“The City is of Night; perchance of Death,
But certainly of Night.” -- James Thompson, The City of Dreadful Night, 1
It is said by some (who should know better) that the mazy lanes of Semirinal represent the gross structure of the Heaven; that, by inspection of the rusty leaves that are blown along them, one may determine the fates of men and of cities; that the very catcalls of the squawking urchins that infest the cobbled courts and plazas prefigure the lamentations for the great.
It is not so.
To walk along the nacreous littoral by moonlight, however, casting this way and that for driftglass and, so walking, stumble upon a bough stripped bare of bark, impaling the night on ragged thorns, is to grasp something of Semirinal’s inner self: gnarled, unyielding, static, gripped in the rictus of an age-long tetany. To uptip the bough with one buskined foot; or, whimsically to mask its agony with some sea-shred chiffon is, though, truly to understand what Semirinal is: the skeleton of Eternity, bleached and pitted moonstruck on a far from home shore.
Such are the thoughts of the child with midnight eyes as he lopes beneath the sea-wall, one bright darkness transfixing the pallid moon, one ebony flame watchful along the wall for watchers. It is no night to be seen on, no moon to be seen by; therefore our young friend shall waste no more time in further speculation on things metaphysical until he has run, cat-foot, up the pier steps, along the echoing fish-wharf, and trod the winding lanes (which as wise men say, dream louder than they speak) to home and bed.
And so, at last - arms knotted in supplicatory gesture; muttered phrases that promise safety to those young; shirt shucked off in graceless abandon in the corner, he lies, cradled in those great, soft, passionless arms that hold the night away, even for those - we - who merit sanctuary least - he sleeps. None shall disturb his rest; no rotten thing such as haunt the inner attics of a child draw near, no darkness pale his skin beyond the customary pale; not, at least, this night.
Outside the night-owl calls; outside one footstep falls. If, inside that house, in that attic crammed beneath the eaves and bursting with the wordless passions of a manling - if, inside that haven of fluff-balled blankets and sheets darned beyond darning - if that child should, with open nightpool eyes but not seeing what we should see, speak one word; if, at that time but in another place, heralds should unfurl the hallowed napkin and lay it on a withered face whose own dark depths have only just been shut to the bronze of flat trombones - shall we draw connections, perform auguries, prove the wind with spit-damp fingers and frown, for it comes northerly? Shall we, lords, ladies, lads, lasses, all you revellers and boon-companions, mates and mollies and wearers of veils? Shall we? Shall we nod, and smile knowingly, because today the leaves lie just so, scuffed into arcs of fate by a creature of dark and darkness along the labyrinths of Semirinal?
If we shall, all you and those others, then we shall do so on a new day. Mistress Moon has fled her shadow-throne; the dawn trudges blear-eyed above the sea; birds, stiff with sleep and fat with song, strut the bounds of their little kingdoms and disgorge their orisons; the night and all her breed are turfed from out the city, to shake and mutter in shadows a while before slinking away through the boughs of elder-trees, whose bleached and barkless limbs still clutch thin shreds of moonbeams as they spring, claw-like, from the sand.
Observe the Oblate Pyx. Doomed as a deodand by a hendecadactylic accident of birth, his mother immured solitary in Alphram’s Turret to expiate her demon-lust these fifty years and his mortal father abacinated and exiled, he nitpicks his tricky way down Sludge Alley, spurning the nightsoil that imperils the fuliginous sanctity of his hems, humming a canticle to wicked mental words. Observe him as he minces, asperging casual benedictions like clipped pence to those in his path; in the world, but so much, so very much not of it this new day, his matutinal mentations wholly preoccupied with politics. Observe the Oblate Pyx.
Valmontayne slams back the shutters of his shabby shop as Pyx passes, readying himself for another day of struggle with the iron laws of economics in Semirinal. Masquerading as a poisoner, he crypts within his lair a darker craft, one known only to his most circumspect customers and breathed of only in the less wholesome quarters of the city, for who but the most depraved would wish to… But no; for today and in this public light Dismas Valmontayne shall not be revealed as anything other than the wholesome purveyor of venoms he pretends to be. His assistant and catamite Elpho, of whom we shall presently discover more, pushes flaxen hair from his frowsty face and begins to deck the counter with pills and potions, electuaries and pessaries, toxic cambrics with which to fashion shirts to slay heroes, attars and slimes as Valmontayne, in need of fortification, toothily unstops a flagon labelled 'Manna of St Nicholas of Bari', which, as we all know, is nothing other than the famed Aqua Tofana, of which mere minims suffice to slay their thousands. He drinks deep, and smacks his narrow lips, exhaling such a miasmatic cloud that a spider drops insensate from the roofbeams, then slaps young Elpho across his shoulders, opening up anew last night’s fresh welts.
Observe the Oblate Pyx as he continues on his journey to the bottom of Sludge Alley, turning right into the Lane of One Thousand Harps (for he knows full well that even at this early hour to turn left, the more obvious direction to his goal, would risk exposing his presence to those who might suspect him of unclerical purposes). He spares no eyes for the sluts, though the inevitably high turnover of Semirinal’s nocturnal tribes means that fresh flesh is exposed to them, the young, the old, the used, the virginal, the cunning and the cheap. A muttered “Bless you, sister… brother… sister… my lady Phalyris” is all that escapes his lips as he neatly navigates the nauseous pools of last night’s leavings. You must not mistake his blessings for tokens of any more advanced intimacy, for Oblate Pyx is picky; he takes his few fleshly pleasures in a far more rarefied air than can be breathed in the Lane of One Thousand Harps. But he is kind, in his own fashion; and besides, the whores have ears and eyes, and no morsel of mortal frailty is useless to one who swims among the sharks that lord it over the city. This morning, though, he has no time to dally and sift the gossip for toothsome nuggets, for he has higher purposes afoot. The Oblate Pyx, unsure whether today he is to be the quarry or the hunter, must make all speed.
Phalyris notes Pyx’s progress, and beckons a ragamuffin child. She stoops and whispers. The child starts back, unnerved, and would run but that a tall young man has stepped out of a side-alley to catch him deftly as one would a trout, whirling him high up over his shoulders and around his head, before setting him gently back to the ground again. The lady Phalyris, amused, drops a curtsey to the young man, then addresses the child with renewed vehemence, but though the nearer drabs press close to catch her words, they fall back disgruntled, no wiser than before, for if they heard aught at all it was no more than the name of Pyx; which intelligence they could have derived as easily by noting the prelate’s passage. Sullenly the child glares back, then howls as the young man fetches him a casual clip across the ear. Phalyris shakes her head in mild rebuke, then fishes in her ample gown, pulling out a silver coin, not much clipped, which she holds out temptingly. The child spits, but carefully, so as not to sully Phalyris’ shoes, then nods and takes the coin, then, released from the young man’s grasp, he turns and runs back along the Lane of One Thousand Harps to deliver her message.
Phalyris laughs, her beautiful catlike teeth exposed, and she reaches up to ruffle the young man’s hair, which he accepts with a grudging good grace, then seemingly rebukes him for the slap. Argaster- yes, the Argaster, for he is returned from far shores - cares not, it seems. But we cannot stay to see whether this meeting of the Queen of the Night and the Knave of the Wave will lead to lovemaking or lambasting, for Pyx plods on, his corpulence telling on his speed, his wheezy uneasy breath blustering in and out as he wishes for five minutes, perhaps even one, to rest his legs and catch his wind, but the circumstances will admit of no delay, and so on he must go. Around Cat Corner, where the hides are flayed; up the Hill of Vicenze, lined with necromorphs for the casual amusement, and occasional enlightenment, of the bypasser; across the Noble Markets; and, at last, halting outside a small wooden door, much barred and bolted with a wee squinthole up top for the use of surveillance, he taps briskly thereon and decorously arranges his robes as he waits to be admitted.
Back through the city of Semirinal, from the Matachin’s Door as far as the Eighth Tower in a matter of minutes, far faster than any single mouth could spread the word, silver rivulets of suspicion run; quiet nods and dark signs are given, and one who has waited from his youth for just this moment haltingly leaves his sickbed to rotate the head of a particular statue one fifth of a turn precisely. One of the battered lindens at Fulcrum Rock sheds all its leaves in a moment. All dogs fall silent, wherever they are, whatever they were doing, and, if you listen carefully, as they do and are bound by inexorable law so to do, you will hear, at the very edge of sound, a quiet laughter.