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Ken Macleod

The Sky Road

For Mic

1

The Light and the Fair

So it came that Menial found him in the square at Carron Town

She walked through the fair in the light of a northern summer evening, looking for me. Of the hundreds of people around her, the thousands in the town and the thousands on the project, only I would serve her purpose. My voice and visage, mind and body were her target acquisition parameters.

I sat on the plinth of the statue of the Deliverer, drained a bottle of beer and put it carefully down and looked around, screwing up my eyes against the westering sun. The music faded for a moment, then another band struck up, something rollicking and loud that echoed off the tall buildings around three sides of the square and boomed out from the open side across the shore and over the water. The still sealoch was miles of gold, the distant hills and islands stacks of black. The air was warm and shaking with the music and heavy with scent and sweat, alcohol- breath and weed-smoke. People were already dancing, swinging and swirling among the remaining stalls of the day’s market. I caught glimpses and greetings from various of my workmates, Jondo and Druin and Machard and the rest, as they whirled past in the throng with somebody who might be their partner for the hour, or for the night, or for longer.

For a moment, I felt intensely alone, and was about to jump up and plunge in and seek out someone, anyone, who would take me even for one dance. It was not normally this way; usually at such occasions through the summer I had got lucky. Like most of my fellow-workers, I was young and—of necessity—strong, and my vanity needed no flattery, and we were most of us open-handed strangers, and therefore welcome. But I was in a serious and abstracted mood, the coming autumn’s study already casting its long shadow back, and in all that evening’s gaiety I had not once made a woman laugh, and my luck had fled.

She walked through that dense crowd as if it wasn’t there. I saw her before she saw me. Her long black hair was caught around the temples by two narrow braids; the tumbling waves of the rest showed traces of auburn in the late sun. That golden light and ruddy shadow defined her tanned and flushed face: the large bright eyes, the high cheekbones, the curve of her cheek and jaw, the red lips. She wore a gown of plain green velvet that seemed, and probably was, made to show off her strong and well-endowed figure. Her gaze met mine, and locked. Her eyes were large and a little slanted, and they caught my glance like a trap.

There is, no doubt, some bodily basis for the crude cartoon of such moments—the arrow through the heart. A sudden demand on the sugar reserves of the cells, perhaps. It’s more like a thorn than an arrow, and passes in less than a second, but it’s there, that sharp, sweet stab.

A moment later she stood in front of me, looking down at me quizzically, curiously, then she came to some decision and sat down beside me on the cold black marble. The hooves of the Deliverer’s horse reared above us. We stared at each other for a moment. My heart was hammering. She appeared younger, more hesitant, than she’d seemed with her first bold gaze. Her irises were golden-brown, ringed with green-blue. I could see a faint spatter of freckles beneath her tan. A fine gold chain around her neck suspended a rough mesh of gold wire containing a seer-stone the size of a pigeon’s egg. It hung between her breasts, its small world flickering randomly in that gentle friction. An even thinner silver chain implied some other ornament, but it hung below where I could see. The dagger and derringer and purse on her narrow waist-belt were each so elegant and delicate as to be almost nominal. There was some powerful undertone to her scent, whether natural or artificial I didn’t know.

“Well, here you are,” she said, as though we’d arranged to meet at this very place. For a couple of heartbeats I entertained the thought that this might be true, that she was someone I really did know and had unaccountably, unforgivably forgotten—but no, I had no memory of ever having met her before. At the same time I couldn’t get rid of a conviction that I already knew her, and always had.

“Hello,” I said, for want of anything less banal. “What’s your name?”

“Menial,” she said. “And you are…?”

“Clovis,” I said. “Clovis colha Gree.”

She nodded to herself, as though some datum had been confirmed, and smiled at me.

“So, colha Gree, are you going to ask me for a dance?”

I jumped to my feet, amazed. “Yes, of course. Would you do me the honour?”

“Thank you,” she said. She took my hand in a warm, dry grasp and rose gracefully, merging that movement with her first step. It was a fast dance to a traditional air, “The Tactical Boys’. Talking was impossible, but we communicated a great deal none the less. Another measure followed, and then a slower dance.

We finished it a long way from where we’d started—fetched up close to the outside tables of the biggest pub on the square, The Carronade. Some of the lads from work were already at one of the tables, with their local girls. My mates gave me odd looks, compounded of envy and secret amusement; their female partners were looking lasers at Menial, for no reason I could fathom. She was attractive all right, and looking more beautiful to my eyes with every passing second, but the other girls were not obviously less blessed; and she wasn’t a harlot, unless she was foolish (harlotry being a respected but regulated trade in that town, its plying not permitted in the square).

Introductions were awkwardly made.

“What will you be having, Menial?” I asked.

She smiled up at me. She was, in truth, almost as tall as I, but my boots had high heels.

“A beer, please.”

“Fine. Will you wait here?”

I gestured to a vacant place on the nearest bench, beside Jondo and his current lass.

“I will that,” Menial said.

Jondo shot me another odd look, a smile with one corner of his mouth turned down, and his eyebrows raised. I shrugged and went through to the bar, returning a few minutes later with a three litre jug and a couple of tall glasses. Menial was sitting where she’d been, ignoring the fact that she was being ignored. I put this unaccustomed rudeness down to some petty pretty local quarrel, of which Carron Town—and the yard and, indeed, the project— had plenty. If one of Menial’s ancestors had offended one of Jondo’s (or whoever’s) that was no business of mine, as yet.

The table was too wide for any intimate conversation to be carried on across it, so I sat down beside her, setting off a Newtonian collision of hips all the way along the bench as my friends and their girlfriends shuffled their bums away from us. I filled our glasses and raised mine.

“Slainte,” I said.

“Slainte, mo chridhe? she said, quietly but firmly, her gaze level across the tilted rim.

And cheers, my dear, to you, I thought. Again her whole manner was neither shy nor brazen, but as though we had been together for months or years. I didn’t know what to say, so I said that.

“I feel we know each other already,” I said. “But we don’t.” I laughed. “Unless when we were both children?”

Menial shook her head. “I was not here as a child,” she said, in a vague tone. “Maybe you’ve seen me at the project.”

“I think I would remember,” I said. She smiled, acknowledging the compliment, as I added, “You work at the project? I sounded more surprised than I should have been—there were plenty of women working on it, after all, in catering and administration.

“Aye,” she said, “I do.” She fondled the pendant, warming a fire within it, and not only there. “On the

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