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CHAPTER 16

If you think Im sharing my memories with you, lawyer Bialis offense cut through the rest of the noise with a clarity seconded only by Albans splutter of disbelief. Janx chortled with pleasure, while the selkies and djinn snapped at one another, their din focused on whether Margrits offer to share her memories of Ausras death could be construed as invitation to investigate Maliks, as well.

Margrit, not expecting anyone to take heed, said, Its not my first choice, either, and sat down at the chess table, body weary enough after the fight to want the respite even though intellect said she should probably remain on her feet. Intellect hadnt taken the pounding her muscles had, though. It might want rest after this next challenge, and she deemed it wise to give in to her body now so it wouldnt rebel later.

Who would you choose? Eldreds deep voice slipped through the hubbub, drawing Margrits attention for all that he spoke softly. She sighed and gestured around the room.

Alban, ideally, but I doubt thats really an option. I dont know the rest of you at all, so any other choice is more or less meaningless. That said, probably you.

Why?

Because I know your name? Because youre the head of the tribunal and because that makes you the final judge in my mind. Margrit reached out to touch one of the pawns, then dropped her hand again. Judges are supposed to be impartial, so you seem least likely to sway or be swayed by someone drifting through your mind.

If you undertake this task, Margrit Knight, you will need to burrow, not drift. This is not a game to be taken lightly. Eldred retreated, leaving Margrit alone with the chess pieces and a room full of Old Races.

Debate went on longer than she anticipated, less for the matter of permission than the appalling idea that humans could perceive the gargoyle memories. Margrit heard talk of battle and of treaties, all of it idealistic with the first blush of conception. Neither was a wise choice, not that she could think of a way to stop a cadre of gargoyles from exposing themselves in the human world if that was their desire. Letting their discussion fade into white noise, she pushed a pawn forward so she could see it better, examining the individually carved scales on the serpents hide.

A second pawn across the board was pushed forward by a taloned finger. Margrit looked up, startled, to find Biali sitting down across from her. Theyll be at it all night.

Inconvenient, Margrit said under her breath. What with you turning to stone at dawn and all. Id hoped we could do this in one day. Night. Whatever. Since he was there, she prodded another pawn forward, resisting the impulse to pick it up and study the feathery wings on the clawed womans back. What race is this one?

Harpy. They lived in what you call the Amazon, and nine out of ten of em were female. Never stopped fighting amongst themselves, and when the humans came, they couldnt organize to fight outsiders. Biali pushed one of his hairy men forward. Still, they did better than the yeti. They at least fought. The yeti only ran. What memories?

Margrit went still, a hand above the dragon-cum-bishop. Shed cleared a path for him to angle out, but she left him where he was, sorting out Bialis question. Hajnal, mostly. Last weekend when we danced at the ball. I saw her through your eyes for a moment. Saw, or remembered, how much you loved her. Shed even felt a flash of desire, unexpected heat in looking on a feminine body. Sharing memories was disconcerting. I didnt mean to intrude. Sorry.

You mean that, lawyer?

What, that Im sorry? Yeah, of course I do. Its not polite to pick up on other peoples memories without them knowing about it. I just dont know how to brace against it.

Keep playing, Biali said after a silence. Ill teach you.

She wasnt certain when the chess board had become slippery and malformed, like a thing out of dreams. Peaks and valleys rose, black squares and white distorted and stretched among them. Far too many of the playing pieces slipped away, plummeting to their doom in craggy rents that pulled the board apart. Margrit clutched at them, trying to save what she could, but they slid through her fingers, insubstantial and screaming as they fell. She lunged after them, unaware of her own danger until someone, grumbling, thrust a hand at her and dragged her back from a precipice.

No point in going after whats gone, lawyer. Youll only die trying.

Bialis presence stabilized the world, chess colors fading into night shades along a mountain range that went on as far as Margrit could see. Trees, gray-green in moonlight, offered softness to the landscape, and a silver river far below glittered as it cut its way through the stuff of memory and made a living place of it. Biali glowed under the hard blue-white light, so bright Margrit cast a glance at the moon, half expecting it to be blue itself, like an ultraviolet light at a dance club. Everything around her had a sense of expectation, as if each thing she did was anticipated, considered and recorded. As if the world was a living, thinking thing, far more connected to its denizens than the one she lived in was.

It is, Biali said gruffly. These mountains are our memories. They live while we do, growing and changing, all our histories built tall and wide for delving into when we need. Youre the first human to stand here, lawyer. Enjoy the view while you can.

That sounds ominous. Margrit dragged a breath of crisp night air in, marking how different it tasted from the muggy warmth of Graces below-city tunnels. And I didnt say anything aloud, did I?

Theres no privacy here, not unless you learn to close up your mind and keep your thoughts to yourself.

Margrit, not deliberately, thought of a boxa Chinese takeaway box, white with red painted letters on the sides and a fragile metal handle squared over its topand folded it shut, trying to tuck her thoughts away. Biali laughed, startling her.

Not bad. Not bad at all, lawyer. Youre leaking a bit, but youve got the right idea. Now, whatve you got in your hand?

Margrit clenched her hand, hard carved edges of a chess piece cutting against her palm. Feeling childish for asking, she said, Does telling you give you some kind of advantage?

Biali stared, then barked another laugh. Youre in trouble either way, arent you? Nah, even if were carrying the same token the memories will carry us down different paths. Dont tell me if you dont want to. Youll get free when youve done as much as you can whether I know where youre off to or not.

Margrit nodded stiffly, then looked around again. This is your memory?

All of ours. Youre in the heart of our people.

Why dont I see anyone else, then? People who are important to you, anyway?

An image bloomed behind her eyes, drawn there as though it came from within her: her takeaway box, all white and red and faint angles. Then white granite grew up over its sides, sealing it off in flawless stone. The pictures faded and Margrit pursed her lips, looking down. Oh.

Any other questions?

Yes. Margrit lifted her eyes again. What do I do?

Biali shrugged his massive shoulders. Just follow the memories, lawyer. Theyll take you where they want you to go.

One more question. Why are you letting me in?

Biali shrugged again, turned away, his form fading faster than distance could take him away. I told you once. Youre not bad, for what you are.

Then he was gone, leaving Margrit alone on the mountainside.

She began to open her hand, then suddenly clenched her fist around the chess piece instead. If what Eldred and Biali had said was true, she might find her way to whatever bit of wisdom she was meant to bring back without looking at the piece. She knew from feel that it wasnt one of the winged harpies, nor one of the hunched gargoyles: it was too tall for that, and too narrow. It might have been almost any of the others, though not, she thought, one of the yeti; it didnt seem squat enough. If she needed its guidance later she would look at it, but for the moment she tightened her fingers and studied the mountains.

Openness and height spread out, reminding her that she hadnt gone for a run in days. The leather and boots she wore were completely inappropriate for exercise, but Margrit glanced down at herself with a grin. Memories and dreams werent exactly the same thing, but they were kin to one another. If the gargoyles could shape the whole of their memories into a mountain range, she could certainly dress herself in running gear for the duration of her stay there.

A moment later she went bounding down the mountainside, feet light in her running shoes, hair flying into her face as she bounced from one smooth rock face to another. Stone turned to trees to dart around, long strides eating up the ground, and trees became meadow as Margrit stretched and laughed and ran more freely than shed done in weeks.

She came upon the river with no warning, and with even less thought dove into it, gasping with shock both at her choice and the cold as a current swept her downstream. It pulled her deeper than she thought a river should go, the surface growing darker and farther away even as she struggled to reach it again. Panic seemed curiously missing as her lungs began to ache, as if a part of her mind disbelieved what was happening, and refused to accept she needed air within memorys confines.

A shape came out of the water, lithe and quick and swimming against the current as though it hardly existed. Human hands caught her, a humanoid face coming close to hers. Masculine, she thought, though with peculiarly large, double-lidded eyes that blinked rapidly at her in the gloom. Not so dark she couldnt see, though after a few seconds she began to think the creature whod caught her glowed with his own bioluminescence, a waft of electric blue in the dark.

He lifted his hands to her face, drawing her closer still, then tipped his head and, without invitation, covered her mouth with his own. Margrit squeaked a protest in the back of her throat, so surprised she could do nothing else before agony ripped over her.

Memory seared her, changing her concept of herself from a human creature to something born of the sea. When she dragged in a breath, cold water flooded her ribs and throat, and when she gawked at herself in horror, it was to discover tremendous gills lining her torso. Her vision had cleared, leaving her able to see that her rescuer did glow, and that his hair was the same electric color as the aura he gave off. Like her changed self-perception, he too had gilled ribs, and now that she could see more clearly, fluttering gills at his throat, as well. His eyes were enormous, and his hands less human than shed believed, with webbing between the fingers.

A grin split her face so widely it hurt as she backed up to look at the rest of him. Despite the gills, he looked mammalian in form: the heavy, brilliantly colored tail had no scales, only soft-looking hide like a whales, and horizontal fins at the end, more like a dolphin than a fish.

A trill of laughter escaped her throat and she tried for words, uncertain if she could make them underwater. I get mermaid memories? Really? Thats so cool.

I am only your guide. The mermaidmermansiryn, Margrit settled on, remembering the Old Races name for the undersea peoples, and feeling absurd using merman, which seemed even more made-up than mermaid. The siryns voice was musical, catching Margrit by the heart and tugging her whether she wanted to follow or not.

Alarm spiked through her, abrupt recollection of the siryns reputation. Margrit backpedaled, only realizing as she did so that she, too, wore a mermaids tail, hers of rich coppery brown, like an impossibly vibrant shade of her own cafe-latte skin. Youre not going to drag me off and drown me, are you?

A few powerful strokes of her benefactors flukes sent him around her in quick, irritated circles. Would I have given you the memory of how to breathe and swim beneath the water if I intended to drown you? I am your guide, not your doom. Even in pique he sounded like rainfall on crystal, voice shimmering with beautiful offerings. Challenge laid down, he flicked his tail a few times and surged away, leaving Margrit to follow or not, as she saw fit.

A mixture of wanting to apologize and sheer delight at the scenario sent her after him, her hair clouding around her when she caught up. Like the tail shed been granted, it was more brilliant in color than she was accustomed to, though not as unearthly as her guides. How are you giving me the memory? Can siryns do that, too?

No. This all takes place within the gargoyle histories. I utilize their ability to share memory in order to make you more comfortable. You could traverse this realm in your own form, if you so wished.

In other words, this is all happening in my mind. Margrit drew another deep breath, feeling water flood her ribs, and smiled against the coldness. Guess I might as well enjoy it. Where are we going?

Where does your heart tell you we are going?

To the heart of the world, Margrit said promptly, then coughed on her own pomposity. I dont know why I said that.

Laughter washed through the siryns voice, high notes on a piano rendered into something impossibly pure. Because your heart told you to. Now, hush. We will not want to speak as the pressures grow stronger. The depths are not comfortable, even for our kind, and we need what air we can steal from the cold, black water.

It wasnt until she didnt find it that Margrit realized she had truly expected to see Atlantis when her blue-haired guide finally drew to a halt, closer to the dark ocean floor than Margrit had ever imagined being. Instead of the fabled city, though, there was merely a rent in the earth, so broad and deep that both heat and light rose from it even in the icy depths. A primitive impulse to runor swimas fast as she could, as far as she could, set Margrits heartbeat racing until she felt dizzy from it. This was not a place humans were meant to be, and the sensation that a price would be paid for intruding weighed on her as heavily as the ocean pressure did. Hell had much in common with this stretch of barren undersea land. Even the juxtaposition of hot and cold promised to punish the wicked with one form of misery, then another.

When a serpent of impossible length and breadth slithered free of the torn earth, Margrit laughed, then shoved her hands against her mouth as though she could push the sound back in. There would be a serpent; of course there would be a serpent. She could hear the hysteria in the laugh she tried to swallow, and dared not follow her own thoughts too closely for fear of finding madness in them. She knotted her hands more tightly, and realized something cut into one palm.

A sea-serpent chess pawn floated a few centimeters away when Margrit opened it, caught in the current its make-sake created as it swam. The tremendous serpent circled her and her companion, watching them as it wound around time and time again. Its great length putting Janxs dragon form to shame: it was as though it had been born at the beginning of time, and had grown slowly, constantly, ever since. It had too many, or too few, colors to name, all of them shimmering and changing as the creature made a whirlpool of itself around Margrit and her guide. They were turned in its vortex, unable to meet the monsters eye with their own.

Its miniature representation floated away, just out of Margrits reach, insignificant beyond words in comparison to its model. The carving looked like the toy it was; the real serpent looked like a limbless dragon, broad-snouted with wide-set eyes, a Norse carving come to life.

Oh. Margrits voice cracked even on that single word. Oroborus. My God. She heard more fervency and devoutness in her near prayer than shed ever heard in her life, and wondered what her mother, her father, her kindly priest at her church, would think of that. Her chest ached, delight borne from someplace so deep within her she had no idea where it began. It stole her breath, stole the form shed been given and left her dangling in the water as a mere mortal, ordinary human. Warnings whispered that she should be frightened, she should be drowning, she should be crushed, she should be dead, and none of it, not one of those true and dire thoughts, could unman the consuming, heartbreaking joy that welled inside her.

She stretched her hands out, not so much daring to touch the monster from the heart of the world as in worship, felt more deeply than she had words for. My God, look at you. Thank you. Thank you for letting me see you. She caught the tiny chess carving and held it up in her fingertips. This is for you, she said impulsively. We do remember. Even humans. We do remember. That the serpent in her personal mythology was most often passed off as a thing of evil seemed shallow and absurd in face of the great Leviathan. That it had offered the path to knowledge seemed the important part.

The serpents swirling vortex slowed as it brought its head in to examine the chess piece. Its eye was taller than she was; taller than herself and her guide put end to end. Margrit had no way to give words to the creatures size, only that it dwarfed any living thing shed ever imagined, and that she thought the earths molten core would look small in its coils. It studied her and her gift with inexpressible calm, then with great and slow deliberation, opened its mouth.

It did so very carefully, as if aware that it would suck Margrit, her guide, everything around them and half the oceans water in if it were to do so quickly. Even with its jaws barely parted, its gaping maw was cavernous, so dark and huge it couldnt conceivably be something alive, but had to be some new-born formation torn from the oceans bed. Margrit hung in the water, frozen in bewildered incomprehension before realizing the vast serpent was accepting her gift. Trying not to laugh with terror, she kicked forward and very, very cautiously dropped the chess piece into the serpents gum beside a tooth so large it reached a vanishing point when she craned her neck to look up at it.

With a delicacy that belied its size, the serpent dipped its tongueforked and unbelievably longinto its gum, wrapping it around the minuscule carving and flicking it back into its throat. It swallowed once, an action that slid along forever, then, with what seemed to Margrit to be incalculable amusement, flicked its tongue a second time, this time at her.

The world spun head over heels, and she opened her eyes in Graces council room to find she was soaked through and through, and that she held nothing at all in her hand where the chess piece had been.


CHAPTER 15 | Hands of Flame | CHAPTER 17