The remarkable conclusion to the highly acclaimed Books of Babel series, following Senlin Ascends, Arm of the Sphinxand The Hod King
Courage circulates like a melody sung in a round. It is an infinite canon, an infectious and intoxicating performance.
— from the diary of Joram Brahe, captain of the Natchez King
The lightning seeded the fog with a fire that churned like a restless embryo.
The rubber-clad soldiers hurled another volley of blue bolts into the mist, staining Adam’s vision with jagged fissures of white. Inside the burning cloud, a dozen voices first bellowed, then pitched toward a hopeless animal plea. Their screams concluded at a stroke when the hull of their silkless ship crashed upon the silver plateau that crowned the Tower of Babel.
Furnace coals and gunpowder mingled amid the wreckage. The explosion arrived in waves: first flash, then warmth, and finally wind. Adam heard ejecta kick across the ground and turned his back to the coming spray of splinters, glass, and nails. He was sure he would’ve been grievously injured had not one of the vulcanized soldiers moved to shield him from the shrapnel.
The ground beneath Adam rang with a solemn note that seemed to peal from the mouth of a mountainous bell. The wind shifted again. Smoke darkened the fog, replacing the sweet, metallic scent of electricity with the stink of sulfur, burnt silk, and death.
A flaming cocked hat tumbled past Adam’s foot.
He thought of Senlin. What would he make of all of this? Before Adam could explore the thought further, the soldier who had a moment before sheltered him gave his shoulder an ungentle push. The troop resumed its march into the mist.
The murk had robbed him of a sense of time, but he supposed it had been about two hours since Mister Winters had left his side, two hours since the youthful soldiers had quit bickering, screwed their ghoulish helmets back on, and gone to war with the clouds. They had not spoken to him since, only smirked like fishhooks. Between their tar-black armor and red-copper visors, Adam could not tell one from the next. They shoved him when they wished him to go, bumped him when they wanted him to stop, and fired over his head when something in the fog required it. The sparking men’s eyes telescoped and twisted like a chameleon’s, often in contrary directions. Though it seemed one eye or another was always on him, huddled like a calf inside their herd.
Adam wasn’t sure whether he was a captive or a guest, but since he was unarmed and outnumbered ten to one, he chose to treat them as his generous hosts until they corrected him with a pillory, a prison, or a firing squad.
Whenever there was a calm between clashes, Adam tried to ingratiate himself to his hosts. He complimented them on their weapons, their discipline, their fierce masks and imposing suits. These overtures passed without remark. The sparking men continued to stalk the mist and fire on unseen enemies. Cannons boomed in the scud above them, and rifles cracked. Occasionally, an errant ball pelted near enough for Adam to hear it ricochet, but a second shot never followed the first. The invaders appeared to be firing blindly. The sparking men, meanwhile, aimed the forked prongs of their tethered wands, tracked their quarries, and shot confidently into the wool. They did not appear to ever miss. The mist glowed with burning ships.
They came to a towering sculpture of a kneeling woman, plated in lineated wootz steel. Her hair hung straight as a scarf. Her figure was maternal, her robes modest. She sat rocked back on her heels, eyes lidded, jaw slack, palms raised in worship or perhaps beggary. The extreme angle made her expression difficult to read.
The troop halted beside her knee, and Adam thought perhaps it was to allow him a moment to appreciate the apparent artistry that had gone into fashioning such a thing. He praised the monument’s beauty, the whimsical striped steel, and her ambiguous posture, which seemed at once noble and humble. Then the towering woman turned her head, the movement smooth and nearly lifelike. She vomited a ball of lightning into the cluttered air.
The clouds swallowed the crackling missile.
In the distance, an explosion rumbled like thunder.
One of the sparking men raised a finger to his lopsided grin. Adam shut his hanging mouth.
* * *
Adam had learned long ago that the quality most essential to surviving the Tower was not luck, nor strength, nor wisdom. Even experience was not without disadvantage because as complacency dulled one’s vigilance, longevity inflated one’s sense of permanence. The Tower loathed nothing more than a smug survivor.
No, the true patron of old fools and street urchins was elasticity. To survive, one had to be flexible.
Flattery had not softened the sparking men, so Adam abandoned the strategy. It was just as well: The fawning toady was an unpleasant disguise. He needed to light upon a new tactic, and quickly, before he met the soldiers’ superiors and the game began in earnest.
The trouble was, Adam had spent recent months suppressing his devious instincts in an effort to conform to the noble ideals his captain espoused. It had not escaped Adam’s notice that Senlin’s principles came at the expense of his plasticity. Senlin had been half a pirate, half a thief, and half a killer because he was, at his core, unbending. He could change his sails, but not his course; he could swap his suit, but not his heart.
Adam doubted he could afford to pursue such rigid principles here and on his own. Besides, he had come with the intent of burgling heaven. Such an undertaking was far from virtuous. He could only hope that the conniving, wiling part of him had not dulled from disuse.
All the flash, fog, and jostling had distracted Adam from something he should’ve recognized from the start: He was walking into some sort of grift. The fact that the sparking men knew a few details of his life signaled either a cold reading or a confidence game, and he had seen enough of both in his time. New Babel had a robust population of clairvoyants, each of whom claimed to commune with the dead, though all they really did was interrogate the living. Then there were the mind readers, who could open the human psyche as easily as a billfold. You couldn’t walk a single block in New Babel without being accosted by a shell game operator who would demonstrate the fairness of his game by feeding winnings to a planted player who invariably took the good luck with him when he left.
The locals of New Babel had learned the obvious lesson: Leave the soothsayers and game runners to the tourists. But Adam had learned a more subtle moral: Sometimes hucksters make easy marks.
A compelling ruse took an awful lot of concentration to perform. The more a charlatan thought of another man’s wallet, the less he attended his own.
Before he was banned by New Babel’s Guild of Cups and Mystics, Adam had slipped the rings from the hands of a dozen palm readers; he had picked the pockets of the pickpockets who wove through the crowds of the telepaths; and he had convinced the shell game operators to hire him as a stooge, only to evaporate with the exemplary loot. Naturally, he had made one or two (or three or four) enemies along the way, but as an employee of Finn Goll, who sponged up most of his ill-gotten gains, Adam had enjoyed the protection of Iren and the port guard.
Which of course would not be the case here. If these rubber golems turned out to be cannibals, no one would rush in to pull him from the pot.
The bleak thought was strangely exhilarating. For the first time in a very long while, he was responsible for no one but himself.
Obviously, the rubber knights were trying to fool him by pretending to be familiar with his past. Adam didn’t know why they were doing it or how they had discovered the personal details they knew, but neither mystery mattered. Let them play their game while he played his.
Adam was so taken with his own thoughts that he hardly noticed that the battle had ended until one of the guards halted and twisted his visor free of its collar. It was the same soldier who’d first recognized him and called him by name. The soldier’s blond hair and beard were as yellow as pollen. His features were angular, his brow as jutting and sharp as the eaves of a roof. He might’ve been imposing were it not for his eyes, which gleamed with a sort of doglike eagerness. He said, “You’re not a tenor at all. You’re a baritone, like me. I’m not surprised, of course. In fact, I knew it. Oh, I can’t wait to see the look on Piotr’s face when he hears you. This has been a wonderful morning. First a conflagration, now a vindication!” He hiked an arm in squeaking triumph.
Adam had no idea how to respond, so he said, “Who were you shooting at? Pirates?”
“No, a navy. Mundy Crete’s navy, to be exact. They’re a bunch of idiots. You could set your watch by their invasions: first Monday every July. Every year they send more ships, and we make more ashes. I wish we could just convince them to burn their summer fleet while they were still anchored in port and save us both the trouble.” He tossed his hair, heavy with sweat, and smiled at Adam, who felt a little towered over. The guard was at least a head taller than him. “But who cares about all that? What’s left of them will be swept up and gone before tomorrow. Tell me, what have you been up to, Adamos? Pinching purses? Impersonating tour guides? Getting Voleta out of jams?”
This sudden topical shift, peppered with personal details, was unsettling. Adam dug his hands into his pockets to affect a casual air. He felt reassured by the book he found there. It was the diary of Captain Brahe, which he’d rescued from the derelict Natchez King down in the Silk Gardens where the spider-eaters wallowed. It had become something of a talisman for this whole ill-advised adventure, and its presence settled his nerves as readily as the hand of a friend. He responded to the question with a breezy sigh. “Oh, you know. I’ve been doing this and that, going here and there.”
The soldier gave him a sidelong look that contained a certain amount of amusement if not satisfaction. But if this man’s curiosity was all that was keeping him alive, Adam wasn’t ready to surrender all of his mysteries just yet.
“Well, it’s a lucky thing you clawed your way up during my patrol. I admit: I’m something of an admirer of yours. If you’d come by ship, I would’ve finished you off and never realized it.” The sentry cocked his head to one side, his lower lip jutting out from under his mustache. “I wonder if I’ve killed a lot of famous people.”
“You’ve brought down a great many ships, I suppose?” Adam made the remark as if he were alluding to a pastime and not the fate of many souls.
“Oh, hundreds! I’ve wrecked pirate ships, colonist scouts, royal envoys, naturalist expeditions, tour boats, racing yachts, and a barge full of that would’ve been well suited to a formal tea and an absolute liability in a public house. Adam smiled at what he hoped was a joke.
One of the other guards removed her helmet. It was the woman who had previously informed him that Adam absolutely did not tell jokes. Based upon her expression, it didn’t seem she enjoyed hearing them much either. She said, “And as I recall, Elrin, you’ve shot a thief or two.”
“It’s Sergeant Allod to you, Corporal! And Adam is more than a thief!” The soldier’s cheeks flushed with exasperation. “He is a phenomenon! He’s a bird of paradise. You don’t shoot a bird of paradise when it lands in your backyard.”
“But a barge full of orphans . . .” She stuck out her hand and rocked it—an equivocating gesture.
“You know I was joking.”
“Perhaps we should amend our oath.” She held her hands out, palms up, the same pleading pose of the titanic sculpture who’d spat a ball of lightning. “‘I shall defend our gates and gardens from waste, war, and trespass unless the interloper is particularly famous or interesting or attractive or—’”
“You know what, Runa, if you want to shoot him so badly, go right ahead. Roast his bones!” The blond sergeant pointed at her. “But you have to explain to everyone why you shot Adamos Boreas while he was coming along peaceably, and you have to tell Mother.”
Discovering the two were siblings explained their bickering habit and also why a sergeant would endure such a back and forth from a subordinate. Though if Adam had learned anything in recent years, it was that orders delivered by one sibling to another were seldom welcome or followed.
The woman the sergeant had called Runa rolled her eyes and dropped her arms. “I’m not saying we should shoot him, Elrin.”
“Oh! Well, then.” Her brother’s voice took on a condescending quaver. “I suppose we could take him in and call an accord and share this judgment with our countrymen as is our custom and law.” He touched his forehead, mimicking the arrival of a revelation. “Wait a moment! Is that exactly what I was doing? Are you telling me, your superior officer, to do exactly what I was doing?”
“For god’s sake, Elrin, don’t be such a—”
“Shut up, Corporal. That’s an order. God, Runa, you’re insufferable. And do you honestly not want to know what happened to Voleta? Because I certainly do. Here, let’s just take a quick poll.” Elrin turned to the rest of his troop. “Any of you lot curious to know what happened to the little acrobat? Is Voleta happy? Is she whole? Is she coming up next? Well? What say you?”
A lump gathered in Adam’s throat as one by one each of the lizard-headed soldiers raised a rubber hand.