Sylvan is a world where you cannot see the tree for the woods. The tree spans continents. The tree covers oceans. The endlessly interlocking branches are so wide that there are meadows and even forests on them. But there is always down. Down to yet another branch. Down low enough, where the light grows too filtered and dim for chlorophyll, there are different forests. Parasitic and saprophytic mushroom forests grow down there on the canyon edges of the vast buttress roots. Evil things prowl there, more than three miles below the leaf-canopy.
In this place, where the world is a tree and a tree is the world, there are also places of light and darkness. A place of total light . . . and a place of total darkness. For Sylvan does not rotate. However, the planet does wobble. Furiously. So there are certain day-night areas.
In the heart of the lightside the tree has mirror leaves. On the other side of the globe there is a zone of total darkness which the sun never reaches. Here there are no branches. Just roots. Roots channeling the nutrients to the light. And channeling the wind. The endless winds of Sylvan. For it is by this means that the terrible heat of lightside and the sub-zero temperatures of darkside are at least partially averaged. The old alchemists had got it wrong. Sylvan should have been called Wind, not Air.
Popular belief has it that once, millennia ago, the tree was not. That the entire tiny population of this marginal world survived in the wobble-zone. Precariously. Stretching morphic adaptation to its limits. The tree, it is believed, is the fruit of one being's genius. Someone who meshed paranormal forces and bio-engineering. Many of the folk of Sylvan believe this being to be a God. They're wrong.
They're also sometimes wrong about her being black.
Kate awoke to the sound of the wind. Because of the constant air movement, the place is seldom silent. But there were no leaves rustling here. Great fungus stalks did bend and creak, however, and a steady spore-rain fell. The air was fetid, and full of the scents of decay. Also, as she was being carried upside-down in a spider-mesh bag hung on a pole between two bearers, her view of the vast spaces was more than a little confusing. Especially as her last memory was of feeling unbelievably sleepy in her own home. She began testing her bonds. She had to get out of this mess. If for no other reason, then because bladder-pressure demanded it.
"It would be convenient if we could fit ring-tones to the crystal balls, Samur," said Isaac Levieson. "I've news for you about Vila."
"The rusalka. It was a pity you didn't get her while she was there."
"Squigs is coming to Sylvan after her. I believe he'll take one of the congruences in your area."
"We'll be watching for them," said Samur.
It was Squigs' own fault. And there is nothing worse than knowing that it's all your own fault. He'd been muttering to himself, and wishing he could go back in time and just keep his mouth shut, ever since. The Crum had been ingeniously evading joining the expedition to Sylvan until Squigs had sardonically commented to Huigi that the parrot had certainly been right about him.
Unfortunately the Crum overheard. Now he was accompanying them. At a full grumble. They'd left him behind when they went to the Madame's. They'd let him get hit on the head. They just used him for his superb fighting ability, and then provided him with inferior drink. Inferior, poor-quality drink which had given him a headache. To distract himself from the litany, Squigs had started discussing preparations with Mungo.
"It's a long congruence. We've fully forty-two seconds to get through."
"But why the contraption, me boyo? 'Tis goin' to take us longer than forty seconds to pull it forward, if the wind is against us." Mungo looked doubtfully at the silk and wicker-work creation on the raft they towed behind them. In the darkness it looked more like a giant's rumpled bed, crawling with fleas. Fleas with lanterns. Sewing furiously. Thank goodness for Korg and his dwarfish connections. When Squigs had told Huigi that at least they had a nice safe ground to ground congruence, the vampire had looked at him as if he was totally lacking. "You mean . . . we come out at root level? Are you insane?"
Huigi had gone on to describe life in the twisted near-vertical walled buttress-root canyons. "To get out you must either fly, very, very fast, because of the prowling wolbats, or be able to climb the root-walls. Down there they're covered in globular black slime-moulds. You can't navigate the rivers. They're full of enormous waterfalls. And the water is crawling with nasty things, like leeches. Big ones, the size of you. Besides, that low down you get waterwalls a hundred and fifty feet high coming through. No. We need another congruence. Higher up. I'm a shadowlander myself, and we think we're quite tough, but I wouldn't go down into the roots." He shuddered. "The very idea makes my teeth hurt."
So Squigs had to come up with another congruence. And had taken steps to ensure that they didn't end up at root-level anyway. A balloon seemed the obvious low-tech answer. Only how would he make one? And how would he do it before the next midnight?
He voiced these thoughts aloud in Korg's presence. And discovered that the answer was simple. When you want the impossible done, like say, the conquest of half the world by next Tuesday, you ask a short-butt to do it. You may not like the way he does it. But it gets done. Or at least this was Korg's opinion. According to him the only employment criterion for senior management which ought to be allowed was a tape-measure. Which, he informed Squigs, meant that in a well-run world Squigs would be mucking out privies for the rest of eternity. Yes, he knew what balloons were. The dwarf miners used them, but only below ground, because dragons and rocs tended to dispute the right of such objects sharing the sky with them.
Squigs looked at the balloon. He had to agree with Korg about not necessarily liking the way that it got done. The little man hadn't allowed any of those he recruited to work on the project to slack or rest for one second. Any earth-type union would have been out on strike and burning the little man in effigy, had their members been treated like that. Mind you, he'd worked like a hyperactive beaver on speed himself, and simply expected everyone else to do the same.
"We may come out a long way above the ground. The hot-air bag will stop us falling and if," he said wryly, "we can keep the Crum talking under it, we could rise above the tree-branches."
Actually, his intention was to set the balloon down as fast as possible. Unpowered, uncontrolled flight in Sylvan could be even more dangerous than in Zoar. Besides the flying creatures, they could also rip the hot-air envelope on the branches. And they'd be coming out a long way above those buttress-root canyons. A long, long way . . . to fall.
At last, the balloon was finished. Two hours early. Korg then snored for a solid hour and a half, after paying off the workers with a substantial bonus and, Squigs noticed, gruffly thanking each person, leaving each of the twenty workers sure that the little slave-driver had watched and appreciated every stitch they'd sewed. Having listened to it, Squigs was grimly sure that if Korg had now asked them to sew a cover for Zikleviesion's Ziggurat before morning, every one of them would have volunteered their battered fingers for the job. If Korg moved to Earth they would have to change PC speech from 'vertically challenged' to 'vertically challenging,' and the textile workers union-bosses would go looking for the Carpaccio Corporation's contracts division.
Now, it was midnight. The witching hour. The ill-assorted band in the balloon's wicker basket were silhouetted above the swamp, against a wan and gibbous moon. The song of the mosquitoes rose above even Crum's whining, as the insects celebrated the advent of the new "meals-under-a-gas-bag" service. Squigs measured carefully with the plumb-line.
"Take us forward, slowly." As the hippo-drivers started to edge their beasts forward with loud yarring yells, Squigs began playing the sequence of shrill trumpets that allowed passage to the sphere of Air. It was a sharper, harsher tune than the wild, eerie piping of the congruences between Air and Earth. The sequence of notes played by the computer-controlled mini-synthesizer had been careful worked out by Squigs, taking nearly two giga-years of calculation on one of the Alchemy department's three Cray supercomputers. To Squigs it sounded like something between the reveille and the Ride of the Valkyries. The mosquitoes thought it was the mosquito equivalent of the Good Humor van's tune.
And then . . . the moonlit darkness of Zoar was gone, leaving only a few lonely mosquitoes whining off into green space, to search endlessly for their way home. The bigger bloodsuckers who ruled this place were intolerant of mosquitoes. They didn't like competition.
The balloon hung, like that last home-made, badly-sewed, and never-to-be-sold "Barbie Doll" outfit on the rack at the school fete, in the green cathedral emptiness, between the expressway-sized branches and the distant canopy. The small party, suspended in the midst of all this enormity, surveyed it in silence from the slowly swaying balloon basket.
"Oh blast. I forgot to put the oven-fire out. Be melted to slag-iron by the time I get back," said Mungo gloomily. "I don't suppose we can pop back for a moment, boyo?"
Squigs shook his head.
Mungo grimaced. "Pity. It's no use hoping that Sligo, or any of the others, will notice it before the molten iron runs across their toes."
A small, plump bat with an evil face and long canines fluttered to the basket edge. Clumsily it swung itself inboard by its wingclaws. And transformed. "Phew!" said Huigi, panting slightly. "Out of condition. Sorry. Don't trust these flying things, so I came through under my own steam."
Squigs gawped. Hearing the theory of morphic transformation and seeing it were two different things. Squigs knew that Huigi was as non-human as the wasp-orchid was non-wasp, but seeing the change to true form was still quite frightening.
Huigi looked over the edge of the basket. "High up, aren't we? Shadowlanders like myself are not that happy this close to the brightness. Shall we go down? Our quarry must be several miles below us."
"This one is awake, mistress," the frog-faced bearer called out. "It's twitching. Shall I bite it?"
"No, Salem. The taste is an acquired one. And besides, your toxins would probably kill her." A voice Kate recognized, if not the tone. Vila strode into her narrow field of view. A different Vila. Completely naked for starters. And with her eyes both dark and pupil-less. Empty, and terrifyingly compelling. She stood, hands on her perfectly curved broad hips and stared at Kate. "What?! No threats? No demands to be let free? No 'what am I doing here' from the snooty Miss Kentigern? You're spoiling my day!"
Kate licked her dry lips. Worked her sticky dry mouth. Somehow she managed enough bubbly spittle to spray vaguely at Vila. The blond-maned woman laughed. "Defiant to the end. I wouldn't try your little spitting tricks with Salem here. He might spit back. And his spit is very corrosive on human skin, I've been told. Still, to avoid any foolishness, let me assure you, you won't be hurt, if you behave yourself. You are bait, Miss Kentigern. Bait for a very big fish."
Kate's eyes narrowed to slits. Flint-hard slits. "I see you're back in your normal working clothes. My father's soft with women. So when he lets me loose I'll deal with you."
Vila laughed. "Mungo Kentigern! I'm sure he's as mad as a wet snake. But I'm beyond his mere reach here. No. When the ransom demands are delivered he'll have little choice but to co-operate."
The little impish delivery-devil was hopping from one foot to the other. It had survived entry into this horrible wet world. It had arrived at the right place. Vila had left enough scent-trace for him to be sure. Ugh! How those humans could not smell her distinctive wet-slimy anchovy bouquet was beyond its understanding. Mind you, most things were beyond it. It had been especially selected for this mission for its extreme stupidity. They could, and undoubtedly would, question the little monster until it stopped being blue in the face, and still get nothing out of it. It stopped jigging from one foot to the other and pounded on the door yet again, before resuming its little dance. Finally it reached a decision. They were not at home. It pushed the note under the door, and, whistling like a banshee, set off back to the place from whence it was sent. Later it would reassure its master that it had definitely delivered the first of the instructions for the hand-over of Harkness-Smythe to the right address.
Mungo Kentigern was, in fact, a mere fifty miles behind his daughter's kidnapper. Not what most sane people would have considered beyond the reach of a man like that. He was, as Vila had surmised, as mad as a wet snake. He was also clinging desperately to a small epiphytic dwarf cypress whose root web was slowly peeling away from the side of the huge branch. Below him hung the wicker balloon basket, with Squigs, the baron, Crum, Korg and Slugger clinging to it. Of Huigi there was no sign. Below them the torn balloon envelope hung down on its tangle of ropes. Below that, the distance, which faded into darkness, far, far below them . . . reached. Hungrily.
One should never take a powered (even if that power is only rather flabby muscle) and controlled flier's advice about the maneuvering of a lighter-than-air craft. They haven't the least idea what they're talking about. Which is why when they came low over the branch Huigi had squeaked, "Turn! Turn! Left!" instead of saying something vaguely useful and possible like "up" or "down." In the cathedral spaces between the branches, and in the silence of the balloon it had been easy to forget the winds of Sylvan. Only when they came above the bending trees growing on the branch was the steady twenty-mile an hour breeze obvious. And here, near the great branch, that wind was turbulent, too.
They'd overshot. Just. But not before ripping the balloon severely. It was only Mungo's muscles that were stopping them from falling into the depths now. And their guide had been the first winged rat to abandon the ship.
A bat fluttered into view. Half transmorphed. "The wope," it lisped squeakily, flapping at a single line leading up the grey wall, "Up!"
The Crum was the first to grasp what the bat-man meant. He went up the rope like a rat up a drainpipe. "Nectht! Heavietht firtht!" lisped the bat. So Slugger, the baron and then Squigs and Korg climbed upwards. The bat-man meanwhile had fluttered up with another line and secured it around Mungo's waist. "Let go!" the bat chittered. In a true triumph of faith Mungo did. Then he began to climb his own catch rope even before anyone could haul him in.
The balloon basket, freed of its muscular restraint, began to tumble, down, down . . . for about eighteen inches.
The torn lines tangled in the epiphytes clinging to the grey branch-wall could easily hold the basket and the torn silk-bag. At least, they could hold it now that the heavyweights had been removed.
"Phew!" The small vampire, transmorphed back to his usual elegant undertaker's evening dress, was faintly pink-cheeked. "All present and erect then?" he said coyly. He winced and felt his stomach. "I nearly gave myself a damn hernia flying with that grapple."
Squigs looked down at his foot. Eugh! He'd arrived in a new world, he could tell. Here, on the sloping edges of the branch-forests the feral winged-pigs come to forage and root for truffles and tasty grubs. Their green droppings are rather sloppy. "Some things," he muttered to himself, "never change."
Kate looked gloomily around the room. To think she'd once stigmatized her own golden, woven-rush room as being small, poky and dark, and not nearly as nice as Taryn Silberson's who even had her own mirror. She sighed. When one had just turned twelve and was having the puberty-nouveau bitch-about-everything to your mother, you really hadn't the vaguest idea what was worth moaning about. This room was really small, poky and dark. It didn't have a mirror. And it certainly wasn't as nice as her one-time best friend's room either. That had had a door which opened freely. Although, as Kate recalled, Taryn's harassed father had threatened, at one stage, to put a lock on it.
There were stirrings from the solitary moldy straw mat in the corner. It looked as though Venus might be coming round at last. As Kate had realized when she'd moved Venus onto the mat, after they'd both been dumped in here, the tall girl was pitifully thin. Probably starving themselves to feed those stupid swans of theirs, she thought savagely. It had meant, that with her low bodyweight, the baron's daughter had stayed unconscious far longer than herself. Kate peered intently. Yes. Venus was definitely stirring.
Good. Vee was a lot better value than memories of Taryn, or even Taryn herself would have been. Taryn had been inclined to cry, or run away or faint, after having got you into the trouble in the first place. Venus might look as if a stiff breeze would blow her away, but Kate had noticed that she faced dangers with steely cool, and fought with a ferocity that belied the fragile appearance.
Kate knelt beside her, as the baron's daughter opened her eyes wide. "If you feel anything like I did, they've left us with an unmentionable pot to use."
"I admit I was wrong. I can't say fairer than that." Mungo extended a hand to the vampire. "Couldn't see the sense of the boy bringin' a damn cream-puff along. I even wondered about him. But he was dead right. 'Set a thief to catch birds of a feather,' is what I should have said. We do need a local guide. Now that Korg's brought the last of our stuff up from the basket of that infernal contraption, tell us where we are and where we're heading for."
The vampire looked vaguely discomforted. "Er . . . I haven't the least idea."
"What," said Venus, looking at the used chamber-pot with distaste, "do I do with this thing?"
Kate giggled. "I waited until I heard someone in the courtyard outside and then I tipped it out of the window."
Vee gave her customary wide-mouthed grin, even if it was still a little shaky. "Good. Now there are two of us, you can get up on my shoulders and aim."
They did need two to do that. The narrow slit of window was high and barred. After some argument Kate lifted Venus up to look out of it, before being given a leg-up herself. The narrow window looked out over a green courtyard. They were high enough to see out beyond the walls, and into the white and grey swaying mushroom forest Kate remembered being carried through. Beyond that, a dim haze swallowed the distance.
"So we're hostages," said Venus.
"Prisoners to exchange, bait for what that slut Vila calls 'a very big fish,'" said Kate sourly. "She seems very sure that my Dad will jump when she says frog."
"And will he?"
Kate stamped her foot. "Probably. Dad's just an old softy really! That's why we've got to escape from here."
Lady Venus Ashill looked at her. An older woman. And Venus's eyes were too wise for her age. "You know your father will come, if he can. And Squigs will find out where and when he can. You're scared about Crummag. You're scared he will come, but you're even more scared he won't."
Kate looked at her, open mouthed. "How do you know?"
"Because . . . of the way you talk. Because I'd already worked out that we were hostages. While I was still pretending to be asleep. Because I feel the same way about . . . somebody. Except I'm sure, or I think I'm sure, that he'll come. Because I . . . I can't marry him. You see, I've got to marry money," she said despairingly, twisting her long fingers together.
Kate shook her head. "So what do we do? Sit here like ducks on a rock? Anyway, how do you know Korg hasn't got pots of money?"
Venus shook her head determinedly. She made no attempt to deny that it had been the dwarf she'd been talking about. "No. I'm going to get out and take that blond cow hostage herself." She sighed. "Korg sounds more like a stevedore than a millionaire. And a millionaire is what the Ashills need, I'm afraid. But he's so nice. And so sort of . . . gentle and dependable. And he makes me laugh. When I'm with him, I forget all our problems and just have fun."
Kate thought Korg about as gentle as a hurricane. And, to be realistic, the dwarf didn't look as if he had a Kare in the world. But he was dependable. There was a kind of red-brick solidity about him. And he did make you laugh. "Yes, well. That tall Squigs makes me laugh, too, poor twit, but he isn't noble, like my Crummag. And the prophecy said my true love would be a hero both tall and nobly-born."
Venus thought the blond hunk about as noble as used toilet paper. She was sure that Kate's infatuation wouldn't even have lasted this long if hadn't been for her belief in that prophecy. She was sure it wouldn't last very much longer, either. But there are some things you don't ever say, at least not if you have any brains, and wish to remain friends. "Well, you can't say that Squigs isn't funny," she agreed. "But he is pretty brave."
"He shakes like a leaf before every fight, Vee. I feel so sorry for him every time. I mean when those three attacked us, and he fell over his own feet, I wanted to defend him, poor worm. And if Crummag hadn't ended up being so gentle with him back at the Green Monkey when we met, I'd have ended up pulverizing my own boyfriend."
The daughter of a militant female supremacist found nothing wrong with the idea of defending a mere male. But Venus could understand that it was different for a draconnier's child. It would be especially difficult for this one to accept. Kate suffered from an overdose of romantic fiction, and a lack of contact with males who weren't too petrified of her father to do more than say "hello" from a safe distance. So of course, such men constituted wimps. Venus shrugged. "He might be scared, but he doesn't run away. And he did survive that fight with the mercenary, on his own. Anyway, that's all beside the point. Let's start working on getting out of here."
She reached up and took two long pins out of her hair, letting it cascade in soft, folding waves down her back. "They searched our pockets but they didn't find these." She handed one to Kate. "I suppose we might try picking the lock."
"I've never picked a lock before," said Kate doubtfully, poking the long pin vaguely into the lock.
Venus smiled. "It's not something I have much experience with either. If I ever get out of here I'm going to go back to my old school and recommend they add 'locks, the picking of, with hair-pins,' to the other suitable occupations for the daughters of gentlefolk on the curriculum. It would be a lot more useful and profitable than some of the things they did teach us."
"I know what I'd really like to do with this bloody needle," said Kate, viciously jabbing the lock, and incidentally nearly putting out the eye of the gaoler on the far side.
"Push it into that cow's boobs. I'm sure they'd pop," she said beginning to smile at the thought.
Venus gave her characteristic snort. "Or maybe she'd whizz around the room like a balloon . . ."
They began to laugh.
Laughter was something the gaolers around those parts hadn't ever heard coming from inside the cells before. The heavy, scar-faced gaoler ground his fangs, rubbed the needle hole above his single eye and turned to his younger assistant. "This is not wot I've been 'customed to," he grumbled. "That's the trouble wi t'yoof o' today. You got no respeck for traditions. There orter be 'owling and gnashings o'teef, if they still got teef, or a'least t' gnashin o' gums. And wot do yor generation give me? A bleedin' giggle fack-tree."
His blob-assistant sniveled. "'Snot my fault, honest. 'S 'er. Wouldn't even let me coom oop and beait the livin' shit 'arter 'em after I got a pee-pot emptied on me. An' I 'ad a barf only larst moonth," he moaned, his voice rising to the edge of tears. "I should 'ave stayed at 'ome an' gone inter me dad's laice-doily business"
The head gaoler shook his bald pin-head sympathetically. "You're a good lad, Marl. Tell you wot. We won't tell 'em it's lightin' oop time. Let 'em suffer wi'out t'shades. Teach 'em soom respeck for tradition."
"What do you mean you don't know where we are? But we brought you along as a guide!"
"Well . . . I do know where we are. Roughly speaking anyway. We're somewhere in the northern temperate shadow zone. But that is a mere 2000 miles long by 900 miles wide, on either edge. It's also several miles up and down. Call it roughly five million cubic miles. I don't know quite all of it, dahling," said Huigi defensively, slipping back into camp-speech as a now natural response to a threat.
"'E's lorst," said Slugger dismissively.
"And it's been ten years," said Huigi.
"He's lost, all right," said Korg. "Well, Squigs, how far and in what direction does your box of tricks say the girls were brought through?"
As Squigs checked references on the notebook, Huigi muttered. "Well, I wouldn't say lost. Just disorientated. I'll just have a little flutter . . ."
"Seventy-two miles, three hundred and twenty yards southeast, er, of the point we came in. At a height of seven hundred feet."
"Great! That's roughly over there," said the vampire, pointing back over the edge they'd just hauled themselves up from.
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