It seemed to Aver ex Roland, as time wound down and the days of the Last Redoubt neared their ultimate end, that each person within the great Pyramid retreated further into their own lesser redoubts of fantasy and desire. He did not think that he himself was uniquely immune to such a fault, but he did not think either that this personal concession should move so dramatically from the abstract to the actual.
Aver was a Censor, and as a Censor, his vocation was not mere prurient suppression, but the consideration of the consequences of innovations and anachronisms. The malign entities of the Night Land constantly clawed at the defenses of the Pyramid and the Pyramid withstood them, but it was a constantly shifting battle and every age brought new threats requiring new defenses for the pneuma and the soma. Scanning the deep cultural reserves of the Redoubt, he might indeed vote for the banning of a doctrine or invention, but on the other hand, he might see the advantage in the aggressive promotion of an idea that might seem at first corrupting, but in its eventual effect to be more strengthening.
When, on the prompting of the Monstruwacan hegemon of the Last Redoubt, Aver undertook one particular search, he brought to light a curious vessel that caused him to wonder deeply about the consequences of opening it when he knew that he could not bear to leave it closed.
Pallin ex Asphodelos, the Master Monstruwacan, had apparently ordered the search in connection with his own genealogical research and sometimes spoke to Aver of his own theories of time and causality and the Redoubt’s creed of serial incarnation. Either there are infinite universes of chance springing from miniscule seed events, he said, or there are threads of time that are drawn by their future towards an eventual Pansumma Point as he put it. In the laboratories of Ultima Thule at the peak of the Redoubt, Pallin had conducted experiments with separated corpuscles of light that appeared to confirm this intuition and he had expanded the implications into an overall theory of justification for an old myth of the ‘Final Child’ who would be the repository of the compound of all human souls at the end of time.
“Effects may compel their causes,” he said. “Find for me in your records of legacies whether there is any pattern that may indicate a convergence of souls on the Summa Entity.”
Aver did not much like Pallin ex Asphodelos, finding him arch and haughty, and he thought that this ‘Pansumma’ or ‘Final Child’ was but a sophisticated euphemism for the mythical mother-child goddess figure the common folk called Meyr. Nonetheless, he obeyed the Master’s command and thus he was brought in his searches to the capsule. Ironically, it seemed to him that the capsule would reveal more to himself as an individual than it would to the Master as one tesella in the mosaic of his grand theory.
The capsule was outwardly ordinary, albeit opaque to any normal scan. In form it was cylindrical, about a cubit long, one third as wide and rounded at either end. Its adamantine surface was pitted and corroded, suggesting great age and little handling; most old metals develop a glassy sheen from the continual polish of skin and there was no such indication here. Indeed the thing had been in the deepest archives unseen and untouched for almost its entire existence, and it was only the increasing pressure or newer expanding archives that has forced reorganisation that had brought this object to light. Chance had produced the item, but perhaps inspired by the Master Monstruwacan’s hypothesis, the longer Aver stared at the object, the stronger the feeling was that within it was something that would lead him in particular towards some certain destiny.
It was not unfamiliar in type. Often he had encountered the custom of keeping capsules to be opened by clan heirs, later ‘serial selves’ or the anticipated incarnations of one’s ‘Only Beloved’, and apparently this was of that sort. It even bore a name: Oelyssia — only Oelyssia and without clan affiliation. It did not concern him that he was looking into an intimate record of this Oelyssia as much as it might — indeed, he was vaguely disturbed by the fact that he felt no such disturbance. Somehow for him, there was a contrary compulsion to open the container.
Aver put his hand on his chin. He was no fool and understood the subtle dangers of autosuggestion well enough, but he also knew very well that when an intuition is felt, it is usually the first conscious sign of deeper and more extensive unconscious thought. If he felt an intuition about this capsule, then there was something about it that was significant.
He decided to open it.
The capsule was conveyed carefully to his workshop and placed in an armoured box with the toughest Voyact glass ports. Carefully he put his head to the monitoring brace and rested his hands on the manipulator controls. The capsule was unlikely to be a bomb, but he was nonetheless exceedingly careful in opening it. There was a small possibility that it may contain some dangerous sample from Outside. Once, only a thousand years ago, a very old capsule of similar form was opened to reveal the ash-like remains of an Eater. Fortunately it had been dead — if such a thing could ever be described as alive — and the forensic Monstruwacans had taken it away to their shielded laboratories. If it had been alive and the capsule had been opened in an ordinary workshop, devastation might have ensued.
Fortunately Aver was almost disappointed by what he found. The first object to be retrieved from inside was a cameo of fine carnelian, a profile picked out in translucent ivory white against the honey-blood matrix of the jewel. After ages it was still in perfect condition, having lain undisturbed for all that time in darkness and bathed in a positive pressure of neutral gasses. Another item, a coin printed in the almost changeless Set Speech, confirmed the antiquity of the capsule: almost fifteen million years. The slight but quantifiable drift in the parole inscription about the perimeter of the tiny disc from the modern dialect confirmed this. He held the cameo up to the light and marveled at the portrait: fifteen million years and no discernable genetic drift. The woman depicted was beautiful to his eyes. As the light shifted, she seemed to turn just a little, as if she made a haughty acknowledgment.
Other items emerged for his inspection: jewelry, artificially petrified flowers, the remains of pet insects preserved in amber and glass memory beads still of a familiar type and potentially compatible with a modern reader. Not that that mattered, as the archive included plenty of intermediate and older types of recall mechanism.
The memory beads could provide more clues and another order of security was required for their examination. He washed the capsule and its cargo with a bath of extreme ultrajale light and opened the inspection box. The beads themselves might have contained strange dysqualia and the universal reader into which he loaded them was carefully isolated from all other communications devices. It did not even have a direct viewing system in case the images displayed were basilisk-patterns that could spark epileptic fits or more obscurely deadly effects in observers. However, once again, there was no immediate threat and he could certify the complete contents of the capsule as being safe.
However, he did not do this, because the absence of Eaters and dysqualia might only mean that it contained a more oblique threat, perhaps the subtle persuasion to heresy. A man of more rigid mind than Aver might at this point chanted the Creed of Heroes to himself as a reminder of rightful thought, but he believed himself to be a flexible and practical and accommodating man with a healthy skepticism of his own peculiarities. If he was infected with unwelcome memes, he would be unlikely to proselytise and could easily be guided back to reason by his colleagues. This was of course a form of hubris in itself, and a weakness.
His examination of the memory files was a lengthy process, taking weeks, then months and then a year, and he was quite amazed at how much time had passed when he checked his calendar. He was even more amazed at how compelling he had found the files secreted within the glass beads. Rather than the ravings of a bizarre cult of Watcher-worshippers or suchlike, he found nothing more — or less — disturbing than the memoirs of a long-dead aristocratic lady. He had felt uncomfortably like a voyeur at first, as these memoirs were indeed quite intimate and dealt with matters that should not concern a man such as himself — but on the other hand there was a definite intention that they be read embodied in their very preservation. Therefore he continued and told no-one of his task, delivering incidental and stalled reports to Master Pallin, who probably suspected some dissimulation, but appeared now to be distracted by further developments in his own research. In any case, Aver was not greatly bothered by the man.
As a reader, Aver was struck by the ability of text to play in his mind as a voice that was almost heard, and as he continued to scan the volumes in his possession, the voice he heard became more distinct and real. He wondered if it might be more interesting to hear rather than see the words of the memoir and resolved to find a more appropriate reading device than a simple text converter. Bare reading had been adequate for a while, but as his interest persisted, he began to feel that he was missing vital content and nuance behind the runes on his screen. He needed to see the face he saw on the cameo animated to match the true voice of the writer.
The Masquers performed once in the city of his library and Aver was inspired. The principle player, a large young woman with five long braids in her hair, showed amazing versatility, playing at once a lesser waif and the personified incarnation of the Redoubt, the blood-red goddess Meyr. She recited the lines of a playright dead for aeons and yet they seemed to be not only her own, but to be alive and spontaneous in her mouth. He tracked her after the play and found her unmade and between costumes. Her body was ornamented with the tattoos of a Dead City courtesan and he blushed, but persisted in his questions. “How was it done?” he asked breathlessly. “How do you capture the soul of a dead man in your woman’s body?”
She laughed at him, but was indulgent and explained a little of her craft. Of course she kept a great deal from him, but this was only what diverged from his interest. “The soul goes through the eye and all people were mirrors to each other,” she explained. “What they have as themselves they have borrowed from the sight of others. . . and then consciousness was only ever what it was in being conscious of something other than itself — you see?”
“I see you,” he admitted. It was all rather obscure to him, but he was determined to understand. “Please tell me more.”
“Very well — do you find me beautiful?” He thought for a moment, disconcerted and provoked. She was not conventionally beautiful; her face was a little lacking in delicacy and her bones were too heavy and angular perhaps, and she was too tall for his liking too — but her flesh was full and fluid with an inner strength and firmness. She might be compelling, but was she beautiful? He could not be sure and did not answer. His eye was drawn to her patterned thigh as she drew her long fingers across its rounded expanse and he was aroused. Apparently not expecting a spoken answer, she did not wait for him to speak but picked up a long dress pin. “Observe,” she said and suddenly thrust it into her flesh.
Aver winced and felt the pricking of sympathetic pain. “Why did you do that?” he gasped.
She withdrew the pin, leaving a tiny red pearl of blood. “To make you feel,” she said, smirking.
He rubbed his own leg, feeling an ache at the corresponding point.
“You may not react immediately to the intellectual question of beauty, but you react to my little pang before you even think. Empathy was essential to our nature and you have just been granted a tiny part of myself,” she told him. “Even cruelty has something of the appreciation of another’s pain. . . eroticism is an easy lure and love is even stronger in the bonds it makes. . . so lovers think that one soul inhabits two bodies and find themselves completing each other’s speeches.”
She intrigued him and so he explained a little of his project to her. He did not expect a simple person from the dark base of the Pyramid to understand much, but she was attentive and sly. “Ah, as I affect to love a character created by another Masquer in the mode of my own adopted persona, so you wish to see the soul that made the face you have found,” she said.
“Then make an eikon, Aver.”
“I have had a succession of mnemonic objects,” she explained. Her eyes flicked to a shining bauble on a nearby table, rather like a large memory bead, and she pointed. “The consciousness of my self is only a small part of my mind. I look upon certain objects that will shine their light through my eyes and paint bright pictures on the walls of hidden caverns elsewhere in my brain. . . I imagine that through these things, other souls from other times take up temporary residence, borrowing a little of my soul-matter for their transient lives. Then I let them speak through me. . .” She smiled, pleased not with herself, but with what art did to her. “And often they surprise me.”
“Ah.” Aver nodded. “What if that life were permanent?”
She arched an eyebrow. “Then I would be mad. . . or perhaps touched by the divine.”
“Ah, I see.” He did not then.
“There is one thing yet for you to take with you,” she said.
“Oh?” Her expression suggested something other than the condescension he would expect and he listened.
“My name. Remember that: it is Lyreia.”
He bowed, blushing to realise that he had never asked and then fled the presence of this disconcerting woman there, not thinking that he would see her again.
That night he dreamt of pictures that come to life, the cracked oils taking on new glosses and escaping their frames. The next day he returned to the place where he had kept the capsule and began to clear a working space. His own skills were limited, but there were, in the secret archives, tools and machines and lists of names of people who could use them. He began his search.
The news came to Aver that the Master Monstruwacan was embarking upon an expedition Outside to investigate the antithesis of the Last Redoubt itself: the Great Watching Thing of the South. The Watcher had fascinated the population of the Redoubt for almost its entire existence — and it was surely according to its own mysterious needs fascinated by the Redoubt. Almost all rumour and legend regarding the Night Land found their focus in this being — its supposed desires, its immeasurable abilities, its brooding threat. Some histories held that the thing had come from the stars, others that it was the creation of human sciences extant in the Days of the Dying Sun, and that in either case, perhaps certain new powers and applications might yet be retrieved from it. Every would-be hero then declared that they would take from the Watcher whatever secret they imagined it to harbour. Many boasted, some tried, none returned.
Aver watched the preparations and celebrations, expecting to be cynical and finding himself instead to be obscurely moved. He had not thought that Pallin would be so susceptible to the glamour of myth, having sampled the cold reality of the Night Land himself and being clearly of an ironic nature. . . and yet he had somehow decided that there he would, after all, find at this nominated Summa Point something vital to himself and, presumably by extension, humanity and the Last Redoubt. At the ceremony marking the eve of his departure, reflecting on his own growing obsession, he felt a rapport with the man that the hierarchy of power had previously concealed from him and he found himself offering a small but sincere salute.
He was astonished to see that Pallin’s companion was Lyreia, dressed again in the guise of Meyr. He suppressed a surge of jealous anger that he could not understand.
Pallin and his party did not return. Years later, a few survivors — including Lyreia, to Aver’s confused relief — made their way back, their endurance remarkable if not impossible until an even more impossible explanation was revealed. They had made it to the Great Watcher of the South, they said, and there time had slowed for them while the years passed in the Great Redoubt. There the Master had come to some fulfillment of his questions, but simultaneously he had been struck down either by the Watcher or some seizure of his own wounded physique. Nothing of him remained to return saving a few macabre relics. Aver thought that he did not believe this story of dilated time and its peculiar catharsis, but seeing the testimonies and examining the evidence, he had to concur. There was no other explanation.
The Master Monstruwacan’s funeral was a great and strange affair, made all the stranger for the requests made of Aver and the temporary elevation of Lyreia to a public role. It was never quite clear to him who made the request for an effigy to be constructed, but the art of eikons and portraits was known to be his province and someone required that there be made an effigy of the dead man. He shuddered on hearing this, remembering the proscription of lacunae and other unreal imitations of human will. . . and he was also stirred by another emotion, a reflex of desire that he could not suppress. If one dead man could be copied, then one dead woman too. . . It gave a useful cover and legitimacy to his own more personal intentions.
One relevant verse of the Creed of Heroes asserted that no human may rely on machines that substitute for the will, while another warned that all humans should fear machines that usurp their will. Aver’s commission and his secret parallel were clearly in potential violation of this verse. He knew this and he imagined himself to be on guard, but persisted in his work. Progress was slow, but quicker than might otherwise have been the case. Indeed, his colleagues were impressed by his results, not knowing that he had already laid much of the foundation for his work in private.
Nimble as he was with his eye and mind, Aver was no craftsman. Through proxies he commissioned an artisan from the lower orders to create their shells, from official portraits and reminiscences in Pallin’s case, and a loaned impression of the cameo from the capsule in the case of Oelyssia. In both instances the artisan excelled himself. They were beautifully sculpted renditions. The visage of the hero Pallin, essentially his prototype, but in no way poorer for it, was sculpted in fine adamantine, its many plates joined in imitation of the lines of his living face and each articulated to allow naturalistic motion according to its internal mechanisms.
What those mechanisms were was not entirely clear to Aver, or even the major artisans. There were lacunae filled with what was more than rumour, and his informants suggested that illicit techne had been utilised, pneumasomatic devices found only in Monstruwacan archives and — so it was said — nanotechne dust supposedly shed by the Great Watcher itself.
The Master’s effigy was taken from Aver before he saw it completed, its eventual resting place as secret as the origin of its commission. Only once did he see it activated in a trial leading to its full instauration.
Surrounded by Monstruwacan technicians in a shadeless and textureless grey and, curiously, a few Masquers including Lyreia, the effigy stirred, shifted its stone eyes and contrived an expression that recalled too well the living man. “Grey grids, dunes sweep by, find or make Mine Own Scheherazade, Hal Sel, orac too, five asymptotic lines of. . . yes, haec, haec, come to this place for-a-while,” it muttered. Then it paused and seemed as if it might laugh. “Ah yes,” it said, suddenly much brighter. “Beware. My thoughts or those I have stolen like. . . fire from a new Black Sun that shines so darkly Out in the Land could be your dreams, my utterances could be lines you take too well, the least of my signs too great an implication. . . and would, should you still listen? Should this lead you to the Pansumma, the fine green star I saw?”
The circle drew back.
“It opens a channel to the Master’s stolen soul which still lives within the mind of the Watcher!” one witness breathed. Aver shuddered, and cared not to believe him. He only hoped that the man was wrong and that his own eikon would function without such resort to illicit and unknown techne.
“Ends bring trailing with them their means.”
Snatching a glance at Lyreia, he saw that her eyes glistened. He fled.
Few saw the effigy again, though some said that it still spoke somewhere in a secret Inner Redoubt, advising the successors of the late Master as if he were still present, and maybe this was true. Aver could only hope that the results for him were not so strange and frightening.
Beauty gave Aver hope. He told himself beauty was true, not because it persuaded, but because only truth could be beautiful. The instinct drove him and he thought that he attributed his intuition to an unconscious sense of veracity.
Beauty was truth and craft carried beauty to the realm of touch. Unlike the cool metal of the Master’s eikon, Oelyssia’s was fashioned from a hybrid of ivory and mother of pearl grown by the Voyact clan, so that it was not mere replication but more eloquent suggestion. Cool at first, it warmed swiftly under his hands. As the light caught it from certain angles, it gleamed with a faint iridescent blue, and from other angles it was subtly pink and golden. The eyes were opals, their inner fires already suggesting life.
A second artist produced the supporting mechanisms for the eikon. Opened, the head revealed an interior structure of actuators and mechanical calculating mills that descended down the scalar ladder from the visible to the invisible in a neat fractal progression. These animated the head, causing it to move in a lifelike manner, its tilts and expressions almost suggesting an organic life in its complexly articulated plates. The pedestal beneath the head contained still more of these marvelous nanotechne systems, freely engaged so that they were more like a pool of black dust or a dry sort of oil. This mass constituted the actual brain of the effigy, the seat of its simulated spirit.
A third produced a casing for the pedestal of gilded ebony and heartwood. And now it stood before him as he sat in his plushest chair. The project had cost him another year and a fortune, but its glory was no trivial luxury. He remembered the Masquer’s lesson on the purpose of beguilement and had made it an absolute requirement that if no machine can evoke easily the warmth of flesh, then it was art that would infect his eyes and soul most effectively.
Aver did not imagine that his device was sentient as such; rather he thought of himself as a portraitist. The code that provided the basic foundation for the genius of the head was adapted by himself from the search engines of his library — something that could weave knowledge like a spider, but not necessarily become the genius of the web itself.
He had, however, made changes.
The day came at last when the effigy was complete. He flicked a switch and air was pumped into the artificial lungs and larynx of the eikon. Its lips parted and it spoke to him in the tones of a woodwind instrument: Time is, was, has passed. . . and come again.
As the Monstruwacan seers in their great Tower looked down upon the Land from a height of eight miles, so Aver looked down upon an even deeper vista from atop a pyramid of time. The sensation made him dizzy. Aeons were unraveled in an instant.
In the indoor autumn of the nine hundredth and eighty-second level City of Ficino, in the domus of Oelyssia, leaves fallen from the darling-trees scattered themselves across the diamond-and-dart tiles of the pentagonal courtyard with a gentle rustle like a whispering crowd. All the world for her was in the tone of autumn, from the tiles to the leaves to the whisper of her fingertips on the textured pages of her book. At the pale cleft of her collarbone, there was a cameo of ivory and honey-blood carnelian. She read from a book with her fingers as she walked. “Time is, was, has passed,” she said aloud.
Her chaperone, companion, and friend, Maia, walked with a measured step beside her. “Do not so brood so, Oelyssia, that you could not have loved a man of the Dead Cities.”
"He declared his vow to me,” Oelyssia said, barely hearing her. “He would have married me, and I him — and now. . .”
“You barely knew him — only by letter, and then he wrote no more,” Maia soothed. She did not speak of the Eugenicists’ ban on her marriage.
Her hand went to the brooch at her throat. “He made this, and that was all the proof he needed to describe his worth.”
Maia shook her head, thinking that perhaps Oelyssia was exaggerating. The brooch might have been made by anyone. “Stop grasping at such thin threads of hope when they are already gone and think of what may yet come your way. Even a rank in the Watch would not have been enough for one of your line. . . you could be a scholar of music and oratory, a carer for children.”
"Time is, was, has passed,” Oelyssia repeated firmly, as if it were an order and not a complaint. She turned her face over Maia, who saw that her eyes were as beautiful and blank as pearls.
Aver was astounded by the tale related by the effigy. Though it gave but a small glimpse of a minor melodrama, it had the ring of truth that no play or performance had ever had for him before. It was as if the facts fell into slots waiting already in his mind. He continued to listen, spellbound.
Oelyssia read a song from her book with her sensitive fingertips. It had been ancient before it was written down, its meter alien to the Set Speech as if it had been translated many times over, gaining and losing parts of itself with every intervening age. She suspected that the five-verse form had been uncomfortably forced upon it and that there might be lines amiss too, but nonetheless, she read it and seemed to understand herself too.
I’ll weave a song of emptiness:
It will neither be of love nor youth,
Nor of anything else.
Rather it was composed while sleeping
In my bed. . .
There was something about it, so common to all that it seemed addressed to her and her alone.
I’ve made this song of emptiness;
And I’ll send it to one who will send it farther
And there to his city
So that he might send me from his box
She put the book away and thought. The ancient troubadour in passing his song to others had made a chain of his misery. . . and yet in sharing, he somehow consoled. Loneliness is understood by all, and the moment it is understood, she thought, it is ended. If only she could be sure by her own art of such an understanding for herself!
Surely there must be a means?
Lyreia visited Aver, or rather he returned to his home to find her waiting for him. At first he did not even see her, but he turned and saw her slip from a shadowed cove. She was clad in covert, a shade and pattern almost like every other, so that it took a moment even in good light for him to perceive her. It was only when she removed her mask and placed herself deliberately in front of a deep red hanging unrelieved by any elaborate decoration that she became clear and solid in his sight.
He was a small man, and found this large woman so close to him in his own place intimidating. He could almost feel the heat radiated by her, and took a step back. It was a waste of time demanding to know how she could have entered or asserting his inviolable right to privacy and the only obvious and necessary question was “Why?” — but even then he guessed at the answer.
“We have heard,” she said simply. Panic came to him momentarily. He knew well enough that his project would be unfavoured at best and grounds for ostracism at worst. This spy might easily ruin him if she so desired, but clearly she had her own agenda and would probably have reason and means to keep secrets.
“Then why again?” he fenced.
She smiled, rather warmly, he thought. “The Last Redoubt is like a garden wherein we sow our seeds, provide some light and warmth, where we observe the blooms that flower. In that we are alike. I sowed some seeds in your mind, Aver, and I thought it only fair that you know that I am watching to see what may grow.”
“Gardeners harvest and they prune,” he commented sharply. “Do you think that I might fall under your shears?” If the woman was threatening him, it might do to let her know that he anticipated such a possibility and would have some counterplan.
She shook her head. “Forgetfulness is abhorrent to us,” she said, and with that, suddenly, she was gone.
Maia despaired. Years had passed and Oelyssia had never consoled herself for her enforced sterility. An attachment to some order or other that would find an honourable use for a woman blind from birth would still secure some prestige for her clan. Love was a matter for private indulgence under such circumstances and there were ways by which it could be procured and managed for her yet. Oelyssia, though, had no such practical grasp and had refused to either obey or bend. The Eugenicists and Censors had noted her obstinacy and authorised the production of another child by her parents, a cruelty to her mother that was quite undeserved.
Still Oelyssia would not listen to reason.
“Love,” she said.
“Madness, emptiness!” said Maia.
“I will find someone to devote myself to entirely,” Oelyssia insisted.
“There is so much else that you can do!”
“If not in this life, then the next, or the next, or the next. . .”
Maia sighed. “That is as may be, but there is still, in this time, the possibility of fulfillment. Why must you throw it away?”
“I will devote this life to finding my goal in the next.”
Maia tried another tack. “And how might you do that? By depriving yourself of all possibility for joy and success? No one would want such barrenness and suffering for you.”
Oelyssia smiled serenely. “No,” she said. “I will have a long and happy life, and every eve I will relate the times of my days to my future lover. When the age comes when he is born, I will be whole and he will read and receive of me.”
Maia stared at her, incredulous for a moment, but recovered and tried a last gambit, twisting her intentions one more time. “Forget the man and all false hopes, Oelyssia. Take what was real and assured. . .”
“It is as if we are already wed.”
It was impossible. Maia left.
That night and on following nights, Oelyssia worked late and scrupulously put her affairs in order. At last there was a night in which she laid herself down to sleep and when Maia came to fetch her the following morning, she found her neither warmer nor cooler than her bed. There was a vial beside her containing one drop of green fluid.
Aver knew of course that he was in love. Consummation was an impossibility, but the thought did cross his mind that since the animating mechanisms of the eikon were smaller in total volume than a human body, then there was no reason that a body could not be constructed for him to embrace. The Creed of Heroes demanded that soul meet soul and therefore mere simulacra were anathematised as perverted — but he would argue that it would be no simulation, but a window between souls. There were those he knew who conducted their affairs entirely through the medium of the slip network, never meeting in the flesh but expressing profound and true love entirely by word and gesture. He was sure that Oelyssia loved him and that he loved her in an even more full sense, and as lover and beloved, they would meet — if not in this life — then in the next or at the horizon of eternity.
How strange their love was, how legendary it could become! Its origins conceived in one age, its intimations in another, its consummation in a third!
Distracted by his passion, he was jarred when he returned to his domus one day and the gatekeeper informed him that he had had a visitor. “A young woman,” he explained, with a slightly disapproving air. “Veiled and unaccompanied.”
Intrigued and thinking that it might be his familiar Masquer, Aver interrogated him, but he had little to tell him beyond the bare description of a much smaller woman. Not wishing to reveal too much himself, he did not press his inquiry further.
That night he slept poorly.
The next day he had no caller, but the day after that he did, and again it was the mysterious young woman who refused to give her name. Frustrated, Aver instructed the gatekeeper to demand of the woman her identity, and state that if she wished to retain her privacy so, then she was to leave at least a letter for him, otherwise he could obviously never accept her overture, whatever it might be. The mystery intrigued him greatly, though with a mixture of abstraction and intensity. On one hand the attention from a woman, who, though invisible, was described as moving gracefully, was flattering. On the other hand, he had his own by-now thoroughly absorbing interest in the avatar of Oelyssia. The other woman could only be a complication.
Lyreia appeared to him yet again, and he had fresh accusations for her. “This is your doing! You wish to divert, to confuse me!”
The woman shook her head. “Can you not imagine that someone might seek you out for their love?” she asked.
Her words cut. “You do not deny your part in this?” he snapped.
She laid her hand on his shoulder, which made him start. “I’ll deny nothing, because after all, I might after all be in some way responsible for part of this web of events.”
“You play with me!”
“No, Aver, I savour you.”
Despite her sincerity, and even a sort of affection that seemed peculiarly familial, he pulled himself away from her coldly. He did not of course mention his conflict to the avatar. She would be offended. In any case, it was merely a game, and it amused him to be the object of a secret fascination, as he exercised such himself. The next day he received his first letter from the stranger. The ink was unusual, having caused the paper to rise like a welt so that a trained hand might be able to read it in the dark simply by touch. He heard that Watchmen who went Outside had used such an ink themselves for their various maps and notes.
This was curious and odd, but the content was even more so: she barely knew him, she wrote apologetically, but nonetheless she was fascinated by him. It was as if he somehow gave completion to her. This she knew from only the most oblique experience of hearing him speak in company, or hearing him walk by two removes from her in a crowd or by reading the few poems he had published and read in a small gallery nearby, but knew also to be absolutely true. In the letter there were hints that she did know more about him than he would allow a stranger to know. She suggested a favourite garden corner where he liked to rest, for example. Perhaps one day they might meet there?
He screwed up the letter and resolved never to visit that garden again, and damned her for taking that little pleasure from him. Days later, another letter arrived, telling him that she had waited, but had not seen him and that she missed him terribly and could only console herself with the scents of the flowers that grew in ‘his’ garden. A petal from one of the roses that he knew grew there was enclosed. This letter too he destroyed.
The letters from his invisible suitor continued nonetheless. At last he began to answer them, using the same tactile ink to acknowledge her taste. He nominated his gatekeeper at first to pass the sealed envelopes on for him whenever she called, but he began to dread that the man would open them and in his shame he arranged a neutral address, where, if they could not meet, then at least they could both deliver and receive their correspondence with reasonable discretion.
It was certain of course that her continual invisibility was no accident, now that it had persisted for so long. She must have seen him at some stage, and he might even have seen her, but while he wracked his memory he could not remember who it might have been. The reason for her deliberate concealment was less difficult to imagine. The girl had caught a glimpse of him at some point or another and continued even now to watch him — but she could never be permitted to come near, unless there was some radical change in circumstances. Clearly there was a distinction of caste that would provoke a great scandal if it were discovered. Ironically, it seemed that the gulf of class was as great as the gulf of time that separated him from Oelyssia.
This he found rather touching and sad, and it caused him to see his own love in a new light. He wrote to console her as best he could, hinting obliquely that he understood her better than she might think.
She seemed to comprehend his suggestions better than he might have hoped. In fact, there was a sad grace and intelligence to her style that was strongly reminiscent of Oelyssia herself. Despite her presumably obscure origins, she showed a rare learning and erudition that paralleled his own, though of course it was less well developed. In one letter, she confessed that she was blind, like Oelyssia had been, and, knowing better than to pity her, he felt that this strengthened their understanding.
Guiltily, he admitted to himself that he was becoming quite sympathetic towards this invisible suitor. It was almost as if he was betraying Oelyssia for her.
Once, as he was walking through a crowded market, he was sure that she walked near to him, perhaps only a few steps away. He turned one way to find her and felt a light brush against his cheek. He spun around the other way and thought he had her, but there was no one who could be her.
Perhaps it had been a stray current of air.
Meanwhile, he continued work on the avatar. It was possible to pack a motive power source into a fairly compact frame, which led to the next logical step in his project. The last remnants of his legacy went into the purchase of the components of a lacuna-doll and its modification to serve as a life-like carriage for the head and its supporting cognitive systems.
He assumed that they were properly shaped, if not precisely shaped. Oelyssia had left a cameo of her face in three-quarters profile, but no depiction of her whole body. He simply had to extrapolate from what he saw in her facial bone structure and scale the body accordingly.
Of course the addition necessitated further alterations to its calculator mill, as now it had to control its power supply and its new limbs — a not inconsiderable task. Fortunately, like a living human, it learned by feedback rather than direct programming. This was time-consuming in practice, however, and Aver would look at his clocks and be amazed at the hours and days that had passed as he trained the avatar in the basics of carriage and gait. Nonetheless, it learned and it learned well. Often he demonstrated what he thought was an appropriately ‘feminine’ gait and it was able to imitate him immediately, and even better as its legs and hips were naturally more properly shaped.
In all, he was quite satisfied and it — she now — pleased his eye well in form, moved well and even spoke in an attractive lilt that was as good a reconstruction of the Foundation-era accent as he could manage.
While he taught the avatar eurhythmy and elocution, he began to fill it with all that he had discovered of the Foundation-era people in general and Oelyssia in particular.
He debated for a time whether he should make the avatar blind or grant it sight. In the end he decided that it must parallel the original Oelyssia as much as possible. Sight could be given to her as a blessing and a gift later.
The danger was, he knew, that in his pursuit of accuracy he was creating a mere simulation of the real Oelyssia when in fact he wanted a channel to Oelyssia. He remembered, though, what the Masquer woman had said to him about the soul of one being brought into being by the empathy of another. He could not say which side of it was the cause and which the effect, but he was sure then that his calling to the soul of Oelyssia would bring her to him or that his recognition of her was a reflection of her traveling forward to him.
His joy was immense when she spoke to him and when he was able to speak to her. Neglecting his work and the burdens of confession to his college Proctors, he began to confide all in this one who was fated to know him as no one else would.
“Oelyssia,” he said.
“Aver,” it sang.
Meanwhile, the letters from his unknown admirer continued, vexing him. Not least as a cause for his annoyance was the fact that they struck similar strange chords to those struck by Oelyssia’s avatar. Sometimes he suspected that she observed him better and more closely than she admitted, spying on him his own home and recording his private conversations. He did not dare accuse her of such a low act, of course, and noting the real tenderness displayed, hated himself for harbouring such suspicions.
The letters continued despite his doubts and recriminations, still only intensifying for him the feeling that the girl showed more than a simple resemblance in manner to his own timeless beloved. Unable to answer his own questions and unable to venture an enquiry that might bring a definite answer, he threw himself all the more into the conditioning of the avatar. It learned to dance a saucy volta and a sombre pavan according to its programmes — and adequately or exquisitely depending upon the taste of any anticipated company. That uncertainty, he thought shrewdly, was as good a proof of its ability to present a truly human appearance as any to the eye at least.
Night-hearing was another matter. All thinking matter presents some inflection to the pneumasome as consciousness is — according to various schools of thought — either a naturally emergent property arising in all cogitating systems, or inevitably drawn from the aether by such systems. The trick and the necessity was then to ensure that the mind resident in the avatar was a human mind. In pursuit of this, he spent many a late night trying to imprint upon it the mind-shape of the Master Word, the true test of essential humanity.
Aver was not sure, when he heard it come back to him, whether to be joyful or dismayed, so much like an echo of his own mind did it seem. Surely, while the Master Word presented the true proof of common humanity, its mental utterance would be adequate? Perhaps, but he expected too for it to have the inflection of the distinct quality of the unique persona. A true human, after all, is distinct within a commonality. Each time, though, it came back to him in the pattern of his own Night-speech.
The inescapable conclusion seemed to be then that he had failed and that it was all a delusion. It was an insane vanity to think that he could draw down Oelyssia’s soul from the aether so easily! Disappointed, he returned to his more prosaic studies and duties, almost embarrassed at his folly. He tried to convince himself that his project was merely a passing delusion. Love was a madness, he knew. Everyone knew that love was a perfect madness. Folly in the name of love was no shame — it was more shameful surely never to be capable of love and folly. With this he tried to console himself and to keep away his disappointment. His colleagues — those that he saw — were too polite to pry deeply, and let it be known through sympathetic glances that they thought they understood. He tried not to resent their gestures.
The disappointment that he felt would not depart and instead it gnawed at him, sickening his quiet times when he had no other human voices to keep him occupied. Drink sufficed for a time, until drunkenness caused him to drop his guard and made his feelings still more acute.
As if called by her own obscure needs, Lyreia slipped her way through his walls again. This time, despite his distress, he did not shake her away. He even entertained the thought that her presence was simply an illusion, as Oelyssia’s was an illusion. Thought was a garden, she had said. If that was so, then love was a garden of madness and he might as well simply find what grew best in the soil of his particular mind, be it the image of the Masquer or Oelyssia. The woman took his favourite chair as if it was her own and idly fingered an onyx tetrahedron that he used as a paperweight and watched him with a thoughtful expression that he could not quite read. “There was in the ages of the protohistory a bird of this colour called a Raven,” she said, seemingly at random. “It was supposed to be the wisest of all: a familiar, a spy and an omen.”
“And you are my Raven?”
She chuckled. “I do not so presume that I am a Raven. . . I merely feel that having lost such beings from our lives, we people must step into the spaces they have left. Otherwise the world will fall apart.”
“Then are there basilisk-men, harpy-women and kitten-children?” he asked sarcastically.
She seemed not to hear him, following her own train of thought.
“There are such masks that we make our homes. . . rather like yet another creature that inhabits necessary findings, the hermit crab.”
He laughed. “Ha! So all is likeness and nothing is itself?”
“So it seems,” she said absently and then rose abruptly to take a stance in front of the still avatar. She tilted her head, raised a hand, held her fingers just so. . .
“Stop that!” he snapped.
She whirled to face him and grinned, blinking. Her eyes were blank, as if blind.
“Stop it, I say!” She slumped like a puppet whose strings had been cut. It was yet more mockery, but he did not dare to attempt to throw her out. “Why do you torment me?” he demanded.
She raised herself and shrugged. “I do not know, but I think that you want it of me.”
“I do not want it of you!”
“You seek her everywhere, you know she is near, you invoke her out of mist. . . as he did, calling her up out of dark mists. . .”
Who? ‘He’? What did she mean? He shook his head angrily. “So you are mist now? Then be gone like mist, evaporate!”
She went, but where she had lain on his bed, a little warmth remained for a while.
The visits and the letters from his other familiar continued, as did his replies and these were his one consolation of sincerity. At first he contrived the appearance of good spirits, not wanting to double his shame in sharing and then he did not know any other way to communicate with her. The language that they had developed in their letters admitted now pain of loss, and, adopting this mode, he forgot to be in any other frame of mind. Now he began to declare openly to the girl that he did not care for any shame that might be felt by an illicit affair, no matter if she was married, or if she was some ragamuffin stray from a Dead City, or a cenobite of some prescriptive contemplative order. A Censor might be held to show and enforce proper civic morality, but he would be willing to corrupt himself for his true beloved!
His hyperbole returned to strike him stealthily. In her reply, she accused him of excessive reserve and repeatedly emphasised his use of the phrase ‘true beloved’, clearly in an attempt to emotionally blackmail him. At first he was angry at such an attempt at manipulation, until he was forced to admit that it was he who had written those words.
And after that, he was forced to admit to himself what he had meant.
It was obvious of course, and it was astonishing. The reason that he was unable in the end to bestow full life upon the avatar was perfectly simple and logical. As all were reborn to find their own true beloved, then as he had known himself to be Oelyssia’s, then she was now alive and communicating with him. In some way, his creation of the avatar had called her to him! He struck his forehead, not knowing whether he should laugh with joy or weep with shame for ignoring the obvious for so long!
As a desperate gamble, he wrote a long letter, explaining and confessing and proposing everything.
There was no reply.
Aver was thrown into panic. Perhaps her family had kidnapped her. He did not dare think that she had met with foul play. Secrecy had been a cover, but now it bound him. Action might desperately be needed, but he could not act openly at all. Frustrated, and ashamed of his frustration, he called upon his sprite and by whatever circuitous channels she used, she heard him and came.
Trembling, he explained his proposal, his concerns. Throughout it all, Lyreia nodded, not provoking him at all this time. “What do you wish me to do?” she asked at last.
“Find her,” he begged. “Bring her to me safe. Nothing else matters, she is truly Mine Own.”
The Masquer brought her hands together across her belly and interlaced her fingers. “Yes, this is true,” she said quietly. For some reason this seemed odd.
“Can you do this?”
Her mouth twitched in a parody of a smile. “That is what we who live in the walls are supposed to do, is it not? At night in the half-dark we see all, and then we come and take people away and into our fold. . .”
He stood up and paced, waving his hands about. He was sure that he looked ridiculous, but did not care. “Yes, yes, do this thing! Be my spy, my Raven spy and noble Raptor!”
Her head turned to follow him, watching evenly. “Do you think that it is you who possesses her?”
“She desires to possess me!”
Lyreia nodded. “Yes, I know that it is so,” she whispered.
“Do you agree? Will you find her?”
“Yes, it is the proper time for that now, I think,” she said and slipped away to perform her task.
Lyreia returned more quickly than he even hoped, something that filled him with mixed gratitude and dread. Did she come to say that his love was dead and taken from him again for another age?
No, she told him worse.
“This woman is you.”
He shook his head and refused to hear. “I don’t understand.”
She explained slowly, carefully and with detail and evidence that made her claim irrefutable. “You were seen to leave your residence, then you were seen to make your way to another, long abandoned, as increasingly many are in this age. No one else was there or entered with you, and yet a different figure, veiled, was seen to leave. This figure visited your domus, left letters at your agreed exchange point and otherwise lived the life of a single, unchaperoned woman. We watched her residence, but no one other than she and yourself have ever entered or left it. There are no others.”
“I have never been to this place!” he protested “I have never seen it!”
“You have, for you are her.”
“No! It is impossible!”
“I will take you there now.” She stood up and grasped his wrist. Taller than him, and as an actor, also an athlete despite her fleshiness, she could easily have taken him by force, but he meekly allowed himself to follow.
The room that ‘Oelyssia’ lived in did not seem familiar to him as it might and he was relieved at first, but the Masquer was relentless, pointing out detail upon detail — the cot where she slept, the colourless but richly and subtly textured wall hangings, the vase of scented flowers that were still fresh, the desk where she wrote, her paper, her pen, the veiled cloak she wore when abroad in the city. All fell to the shape of his hands too easily when he touched them.
He gave a wordless cry and pushed his way past Lyreia and out of the room.
Time passed, Aver knew, but he did not measure it. He saw in the streets and in his home a figure buckled and starved and sexless who never stepped fully into view. He was driven to hate this intruder and spy lurking in the corners of his sight until he realised that he was haunted by himself.
Sentience fled for a time, receiving a few echoes of outside events, but comprehending none of them. Slowly it rose again on some inner prompting.
In his dreams, a face of grey adamantine appeared to him, the old Master in his true metallic incarnation or a creation of his own conscience. It might have laughed, but it did not. “Do you remember my warning, my least sign and your greatest bind?” it asked. "Could or should you know or bear what I imply?” He smiled apologetically. “Ill verses, these, but surely you can understand.”
“Are you real?” Aver asked.
The face looked thoughtful. “I asked myself this so often, I forgot to hear the answer. My inheritors have a piece of me more real now in legend than what they did not notice before. The Last Redoubt has a soul and so then do I, though it seems I stand on many feet in many places now. . .”
“I don’t understand.”
Pallin did laugh then. “No, you do not, and neither did I, but I came to knowledge and so will you. Act, Aver: be.”
Awake, he remembered the words, but their thread slipped from his grasp and he lashed himself to the minutiae of everyday life as a substitute for order, using his legal name and address as a substitute for any certainty of identity. When he rebuilt what sanity he could to allow broader functioning, he carried a timepiece with him at all times, checking it for sudden jumps that were evidence of a fugue, but it seemed that he had none of any noticeable length now. He was obscurely disappointed by this. Again and again he reminded himself that it was not wrong to need love. His passions had merely been torn apart in the great storm of his temporary insanity. Worse had happened to faultless and innocent people amongst the incursions of the image castings from the Watcher, and the famous Pallin ex Asphodelos had himself fought to contain them — and then he had been lost in his own folly in the end when he went Out to see the Watcher. Such was the objective chronicle even without the ornament of his strange return. What dishonour could Aver be burdened with after all that? He had shown no malice, he had merely been infected. . . and conscious, he was attempting to treat himself with the best discipline.
Still, he missed the presence of Oelyssia, in either of her incarnations. In any case, what living woman would have him now if she were to know of his history?
Would, though, a woman need to know? He did not mean to lie, but he knew that many marriages were based on illusions. In overseeing local censuses, he had noted many marriages that had been initiated by families seeking political gain and the taking of mistresses for pleasures that were a form of play-acting at love, but more honest than the performance of formal familial duties. He had been a lover and love was what was proper in essence, however the light of his spirit had been refracted. This was true, this was what had happened.
And then again he began to dream of Oelyssia and her courtyard with the diamond-and-dart tiles and the autumn leaves. The dreams would not stop, possessing him like a mara, clutching at his heart as he lay paralysed in his bed. It was as if some malign influence had come out of the Land Outside and sought to poison his soul, but he knew too well that the visions were barely out of time and entirely from within his own soul.
Now and again the Master came back, saying nothing, but watching with a sardonic eye that sometimes showed a deeper sympathy. Did he haunt Lyreia too? She sometimes spoke of him. . . Oh the curses of the dead!
Some nights he did not dare sleep and paced his chambers instead. The avatar still stood in his private study, draped in a veil. One night he lifted that veil and raised a hammer, ready to smash the exquisite thing to a thousand fragments. He felt a shift then, a sense of vertigo of the sort that one can feel looking into a mirror and perceiving, for an instant, that there is someone else there behind the glass. This is what he felt, though a little differently. In this case, he could not tell for a moment what was right and what was left — as if he was looking not into a mirror, but out of it. He did not know what this meant. He stayed his blow and staggered away.
He did not look at it again for a long time, but he did not dare to touch it, let alone remove it, so every night there stood in his chamber a volume of space, more strange than an Eater, where his eyes would not stray.
Finally it became too much for him and once again he stood facing it. This time he whipped the veil from it and beheld it fully and then he understood, then he knew why he heard only the Master Word as he would give it himself.
What he heard did not feel like an echo; it was an echo. He was not the beloved of Oelyssia; he was Oelyssia reborn. The avatar was no avatar; it was a mirror. This was why he had been able to become his own correspondent: the ‘false’ persona of the woman who wrote was not false at all, she was the real and original Oelyssia.
Lyreia consoled him.
“Is all love self-love?” he asked of her.
“It is like self-love,” she said, stroking his forehead.
“All is like and nothing is,” he commented bitterly.
“You imagined that the Last Redoubt was a place of rigid certainty, with all its guilds interlocking like the wheels and gears of a fine clock. That was the likeness you sought, Aver. You are free, Aver, more free than you could ever have imagined.”
“Free to choose?”
“Free to see the will of the soul of the Redoubt at least. . .”
“I might wish to be blind.”
“No, you must never choose that.” She turned away from him, wrapped in her own unknown thoughts.
He might well have blinded himself. The curtailment would have been a relief. Frustrated, having learned to no profit what people meant when they said they were in love with being in love, he began to write letters. These he left discretely about his home and even gave some in sealed envelopes to his gatekeeper in the hope that he might coax his memories of a former life into manifestation once more, but it was to no avail. Desperate, he strode through his chambers and even considered reactivating his doll, but the moment he raised its veil he recoiled in horror. Chastened, he withdrew, but even then could not find refuge in sleep. His health declined; his voice quietened beneath the threshold of manhood; he lost weight and became an adolescent, sexless parody of himself.
There seemed to be no escape from his bind, but finally when his situation seemed hopeless, an inspiration came to him. Once again he wrote his letters, but this time he addressed them to himself and signed them with Oelyssia’s name. The first was a plea and an announcement in which she revealed that she had been kidnapped and taken to another level and city of the Last Redoubt, and found there to her shock that millions of years had passed and her life, which had begun near the Foundation, now was lived in the age before the Fall. Dread overcame her and she searched for a kindred spirit and companion. She sensed him — Aver — once nearby, she had heard his voice and felt the vibration of his tread near her in the halls. Thereafter she had followed him at every opportunity, but the crowds had been so dense and his constant rush so intent that she had never been quite able to catch him. Once, twice, she had almost touched him and breathed upon his bare skin. Had he, she asked, felt her breath, like the lightest caress of a finger against his cheek one day in the market? Had he?
He ached and trembled as he wrote this, but he went on and wrote more.
There was no reason or plan behind his action, and it was no mere self-deception or pretense. He could not have said what it was that did inspire him, saving that he had an instinctive understanding that he was making his way towards a solution of sorts.
When he was provoked to consider his situation, sometime after he began, he offered the rationale to himself that if he was Oelyssia as Lyreia had demonstrated to him, then rather than being prey to the randomness of her manifestation, he was choosing to invoke her. She was the mask that was his own face.
This he told no-one, for there was no-one now who spoke to him: in the process of his illness he had been smoothly ostracised by his Order. The Censors needed no policing because they policed themselves and so no one came to take his habit and rosary from him, because he would not now dare wear them. As the Last Redoubt was the ultimate ark of humanity, it had a place for all and the onus was on him to find what was now his true place.
As Aver, he wrote to Oelyssia, asking her advice. As Oelyssia, she replied.
Lyreia greeted Aver with a mood of ironic expectation. The Masquers were in rehearsal for a mystery play, but she took time out to greet him. When she held up a pin, he winced and she put it away laughing.
The performance was an allegory on the Last Redoubt itself, which she said had been performed from the moment its purpose had been conceived. Indeed, as some Masquers told it, it was a version of this play that had inspired the Foundation of the Last Redoubt itself. That day he stayed and watched. The next he came again and on the third day he did not leave.
Though the decision was quick, Aver’s assimilation into the order took time. Every guild had its secrets and skills which were unveiled only according to schedules of initiation and achievement, but Aver was still young and people lived a long time in the Last Redoubt. He was patient, as patient as any one can be when they are at home.
He did not think that he was acting. While the art required great technical skill, Aver’s lack of art stood out, and his style seemed to be more in the nature of reflection on the natures of various members of the audience. Performances where often structured around him as the centerpiece. He was seen and known by all, but ultimately also opaque. People thought that they could see themselves in him, but when they looked closely, he eluded such solution, drawing them then still further out of themselves in their seats and into the dramas of his company. As such, he fascinated the populace and became, as his reputation spread, a celebrity.
Everybody knew of him, nobody knew him — but all who went to see him thought of him as their own. Aver was their Eikon.
Lyreia remained as his sponsor, and as he observed her, he learned that while the Masquers made it their profession to take and shed identities routinely, one role had left a permanent mark on her — or rather what that role had brought forth would now never be entirely suppressed.
It was in the half-light shaded close to darkness that the Masquers preferred as their sleeping environment, Lyreia kept nightly watch on her charge, Aver. By her own instigation, she began her assumption of his ancient other half and this time did not stop — and neither did he command her to. Watching her, he saw the flickering of her own unformed but insistent needs in her eyes. Afterwards, the illusion, or whatever it was that was not an illusion, was completed and secreted away like all scripts were at the end of a rehearsal, and the two spoke and trusted each other with their confessions.
“Were you the consort of the Master, Pallin ex Asphodelos?”
“Meyr was. . . I incarnated her. He drew her out of me. . . she is me.”
Aver was confused, and stripping her answer down to what he could understand, took it for an affirmative. “You led him Out to die?” he asked.
“He was dying,” she replied. “He was able to choose the manner, able to choose to take knowledge and to give it to us. He let me be true to what I did not know I was until that moment and I am grateful for the knowledge he gave to me.”
A thought occurred to him. “I never knew who gave the order to make the effigy of the late Master. I never knew either what became of it. Was that your doing?”
“Yes,” she said simply. It was no surprise.
She might have shrugged. “We knew that you would do well and you did. It is now as much as we, I, have of him.”
Clearly the Masquers were in the business of great designs, he thought, but the greatest design for him was his own small world. “What is true?” he asked, hoping that she would say “love.”
Almost she did: “Likeness.”
“As always, and what does it mean?”
She almost seemed to leer. Her eyes glittered oddly in the gloom. “Likeness of and for you, Aver, if you so desire.”
“Likeness,” he repeated. “Likeness of. . .”
“To you, now.”
He shuddered and withdrew and would not look at her, but he could not tear his gaze away either, and when he turned back to her, she was still watching him. “I wanted to find love,” he said weakly.
“That is the purpose of our lives here in the one warm part of the Night Land. Here we love you. The Mother Redoubt loves you. You have given that love.” She turned away on her side and was silent.
Aver reached out his hand to touch her and found that her skin was hot. “You never said what you desired, of why. . . you of all. . . why?”
He felt her tremble.
“Why?” he asked again.
Lyreia still did not speak immediately. Instead, he heard her sob, and then choke back her tears. Finally she did answer: “I thought I understood you and that I could help you,” she confessed. “Later I thought that I envied you.”
She took a deep breath. “When I met him, he was old, it was too late, almost too late. I did not know, but I felt. . .”
“Him.” The Master, Pallin the hero. The dead man. “I remembered, in some way he brought it back. . .” she rolled over and looked at him and he could see that her eyes were red-rimmed with grief. “I remembered. I had another life as you did, I knew it. There was a man then, called Metenn, and he went Out into the Land and he died and he was Metenn come again and again. . .” She curled up upon herself, crying once more. “The me that was Meyr then loved him, and the Meyr that is immortal has the patience of aeons, but I, merely mortal. . .” she mumbled. “I have dreams where I see his mask. . . I dare not seek it out knowing. . . but I do not know. . .”
Aver held her, expecting her to fight free, but she let herself be cradled. Through the night he listened to her tell for the first time the story of her life rather than another’s. “I envy you, Aver,” she said at the end as the new day began. “You have found in your unique way a symmetry, but I, I have to wait another cycle at least before I find him again. . .”
“All come together,” he said, stroking her. “In time.”
“Be him for me, for my mortal self who knows no better,” she cried.
“I will,” he promised.