alike.
The door swung open; Khutulun caught a glimpse of what had to be Hypatia's "Science Quarter."
It was amazing. They had spent so much time thinking of it as a city-kingdom…and yet it was so small. Beautiful, yes, and well-constructed, but it would have scarcely occupied a corner of Sanadu or Daidu, the capitals of her uncle's empire.
And they had just breached its defenses. Or at least it seemed as if they had. Not quite convinced, Khutulun peered over Hypatia's shoulder into the city, searching for arrow slits in the topmost towers and guards patrolling the walls.
Hypatia surprised her by stepping through the gate as if there were no need for concern, then motioning the others to follow. Hesitating only for a moment, George followed, mumbling something about finding a place where she could wage war and sit down at the same time. Pingyang and Khutulun followed simultaneously, neither one wanting to be the last.
"Now," Hypatia said, in a voice that was almost normal, "we need to find a laboratory—before sunset."
That proved to be a problem. There were plenty of laboratories in Amphissa, but most were locked and bolted. Presumably the women of science who normally worked there were celebrating Dionisia's festival outside the city, having cheerful reunions with friends and family, or welcoming lovers and wives home…properly.
Khutulun knew this, and she still didn't like it. No city should be this deserted. Especially not on a holy day.
At last, after George sat down on a curb and nearly had her feet crushed by a street-sweeping automaton, Hypatia was forced to admit that things weren't going as hoped. "I can only think of one other place to go, and that is the observatory. I did not want to have to go there, as they will not have most of the materials and equipment that I need."
"Let us find some people first, and then worry about acquiring parts for an experiment," Pingyang said imperiously. "Now. Which way?"
They saw no one on the lower floors of the observatory, however. They probably would have assumed that it, like every other scientific building, had been abandoned by festival-goers if George had not heard the sound of a lifting room in motion and limped off to investigate.
Which was how they ended up walking into the observatory just as a wild-eyed woman backed away from the window.
"A dragon!" she shouted. "What's a dragon doing here?"
"Probably following us," muttered George. "It's been doing that for some time."
"I doubt if it will endanger the city, however," Pingyang added, giving George a reproving look. Khutulun didn't know why she bothered. George had many skills, but stealth was not one of them. "Getting past the barriers of fear surrounding Amphissa is no easy task."
"A pity the same cannot be said for the scout that, last we saw, was riding the dragon," Khutulun snapped. "Or the armies of male animals"—she had tried to say "men," but the universal translator within her turned the word into the closest approximation in Amphissan—"who are heading toward your city even now on horned and armored beasts not unlike that dragon." She broke off, suddenly aware that the woman was staring at Hypatia as if she were a spirit who had sprung from the air.
Hypatia nodded to the woman. "Greetings, Decima Rutilia Lupa. It has been some time."
Persuading Lupa that the city was in danger was more difficult than they had expected. It wasn't simply a case of not believing four strangers…well, three strangers and a death-haunted inventor, which sounded no better to Khutulun. Lupa didn't understand what the threat involved. No army had ever attacked the city; in fact, there was no word for "army" in the Amphissan tongue, any more than there was a word for "men." Nor did "soldier" mean anything to Lupa; the best any of them could manage was "guard" or "watchman." The universal translators, on which all four of them had learned to depend in order to speak with each other, failed utterly.
Lupa was too polite to express any doubts about their message, but Khutulun was certain that she had as many doubts as there were stars in the sky. Four outsiders telling her that a large flock of male animals dressed as watchmen were coming on armored beasts and dragonback to pierce the city's walls with hunting tools until the city bled to death from the injury or perished from the insult…well, George had the right of it when she said that it sounded like a very silly tale for barely-weaned babies.
When the discussion was interrupted by the loud, vibrating tread of marching men and gigantic lizards drawing closer to the city, it was almost a relief.
"An earthquake?" Lupa said, frowning. "But there's been no sign—"
"Do earthquakes frequently sound like marching feet in this city?" George said, limping hurriedly toward the window and peering out. "If you look, you'll just see the—the beings we spoke of crossing the horizon now."
Barely a moment later, Khutulun and Lupa were maneuvering for position at the window while attempting to let George remain where she was. Pingyang, who was not nearly as tall as her fellow warrior or the Amphissan and who did not maneuver for position when she could simply claim it, knelt on a table nearby…which allowed her a clear view over their heads, as well as George's.
Only Hypatia didn't rush to see the armies. "It's close to sunset," she said, shuddering, when George volunteered to let her have her place by the window. "And I've seen armies before."
Not like this, Khutulun thought, chill horror creeping through her bones. Never like this.
The army that she'd seen a few days ago had been large, but this one was massive, an enormous black stain made of men and monsters that coated the earth in every direction as far as the horizon and beyond. Here and there she could see shapes of the lizard-steeds, if not the soldiers: three-horned creatures with bone shields on their necks and those with rock-like spikes up and down their spines—the sort she'd spied a few days ago—and others that she hadn't seen, such as the ones that were covered in bone armor and that had tails that ended in rock-like clubs, and humpbacked beasts with tails so long that they could wipe out the city walls if they turned in the wrong direction. And far, far in the distance, barely a shadow against the sky, something with a giant head and tiny arms stood on its hind legs and roared.
"How can they feed so many?" whispered Pingyang, appalled. "It would take a hundred droves of oxen and a thousand forests to quell the appetites of the creatures for one day."
Khutulun stared bleakly out of the window. This is what the four of us must fight, she thought. And—even if the army kills us all—this is what we must defeat. A lasting defeat, if our deaths are to matter in the slightest.
There were worse reasons for dying.
Just the same, she didn't want to gaze at that nation of soldiers any longer. Dying might end up being the least she could do, but the sheer numbers before her fairly shouted that it would be the most she—and her three sworn sisters—could do.
She turned away from the window, breathing heavily and aching to smash something
"Four people against that?" she heard George, standing behind her, say in a stunned tone.
"A little damage in the right time and place does a lot of damage," Pingyang replied. Her voice gave away nothing, which meant that she was very worried indeed. "We can still hurt them."
"And what," George demanded, "is going to stop that—that monstrosity out there from returning to its barracks to lick its wounds and recover and then start this all over again after we're dead?"
"You're thinking the wrong way," murmured Hypatia. "You're all fretting about what the army would do. You should be focusing on what the Vanguard would do."
None of them paid her the slightest attention.
"You seem to be assuming that none of my people will do anything to protect the city," said Lupa, turning away from the window and glaring at George. "Do you think we care nothing for our homes?"
Glaring up at Lupa, George crossed her arms over her sweaty linen shirt and dusty jacket. "I think that you might find protecting the city somewhat difficult, given that you don't even have concepts for half of what's happening!"
"We can learn!"
"Oh," said Hypatia, her voice odd. "So you are going to close and bar the city gates and leave the devotees of Dionisia to the mercy of destroyers and savage beasts alike? I ask only for information."
The revolted look on Lupa's face was answer enough.
"Good." And Hypatia produced a twisted dagger from…somewhere. Khutulun couldn't imagine where she had concealed it. "If you had said yes, I would have had to kill you. Better the city fall than let people like that survive."
Lupa stared at Hypatia. "You wouldn't. Not really."
"I don't know if she would or not," Khutulun said. "I do know that she has very good aim. And I also know," she continued, ignoring Lupa's shocked gasp, "that we are wasting time. We don't have time to waste. We could sit here all night babbling like infants about what we could do or might do…and none of it would change anything, except that when we were done, we would be a night older and far more frightened."
"We need to plan," Pingyang said, and her words sounded as if they had been forged from iron.
"No," snapped Khutulun. "I know that you're good at strategy, Pingyang, but we don't need a complex plan. We know what we have to do to stop them—everything that we possibly can, short of direct battle. We have no way of making sure that this piece of sabotage happens at the same time as that attack, so we must do the best we can without having timing on our side. We all know what each of us is best at; I don't think any of us will try to usurp the tasks of the others, because that would be foolish.
"We are a tribe and a family, and it is time that we stopped all this squirrel's chatter and started acting like both." And with that, she stomped off toward the door.
"Where are you going?" Pingyang shouted.
The answer floated back into the observatory. "I have to steal a dragon!"
Of course, stealing a dragon could never be simple.
By the time that Khutulun found the place where the winged beast was sleeping—hanging from the branch of an ancient, twisted, immensely tall tree near Amphissa's sacred grove—it was red night outside. She counted herself lucky that the scout was nowhere near; she would have had to knock him out, if not kill him, and gods and the faithful alike tended to loathe those who did violence in holy places. Khutulun felt quite accursed enough without the wrath of gods and spirits descending on her head as well.
That probably meant that the scout was trying to breach the fear barrier near the city. She could only hope that he knew nothing about Hypatia's shortcuts through weak spots in that barrier. If he had learned of them—well, she would ford that stream when she reached its banks.
In any case, she had a much bigger problem: how to get on the back of a sleeping, upside-down dragon, and, once she had, how to wake it and control it.
Climbing the tree to the branch it was hanging from took some time, for even though the beast was hanging from one of the lowest branches, that branch was still nowhere near the ground. More than once, Khutulun found herself wishing that the creature had curled up next to a sun-warmed cluster of rocks.
It's just like taming a wild pony, she reminded herself. And you've tamed thousands of them.
But once she drew close to the creature—and it did look astonishingly like a giant bat—she realized that climbing onto its back while it slept could not happen; it slept with its wings wrapped around its body. She was going to have to wake it and, in the moment or two before it woke up and flew away, leap from the tree trunk onto its back, praying that she didn't fall. For she would only get one chance. And if she failed—
My mothers and my mothers' mothers would be ashamed.
She reached out as far as she could while still holding onto the trunk. Then, praying that the spirits of her people would help her, she poked the dragon.
It didn't budge.
She tried again, a bit harder this time.
Move, you impossible creature! And this time, the poke was nearly a punch.
The dragon shrieked and—still hanging upside down—began to spread its wings.
For one horrible, sickening moment, she thought that she'd missed. Frantic, she stretched her arms out, groping for something, anything to hold onto…
…and grabbed two handfuls of coarse, curly fur.
The dragon most emphatically did not approve of this. Skirling in a screech that went right through Khutulun's head, it spiraled and swooped across the night sky.
Closing her eyes—I don't need any distractions!—Khutulun clung to the fur while trying to grab a portion of its torso as well. The wind rushed past her, and she fought not to think about how high she was. Please. Please let me get on your back. I will ride you as I would one of my own horses, I swear it.
The dragon's only response was to begin a swift, sharp swoop toward the ground.
Khutulun dug beneath the fur, grabbing a couple of folds of skin and feeling ashamed of herself as she did so. Hurting a steed was wrong. Unfortunately, if she didn't grab hold of something that was less likely to rip free of the dragon than its body fur, she wouldn't just be ashamed—she'd be dead.
"I'm sorry," she said, pressing—up? Down? Toward the beast's torso, anyway—and focusing on balancing on her arms for a second while she swung herself onto the creature's back. For one hideous moment, she thought that she had pulled herself too far and was falling to her death with two handfuls of fur clenched in her fists. Then she landed lightly on the dragon's back, gripping its torso with her knees as she did so. Leaning forward, she wrapped her arms about its neck and clung for dear life.
I am so sorry, she thought. I never wanted to hurt you, and I'm sorry that I did. I need to see the army from the air—what weapons they have, what traps they have waiting. If I know what they have, perhaps I can break them—or break the soldiers' desire to use them. An army cannot fight a war without weapons. I wish I could explain this to you.
I'm not entirely certain how the sight of weapons will tell you how to break them, said a dry, ironic voice in her head. But I am grateful that your first thought was not to kill. And I do thank you for your apology.
Khutulun opened her eyes and stared down at the enormous crested head of the dragon-bat-creature. No. I must be imagining things.
You're not, said the voice patiently. And I am neither a dragon nor a bat, two-legs. I was one of many Winged Ones back home, once…before they stole me. Khutulun had a sudden impression of blank, eyeless faces covered with snaky tentacles. I do not remember that time as much more than a dream; I was different then. I was not yet an I. They changed me inside so that I would think like an I. And so I can never go home.
Khutulun had no idea what to say to the bewilderment and bitterness in that voice. Anything she could say seemed worse than useless, like apologizing for setting someone's house on fire.
They brought back my sisters and me from the dead, she said at last. They made us young again, and gave us all of our old memories. Even, in the case of one sister, the memory of how she was…was pecked to death by her flock. I think they thought it…amusing. Entertaining.
"Amusing" and "entertaining" meant little to the beast; Khutulun could see that. But it seemed to grasp the rest. They treat you no better than they treat me, then.
Khutulun took a deep breath. Will you help me stop this army? She started to remove one arm from the beast's neck to make a grand, all-encompassing gesture, and then thought better of it.
I would rather help you stop the Faces-of-Many-Snakes, said the beast wryly. This flock of— And Khutulun saw a vision of a cluster of scarcely hatched goose-lizards, tottering about on unsteady legs but snarling as if they were grown wolves. They are hatchlings. But yes, they must be stopped, before they hurt themselves.
So much about those words was strange that Khutulun had to pause for some time before answering. I thought…isn't the one who was riding you…? She let the thought trail away. It was ridiculous to think of anyone owning this creature, or of it letting itself be owned.
I never saw him before this journey. There was the faintest echo of a growl in that thought. Before that, I was in their clutches, caged and hurting. This is…a test. If the army loses, they will try to reclaim me. And they will punish me for not being a perfect weapon. There was a pause, and then, in a tiny voice, not unlike a child's, the dragon added, I would rather die.
Yes. Khutulun could understand that.
How would you stop them? she thought. I've fought them, but…nothing works. Not for long.
As the beast replied, Khutulun saw an image of a large mountain cat, waiting to pounce on its prey. I will show you. But after I do, you must use the knowledge against them. I am weary of doing nothing.
She did not hesitate. Agreed.
The beast wheeled about, gliding away from the city in the direction of the seemingly endless army camp. Look down, and you will see their greatest weapon and their greatest weakness.
Khutulun looked down—and was stunned into silence.
George, meanwhile, was gliding out of the city with more than an aetheric lantern to guide her way.
After Khutulun had stomped out of the room, Decima Rutilia Lupa had flown into a calm. "I know nothing about this…this fight all of you are talking about. But I do know one thing—I…we cannot close the gates and leave my Gaia and the other worshipers of the goddess outside. And since we cannot close the gates, we will have to make a space for them inside the city and surround them with protection."
"We?" Pingyang had said, and that one word had been so full of doubt that George had prayed that Lupa would overlook it.
A vain prayer. Lupa had heard and understood all too well. "I do not need to be a trained guard to shelter Amphissan citizens."
"She truly doesn't," Hypatia had said with eerie detachment. "You saw how the streets twist and turn in on themselves and how narrow they are. They're made for pedestrians, not armies, not…chariots." She had shuddered and then continued. "And there are many paths in and out of places that you wouldn't suspect. Getting the goddess-worshippers to safe areas might be easier than you think."
Oh, my, this is familiar, George had thought. She had never expected to be living in a story out of Plutarch.
Pingyang had listened to Hypatia's words and then had given Lupa a dubious look. She'd said nothing. She hadn't had to. The look had said it all.
Hypatia shrugged. "If you really think that we need someone skilled with arrows or spears…well, I daresay I can build some doúli."
"You can't," George said. "You're inside the observatory. There aren't any materials here to build automata. And it's dark now. I mean, it's red."
Hypatia smiled. "There are passages inside every science building. I can scurry through the walls like a little mouse and never set foot out of doors during the night. Believe me, I can get to a laboratory with the right materials. I could find my way blindfolded."
"And if she did," Lupa added, "it wouldn't surprise me."
Pingyang threw up her hands. "Very well. I shall leave the defense of the city on your capable shoulders." She managed to make the last two words sound perfectly serious, without a trace of sarcasm or irony. "And no doubt Khutulun is delving into the nature of weapons and the number of monsters. So I will do my best to learn something about the enemy confronting us. Perhaps I can even persuade of them to join our cause."
"Oh?" said Lupa, raising both eyebrows. "Amphissa is your cause?"
Pingyang didn't deign to answer this. Instead, she nodded to Hypatia and Lupa. "Good fortune be yours, and may the doúli and the Amphissans have no one to fight." Then she turned to George, gazed at her helplessly for a few moment—not surprising, as George knew that she was the least prepossessing of the group—and finally murmured, "Be safe." And with that, she swept out the door so swiftly that she seemed to have vanished into air.
"I have to go, too," George said, limping toward the door as if her feet were being impaled on spikes.
"I doubt if you will get very far," Hypatia pointed out. "You can barely stand, let alone walk."
George spoke very quietly. "I have to try. Khutulun and Pingyang—back at our camp, they both mentioned something, but once they came here, they oh-so-conveniently forgot it and started focusing on the army. The army could kill us all, but it isn't the enemy. This…this isn't a story of war and conquest. It's a tale of marionettes playing out stories so old that now they are new again—and the evil puppeteer, who makes certain that there is a good reason for every tale his puppets tell."
She turned to Lupa. "Do the Vanguard ever come to this planet and watch their...experiments?"
Lupa gaped at her in astonishment. "Yes. And I knew that. But for some reason—"
"Yes," George said grimly. "For some reason. They do like playing games, don't they? Do you by any chance know where they watch?"
"No," Lupa said, but she sounded unsure—as if something was escaping her, but she wasn't quite sure what.
"It's not pleasant to know that you're being watched, that you're little more than a riddle to solved," Hypatia said, as if discussing the weather. "Think. What do your people say about trickster gods? For instance—after the Turtle hatched everything in the world, why didn't the tricksters come back and reduce the world to a barren rock again? There must be a myth about that."
Frowning at the word "myth," Lupa rubbed the side of her nose. "It's said that they did come back," she said. "They wanted to steal back the knowledge and machines they'd given us and leave the city in ruins, to see if we could rebuild again in the space of a generation. But then Dionisia appeared in the city with her sister's shield, and they ran away."
"An immense shield," George said slowly, thinking back to what she remembered of classical mythology. "A shield large enough to cover an entire city. One that terrified everyone who gazed upon it."
Understanding dawned in Lupa's eyes. "The fear-barriers!"
"That's all I can think of," George confessed. "Your people are peaceful; you have no neighbors; your city supports itself. There's no reason for those barriers to exist. But they do. Dionisia must have been brilliant."
"Not so brilliant," said Hypatia. "They could have used arrows, catapults, even mirrors that reflected the sun's heat. They could have attacked from their ships that sail the heavens. It would have been easy."
"But that isn't the way they do things, is it?" George retorted. "Punishment is always administered personally. They do their foul experiments personally. And they don't attack planets. They go after certain people. I think…I think that they must have wanted, not only her invention—her undamaged invention, which is another reason for not attacking from a distance—but Dionisia herself. It wouldn't be enough to know how the invention worked. They'd want to control the mind that created it. But they couldn't get close enough."
"So they stole another inventor," Hypatia said, sagging forward, the picture of despair.
"I don't think you were the only one," George said. "Perhaps the latest in a long line. And Khutulun and Pingyang and other women like them, because they are superb…" She hesitated, not wanting her words to be twisted once again by the translator beneath her skin.
"Guards?" Lupa offered. "Fierce and angry guards?"
Despite the situation, George smiled a bit at that. "Yes. People who would know how to plan attacks that could work. People who looked not unlike the Amphissans, and who might, perhaps, be able to get past the barriers…or sneak past them." She paused for a moment. "The only thing I can't figure out is why they wanted me. I'm no inventor or…fierce guard; I must have been a mistake."
Hypatia ignored the last part of this. "So our rebellion meant nothing. We refused to obey them—and they put us here anyway."
George nodded. "I'm sure they thought we'd flee to the city when the weather got cold or when we felt so alone that we could scarcely breathe. But instead, we found each other. You were the only one who entered the city for any time—and you chose to leave, because you can't worship Dionisia with the…physicality…that the Amphissans do." She chuckled. "We must have confused the Vanguard immensely."
"Why do this for so long?" Lupa demanded, digging her nails into her palms. "We have been here for hundreds of years; surely they could have deduced how the fear-barriers work by now."
"Maybe not. They can't get close enough to study them." George chewed on her bottom lip, wishing that she had a cigar. "And we don't know how long they live; hundreds of years might be no more significant than a decade to us."
"And the…the guards?" said Lupa hesitantly. "An alternative plan, in case they could not persuade you or others like you to help?"
George had her own suspicions about that, but she had less evidence for it than for the rest of her theories. "Maybe," she hedged. "The point is, I think that if we can find the Vanguard tonight, we can stop not only the war but all the misery they've been causing. Now. Do you know where their observatory is?"
Lupa did, or at least she knew of a place south-southwest of the city that was said to be a favorite of tricksters. It was only a hill—no, not even a hill, a knoll covered in wildflowers, grass, weeds and not much else—but the Amphissans called it Mons Hostium, the Mountain of Enemies, and shunned it in a peculiarly Amphissan way. That is, they went nowhere near it, but they had one of their finest aetheric telescopes trained on it at all times, recording the smallest change in photographs far better than any daguerreotypes that George had ever seen.
Lupa had also apologized for not realizing that this telescope could help (though George saw no reason for blame; an invading army, especially when you had no concept of an army, was dreadful enough) and provided George with an aetheric lantern to light her way and a vertical metal brace that she could lean on.
"It hovers," she said, "and it can lift up to 27.6 centa podia, so it can certainly lift you. You won't go very high—perhaps no more than a foot or two off the ground—but it will take the pressure off of your feet. And it will detect any obstacles, so you will not get hurt." She sighed, exasperated. "If only I knew what you are going to do when you find the Vanguard!"
So do I, thought George. "I can't tell you that," she lied. "It would take too long."
"Then," said Lupa, bending down and surprising George with a gentle kiss on the forehead, "good luck. And I hope we shall see you again by sunrise."
Which was why George was now outdoors, gliding in the direction of the army camp, trying to dodge anything vertical and praying fervently that the sentries would be lazy, drunk and night-blind besides.
She heard a screeching cry, looked up and flinched. The dragon was loose—and evidently flying back to its master's tent deep in the camp. Khutulun must have failed. And since Khutulun would not have given up unless she was dead…
Grief, unexpected, unlooked-for, struck her like a physical blow.
For a moment, she faltered and the hovering brace-to-help-her-walk, clearly thinking that she wanted to stop here, began to descend.
No! No, no, no!
She shoved the hover-walker forward and upward, hoping that would tell it to go on. But this did no good. A moment later, walker and woman landed gracefully on the ground. George had to bite the knuckle of her right thumb to keep from screaming as she landed; her feet felt as if they'd been impaled by steel spikes that ran all the way up to her hips.
As a result, it took some time before she realized that she was nowhere near the army camp. There were a number of tents and campfires in the distance, and she saw plenty of outlines of chained and tethered giant lizards, most of them slumbering.
But most of the tents, as well as most of the soldiers, had simply vanished, swallowed by shadow and red light.
Frowning, George removed her hand from the hover-walker and then took a few steps to the left. When nothing happened, she sidled to the left a bit more. She kept this up until she was twenty paces from the hover-walker.
That was when the camp re-appeared around her.
Rough tents were everywhere. Some of the soldiers were gulping down bowls of purplish-red wine near the fires; others were hammering dents from armor and polishing weapons; still others were sleeping half-slumped against trees, barrels and tent pegs. Several—most of them beardless boys—were feeding the few giant lizards that were awake. It was a vivid, cacophonous scene of preparations for battle, and George could find no fault with it.
But something still didn't feel right. She took a deep breath…and immediately knew what was wrong. The camp should have reeked of sweat, piss, the waste of men and beasts, food-fires and mud. Instead…well, there was a touch of that from tents here and there, but nothing on the scale that should have existed.
"No smell?" she exclaimed, knowing there was a good chance that the Vanguard could hear her and not caring one bit. "You went to all the trouble of creating perfect illusions for the eyes and ears…and you forgot about smell?"
She staggered back to her hover-walker and clicked it on. It still didn't rise in the air, but this time George noticed that the images of the camp faded while she was touching the hover-walker. But only for a moment. Then the walker spluttered and died once more.
It doesn't work if I get too close to a certain area. Perhaps that is how they are planning on destroying the fear-barriers: thousands of images of soldiers surrounding one real human soldier. And the latter carrying the illusion-making device that breaks Amphissan machinery.
The army could just walk in and take whatever creates that barrier. And the women of science, who know how it works.
She gazed at the illusion of the massive camp and thought of the few miserable tents that the seeming camp concealed. More puppets. I wonder what the wretched fellows think they are fighting for?
After I stop the Vanguard, I shall have to ask them.
Then slowly—merde, how slowly!—she began to make her way from the supposed camp to the Mountain of Enemies.
George never forgot what crossing that endless plain was like—how she had to pull, yank and drag the walker hither and yon to make certain that it still worked, that its starts and fits were telling her something useful about the location of the Vanguard and their device. She never forgot the peculiar sloshy feeling when a half dozen blood and water blisters burst inside her boots at once, or the knifelike pain that, with each step she took, left her dizzy, nauseated and half-blind.
But at last—at long last, and by the most circuitous route she could imagine—she half-climbed, half-crawled up Mons Hostium.
There were only five of them—all eyeless, all tentacle-faced and all identical. Presumably they were speaking; the face-tentacles of two of them were waving wildly, while the other three appeared to be paying attention. But George had no idea if she was watching an argument or a mating dance.
And it didn't matter either way. The Vanguard could wait. Barely two meters from them was an unpleasantly shaped…vehicle, for lack of a better word…that looked as if it should be slicing through space like a dark comet. The device was probably in there.
Tentatively, George poked her walker at the side of the thing…
…and stifled a gasp as the walker went through it.
Quickly, not giving the Vanguard time to notice her or herself a moment to ponder the best way to do this, George stepped through the illusion.
As with the massive camp, there wasn't much inside the illusion, only something about the size of a robin's egg, maroon and vaguely pentagonal that had been tucked into a corner next to some rocks. George picked it up and immediately wished she hadn't; it was tepid and soft, like a piece of rotting meat. It moved in her hand as if trying to cling to her.
Grimacing, George slammed the thing onto the largest, spikiest rock. The thing twitched, turned grey and then fell apart into a collection of parts that looked half mechanical and half organic. George had little time to notice more than this, however, for the instant that the device fell apart, so did each and every illusion…including that of the Vanguard's spacecraft. Suddenly, she found herself facing five members of the Vanguard, all of them less than pleased.
Hoping that the hover-walker might have the same effect on them that it had had on everything else, George swung it at the head of the closest Vanguard. "For my sisters," she snarled as the alien fell down.
But, even so, one lucky shot could not win a battle, and four against one was anything but equal odds. In almost less time than it took for her to speak those three defiant words, the Vanguard seized George.
She gritted her teeth, but said nothing. They had hurt her before; they would do so again. Eventually, she would scream. But she would not break.
So intent was she on ignoring their insistent questions—for something about the way that the Vanguard asked questions made the inquiries burrow into the listener's brain—that she barely paid attention to the sound of footsteps coming from the direction of the camp. The soldiers would not help. Why would they? She had just ruined their entire war.
As she thought this, the air filled with the rush of arrows and spears, and two of the Vanguard—one shot with an arrow at the top of a boneless limb and the other pierced through with a spear—dropped dead.
George stared at the corpses. Who—?
And there was Pingyang, climbing up the knoll. She was holding a spear in both hands and was obviously prepared to use it as both itself and as a quarterstaff. The smile that she directed at the two living and conscious Vanguard was enough to make them take a step or two backward.
"It is as well for you," Pingyang said as she reached the top of the knoll, "that Hypatia sent some doúli after me, telling me you were coming out here. I did not convert nearly so many soldiers as I had hoped. But then, I could not appeal to them on the grounds that my father would make the better Emperor."
George remained silent, studying what she could see at the bottom of the hill. There wasn't much, just a small cluster of automata and an even smaller cluster of men—no more than four or five. Not a huge army by anyone's standards. But no matter. It outnumbered the Vanguard.
Then she heard a cry of fear from one of the soldiers. "Princess! Listen! The animals!"
The giant lizards indeed sounded as if they'd gone mad. However, most seemed to be bolting. Only one was drawing near.
George stared up, up and up at the impossibly tall creature with the tiny arms. A part of her wondered if the beasts had been controlled by the device or if the Vanguard had used some other trick to panic them. Most of her, however, could only think numbly, It could swallow an entire city with that mouth. It could crush half the world with one lash of its tail, with one foot. We are dead. We are all dead.
And then a flash of black wings tore across the red sky.
George heard the faintest echo of a familiar shout. Whether from relief or exhaustion, her legs collapsed beneath her, but George didn't care. "It's Khutulun! She's alive!"
The battle between Khutulun's dragon and the terrible giant seemed to take forever and yet no time at all. The giant was far stronger, but both the dragon and Khutulun were swifter, delivering two to three blows for each one that they dodged. Finally, roaring with pain and bleeding from a thousand wounds, the giant lumbered west of the camp. It did not return, and the dragon didn't pursue it.
Instead, the dragon, Khutulun still on its back, flew straight to the knoll, where the two conscious Vanguard stood, unmoving. George wasn't certain—it was hard to read expressions from tentacles—but she thought that they were trying to give the impression that none of what had happened so far had affected them in the slightest, and that they were still in command here no matter what the humans thought.
What George was certain about was that she heard the faint echo of a dry, sexless voice. You hurt me. You tricked me. You hurt and tricked everyone here. That stops now.
And with that, the dragon swooped down and gobbled up both conscious Vanguard in only a few bites.
George stared, disbelieving and horrified.
"Why?" she mumbled. "Why would you do that? Why would Khutulun let you?"
Again came the faint echo of a voice. They turned me into something I was not, into something I should not be. They made me think—in part—like a human. A wry chuckle. Humans aren't always nice.
Khutulun and Pingyang escorted the remaining Vanguard—the one that George had knocked out—back to the city; letting it return to its people was not a good idea, even if it had any people to return to. (George rode back in a wagon drawn by one of the few lizards that had not bolted, a placid, good-natured creature with stony spikes down its spine. She was in no shape to escort anybody.) A handful of confused and curious soldiers who wanted to understand what had happened and why accompanied them, after taking oath that they wouldn't harm a soul in Amphissa Nova and that if they did, either Pingyang or Khutulun would claim their heads. Khutulun doubted that such an oath was necessary; never had she seen people so bewildered by their former opponents. But after all that had happened…well, it wouldn't hurt to be sure.
The dragon—whom Khutulun had named Vachir, which meant "thunderbolt"—accompanied them as well. It had done nothing violent since devouring the Vanguard, though it fairly radiated smugness. Khutulun didn't blame Vachir; it had slain two nightmarish enemies and had a third quaking at the thought of what worse revenge it might have in store. Not a merciful foe, but a very practical one.
It took them a good half-day to return to Amphissa. (It would not normally have taken Vachir this long, nor Khutulun, had she been riding the dragon, but Vachir spent most of the journey fairly cartwheeling across the sky, celebrating its new freedom.) By the time they returned, most of the Maenads were awakening, safe and well, in one of the town squares. Lupa and most of the women in town had spent the night forming a living wall, encircling the worshippers of Dionisia; the few they could spare, they had sent to the Grove to guide worshippers home. The image of the Amphissans protecting other women from a threat they barely understood and then feeding them the day after was one that stayed with the four of them for a long, long time.
No one was particularly surprised when, several days later, Hypatia told them that she wanted to remain in the city. "They understand now that I really can't worship Dionisia in the Grove," she said. "They know that's not the same thing as not following her at all. There are others here who care about the same things that I do. And…there are walls to keep out the night."
Pingyang stirred. "I cannot remain in this city, but I cannot return to the way things were. I have been thinking—we know so little of this world. We did not know that the soldiers' homeland existed, and we knew little more than that the city existed. Were it not for Hypatia…well.
"I will explore and map what I can, I and anyone who cares to come with me. I have spoken to some of the younger women and to a few of the soldiers. Both wish to learn what lies beyond the horizon…even if it is dangerous. Especially if it is dangerous."
"I just want to fly," Khutulun confessed. "That, and tame some giant lizards. There must be a way to do that without hurting them the way Vachir was hurt and without putting them under the control of a Vanguard invention. And there is so much I don't know yet about Vachir. I have to find out. I have to!"
"And what of you, George?" Pingyang asked.
"I'm going to the soldiers' homeland, wherever that may be," came the quiet reply. "You only changed the minds of a few, Pingyang. Most of the soldiers fled, and even we don't know where. And their families are waiting for them to return from battling what they think of as that terrible, brutal city to the north. They don't know that the Vanguard orchestrated the whole war. They…they don't know the truth. They may not believe it even if they hear it, but I have to tell them what did happen—and in a way that they'll remember and accept.
"And then, when that's done, I have to do the same for the women of this city. And so on, until everyone on this world knows the truth, so that, if there are any other Vanguard in space—and I think there must be more than the ones that we found—they will never be able to use this world again."
"A huge task," said Pingyang softly.
"Yes. But it's worth it."
Hypatia said nothing. But she reached out one hand and brushed one fingertip over the back of George's hand with a ghostlike touch. Then she shuddered and pulled her hand back.
"If Vachir does not mind," Khutulun asked hesitantly, "would you consent to a ride on dragonback? We can both do what we are planning, but you would get to the soldiers' homeland more quickly—and Vachir would be a wonderful witness against the Vanguard."
George forbore to say that Vachir had eaten a good portion of the Vanguard. Besides, it was true. The dragon, as they'd grown accustomed to calling it, was articulate when it wanted to be. And it would help to get the truth to people as quickly as possible, before hatred and falsehood had become settled in people's minds.
Perhaps she might even use her true name—Aurore—when she began telling people what had truly happened. It would be fitting.
My name is Aurore, she imagined herself saying in a village far distant even as she nodded to Khutulun, smiling. My name is Aurore, and I come to tell you a tale, a tale that is strange beyond words but true. Please—accept this truth, even when it surprises you and alters your views. I bring you the truth; it will save you much pain. Listen. Listen.