Read Shadow and claw Online

Authors: Gene Wolfe

Tags: #Science Fiction - Series, #Fantasy - Epic, #Fantasy Fiction, #General, #Gene - Prose & Criticism, #Fiction - Science Fiction, #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fantasy, #Wolfe, #Epic

Shadow and claw (9 page)

BOOK: Shadow and claw
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He was nowhere to be seen. I put his tray and the four books on his table and shouted for him. A moment later I heard his answering call from a cell not far off. I ran there and looked through the grilled window set at eye level in the door; the client, a wasted-looking woman of middle age, was stretched on her cot. Drotte leaned over her, and there was blood on the floor. He was too occupied to turn his head. "Is that you, Severian?"

"Yes. I've got your supper, and books for the Chatelaine Thecla. Can I do anything to help?"

"She'll be all right. Tore her dressings off and tried to bleed her-self to death, but I got her in time. Leave my tray on my table, will you? And you might finish shoving their food at the rest for me, if you've got a moment." I hesitated. Apprentices were not supposed to deal with those committed to the guild's care.

"Go ahead. All you have to do is poke the trays through the slots."

"I brought the books."

"Poke those through the slot too."

For a moment more I watched him as he bent over the livid woman on the cot; then I turned away, found the undistributed trays, and began to do as he had asked. Most of the clients in the cells were still strong enough to rise and take the food as I passed it through. A few were not, and I left their trays outside their doors for Drotte to carry in later. There were several aristocratic-looking women, but none who seemed likely to be the Chatelaine Thecla, a newly come exultant who was - at least for the time being -to be treated with deference.

As I should have guessed, she was in the last cell. It had been furnished with a carpet in addition to the usual bed, chair, and small table; in place of the customary rags she wore a white gown with wide sleeves. The ends of those sleeves and the hem of the skirt were sadly soiled now, but the gown still preserved an air of elegance as foreign to me as it was to the cell itself. When I first saw her, she was embroidering by the light of a candle brightened by a silver reflector; but she must have felt my eyes upon her. It would gratify me now to say there was no fear in her face, yet it would not be true. There was terror there, though controlled nearly to invisibility.

"It's all right," I said. "I've brought your food." She nodded and thanked me, then rose and came to the door. She was taller even than I had expected, nearly too tall to stand upright in the cell. Her face, though it was triangular rather than heart-shaped, reminded me of the woman who had been with Vodalus in the necropolis. Perhaps it was her great violet eyes, with their lids shaded with blue, and the black hair that, forming a V far down her forehead, suggested the hood of a cloak. Whatever the reason, I loved her at once - loved her, at least, insofar as a stupid boy can love. But being only a stupid boy, I did not know it.

Her white hand, cold, slightly damp, and impossibly narrow, touched mine as she took the tray from me. "That's ordinary food," I told her. "I think you can get some that's better if you ask."

"You're not wearing a mask," she said. "Yours is the first human face I've seen here."

"I'm only an apprentice. I won't be masked until next year." She smiled, and I felt as I had when I had been in the Atrium of Time and had come inside to a warm room and food. She had narrow, very white teeth in a wide mouth; her eyes, each as deep as the cistern beneath the Bell Keep, shone when she smiled.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't hear you." The smile came again and she tilted her lovely head to one side. "I told you how happy I was to see your face, and asked if you would bring my meals in the future, and what this was you brought me."

"No. No, I won't be. Only today, because Drotte is occupied." I tried to recall what her meal had been (she had put the tray on her little table, where I could not see its contents through the grill). I could not, though I nearly burst my brain with the effort. At last I said lamely, "You'd probably better eat it. But I think you can get better food if you ask Drotte."

"Why, I intend to eat it. People have always complimented me on my slender figure, but believe me, I eat like a dire wolf." She picked up the tray and held it out to me, as though she knew I would need every help in unraveling the mystery of its contents.

"Those are leeks, Chatelaine," I said. "Those green things. The brown ones are lentils. And that's bread."

" 'Chatelaine'? You needn't be so formal. You're my jailer, and can call me anything you choose." There was merriment in the deep eyes now.

"I have no wish to insult you," I told her. "Would you rather I called you something else?"

"Call me Thecla - that's my name. Titles are for formal occasions, names for informal ones, and this is that or nothing. I suppose it will be very formal though, when I receive my punishment?"

"It is, usually, for exultants."

"There will be an exarch, I should think, if you will let him in. All in scarlet patches. Several others too - perhaps the Starost Egino. Are you certain this is bread?" She poked it with one long finger, so white I thought for a moment that the bread might soil it.

"Yes," I said. "The Chatelaine has eaten bread before, surely?"

"Not like this." She picked the meager slice up and tore it with her teeth, quickly and cleanly. "It isn't bad, though. You say they'll bring me better food if I ask for it?"

"I think so, Chatelaine."

"Thecla. I asked for books - two days ago when I came. But I haven't got them."

"I have them," I told her. "Right here." I ran back to Drotte's table and got them, and passed the smallest through the slot.

"Oh, wonderful! Are there others?"

"Three more." The brown book went through the slot as well, but the other two, the green book and the folio volume with arms on its cover, were too wide.

"Drotte will open your door later and give them to you," I said.

"Can't you? It's terrible to look through this and see them, and not be able to touch them."

"I'm not even supposed to feed you. Drotte should do it."

"But you did. Besides, you brought them. Weren't you supposed to give them to me?"

I could argue only weakly, knowing she was right in principle. The rule against apprentices working in the oubliette was intended to prevent escapes; and I knew that tall though she was, this slender woman could never overpower me, and that should she do so she would have no chance of making her way out without being challenged. I went to the door of the cell where Drotte still labored over the client who had tried to take her own life, and retumed with his keys. Standing before her, with her own cell door closed and locked behind me, I found myself unable to speak. I put the books on her table beside the candlestand and her food pan and carafe of water; there was hardly room for them. When it was done I stood waiting, knowing I should leave and yet unable to go.

"Won't you sit down?"

I sat on her bed, leaving her the chair.

"If this were my suite in the House Absolute, I could offer you better comfort. Unfortunately, you never called while I was there."

I shook my head.

"Here I have no refreshment to offer you but this. Do you like lentils?"

"I won't eat that, Chatelaine. I'll have my own supper soon, and there's hardly enough for you."

"True." She picked up a leek, and then as if she did not know what else to do with it dropped it down her throat like a mountebank swallowing a viper. "What will you have?"

"Leeks and lentils, bread and mutton."

"Ah, the torturers get mutton - that's the difference. What's your name, Master Torturer?"

"Severian. It won't help, Chatelaine. It won't make any difference." She smiled. "What won't?"

"Making friends with me. I couldn't give you your freedom. And I wouldn't - not if I had no friend but you in all the world."

"I didn't think you could, Severian."

"Then why do you bother to talk to me?"

She sighed, and all the gladness went out of her face, as the stinlight leaves the stone where a beggar seeks to warm himself. "Who else have I to talk to, Severian? It may be that I will talk to you for a time, for a few days or a few weeks, and die. I know what you're thinking - that if I were back in my suite I would never spare a glance for you. But you're wrong. One can't talk to everyone because there are so many everyones, but the day before I was taken I talked for some time with the man who held my mount. I spoke to him because I had to wait, you see, and then he said something that interested me."

"You won't see me again. Drotte will bring your food."

"And not you? Ask him if he will let you do it." She took my hands in hers, and they were like ice.

"I'll try," I said.

"Do. Do try. Tell him I want better meals than this, and you to serve me - wait, I'll ask him myself. To whom does he answer?"

"Master Gurloes."

"I'll tell the other - is it Drotte? - that I want to speak to him. You're right, they'll have to do it. The Autarch might release me - they don't know." Her eyes flashed.

"I'll tell Drotte you want to see him when he's not busy," I said, and stood up.

"Wait. Aren't you going to ask me why I'm here?"

"I know why you're here," I said as I swung back the door. "To be tortured, eventually, like the others." It was a cruel thing to say, and I said it without reflection as young men do, only because it was what was in my mind. Yet it was true, and I was glad in some way, as I tumed the key in the lock, that I had said it.

We had had exultants for clients often before. Most, when they arrived, had some understanding of their situation, as the Chatelaine Thecla did now. But when a few days had passed and they were not put to torment, their hope cast down their reason and they began to talk of release - how friends and family would maneuver to gain their freedom, and of what they would do when they were free. One would withdraw to his estates and trouble the Autarch's court no more. Another would volunteer to lead a muster of lansquenets in the north. Then the journeymen on duty in the oubliette would hear tales of hunting dogs and remote heaths, and country games, unknown elsewhere, played beneath immemorial trees. The women were more realistic for the most part, but even they in time spoke of highly placed lovers (cast aside now for months or years) who would never abandon them, and then of bearing children or adopting waifs. One knew when these never-to-be-bom children were given names that clothing would not be far behind: a new wardrobe on their release, the old clothes to be burned; they talked of colors, of inventing new fashions and reviving old ones. At last the time would come, to men and women alike, when instead of a journeyman with food, Master Gurloes would appear trailing three or four journeymen and perhaps an examiner and a fulgurator. I wanted to preserve the Chatelaine Thecla from such hopes if I could. I hung Drotte's keys on their accustomed nail in the wall, and when I passed the cell in which he was now swabbing blood from the floor told him that the chatelaine desired to speak with him.

On the next day but one, I was summoned to Master Gurloes. I had expected to stand, as we apprentices usually did, with hands behind back before his table; but he told me to sit, and removing his gold-traced mask, leaned toward me in a way that implied a common cause and friendly footing.

"A week ago, or a little less, I sent you to the archivist," he said. I nodded.

"When you brought the books, I take it you delivered them to the client yourself. Is that right?"

I explained what had happened.

"Nothing wrong there. I don't want you to think I'm going to order extra fatigues for what you did, much less have you bent over a chair. You're nearly a joumeyman yourself already - when I was your age, they had me cranking the alternator. The thing is, you see, Severian, the client is highly placed." His voice sank to a rough whisper. "Quite highly connected." I said that I understood that.

"Not just an armiger family. High blood." He turned, and after searching the disorderly shelves behind his chair produced a squat book. "Have you any notion how many exulted families there are? This lists only the ones that are still going. A compendium of the extinguished ones would take an encyclopedia, I suppose. I've extinguished a few of them myself."

He laughed and I laughed with him.

"It gives about half a page to each. There are seven hundred and forty-six pages."

I nodded to show I understoed.

"Most of them have nobody at court - can't afford it, or are afraid of it. Those are the small ones. The greater families must: the Autarch wants a concubine he can lay hands on if they start misbehaving. Now the Autarch can't play quadrille with five hundred women. There are maybe twenty. The rest talk to each other, and dance, and don't see him closer than a chain off once in a month." I asked (trying to hold my voice steady) if the Autarch actually bedded these concubines.

Master Gurloes rolled his eyes and pulled at his jaw with one huge hand. "Well now, for decency's sake they have these khaibits, what they call the shadow women, that are common girls that look like the chatelaines. I don't know where they get them, but they're supposed to stand in place of the others. Of course they're not so tall." He chuckled. "I said stand in place, but when they're laying down the tallness probably doesn't make much difference. They do say, though, that oftentimes it works the other way than it's supposed to. Instead of those shadow girls doing duty for their mistresses, the mistresses do it for them. But the present Autarch, whose every deed, I may say, is sweeter than honey in the mouths of this honorable guild and don't you forget it - in his case, I may say, from what I understand it is more than somewhat doubtful if he has the pleasure of any of them."

Relief flooded my heart. "I never knew that. It's very interesting, Master." Master Gurloes inclined his head to acknowledge that it was indeed, and laced his fingers over his belly. "Someday you may have the ordering of the guild yourself. You'll need to know these things. When I was your age - or a trifle younger, I suppose - I used to fancy I was of exulted blood. Some have been, you know."

It struck me, and not for the first time, that Master Gurloes and Master Palaemon too must have known whence all the apprentices and younger journeymen had come, having approved their admissions originally.

BOOK: Shadow and claw
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