The Book of All Skies

by Greg Egan


B B   A A A A A

This is an excerpt from the novel The Book of All Skies by Greg Egan, first published in 2021. All rights reserved.

Publication history


1

Del sat on the steps of the museum, looking east across the starlit city, waiting for the archaeologists to arrive. Takya’s grey disk was approaching the horizon, while Bradya hung seemingly suspended, halfway from the zenith, silhouetted against the constellation she’d always known as the Harp, though many of her friends called it the Crossbow.

The message had told her to expect a delivery no later than Takya’s ninth passage, but it was a good thing she had come out early; with the seventh barely over, she spotted the heat blotch of four people approaching together along the main road from the south.

“Jachimo!” she bellowed, a little ashamed of her discourtesy, but she couldn’t bring herself to go inside and fetch him if it meant losing sight of the travellers.

“I’m coming!” he called back. When he emerged from the building and joined her, he looked around, confused. “I thought they were already here.”

“Almost.” Del rose to her feet. “We need to make a good impression. I don’t want them thinking we’re lax with security.”

“Should I be carrying a sword?” he joked.

“I’m sure you’re imposing enough unarmed,” she replied. Though as the party came closer, she could see that the two guards flanking the archaeologists did in fact have daggers.

She walked down to the road, then forced herself to wait until everyone was in comfortable earshot before calling out a greeting. “Welcome to Apasa!”

“Thank you!” A woman strode forward and shook Del’s hand. “I’m Jessica.”

“Cordelia. Good to meet you.” Jessica was the archaeologist in charge of the excavation at Seena; she had been corresponding with the museum’s director ever since the book had been unearthed, but Del had only become fully involved when the last few messages had turned to questions that relied on a conservator’s advice.

Del motioned to Jachimo to join them, and they completed the introductions. Jessica’s colleague, Lucius, bearing the precious cargo in a sling against his chest, stayed aloof and nodded from a few paces away, as if he were carrying a sleeping infant he didn’t wish to risk waking, while the bladed escort, Audrey and Orsino, greeted their hosts with a kind of wary camaraderie that implied that they were all steadfast allies for now, but the situation was always open to reassessment.

Del spread her arms. “Please come in. You must be exhausted.”

They followed her and Jachimo up the steps and through the main entrance. When the director had told her there was no fuel to spare for celebratory lanterns to mark the occasion, Del had set about scrubbing the skylights, so at least the foyer’s usual gloom had been replaced by a cheerful airiness.

“I have some food prepared,” she said, turning to address the guests, “but I won’t be offended if you prefer to sleep first.” She gestured towards the accommodation wing. “Your quarters are through there; the rooms are all made up, and I’ve left two pitchers of water in each of them.”

Lucius said, “Thank you, but before any of that ... ” He glanced down at the box strapped to his body.

“Of course. This way.”

Del thought perhaps Lucius would follow her while the other three went to wash and settle in, but instead they set their packs down and accompanied her as she headed for the vault.

“How many people live in this building, normally?” Orsino enquired. They’d entered the corridor lined with statues from the Vitean period, most of them depicting the pets of wealthy families in the act of eviscerating vermin.

“Just Del and I,” Jachimo replied. “The other rooms are for visitors.”

“And how many entrances are there?”

“Besides the one we came through, two doors at the back.”

“They’re well protected?”

“Both sturdy, and triple bolted.” Jachimo shot Del an amused look, as if he was happy to humour this upstart, but wanted it known that he required no lessons in his job.

They’d come to the end of the corridor. Del took the key tied to her belt and inserted it, then stood aside as far as the string would let her to allow Jachimo to do the same. They turned the keys together, with considerable effort, until the lock squealed and retracted its five metal tongues.

“It could do with some oil,” Del admitted, pulling open the door to the vault. The dark within was impenetrable, and the temperature too uniform to be revelatory, but when she lit the lamp at the entrance the long racks of shelves materialised, their shadows flickering for a moment as the flame found its shape.

Audrey and Orsino hung back, taking up positions on either side of the doorway, as if a marauding enemy might charge down the corridor at any moment. Lucius and Jessica followed Del into the vault, and after some hesitation – perhaps worried that he might be seen to be ceding responsibility to the two earnest sentries – Jachimo came after them.

They walked past rows of figurines and pieces of pottery, many of them too mundane in appearance to have been chosen for public display, but nonetheless precious by virtue of their antiquity. Then there were the Palloran death-masks, dazzling works of unquestionable skill in beaten silver, but which were apparently too disturbing for the majority of visitors to stomach. Why the wearers had felt the need to be portrayed half-consumed by insects, when that fate generally ensued with or without an expensive symbolic invitation, remained a mystery.

“We have several Tollean works already,” Del said, as they approached the section reserved for manuscripts. “Some complete, some fragments. I can show you a few if you like, as a testament to the excellent conditions we maintain. The humidity in the vault hasn’t shifted by more than one part in fifty, for as long as we’ve been keeping records.”

“Maybe later,” Jessica replied. She didn’t sound as if she was in need of reassurance over her choice of a home for her own extraordinary find, but then, she must have established the museum’s reputation among her colleagues well in advance, or she wouldn’t even be here.

Del had already labelled the shelf she’d selected for the new acquisition, and she stood aside and let Lucius step forward and lower the box into place.

“Do you mind opening it?” she asked. “I need to make a brief inspection, before I can officially enter it into the catalogue.”

“Of course.” Lucius produced a key and unlocked the box, then lifted up the hinged lid.

Del put on her gloves and took his place beside the shelf. The interior of the box was packed with protective cloth, and she lifted the interleaved layers and laid them to each side, like the pages of two blank books that had conspired to shield the third.

After a time, the cloth remaining grew flatter, and yielded less to the pressure of her fingers as she peeled it back. She slowed down, afraid that she might misjudge the care required at the end of the unwrapping if she allowed her actions to become rote.

Lucius said, “The last four sheets are white like the rest, but the fifth and sixth are vermillion.”

Del exhaled in a sigh of gratitude, and the markers soon showed themselves, telling her exactly how many steps remained. But when she raised the final piece of cloth to reveal what lay beneath, a part of her still felt a jolt of surprise, as if a far more likely scenario than the box containing what she had been told would have been an elaborate prank in which the unwrapping went on forever.

The front cover of the volume sitting before her was a piece of hardboard, cleaved by three deep fractures, crisscrossed by a dozen shallower cuts and crumbling at the corners, but otherwise more or less intact. The title was carved in grooves and pits that would have been dyed for the sake of contrast, but were always meant to be as amenable to reading by touch as by sight. Time and grit had bleached and scoured the surface, and Del was unwilling to lay even her gloved fingertips upon it, but as she moved one thumb back and forth in the space above the board and watched the shadows distorted by each dip, the letters took shape. This sequence of words in the Tollean language was not unfamiliar to her, even if she had only seen it before in citations. But this was it, the thing itself, as solid and present as it had been to those authors who had casually invoked it, to criticise or praise, a thousand generations ago. The Book of All Skies was here, sitting on a shelf in the Museum of Apasa, just waiting for her to render it into a fit state to be read, understood, valorised and disputed all over again.

“That’s enough,” she decided. Anything more, done in haste, might damage the book. She began replacing the wrapping.

“Now you can imagine how we felt when we found it,” Jessica said. “This was part of someone’s personal library, judging by what remained of the furniture, though the avalanche pretty much pulverised everything else.”

“Did you find any trace of the reader?” Del asked.

“No, but you know what scavenger worms are like.”

They withdrew from the vault.

“You mentioned food?” Lucius asked, almost shyly, as if he feared the warm welcome might evaporate now that the main purpose of their visit had been fulfilled.

“Of course,” Del replied. “Does anyone else ... ?”

Audrey said, “Believe me, we’re all famished.”

In the dining room, Del did her best to resist overwhelming the guests with questions, but once they’d slaked their thirst and started on the fish, Lucius and Jessica wanted nothing more than to talk about their find and the prospects for its restoration.

“Don’t ask me to say how long it will take,” Del pleaded. “With a book that size, I can’t even promise it will be finished in my own lifetime.”

“Aren’t you desperate to know where the Tolleans went?” Lucius asked. His tone seemed light-hearted, but not openly sarcastic.

“I’m agnostic on the question of whether they went anywhere,” Del replied. “Plenty of other cultures seem to have given way to successors, without anyone actually migrating.”

“But they talked about it more than anyone else,” Lucius persisted. “They seemed convinced they knew a way to reach the Bounteous Lands.”

“Some of them seemed convinced,” Jessica corrected him. “If there was ever a consensus, we’ve seen no record of it.”

“If there was a consensus,” Jachimo suggested, “wouldn’t we all be there right now? As their descendants?”

Lucius said, “Maybe the people who ended up knowing for sure never bothered coming back; they were more interested in keeping the territory for themselves than having to share it – even if that meant foregoing the satisfaction of telling the doubters they were wrong.”

“If they did find a passage, it can’t have stayed open for long,” Audrey declared. “If it was so hard to discover, it must have been narrow to begin with – and maybe it even depended on them digging their way through. All it would take would be one avalanche, one quake, one lava flow, to seal it up again.”

Del looked to Orsino, who was yet to offer an opinion. He was silent at first, but then he ventured, “Maybe the Tolleans were more resourceful than us, or more persistent. But just because no one’s repeated what they did, that doesn’t mean it’s become impossible.”

“Impossible or not,” Jessica said, “we should know soon enough. If there’s a map, we can compare it with our own maps. If there’s a strategy for finding a route, we can test it. If there’s even just a theory of the world that somehow points to the necessity of a persistent connection with the Bounteous Lands, we can judge it against all the evidence collected since. Whatever they found, or believed, or imagined, this will be the place where it was actually spelled out – not just invoked as something that everyone was assumed to know about already.”

Del smiled, still a little daunted, but exhilarated too. The Book of All Skies had always seemed like a mirage to her before, but now that it was in their hands, even the things it merely spoke of might turn out to lie within their reach as well.

She said, “I should probably sleep now, and make an early start.”

2

Del woke, confused, unsure what had roused her. She was certain she hadn’t slept for as long as she’d intended, but when she closed her eyes and tried to drift away again, she found herself resisting.

She climbed out of bed and left her room, then walked down the corridor to the foyer. There were faint heat-prints lingering on the floor, leading to the exit; she supposed that one of her guests must have decided to go out for some air. But the fading trail didn’t seem to originate in the accommodation wing; whoever this was had wandered about a bit first.

Del crossed the foyer. The glass doors were unbolted, but she couldn’t see anyone outside. She went out onto the stairs and peered down the road. There was a figure in the distance, walking north, the coolness of a backpack separating their head from the heat of their arms and lower body. It was hard to be sure from a view like this, but she believed it was Orsino.

She felt for the vault key, and was relieved to find that it was still attached to her belt. But why would Orsino – or any of her guests – depart so abruptly? If a messenger had come, with news of a family emergency or whatever, she would have been the first to wake.

Del contemplated pursuing the retreating figure to ask politely for an explanation, but then it seemed wiser to check with the others first. She went inside and walked to Audrey’s room.

The door opened on the second knock; it seemed the cascade of activity was waking everyone.

“Did Orsino say anything to you about leaving?” Del asked.

Audrey scowled and walked past Del to Orsino’s door; she tried the handle and it opened, revealing an empty room.

“Why would he just go like that?” Del pressed her. He couldn’t have taken the book; the key had never left her side. She ran her fingertips over the thing anxiously, reassuring herself that it wasn’t some kind of substitute that had been left in place of the real one by sleight of hand. The shape was exactly right, every notch and protuberance familiar. There was a slight slipperiness to the normally rough surface, but perhaps she’d handled it so much now that she’d coated it with the oils of her own skin.

Jachimo emerged from his room. “What’s happening?”

“Do you still have your vault key?”

He followed the string from his belt to his pocket. “Yes. Why wouldn’t I?”

“Orsino’s gone, and no one seems to know why.”

Jachimo nodded in the direction of the vault, and they jogged off together. “He couldn’t have opened it!” Jachimo insisted, as they passed the statue of an executioner bird tugging the intestines out of a plump harvest rat. “Pulled the keys off, then tied them back on again, all without waking us?” Del wanted to believe it was impossible too, but neither of them was convinced enough to turn back.

The door to the vault certainly hadn’t been left unlocked. They opened it, and Del lit the lamp. As she hurried between the shelves, she spotted the box up ahead, sitting exactly where Lucius had placed it.

She slowed a little as she approached, and turned towards Jachimo, moving aside so he could see what she’d seen. Then she put her hand on the box; Lucius had left her the key, but she’d seen no reason to hide it, and it remained hanging on a peg below the shelf. Any thief could have taken the box unopened, or just smashed it where it sat.

She unlocked the box and lifted the lid. Inside, there was nothing: the book and its wrapping were gone. If she’d taken the key away that would not have stopped the theft, but it might have made the loss visible sooner.

Del’s face burned, with shame as much as anger. Somehow, her carelessness had just lost the museum the greatest acquisition of her tenure by far.

“I’m going after him,” she said.

“I’ll go,” Audrey called from the doorway. “Even if you catch him, what can you do?”

Del approached her. “Oh, I’m sure I’ll catch him! When I saw him he was just walking down the road, trying not to draw attention to himself.”

“But when he sees you coming?” Audrey countered. “He’s not going to hold back once he knows he’s being chased.”

Jachimo laughed. “Del placed seventh in the last sky-to-sky; there aren’t many people who could outrun her at the best of times, and I’d be willing to bet that her fury right now is more of a prod than your ex-comrade’s greed.”

They started back down the corridor. “And what will you do if he draws his dagger?” Audrey asked.

“Keep my distance,” Del replied. “Maybe I can tire him out with the chase alone, without getting in harm’s way.” But then what? Even if he came to a halt, exhausted, far from his intended destination, there was no guarantee that there’d be helpful bystanders around, able to identify the two of them correctly as fugitive thief and righteous pursuer.

“I need to come with you,” Audrey said firmly. “If I can’t match your pace, at least I should be able to keep you in sight. Then if you can slow him down or corner him, you can wait for me to catch up.”

Reluctantly, Del gave her assent. For all she knew, Audrey might be Orsino’s accomplice, but who else could she ask to back her up? Jachimo was stronger than any of them, but he wasn’t light on his feet, and Jessica and Lucius were no more qualified to confront Orsino than she was.

The two archaeologists were standing in the foyer, looking confused. Audrey broke the news to them, then tried to assuage their anger and dismay by describing the plan, such as it was. “Cordelia and I are going after him. He can’t have gone far ... but do you know where he might be headed? Someone he could have in mind as the buyer?”

“No!” Jessica clawed at her cheeks, distraught. “How could I have trusted him?”

“He has no reason to damage the book,” Del observed. But she was wasting her time offering comforting words. “I need to get some things,” she said.

She ran to her room and slipped her shoes on, then took a mouthful of water and quickly filled a flask. Was she really going to do this? But if she didn’t, she might never see the book again. If it ended up in a rival museum, that wouldn’t be so bad, but if a private collector had bribed Orsino to procure it, the demented narcissist might take its secrets to the grave.

When she returned to the foyer she saw that Audrey was waiting on the steps; Del hadn’t told her which way to go, and Orsino would be out of sight by now. Del nodded to Jachimo as she passed, but found herself unable to meet Jessica’s or Lucius’s gaze. They were the ones who had made the mistake of hiring Orsino, but the book itself had been in her care.

She flung open the doors and bounded down the stairs, calling to Audrey as she went: “North!”

It was tempting to break into a sprint, to swoop down the road towards her quarry like a raptor descending from the sky, but Del brushed aside her fantasies of a swift and effortless victory and settled into a pace that she knew she could sustain indefinitely. Speed wasn’t everything: one misstep could leave her with a twist or sprain that robbed her of any advantage – and if she left Audrey too far behind, there’d be no point relying on her help at all.

She glanced back towards the museum, and saw that Audrey was in fact drawing closer. Del sped up a little, and waved to her encouragingly. If they urged each other on, all the better.

There was no sign of Orsino yet, but the road meandered between a sequence of small hills that could easily be obscuring him. And if he’d left the road she’d still have a chance to spot him, as the hills only blocked her view on either side in turn. To the east lay the outskirts of Apasa, with scattered homes and warehouses growing sparser as she moved north. To the west the landscape was dotted with rice fields and fish ponds, shimmering with heat and exuding the pungent scent of subterranean waters.

Then she rounded a bend and there he was, trudging along in the distance. Or at least, it seemed like the same person she’d observed from the steps of the museum, and with Bradya still not set, who else would be on the road? Well ... some early-rising labourers and traders, some innocent travellers eager to be home. The only trouble, if she was mistaken, was that hanging back to avoid alerting someone who was not in fact Orsino might slow her down so much that her real target slipped away.

The only cure for her doubts was proximity. Del maintained her pace, whittling away the gap between them. The road was level now, and almost straight; there’d be no hiding from Orsino if he turned and looked back, but equally, he’d have no hope of shaking her off. Del indulged in a brief reverie where he pondered his fate and cut his losses, leaving his pack on the road so he could flee unencumbered. She really didn’t care about bringing him to justice, so long as she had The Book of All Skies back in the vault before the director knew what had happened.

As she drew nearer, a bank of clouds began drifting in from the west, leaving the figure casting a strange penumbra in the remaining starlight. The prospect of a clear identification at a safe remove was slipping away. But there were no other candidates in sight; if this wasn’t Orsino, she’d simply lost him. All she could do now was keep tailing whoever this was, and wait for Audrey to catch up so the two of them could close in together and settle the matter.

Del slowed to a brisk walk and looked back over her shoulder, but it seemed Audrey was still making her way through the hills. She reached for the vault key to check that it hadn’t worked itself loose; it hadn’t, but she wished she’d left it with Jachimo instead of risking it ending up on the road. Despite her exertion, running through the cool air had left her hands less sweaty than before, and the residue she’d noticed earlier seemed more clearly to belong to the key, not to her. It felt like ... a thin layer of wax. As might have remained if Orsino, sitting beside her at the dinner table, had gently lifted it, without tugging on the string, and pressed the metal into a block that could retain its shape.

Del’s anger was tinged with grudging admiration; it would take some skill, not just to steal the impressions unnoticed, but to use the moulds – in a guest room, not a foundry – to form objects solid enough to turn in the lock without breaking. A thug might have slit his companions’ throats on the journey to Apasa, to save himself the trouble. She would never forgive him for the theft itself, but craft was craft.

The figure glanced back, briefly, then kept walking. Del’s glimpse of the man’s face had been so fleeting that she had no sense of having gained any information at all. If this was Orsino and he’d recognised her, he was keeping his nerve, holding fast to his imitation of innocence.

After a while he turned onto a path running west off the main road, heading in among the fields and fish ponds. Del slowed a little, wanting to observe as much of his activities as possible before deciding what to do next. As he crossed onto warmer ground and walked amidst the steam escaping from the springs, his heat pattern blurred into the background, leaving her struggling to keep track of him by the light of the few unshrouded stars.

She turned and looked around impatiently, and saw that Audrey had finally emerged from the hills. Del raised an arm high and waved to her, and after a moment she received an acknowledgement. It wouldn’t be long before they were reunited – but Orsino was melting away into the landscape. Del reached the path, and followed him west.

She could no longer see him at all, but she retained a sense of roughly where he had to be. The path split into multiple trails weaving between the ponds; Del tried to mimic the angle with the road she’d seen Orsino take, leading him slightly back to the south.

The ground felt warm even through her shoes, and the sulphurous fog made her eyes water. She stepped up her pace, sure that Orsino could not be far away. Once she caught a glimpse of him, she’d refuse to let him out of her sight – and if she yelled loudly, her voice should be enough to guide Audrey through the heat haze.

“Can I help you?” a woman asked brusquely. Del turned towards the sound, but had to take a few steps through the mist to really see who had addressed her. The speaker was standing by the edge of a pool, holding some kind of netted scoop in one hand.

“Did a man walk by here, a moment ago?”

“No. But if your friend is lost, I expect he’ll head back to the road.”

Del said, “He’s not my friend. I’m chasing a thief.”

The woman sighed, though Del wasn’t sure if this was an expression of sympathy, or just a weary response to an unwelcome drama. “A thief won’t be able to hide here for long; there’ll be workers on every path soon.”

“Good.” Del hesitated; she didn’t want to sound ungrateful, but it was far from clear to her that Orsino losing the ability to dawdle by a pond, unnoticed, would be enough to flush him out of hiding completely. “If he chooses not to go back to the northern road ... ?”

“Well, he can head west if he wants to,” the woman conceded. “Or north-west, to the western road. There are no fences; the terrain and the stink is enough to deter most people, but it’s not impassable.”

“Thank you.” Del set about retracing her steps. If Orsino’s original plan had been to take the western road, he might well decide to make the most of the detour she’d forced upon him by cutting the corner. She’d never track him through this maze of ponds and geysers – but she could probably reach the same destination faster by sticking to the road.

And if she was wrong? If he just doubled back and continued north?

Del emerged from the fog just in time to hail Audrey.

“Are you all right?” Audrey asked, coming to a halt on the road beside her.

“Me?”

“You seem a bit ... ” Audrey gestured at her own face, a polite surrogate for Del’s. “Bluish.”

“It must be the fumes.” It was a wonder the workers could endure it for so long. “I lost him in there,” Del admitted, “but he really only has two choices: come back to this road and continue north, up to Melus, or go west.”

“West? Through the Hoop?”

“Yes.”

Audrey winced. “That’s all we need.”

“Maybe you can watch for him here,” Del suggested, “and I’ll run on ahead and try to cut him off.”

“How many times do I need to remind you that he’s armed?”

“Just stay on this road for one passage.” Del searched for Takya; it was near the zenith. “Then if Orsino hasn’t shown up here, and I haven’t come back, you can come after me.”

Audrey looked exasperated. “After that much delay, I’ll never catch up with you.”

“Half a passage, then,” Del suggested. “I’m sure I can get ahead of him on the western road, if that’s where he’s going, but if he’s not, someone has to be here to grab him.”

“What if he heads due west? Parallel to the road, never meeting it?”

“Then I’ll probably never find him. But he’s just completed a long walk from Seena, and I doubt he got any sleep in the museum.” Del gestured towards the edge of the badlands. “Past the fish ponds, it’s igneous plains strewn with cracks and fumaroles, all the way to the Hoop. Whatever reward Orsino’s been promised, there’s only so much endurance anyone can conjure up from thin air. And if he thinks he’s only got one meek conservator to contend with, I’m sure the road will grow tempting very rapidly.”

Audrey gave up arguing. “Go on!” she urged Del. “I’ll find an outcrop to hide behind.”

Del set off north, as fast as she could without inviting injury. To be moving swiftly on the open road was enough to make her hopeful again; she’d be foolish to underestimate Orsino, but he was not going to outrace her by struggling over slippery rocks through clouds of acrid steam. If she really set her mind to it, she could easily think up scenarios that undermined her plan: maybe he had an accomplice working in the fish ponds who could conceal the book, allowing him to emerge empty-handed; maybe he’d confound his pursuers’ expectations completely by doubling back and heading south. Anything was possible. But if, as she believed, he’d always hoped to walk out of the museum without waking anyone, granting him so much of a head start that there’d be no point trying to give chase, his first steps before he knew he was being followed would be enough to reveal his intended destination: north to Melus, or north then west, through the Hoop, to deliver the book under another sky to whoever had incited him to take it.

She reached the crossroads and turned left. She could see a couple of people walking in the distance, one travelling towards her, one the other way, but neither bore any resemblance to Orsino. She nodded a greeting as she passed the first, and then veered a few paces off the road as she overtook the second, so as not to startle the poor man into dropping the bundle of dried reeds he was carrying on his back.

The clouds that had moved in from the west were beginning to break up. Del could see the bottom of the northern edge of the Hoop as a sharp line, where part of the cloud bank stretching into Ladalla was abruptly replaced by a clear, star-strewn sky. She glanced back to the east; Takya had almost set, so Audrey would be following her soon. All they needed now was Orsino’s cooperation; just let him grow weary of the stink of the ponds and the rice fields, and tired of all the agricultural workers asking him if he was lost.

Del stopped running when she judged she was a little farther from the crossroads than Orsino had been, west to his south, when he’d left the road. If he’d committed to cutting the corner but found it heavy going, it seemed reasonable to suppose that he would have compromised and settled on travelling more or less north-west. She searched the roadside to the north for a suitable place to wait; after a while, she found a low bush she could crouch behind, thick enough to conceal her heat, but sparse enough to peek through.

She squatted down and took a few mouthfuls of water from her flask, grateful to wash away the lingering taste of sulphur.

As she waited, she pictured the scene at the museum. The director would be arriving soon, expecting to find a very different state of affairs. Del felt most keenly for Jachimo, who was sure to bear the brunt of things in her absence. But if she could bring the book back swiftly, the whole disaster could be seen for what it was: a betrayal no one could have anticipated or prepared for.

When she noticed the heat blotch approaching from the east, Del’s first thought was that Audrey was making good time. But this runner did not have Audrey’s loping gait. Del was torn; was it better to remain concealed, in the hope that Orsino, believing he’d escaped her attention, would slow down of his own accord, or better to start harassing him so he wasted time on her while Audrey closed in?

She had no idea, but she couldn’t bring herself to let him pass. As he drew near, she stepped out onto the road.

Orsino stopped dead. “Go home,” he said impatiently, wiping sweat from his forehead with the edge of one hand. “This is not your concern.”

Del was bemused. “How can you say that?”

“Did you buy the book? Did you pay something for it?”

“No, but the museum had an agreement to restore it, and protect it.”

Orsino was unimpressed. “You didn’t even dig it out of the rubble. Jessica and Lucius might have some complaint against me, for robbing them of the benefits of their labour. But who are you to interfere?”

“Their intention was to hand the book into my custody. If you acknowledge their labour, acknowledge their wishes.”

Orsino laughed. “Duly noted. But to acknowledge a thing is not to defer to it. They invested time and effort in Seena that led to their possession of the book, but in the end they still just took it from the ruined house of its long dead owner. They had no more claim to it than anyone else alive.”

Del wasn’t sure if he really was trying to construct some kind of moral theory that excused his actions, or if he was just mocking her for thinking she could shame him into handing back the book. But every moment she delayed him would bring Audrey nearer.

“We all have Tollean ancestry,” she said, “and none of us can prove we’re more closely related to the owner than anyone else. But if I restored the book, the translation would be made available to everyone. And anyone who wanted could travel to Apasa to view the original.”

“How do you know it’s not headed for exactly the same fate, elsewhere?” Orsino replied.

“Then why not just leave it in Apasa? If the outcome’s going to be the same, either way?”

Orsino regarded her with a kind of pity: how could anyone need to ask? “Because I’m being paid much more to take the book than I ever was to guard it.” He strode forward and brushed past her.

Del waited for him to glance back and see her staring dejectedly at the ground, and then continue on his way, before she started following him. When he looked back again, he turned and drew his dagger. “Do I really need to hurt you?”

“If you want to be left in peace, you need to return the book.”

“The book’s lost to you. Just accept that, and go home.”

Del said nothing. Orsino started down the road again, and she did too. Suddenly he turned and charged at her, holding the dagger up as he ran; she fled as fast as she could, her skin prickling with fear even though she was easily escaping him, and kept running until she saw that he’d given up the chase and continued his journey. She waited a while, then went after him again, matching his pace as best she could, maintaining a safe distance between them.

The next time, he stopped without even looking at her. He crouched down and massaged his calves, then he turned and headed back towards her.

“We’re reasonable people, aren’t we?” he yelled. “We can work this out!” So far, he’d kept his dagger in its sheath, and his measured pace seemed intended to reassure her that he wasn’t going to rush her again.

Del didn’t reply, but she stood her ground as he approached. What was he proposing? Was he going to offer her a bribe? If this was just a ruse to try to come close enough to stab her, she was ready to run.

Orsino stopped a dozen paces away, and put his hands behind his head. “Is this really so important to you?” he asked.

“That depends,” she replied.

“On what?”

“Is the book going to another museum, or to a private collector?”

Orsino smiled. ”Whatever I told you, I doubt that you’d believe me.”

“Then just give it back,” she said. “If you weren’t paid well enough to guard it, you shouldn’t have taken the job.”

That amused him even more. He turned his upper body to one side then the other, keeping his hands behind his head, as if he was limbering up in preparation for the next stage of the race. Then he brought his left arm back and threw something towards her, striking her on the knee.

Del shouted from the pain and stumbled, but managed to remain upright. Orsino turned and walked away. After a while, he broke into a run; Del couldn’t see his face, but she pictured him smugly exuberant, celebrating his own effortless strides, spared the need to draw blood but certain now that she’d never catch up with him.

She lowered herself awkwardly onto the road. The stone hadn’t been all that large, and she didn’t think it had fractured the bone, but if she tried to move while her knee was still throbbing she was afraid she’d just exacerbate the problem.

She looked to the east. Finally, Audrey was coming. Del tried to distance herself from her wounded pride, and judge the remaining possibilities realistically. Maybe Audrey could chase down Orsino, unaided. Maybe she should just sit here, resting, and hope that everything would be resolved without her.

She turned to the west and watched Orsino receding. But Audrey wouldn’t have him in her sights yet; if he left the road or took a turn, she’d have no way of knowing which way he’d gone.

Del struggled to her feet, keeping her injured leg as straight as she could, then tested its function. She couldn’t use it normally, but if she favoured her other leg she could walk well enough, with a certain amount of pain. She started hobbling along the road, then she tried a different gait, pushing off hard with her good foot then just bearing the shock of landing on the other, without expecting it to do any work.

Gradually, she increased her speed, running as she might if one limb had been replaced with a crude prosthesis – wary of her balance, and wishing the offending leg really was as insensate as wood. Squinting into the distance, she could still make out Orsino, and when she looked back, she saw Audrey steadily gaining on her. Maybe she could do this after all: keep moving long enough to serve as an intermediary, bridging the gap and showing Audrey the way.

After a while she fell into a rhythm that carried her along at a respectable rate without threatening to send her toppling at the first pothole. The pain had lost its scream of insistence, as if her body had decided to accede to her judgement that what she was doing was important enough that the ongoing insult simply had to be borne.

The edge of the Hoop was almost in front of her, emerging from a fractured hilltop a little to her north. Del followed the arc across the sky – tracing the parts where clouds gave way to stars as if they’d been truncated with a knife – and found herself growing vertiginous, not so much at the familiar sight as at the knowledge that elsewhere there were mountain ranges high enough to block the giant aperture completely. Had the Tolleans found a way through those mountains? Some secret crevice or subterranean river? Half the commentators she’d read discussing the supposed route to the Bounteous Lands had dismissed it as a fantasy, while others had judged it plausible but too perilous to traverse. But she had no intention of letting Orsino rob her of the chance to make her own assessment.

Ladalla lay ahead of her now, albeit a part of it indistinguishable from Thena’s own patch of cracked obsidian. But the first town through the Hoop, Paveen, was not far away. If Orsino’s buyer was waiting for him there, they could hardly perform the transaction without pause, like runners in a relay race. Del pictured a scene in the tavern in Paveen where the handoff had been intended to take place, with all the patrons – swayed by Audrey’s testimony seconding her own – united to hold Orsino back as she approached the stolen package—

An unwelcome datum interrupted her reverie. Orsino had left the road to Paveen, and taken a side road that ran to the north: straight towards the hill at the edge of the Hoop.

Del cursed him, unable to decide if this was an elaborate feint, or just part of the journey he’d planned from the start. If he skirted the edge of the Hoop and then kept on westward, he would remain in Thena, but he might just as easily double back and enter the Hoop from the opposite side, taking him into Beremma.

Had she been uninjured, she might have risked leaving the road and heading north-west, but the mix of scrubland and volcanic rock looked like it would send her sprawling. She raised an arm and gestured right, in the hope that Audrey might take the shortcut in her stead, but when she looked back the signal had had no effect.

Orsino reached the ring road that circled the hill from which the Hoop’s edge emerged. To Del’s surprise, he turned left – sending him, at least for the moment, into Ladalla, but now offering him the chance either to exit and travel on to Eastern Ladalla, or to pass through the Hoop a second time in the same direction, entering Juthena.

Del tried to move faster, but her leg was firmly committed to her present hard-won gait. Orsino disappeared behind the hill. Whatever choices he made now, unless he turned around and retraced his steps she’d lost any hope of seeing him emerge in the same manner as he’d vanished.

The turnoff leading to the hill was right ahead of her; Del took it, pushing on defiantly through a haze of half-voiced protests that she refused to let crystallise and undermine her cause. The sky before her was bisected, with mismatched tufts of clouds to her left and right, and above them mismatched constellations. Living so close to the Hoop, she was familiar with most of Ladalla’s western sky, as some Ladallans were with the stars to her east, but over time people had sown confusion by picking different names for the shared constellations, then learning each other’s nomenclature and forgetting who had chosen which.

She glanced back and saw that Audrey had left the western road and was taking her chances with a cross-country sprint. Del reached the ring road and turned left, taking heart that at least the two of them wouldn’t be split up. Her fondest wish now was to give Orsino one more chance to sneer at her futile efforts, before he found himself confronted by an uninjured and unflagging nemesis that he’d never even known was coming.

As she circled the hill, her changing perspective revealed progressively more of a bank of low clouds on her right, much as if she were circling any ordinary obstacle – except the “obstacle” was another patch of sky, which in turn was being progressively obscured. Her instinctive, but unwinnable battle to assign roles of foreground and background left her with a sense that either she was skirting a huge, mirrored tower, or – as her gut seemed to find more plausible – she’d eaten something that unhinged her perceptions to the point where her body would be better off discarding it as a likely poison.

As she came halfway around the hill, she switched her attention to the surrounding landscape. Orsino would have to leave the ring road eventually, and that would be her chance to catch sight of him again, fleeing across open ground. Once he was clear of the Hoop he could still swerve and double-back all he liked, but it would be far harder to disguise his actual destination.

The corner of Eastern Ladalla near the Hoop’s northern edge was every bit as scrubby and barren as the same part of Thena; the rocks and soil of the two regions were more or less contiguous, after all. It was only when Del lifted her gaze higher that the comforts of familiarity fell away. She had visited some nearby towns in Western Ladalla, but she had never had reason to come around to this side of the Hoop – so she had never seen any of the constellations that now shone in the east. For the first time in her life, she had no idea what anyone called half the stars above her. And for the first time in her life, she’d need to give up the notion that, clouds permitting, Takya was guaranteed to make an appearance before too long. Ladalla had no moons of its own, and from this side of the Hoop, no view of Thena’s.

Del let the melancholy sense of estrangement sit with her; unsettling as it was, the fact remained that she could turn around and head home whenever she liked. All the children’s stories she’d heard of hapless travellers somehow losing track of the number of times they’d circled the edge of the Hoop had been comically entertaining, but she was a very long way from getting lost herself. The only thing she had reason to fear right now was losing Orsino.

As she scanned the scrubland, she could not rule out the possibility that he had chosen to dig in behind a bush and wait for her to circle out of view. She wanted to believe that he was arrogant enough to have abandoned all caution once he’d slowed her down with the stone, but that was probably wishful thinking. He was smart and skilful enough to have copied the vault keys without her or Jachimo noticing – but still careless enough to have made whatever small noise had woken her as he departed. She just needed him to make one more error.

Three-quarters of the way around the hill, though she still hadn’t set foot in Juthena, the third sky of the journey began to show through the Hoop. A delicate swathe of light, which she supposed was an agglomeration of stars too close for her eyes to separate, stretched across the view like an ethereal ribbon.

Del tore her gaze away from the spectacle and concentrated on the land around her. When she came full circle, the layout of the roads to the south might have been copied from that between Thena and Ladalla, but the terrain itself was unmistakably different, with thicker grass and fewer sharp edges to the rocks. Looking towards Juthena, she hoped for a glimpse of Orsino jogging along the western road, but instead she was rewarded with the sight of distant lanterns, and singing carried to her in snatches on the breeze. Some kind of festival, she supposed.

She kept running. The pain in her knee was like a drumbeat to which she’d grown accustomed, and when she thought of slowing down or stopping the prospect was alarming, as if she’d habituated to such a precise set of sensations that disturbing the pattern by resting would be as unwelcome as any other change.

That the hill presented a different profile to her the second time around was reassuring – inasmuch as it reduced any risk of confusion, when she was growing ever less scornful towards the disoriented protagonists of the children’s tales. Juthena’s stars lit up the ground on her left in exquisite detail, but if Orsino had ever crossed this land, he was already out of sight.

In Sarana the stars were sparser, the ground curiously lush.

In Tethemma there were more clouds drifting by, but even through the breaks a darker sky.

As Del rounded the hill yet again, the light falling on the road ahead was so bright and sharp that she assumed she was approaching a group of travellers bearing lanterns, marching in silence. She slowed down, afraid of blundering disrespectfully into the midst of a funeral procession.

Sarana, Tethemma ... Erema? It was unforgivable that she wasn’t sure. There were too many lands to commit every single one to memory, but these were the immediate neighbours that every child in Apasa learned.

Erema it was. And in Erema, famously—

The light striking her face carried none of the warmth of a flame, but the mere act of seeing it was as painful as a needle through flesh. Del tried squinting, but it was not enough. She took a few steps with her eyes closed, but then came to her senses and stopped.

She backed away, her leg throbbing, until only a sliver of the new sky remained in view. The stars were so bright that each one alone was like a lantern; she had to hold up a hand and peer between her fingers to keep her eyes from watering.

Travellers could accommodate to the brightness, she’d heard, by wrapping a long strip of fabric around their head and gradually unwinding it. But when they departed it would take them just as long to readapt to normal conditions. If she’d planned a journey through Erema that entailed merely circling the edge of the Hoop, she would have arranged in advance for a local guide to be here to lead her, blindfolded, from ordinary sky to ordinary sky.

Maybe Orsino had made precisely those arrangements. Or maybe he’d just fled, eyes closed, stumbling across the dazzling ground, sure that no one from Thena would have any hope of following him.

Whatever he’d done, he was out of her reach now. The book was gone, and Erema’s stars blazed down upon a road that she had no reason to travel. And you thought you were going to find the way to the Bounteous Lands, where one star lies so close that it gives life to the entire world?

Del contemplated sitting and resting for a while, but when she pictured the necessary manoeuvre her leg interjected with an immediate veto. So she turned and headed back the way she’d come.

Audrey appeared, slowing as she approached, clearly disappointed by the message in Del’s demeanour, but not surprised. “We did our best,” she said. “I’ll vouch for that to your employer, if you’ll do the same for mine.”

Del was too tired to laugh.

“You can lean on my shoulder if you like,” Audrey offered. “Take the weight off your leg. I don’t think either of us will be running, and it’s going to be a long walk home.”



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