Excerpt – City on Fire

Think of it as a sort of Russian novel: it deals with everything . The story encompasses love, death, war, peace, sex, politics, philosophy, loyalty, love, religion, intrigue, betrayal, magic, friendship, conspiracy, and family. Everything, in short, that makes life worth talking about. City on Fire was nominated for the Hugo and Nebula awards for Best Novel! It was also a A New York Times Notable Book. The least you can do is buy a copy. Check out the excerpt below! Then buy the book from amazon.com!

“City on Fire. . . is that rarest of entertainments, a sequel that improves on a successful predecessor . . . Where the sequel outshines the original is in its treatment of the relationship between Constantine and Aiah . . . in fact, [Aiah] has developed into a remarkably likable character, still enthralled by her mentor but a far more reliable witness, whose portrayal of Constantine comes into sharper focus as the shadows darken . . . Mr. Williams’s prose is distinguished by a no-nonsense confidence that perfectly matches Constantine’s unshakable faith in his own destiny” — New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1997

Text copyright (c) 1997 by Walter Jon Williams. It may not be reproduced in any form without permission of the author.


We start partway into the book. In Metropolitan , the earlier volume in this series, our heroine Aiah helped the charismatic rebel leader Constantine to overthrow the corrupt government of the Keremath family in the Republic of Caraqui , a metropolis built over the sea on an endless carpet of pontoons and barges. They are assisted by Constantine’s ally Taikoen , a deadly, magical creature who kills and murders in exchange for permission to possess human bodies.

Aiah has now joined Constantine’s government as the head of a department concerned with the enforcement of laws against stealing plasm , an energy source that powers magic for the world. Assisting her is Ethemark , a political appointee with “twisted,” amphibious genetics.

Aiah has agreed to join Ethemark on a visit to one of the half-worlds, illegal settlements built in the shadows of the city overhead. Though suspicious of Ethemark’s motives, Aiah nevertheless agrees to let him guide her to the dangerous place known as Aground…


by Walter Jon Williams

It isn’t far — forty minutes by aerial tram from the station nearest the Palace, but in terms of a difference in character, for sheer existential antithesis, a hundred hours would not be far enough.

Aiah leaves the department files, still in their briefcase, at one of the palace guard stations. A change of clothing is necessary: Ethemark advises waterproof boots, overalls, a waterproof hat. Aiah buys them en route. Dressed like a sewer worker, she enjoys her first ride on an aerial tram. It flies much faster than she’d expected, and when the high winds catch its slab sides the tram bobs alarmingly on its cable. Below, boats leave silver tracks in grey watery canyons. The white granite towers of Lorkhin Island loom close, then are left behind.

Once they leave the tram station, they find a water taxi, but the taxi will take them only so far, and drops them off on steel mesh quay scarred with rust and graffiti. Aiah looks uneasily around her at a decaying, abandoned factory structure and ramshackle brick tenements.

“You are safe,” Ethemark says. “These people know me.”

Weathered Keremath faces gaze at Aiah from the pontoon opposite. Our family is your family.

The white towers of Lorkhin Island are still visible on the near horizon. Ethemark hails and hires a boatman who happens to pass the quay. The boatman is twisted— a huge creature, broad and powerful, a walking slab designed for a hard life of manual labor. His family live on the boat with him, beneath a tarpaulin roof: an old grandmother— a white-haired, wrinkled slab, still powerful as a truck— and a number of children. The deformities of each, the boundless terrain of bone and muscle, is more pronounced as each grows older— the youngest is almost human in appearance, the oldest a near-copy of her father. The hull is some kind of foam which, when scarred or torn, can be repaired simply by adding more foam. The boat’s engine is a noisy old two-cycle outboard that runs off the same hydrogen tank as the single-burner stove, and also powers a dim light stuck up on a short mast forward.

Ethemark nods toward their hosts. “These people are among the more common of the altered,” he remarks conversationally. “They’re commonly called `stonefaces.’ Nictating membranes shade his eyes. ” My kind,” he adds, “are `embryos.'”

“Are these terms, ah, insulting?” Aiah asks. “Would I use them in polite company?”

“It depends on how you use them,” Ethemark says.

Aiah nods. There are Jaspeeri words for the Barkazil that can vary the same way in their meanings.

Aiah feels a chill of apprehension as the boat slips away from the warmth of Shieldlight, into the darkness beneath a pair of lumbering concrete pontoons: the buildings above the pontoons are crumbling brick tenements, bad enough in themselves, and who knows what lives underneath?

The boat moves slowly onward. Aiah’s eyes adjust to the darkness. Ethemark stands by the little mast forward and signals to Aiah. “Will you join me?”

Reluctantly Aiah makes her way forward in the last of the light, stands, and holds the mast for balance. A webwork of lights glows ahead, dim yellow dots that resolve, as Aiah nears, into bulbs strung on long strands. Somewhere there is the unmuffled cough of a generator, heard even over the racket of the boat’s two-cycle engine.

Slowly the dimensions of a floating city emerge, a city build in the shadow of the larger, Shieldlit floating city above. On the fringes are boats packed together, seemingly at random, and farther in are rafts, barges, a listing old tug . . . everything strung together by planks, rope or cable bridges, scaffolding, ladders, a structure of arcane complexity . . . Cooking smells float in the thick air, along with the odor of fecal matter, of ooze and rich salt ocean. And, dimly seen in the light of the strung bulbs, the twisted: hulking shapes like the boatman, moving massively in the darkness like moving walls; lithe small forms like Ethemark that scamper over the scaffolding; and other, rarer figures, fantastic things in nightmare shapes, things with horns and claws, with extra limbs or no limbs, with serpent scales or green-glowing lamp eyes that turn to follow Aiah as the boat moves deeper into the darkness.

“There are hundreds of these places,” Ethemark says, his voice a deep counterpoint to the high-pitched bang of the engine. “Perhaps thousands. No one has ever counted them. No one knows how many people live in them, but there must be many millions. They are called half-worlds, and those who live in them are accounted half-human.”

There is a splash ahead in the water, and Aiah’s heart leaps. Whatever it was has disappeared, leaving a ring of oily ripples. She puts a hand to her throat, looks at Ethemark.

“Plasm is generated here, isn’t it?”

The strung bulbs glow yellow in Ethemark’s saucerlike pupils. “Of course. The plasm-generating matter in the boats and rafts is insignificant, but some plasm is generated in resonance with the larger structures of the city around us, and additional plasm is . . . acquired from one place or another.”

“And what is done with it?”

“The people here own it. They use it for their own purposes. The boss decides.”

Aiah scowls. “Who picks the boss?”

“They are self-appointed, most of them. One might consider them a type of gangster, though gangsters of a lower order. The Silver Hand lives on the population as a predator lives on prey: the bosses of the half-worlds live among their people in a kind of symbiosis. The bosses cannot afford too great a tyranny— people could always leave— and besides, in the end, the rafts are dangerous places, and a tyrannous boss would not survive them.”

Aiah finds herself unconvinced. In her experience, a minor gangster is only a major gangster who hasn’t got the breaks. She hates them all.

A huge barge looms to starboard, sides streaked with rust. Aiah looks up to see a horned head gazing at her with glittering eyes, and her heart skips a beat before she realizes it’s a goat in a pen, kept for milk or meat. Elsewhere on the barge a large video set, its oval screen set high, burns its images downward for an audience of twisted children. Poppet the Puppet sings a song about the alphabet, her image gleaming off the restless goggle eyes and corded muscle of her audience.

Aiah remembers watching Poppet during her own childhood. The juxtaposition of the familiar and the strange sends an eerie shiver up her spine.

“This place is called Aground,” Ethemark says, “because as the sea has receded the pontoons around us have settled on the bottom. I was born here.”

The lights of his childhood home glimmer in Ethemark’s big saucer eyes.

“Why is the sea receding?”

“People have found other things to do with the water.”

A stench floats toward the boat. Aiah shrinks from it. “The conditions . . . ” she begins, appalled. She had grown up poor in Jaspeer, but has never seen anything like this.

“Infant mortality is very high,” Ethemark says. “Sanitary conditions are not very good, though they’re better than one might expect, and everywhere there is poverty and neglect. The twisted often have special medical needs, and there is no medicine here in any case. Educational opportunities,” dryly, “tend to be limited.”

Aiah looks at him. It is the first hint of irony she has seen in him.

“I was the son of the boss,” he says, “so I got out. I was lucky.” He stands on tiptoe, points. “My cousin is the new boss, and lives there. We will visit him.”

Aiah’s courage quails at the thought. Ethemark’s large eyes turn to her.

“This place is illegal, of course. All the half-worlds are, but certain people are paid off, and others don’t care or find the people who live here useful . . . and besides there is a need for places like this, so they exist. But any of these people could be driven out of here at any time, and all these homes dispersed or destroyed by any official inclined to do so. The population has no rights in the matter.”

He looks up at Aiah, and urgency enters his voice. “I said that your patron and mine have no present cause to disagree. I bring you to this place to show you where my loyalties truly lie. If anyone strikes at these people, tries to cut them off from what little they have, then I will owe those people no loyalty. Do you understand?”

Aiah shrinks from a cold drizzle that falls from some invisible drain high overhead. The boss’s house, covered in scaffolds and with red lights dangling overhead, floats nearer.

“What of the bosses?” she asks. “These little gangsters you talk about, one of whom is your cousin. Are your loyalties to them?”

Ethemark’s thin lips draw back from his teeth, giving him a strange urgency. “Miss Aiah,” he says, “at this moment in time, the bosses are necessary . If these people were no longer driven to live here, the bosses would no longer exist. They would disappear of their own accord.”

Aiah lacks Ethemark’s optimism. She has never known gangsters to vanish of their own free will.

The boatman cuts the engine and the boat drifts up to a half- submerged landing. One of the children lashes the boat to an upright. From somewhere comes the surprising smell of coffee.

“This way.”

Ethemark reveals an unexpected agility as he springs from the boat, touches one boot to the half-submerged platform only to spring to the rungs of a ladder that seems to be bolted together from bits of old pipe. Aiah is less graceful, and as Ethemark scurries up the ladder Aiah soaks her boots to the ankle as the platform sinks beneath her weight.

“Ethemark!” It’s a juvenile voice, but the sound comes from a mountainous shadow, dimly seen in the faint light on a catwalk above Aiah’s head.

“Hello, Craftig,” Ethemark says. “How’s the family?”

Craftig’s answer is expansive, enthusiastic, and full of digressions. Aiah climbs the improvised ladder to a narrow overhead catwalk that runs across several of the moored vessels. The half-world of Aground spreads out below her on either side, the mass of craft like some strange half-lit blight spreading across the water. She can see grotesque faces flickering in the reflected light of gas stoves. The generator thuds at her ears, and the smell of fecal matter is overwhelming.

“Hi, lady,” the boy says.

Aiah’s attention snaps back to the two twisted. “Hello, Craftig,” she says.

Craftig, not having got his growth, is about a head shorter than Aiah, but he is built on such a massive scale that he must outweigh her by at least a factor of three.

“This is Miss Aiah,” Ethemark says. “She’s my boss.”

“Nice to meet you,” Craftig says.

“We need to see Sergeant Lamarath,” Ethemark says.

“Great! This way!”

Craftig turns and scurries back along the catwalk. He has a bad limp— one knee folds under him at every step— but that doesn’t seem to slow him down. Now that Aiah is closer, she can see that something’s gone very wrong with his twisted genetics. Bone masses seem to have grown abnormally, and grey lumps of bone protrude through the skin in some places. Aiah’s stomach turns over, and she clenches her teeth and marches herself deeper into Aground.

Ethemark and Aiah follow the boy down the platform, then along a swaying bridge made of scavenged cable. Below, Aiah can see faces turned up to watch her. She can’t tell whether they are curious or hostile, but the sea of glittering eyes gives her the shivers anyway.

“I apologize for the smell,” Ethemark says. “We have an agreement with the dolphins to keep the water clean. They provided us with the generator, and we power it with methane made from human waste. That way Aground gets electricity, the water doesn’t get fouled, and we can sell the residue for fertilizer, which is used to pay the people for bringing in their night soil.”

Aiah places her feet carefully on the swaying bridge. She’s incredulous at the thought that this water is considered clean. And the implications of Ethemark’s statement seize her attention.

“The dolphins? Do you— do the people here— deal with them on a regular basis?”

“Naturally. We have a number of issues in common— we are both exiles from the world above, and neither of us were high on the old government’s list of priorities. The dolphins have an interest in sanitation because they are susceptible to a wide range of human diseases, so they’ve made similar deals with most of the other half-worlds. I’ve heard it said that they are not a separate species at all, but humans adapted for an aquatic environment. Twisted genetics, just like ours.”

He turns, his unblinking eyes gazing at Aiah like spheres of polished black glass. “The dolphins turned against the Keremaths because of the water situation. Did you know that?”

Aiah shakes her head. The bridge sways uneasily beneath her feet, and droplets of condensation spatter on her hat.

“The Keremaths allowed their waste disposal systems to deteriorate. Thousands of tons of waste were being dumped untreated into the water every day. The repair went out for bids, but there was the usual fiddling over the contracts, and the dumping went on for twelve years .” Fury sharpens Ethemark’s deep tones. “Once the fighting was over, Constantine sent in some military engineers to the waste plants, and they fixed the problem in two days. Two days!

“Hey, Ethemark!” Craftig’s voice calls through the darkness. “Did you forget the way? It’s over here!”

Ethemark turns abruptly and steps off the swaying bridge onto another platform. Aiah follows, placing her feet carefully. The only route from the far platform is a ladder leaning downward, then a series of planks spanning the gap from one craft to another.

At the end of the journey is a barge with a building constructed on its rusting deck plates. It’s an assemblage of parts thrown together almost randomly: the superstructure of some other vessel, a picture window out of a streetfront display, a large vehicle trailer, wheels removed, now an integral part of the structure. The whole thing is decorated with long strands of decorative red lights, giving it a misplaced holiday air.

Aiah feels her spine stiffen as she nears the building: there are some stonefaces waiting here, scarred faces atop huge, muscular bodies, obvious bodyguards. An assortment of people sit waiting: a mother with several children overflowing her lap, an elderly woman holding a scabrous-looking chicken in a cage, a young grey-skinned embryo reading a book in the darkness with his large goggle eyes. Petitioners, Aiah assumes, here to ask the big man for favors.

Craftig speaks to one of the guards, and then Ethemark, and the guards look at Aiah and one of them disappears into the structure. Aiah stands for a long, uncomfortable moment, hating every second of this gangster ritual, and then the guard returns and gestures for Ethemark and Aiah to enter.

“See you later, Miss Aiah!” Craftig calls.

Aiah stops, turns to the boy, forces a smile onto her face. “Nice to meet you, Craftig. Thanks for showing us the way.”

The building is tidy inside, one small, whitewashed room after another. The boss meets Aiah in a comfortable office that features a battered metal desk, gunmetal file cabinets, and the strong smell of cigar smoke. Brass-rimmed portholes look out into the exterior darkness, and the interior lights are dim: the big- eyed twisted probably have no problem seeing, but Aiah finds herself squinting. There are no straight lines in the architecture, or angles, but rounded corners and a barrel ceiling. It’s not a feature of nautical design, but defense: the room’s been wrapped in bronze mesh in a crude attempt to defend against plasm attack, then plastered and painted. Bits of the plaster have flaked off to reveal the mesh beneath, and the room’s purpose.

High on one wall, something coiled hangs from a projection. At first, in the dim light, Aiah thinks it’s a canvas fire hose, and then realizes it’s alive. A huge snake, or a monster created by plasm, kept as a pet. She shivers.

“Miss Aiah,” Ethemark says, “this is my cousin, Sergeant Lamarath.”

“How do you do,” Aiah says, and offers her hand. Pleased to meet you , under the circumstances, would be a hopeless misrepresentation.

Lamarath takes her hand in his moist, nicotine-stained grip. “The ‘Sergeant’ isn’t official,” he says. “It’s just something that goes with the job.” His voice is husky with smoking.

He’s one of the small, grey-skinned, large-eyed twisted— as of course he would be, as a cousin of Ethemark— and is dressed casually in high-clipped boots and a pair of tan overalls. His expression, like all expressions here, is unreadable. Aiah realizes that if she has very many of these people in her department, she’s going to have a hard time telling them apart.

Lamarath picks up a small cigar from an overflowing ashtray and props it in the corner of his mouth. “Please sit down.”

“Thank you.”

The chairs are metal, with brightly-colored, incongruously bright plastic-covered cushions. She sits.

“Congratulations on your appointment,” Lamarath says. “You must be very excited.”

“At the moment,” sitting, “I’m very overwhelmed.”

“Would you like something to eat? Drink?”

The journey has left her without an appetite. And gangster hospitality is something she could do without.

“No,” she says. “Thank you.”

He sits, inhales smoke, blows it out, then leans forward and props his elbows on his desk. “What do you think of our little community?”

“I think it could use some light,” Aiah says.

Nictating membranes eclipse a third of the Sergeant’s eyes. “Has Ethemark told you of my proposition?”Aiah looks at her deputy. “No. He hasn’t.”

“Simply this,” Lamarath says. “I want my people to be left alone until things change outside.”

So this visit is, perhaps inevitably, official. Aiah straightens her back, puts her feet flat on the floor, clasps her hands in her lap. The proper civil servant, ready to bargain.

“Change how?” she asks.

Lamarath jabs his cigar into the ashtray. “My people need a lot of things.”

“Housing, obviously. Medical care.” Aiah looks at Ethemark, who shifts uneasily in his seat. “That isn’t our department,” she points out. “We’re strictly plasm hunters.”

“That plasm is all we’ve got,” Lamarath says. “That and the strength of our bodies. The plasm we steal doesn’t amount to much, and if we sometimes tap some electricity or fresh water, or steal some phone or video service, or even motor off with some equipment left lying around on the quays, well, that doesn’t add up to a great deal.”

“But the half-worlds are vulnerable,” Ethemark points out.

“Yes.” Lamarath’s husky voice grates with anger. “If your superiors demand some cheap victories, the half-worlds are where you can find them on short notice. The cops can bust up ten half- worlds per day for weeks , and it will all look very good on video— Dockyard thieves arrested. Underworld plasm theft ring broken up. Fifty suspects taken into custody. Vagrants dispersed from illegal, unsanitary settlement. ‘— We know how this sort of thing works, you see.”

“It’s happened often enough,” Ethemark says. “The cops get enough complaints from their superiors, they’ll come after the easy targets instead of the real thieves. The real thieves can afford better payoffs.”

“If you disperse the people here,” Lamarath says, “there’s no housing for them, so they’ll have to find another half-world; and in the meantime you’ve taken everything they own and deprived them of protection. Our plasm is all that keeps the Silver Hand off our necks, not to mention the fact that we use it for doctoring and so on.” He turns and looks up at the huge snake hanging on the wall. “Right, doc?”

The snake slowly raises its head. “Absolutely,” it says.

Cold terror floods Aiah’s veins. It isn’t a snake, it’s some kind of twisted human being— the thing’s bald head is that of an old man, with wizened features, deep brown skin, and glittering, yellow eyes. Writhing feathery tentacles circle the creature’s neck.

“This is Doctor Romus,” Lamarath adds. “He’s my advisor.”

“The title, like that of Sergeant, goes with the job,” Romus says, then adds, “Pleased to meet you.” His voice is high- pitched, with odd, reedlike overtones.

“Hello,” Aiah manages. She is beyond anything more organized at this point. Her nails dig into her thighs, a reminder not to run screaming from the room.

“I would have greeted you earlier,” Romus says, “but I was engaged in a little act of telepresence.” He turns to Lamarath. “The Mokhrath Canal house is still active.”

Lamarath nods. “Thank you, Doctor.”

“My pleasure.”

Dr. Romus isn’t hanging from a hook, Aiah realizes, it’s a plasm connection. He’s a mage, and he’s been on a mission.

Lamarath opens a drawer, pulls out a folder, and pushes it across the desk.

“The twisted get around, you know,” he says. “People make a point of not seeing us, or think we’re too stupid to understand; or they employ us for things that aren’t strictly legal.”

Aiah finds a reply bubbling from her lips. “My people, too,” she says. The Jaspeeris had never known quite what to do with the Barkazils. Her teachers at school, and her superiors at the Authority, had always been faintly surprised whenever she said something intelligent.

Lamarath gives her a curious look at this remark. He nudges the folder toward Aiah again. “This is for you. A list of twelve plasm houses in this district. Most of them Silver Hand, some not.”

Aiah restrains the impulse to take the folder, clasps her hands in her lap again. “Please understand,” she says. “I’m not in a position to really dictate policy.”

Lamarath frowns at her. ” Influence policy,” he says.

“That’s all I ask.”

Aiah takes a breath. “All I can assure you,” she says carefully, “is that any minor— I do mean minor — plasm thefts in the half-worlds will not be given a high priority by my department.”

“I will speak to my . . . counterparts in other half-worlds,” Lamarath says. “I hope to be able to provide you with more information along these lines.”

She looks at him— her heart bangs in her throat, and it’s difficult to steady her gaze into the huge dark eyes— and she takes good care with her words. “I will be grateful for any information. But understand that I will make no bargains with anyone concerning any plasm thefts brought to my attention. I can’t set policy. All I can say is that, from the limited knowledge I have of the subject, the half-worlds will not be a high priority.”

Lamarath holds her eyes for a long moment— behind her own composed expression, Aiah thinks wildly of assassination, of how no one knows she is here and how she can so easily be disposed of- — and then Lamarath gives a brief nod and reaches for another cigar.

“That will have to do, then,” he says.

“Nice to have met you,” says Dr. Romus.

Aiah’s mind swims as she follows Ethemark out of the barge. The boy Craftig waits outside, playing on the deck plates with toy figures of the Lynxoid Brothers, and Craftig cheerfully leads them aloft and back to the landing, then calls “Long live the revolution!” as the boat begins its journey to the open air.

Outside the day has became overcast, a skein of grey cloud over the Shield, and Aiah shivers in the faint light. She considers the bargain she has just made— for it was a bargain, deny it though she would— and she wonders if she is a fool. She can’t even tell if she’s just been bribed. If she has become the hireling of some minor gangster, and betrayed everything she holds dear, all through ignorance, or fear of her life, or through some hopeless flaw in herself.

Whatever decisions she makes, correct or not, corrupt or not, she knows she will pay for them sooner or later. She only hopes the payment is something that she can bear . . .

Later, Aiah and Constantine share a dinner in her apartment

The smoky wine murmurs in Aiah’s veins. Constantine sips wine, takes a few more bites. Looks up from his plate. “And how are you getting on with Ethemark?”

“It was— ” She takes a breath. “An interesting day.”

“Tell me.”

She tells him. They finish their meal and take their wine bottle to the couch. “So what have I done?” she asks. “Have I sold the department to some little gangster in return for a handful of names?”

He considers this. “You judge yourself over-harshly,” he says. “You have made no promises to this man, none at all. What you have done is make a policy decision— the first of a great many— to the effect that you will concentrate your efforts on one area of your mandate and not another.” His frown changes to a catlike smile. “It is a decision I support fully, by the way. The half-worlds are potentially a great resource. We should not waste them, or their people.”

Relief eases the tension Aiah feels clinging between her shoulder blades. “But what about Ethemark? His loyalties are clearly with the half-worlds, and not with us.”

“That will require tactful handling, if and when the difference becomes important. But you need not worry over the loyalties of most of your people— I’ve decided that every one will require deep plasm scans, to discover where their loyalties really lie.”

Aiah looks at him in surprise. “Who’s going to do the scanning?”

“The Force of the Interior. Sorya’s department. It’s the sort of thing they’re good at.”

Alarm jangles along Aiah’s nerves. “I don’t want Sorya in my brain!” she cries. Involuntarily she lifts a hand protectively to guard her head.

Constantine reaches out, takes her hand in his own, gently lowers it to her lap. “Not you,” he says. “Nor Ethemark, nor any other political appointee I am forced to accept. But everyone else, yes. You need an absolutely straight department, even if we have to hire every single one of them from outside Caraqui, and plasm scans are the only way to make certain.”

She clasps Constantine’s big hand in both hers, looks at him. A shiver of memory raises the hairs on her nape. “I saw Taikoen yesterday, Metropolitan.”

He looks startled, then masters himself and nods. “Yes. He is— making use— of an officer of the Specials. A killer, a torturer. He broke hundreds in his dungeons, and murdered many.” He lip curls in disdain. “Such people are best disposed of with the trash. If anyone deserves Taikoen, it is he.”

Aiah finds her lower lip shivering and wills it to stop. “Who knows about him? –It?”

Constantine’s eyes gaze somber into hers. “You. Martinus, my bodyguard. Myself. Sorya may suspect, though I have not told her. And lastly that torturer, who though his body lives is already dead.”

A shudder runs through her. “He recognized me. I was terrified.”

“He will not harm you.” He puts his arms around her, cradles her against his massive chest. “Making use of Taikoen is the worst thing I have ever done. It is the worse thing I can ever conceive. ” His hand caresses her jawline, turns her face up to his. There is a smouldering anger in his eyes, in the twisting muscles of his jaw. “Taikoen weighs on me,” Constantine says. “He is necessary, but . . . ” There is a flicker in his pensive eyes, echo of a chill thought that passes through his mind. “I hope I judged this aright. The balance of rights and wrongs, the hope of a better outcome.”

Aiah smiles wanly. “It isn’t all as easy as cooking, is it?”

He nods in answer. There is a kind of painful hopelessness in his eyes. “Taikoen is a trap, I know. He is too powerful a weapon to ignore, but the very knowledge of him is . . . corrupting. I hope that some day I may be strong enough to do without him.” He takes a deep breath. “And he is, sometimes, still the Taikoen who fought the Slaver Mages. Even in his current form he is not without his share of greatness. And he is . . . ” He searches for a word. “He is impaired, and, for all his power, diminished . . . He has lost his humanity, and he wants it again, and he can’t find it.”

He straightens, visibly summons himself, and he gives Aiah a sharp glance. “You know that I worshiped Taikoen once, as part of a . . . ” He licks his lips. “A cult. My cousin Herome was priest.”

“You told me this,” Aiah says.

“It isn’t a part of my life that fills me with pride. I was debased and desperate, and I sought company as debased as I . . . and there was Herome, in charge of my grandfather’s prisons, feeding prisoners to this thing , and playing at worshipping it. But strangely, it was seeing Taikoen so degraded that brought back my own pride— I had no great opinion of myself, princeling of a bandit regime, but I knew that I was better than this . And when I came to know him, I managed to remind him of his own greatness, and managed to instill in him a memory of his own pride . . . ” An image of that pride broods in Constantine’s eyes, along with bright defiance.

“And that,” he says, “was the end of Herome and his worshippers— Taikoen engulfed them all. It was my first strike against my family, for all they never knew it.” He looks down at Aiah, his glance uneasy. “And Taikoen has followed me ever since. And I have made use of him from time to time, and paid the price.”

She reaches up a hand, touches his cheek. He looks down at her, a kind of need plain on his face. “I hope I may have your understanding in this,” he says. “And better, your compassion.”

Aiah kisses him, driving her lips up into his. The only comfort she can offer, she thinks, is the comfort of her body. For a moment Constantine absorbs the kiss, inhales it as if it’s a consolation, an absolution, and then the kiss awakens in him a tigerish spirit, a fierceness, and his answering kiss is like a kiss of fire.

Contact Us | Terms of User | Trademarks | Privacy Statement

Copyright © 2010 WJW. All Rights Reserved.