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Walter Jon Williams is an award-winning author who has been listed on the best-seller lists of the New York Times and the Times of London. He is the author of twenty-seven novels and three collections of short fiction. His first novel to attract serious public attention was Hardwired (1986), described by Roger Zelazny as "a tough, sleek juggernaut of a story, punctuated by strobe-light movements, coursing to the wail of jets and the twang of steel guitars." In 2001 he won a Nebula Award for his novelette, "Daddy's World," and won again in 2005 for "The Green Leopard Plague."

He has also written for George RR Martin's Wild Cards project.

His latest work is Impersonations, a far-future thriller set in his popular Praxis universe.Walter has also written for comics, the screen, and for television, and has worked in the gaming field. He was a writer for the alternate reality game Last Call Poker, and has scripted the mega-hit Spore.

Aristoi by Walter Jon Williams

Gabriel is one of the Aristoi, the elite class that hold dominion over a glittering interstellar culture, their rule more absolute than that of any Old Earth tyrant. When another of the Aristoi is murdered, Gabriel finds that the foundations of his civilization are tottering, and that his own power may have its roots in the greatest lie in all history.

In order to defend himself and the interstellar order, Gabriel must go on a quest into the heart of barbarism and chaos, and discover within himself his own lost, tattered humanity.

CURATOR'S NOTE

Walter had two titles in my previous Storybundles, his Philip K. Dick Award Finalist Knight Moves and his multiple award-winning story collection, The Green Leopard Plague. Now I'm delighted to include his novel, Aristoi in the A.I. Bundle. Walter is just simply one of science fiction's best, a New York Times bestseller and recipient of all the top awards. Prepare to be dazzled. You won't want to miss it. – Lisa Mason

 

REVIEWS

  • "Written with care, intelligence, and grace, [Aristoi] depicts a future society based on highly developed computers and biological engineering, the key skills of which are controlled by an elite known as the Aristoi. This world is depicted meticulously and vividly, and so is the near war of all against all that is unleashed when one of the Aristoi falls prey to the corruption of power. A fine, thoughtful work, highly recommended; Williams seems to grow with each book."

    – Roland Green, Chicago Sun-Times
  • "Beneath the facade of universal prosperity, however, lurks a tide of dissension and madness that can only be fought from within. Williams tests the borders of imagination in a novel that combines brilliant hard science and speculative vision with a firm grip on the central humanity of his characters. A priority purchase for sf collections."

    – Library Journal
  • "In this complex and rewarding novel, Williams has created a future which features many of the wonders SF has been promising us for years: virtual reality, genetic engineering, faster-than-light travel, artificial intelligence, nanotechnology, telepathic links with computers, and more."

    – Publishers Weekly
 

BOOK PREVIEW

Excerpt

PABST: Stimulus and response, response and stimulus
Get them right, there's little fuss
They'll do most anything if you pull their strings
Their response to stimulus.

Aristoi floated through the reception to the sound of a reed flute.

Standing near the buffet table Gabriel paid his respects to Pan Wengong, primary architect for the resurrected Earth2. The Eldest Brother was a junior, but sole surviving, member of the first bold generation of Aristoi who had, in the turbulent and dangerous centuries after the Earth1 disaster, coalesced around Captain Yuan and, with their fearless and absolute command of technology, re-ordered humanity's future.

Pan Wengong's appearance belied his millennia. He was a round-faced, round-bodied, cheerful man, secure in his place among the Aristoi and in history, and quite pleased with having escaped the law of averages for so long. His domaine included Earth2 and the inhabited stars around it, and in the centuries since the great reconstruction he'd been taking it easy; his therápontes did most of the work while the Eldest Brother relaxed in one or another of the pleasure-domes he'd built on or about Earth. He was one of the few Aristoi who was actually, physically present in Persepolis, but he was linked with all the others in the oneirochronon and enjoyed the best of both worlds— the company of his peers, and the fact he could eat and drink.

Pan had been speaking to Saigo, a dour, saturnine man who usually avoided these receptions. Saigo was a specialist in evolution, both human and stellar, and had broadcast his black-browed skiagénos a greater distance than anyone here— he was well out of inhabited space, in a part of distant space called the Gaal Sphere, pursuing his lonely researches.

Saigo turned his melancholy eyes to Gabriel, offered a Posture of Formal Regard, and took his leave. Gabriel and Pan exchanged embraces and the latest jokes. Pan offered Gabriel a ghost drink, and though Gabriel knew the experience would be well crafted, he declined. He avoided eating and drinking while in the oneirochronon— it just gave him hunger pangs without satisfying its cravings.

Others arrived to pay their respects to Pan. Gabriel spoke briefly to Maryandroid, then found himself approached by Cressida.

"Aristos kaí Athánatos," she began, using the formal title, "forgive me for this interruption."

"Forgiven," said Gabriel, a bit surprised.

Cressida was an older Ariste; she had passed her exams over three hundred years ago and had restricted the size of her domaine so as to devote herself more exclusively to research. She was honored, distant, and briskly eccentric; and in their few meetings had treated Gabriel with courtesy but without great patience.

She gazed from her black-skinned face with intent birdlike eyes. "Therápon Protarchon Stephen Rubens y Sedillo, who is in my service, will be visiting Labdakos within a few days to tour the Illyrian Workshop," she said. "I am thinking of setting up a similar academy here on Painter, and I hope you will do me the favor of giving instructions to the Workshop staff to allow him access."

"Really?" Cressida had never shown much interest in crafts. "I will be happy to provide any assistance, of course."

She had not adorned herself for this reception, but dressed in the modest sky-blue uniform worn by her household— the uniform might have been a romantic touch, Gabriel thought, but the design was too relentlessly practical, with many pockets and no ornamentation or badges of rank. Her hair was salt-and-pepper, cut short in a businesslike way.

"I would consider it a favor," she continued, "if you will also give Therápon Rubens a private appointment at a time convenient to you so that he can present my personal greetings and thanks." She inclined her head, lowered her eyes, the First Posture of Esteem. "At your service, Aristos."

"At your service," Gabriel murmured. Cressida passed on.

What the hell was that about? Gabriel inquired.

Neutral but commanding posture, said Augenblick. Neutral expression. No involuntary muscle movement, no alteration in pupil dilation. Formally courteous expression.

That's not much.

My apologies, Aristos. Skiagenoi are difficult to read at the best of times, and perhaps she was taking good care not to be read. Most Aristoi do.

Reno, Gabriel commanded, report on the whereabouts of Stephen Rubens y Sedillo, class Therápon, rank Protarchon, employed by Cressida Ariste.

At your service, Aristos. Done. Therápon Rubens is aboard the yacht Lorenz, currently assuming an orbit about Illyricum. He hailed traffic control four hours ago. The Lorenz is owned by Ariste Cressida. Rubens has sent a message to your mailbox requesting a personal audience.

The timing on this is very exact, said the Welcome Rain. There is more here than we see.

Gabriel thought for a moment. Reno, he said, how many times has Cressida spoken to me?

Five, Aristos. On four occasions she merely offered polite greetings, and on the other she criticized your behavior at Coetzee's reception following your Graduation—

I remember very well, thank you.

At your service, Aristos.

He returned his attention to the reception.

Something was afoot. He knew not what it was.

He suspected, however, he would enjoy himself while working out the answer.

*

Music, angel voices and devil bassoons, eddied in Psyche's perfect acoustic chamber. A piece Gabriel had composed long ago, Sandor Korondi's poem "Love-Wind" set to music.

After a few hours in the Autumn Pavilion with Clancy, Gabriel decided to call her Blushing Rose. She accepted the new name with what seemed a mixture of pleasure and intelligent skepticism.

She called him Disturber.

Clancy lay face-down on the bed in exactly the naive position in which it pleased Louis XV to have his mistresses painted. Gabriel, sitting beside her, found himself completely charmed by the rosy sight of her soles. She was all warm autumn colors, he thought, like this pavilion, like his thoughts, a contrast to the Black-Eyed Ghost, all pallor and midnight. He let his fingertips graze on the rounded knobs of Clancy's spine as the andante movement sang slowly in his heart.

The Carnation Suite, he remembered, was empty.

"I promised you breakfast," he said. "Shall I tell my reno to order? Kem-Kem, my chef, is an improvisatory genius— he'll cook anything you like to order. "

Clancy propped her chin on one hand and frowned. "Would you mind having a machine deliver the food?"

"No. Why?"

"Because if Rabjoms is going to find out about this, I'd rather it be from me and not a member of the kitchen staff."

"Ah." He took her hand. "Will that be a problem for you?"

GABRIEL: Reno. Query: Rabjoms.

RENO: Rabjoms. name: Thundup Rabjoms Sambhota. Informal consort to Therápon Clancy. Age: 31. Class: Demos. Occupation: Artisan (2nd Class), Lowland Machine Works, Labdakos, Illyricum. Born: Gomo Selung, Kampa Province, Phongdo—

GABRIEL: Thank you. Fini.

RENO: At your service.

She looked at him over her full shoulder. "The problem is . . . tactical. How I should tell him, not . . . "

"If I can be of any assistance?"

"No. It's my little predicament, I suppose." She gave a tight little smile. "He's an understanding man."

He looked down at the taut ribbon of muscle knot that had, in the last few seconds, formed between her shoulder blades, and began to massage it away. The andante sobbed on. Clancy sighed.

"You've been together how long?"

"Six years. Since I came here." She sighed. "He's a good man."

A good man, he thought. Artisan (2nd Class), and of the Demos, not even one of the therápontes. Rabjoms was certainly not the choice of a rising Therápon eager for a position of power.

"Demos," Gabriel said.

"I'm not ambitious that way." She shrugged. "I'm not ambitious at all. I haven't gone for my exams in nine years, and I don't have any plans to. I like it where I am. Being a doctor. Birth, death, trauma, life, well-being . . . everything I really care about, I'm involved with now."

"You left me off the list."

She smiled, looked over her shoulder again. "Should I care for you, Aristos?"

"I love you." Psyche soared through his mind at the words.

"And I you, Aristos." Neatly.

He leaned back and considered her. She was not his usual type. Her body was natural— soft, rounded, without the planed, sculpted, perfected look, genetically or surgically augmented, that normally gratified his taste. The attraction was unusual; Gabriel couldn't predict its outcome, or how long it would last. Perhaps (a sliver of doubt entering) it was merely a shared enthusiasm for Marcus's pregnancy. He thought of calling up Augenblick and the Welcome Rain, but decided he didn't want this handled. Not their way.

"I never was attached to that great sect," he said,

"Whose doctrine is that each one should select

Out of the crowd a mistress or a friend,

And all the rest, though fair and wise, commend

To cold oblivion."

She smiled. "And you're easily bored."

"That as well." Might as well concede that one.

She rolled over and regarded him with wide peridot eyes. "Will you make me your maîtresse en titre?"

"Do you want that? I'm surprised."

"May I have it?"

"If that's what you desire."

She shook her head, then laughed. "I don't, as it happens. But I needed to know if you'd give it to me."

Surprise rolled through him. "Fayre eyes," he said, "the myrrour of my mazed hart, what woundrous vertue is contaynd in you . . ."

"I had everything planned. I didn't think— " She considered her words. "This lightning would strike. Not this late." Grinning wryly. "Not this lightning."

"It has struck." He kissed her. "Shall it strike again?"

She fluttered against his lips. "Yes, Aristos. Of course."

Propelled by violas and stinging electric guitar, presto followed andante, and so to finale.

*

Gabriel continued his rounds about the reception, greeted Pristine Way and Prince Stanislaus. He succeeded in avoiding Virtue's Icon. The reed flute wove its way through the throng, accented every conversation.

He heard his name spoken, turned, and saw Zhenling. Pleasure tingled through his fingertips.

"Hail to the conqueror of Mount Mallory," he said.

GABRIEL: Reno, statistics on Gregory Bonham, if you please.

RENO: Bonham, formal consort of Zhenling Ariste for the last thirteen years. Failed examinations in this last round, placing thirty-first among those who failed to pass. This is his second failure. He resides in the residential annex of Violet Jade Nanotechnology Laboratories in low orbit around Tienjin . . .

GABRIEL: And Zhenling currently resides at . . . ?

RENO: Primary residence is at Jade Garden, Ring Island, Tienjin.

Zhenling was a slim woman, tall and taut-muscled, with Tatar cheekbones and tilted dark eyes.

Her frame was taut with catlike, augmented muscle, her form perfectly sculpted. She wore cherry-red breeches, boots, sky-blue jacket with gold brocade, and a hussar jacket of a darker blue, trimmed with ermine and more brocade and worn over her shoulders. A fur hat was tipped over one ear and was decorated with a spray of silver and pearls. Her dark hair was braided with gemstones and fell over one shoulder, giving her silhouette a pleasant asymmetry.

SPRING PLUM:

CYRUS: "All that sternness amid charm All that sweetness amid strength."

SPRING PLUM:

She had been among the Aristoi only a short while, having been promoted only twelve years ago. She was, astrographically speaking, Gabriel's neighbor, as her domaine was expanding from an area near Gabriel's.

"Thank you," she said. "I've got my next ascent mapped— Mount Trasker this time."

AUGENBLICK: We are interested?

WELCOME RAIN: We are interested. Let us map our own ascent.

AUGENBLICK: It's difficult to read skiagenoi. This will take a while.

GABRIEL: Keep me informed.

Her name, translated literally into demotic, meant "True Sound." Figuratively, however, it meant "True Jade," from the satisfying sound quality jade makes when it's given a good rap.

"You're looking dashing," Gabriel said.

"And you're looking well-satisfied."

"Am I? I can't think why."

"Impending fatherhood, perhaps?"

Gabriel permitted himself a look of surprise. "I wasn't aware that anyone knew."

"It wasn't hard to work out. Your schedule of the last week implied a number of things, that among them."

"Should I be flattered that you bothered to study my schedule of the last week?"

"Your schedule for the last year. And various other items concerning you."

Gabriel lifted his shadow-eyebrows. "May one ask why?"

"One may."

Dorothy, mantalike, floated overhead, and Gabriel paused (reno searching files for something apt). The reed flute filled the gap. After Dorothy passed out of immediate eavesdropping range, he spoke. "Questioning," he said, "is not the mode of conversation among gentlefolk."

"I believe Johnson also said that classical quotation is the parole of literary men."

"Am I literary? I never thought myself so."

"All that is literature," said Gabriel's reno, after Wordsworth>, "seeks to communicate power; all that is not literature, to communicate knowledge."

"Our renos seem to have a very good 18th Century index," said Gabriel. "Take my arm; let's talk."

"As you like. Though we'll look like a couple footmen at the Congress of Vienna."

"Not footmen. Equerries at least. Or maybe archdukes. I believe there were plenty to spare."

Her arm, nonexistent though it was, was quite warm: Augenblick and the Welcome Rain both commented hopefully.

"I am told," Gabriel said, "that you and Astoreth are planning to upset our happy galactic order."

"Astoreth intends no such thing."

"That begs a question, but I'm afraid I just forswore that mode of discourse."

"Astoreth wants to create a stir so that she can be at the center of attention. And I— ?" She looked at him, and Gabriel found himself admiring the program that had created the liquid depths of her eyes. "I'm willing to put some notions forward," she said. "I'm not certain what it would mean yet."

"You've followed her program otherwise. Rekindling a spirit of adventure through your personal exploits and so on."

"I like climbing mountains and stunting around in submarines. It doesn't have to be someone's program."

"But the problem, as you see it, requires drastic measures."

"It requires, first of all, an acknowledgement that there's a problem."

"If you gathered data . . . "

"How much data do we need?" She was impatient. "Out of the thousands of therápontes who took the exams this time, how many passed? Nine. How many Aristoi died or announced impending retirement in the time between this batch of exams and the last? Six."

"This has been discussed, you know. For decades."

"Since most of us restrict population in our own dominions, the only way many of the Demos can have the children they want is to pioneer in new domaines. And since there will be a net increase of only three domaines this time, in essence humanity expands by only three Aristoi."

"Of course the Demos can also have children by moving to underpopulated domaines."

"There's a reason those domaines are underpopulated, you know."

"I know perfectly well. I merely felt I should make mention of all the alternatives available."

"Okay. So the alternative is to queue up for a new planet, moon, or habitat, which can take decades if not centuries, or to be subjected to intrusive social programming in the justly-underpopulated domaines."

"I wonder where Pan Aristos got this flute music. It's extraordinary." (Setting his reno on an extended search, , for a score.)

Zhenling permitted herself an annoyed look. Gabriel inclined toward her. "I beg your pardon. One train of thought intruded on another. I was listening."

"To me or the music?"

"I can follow both."

"I was hoping to recruit you."

"Hence your inquiry into my last year's schedule." He sighed. "I'm disappointed. I was hoping your interest was more personal."

Gabriel (and Augenblick) noted that Zhenling didn't seem (or didn't allow herself to seem) as annoyed by this remark as she might have been.

"Isn't your life a little busy without another complication?" she asked. "A child on the way, a new friend moving into the— " Her reno floated data along the tachline. "Carnation Suite?"

The Welcome Rain gleefully rubbed metaphysical hands together and whispered in Gabriel's antennae.

"We're Aristoi," Gabriel said. "We're capable of handling any number of complications with grace, with joy, with— "

"Without me," said Zhenling. "I have a consort, as you know."

"Who is not your equal."

"He'll pass the exams." Stubbornly. "He came very close this last time."

"It's more Aristoi that your group wants." Gabriel stroked his chin skiagenically. "Could that be a coincidence, I wonder?"

"You seem to want more Aristoi in your life as well."

"Only one."

"What a shame." She paused for a pensive moment, then carefully shrugged. "Think of it as a rare experience. How often do you experience genuine frustration in your life? Cherish it while it lasts."

"While it lasts." He attempted to lift her hand and kiss it. She turned her skiagénos insubstantial and his hand passed through hers. He straightened and looked at her, and she burst into laughter.

"You should see your face!" she said. "This is rare for you, isn't it?"

Gabriel calmed both himself and the Welcome Rain, who was hissing like a kettle.

"Perhaps we'll kiss later," Zhenling said, which soothed Welcome Rain rather more than Gabriel did. "But right now, I'd like to read your brain chemistry."

"My what?"

"Levels of vasopressin," numbering on her fingers, "dopamine, serotonin, lecithin, thiamine, norepinephrine, phosphatidylcholine, endorphins . . . lots of things. Dozens. Your reno has the capability to analyze your chemistry that way?"

"Of course," Gabriel said, "but I'm not certain I'm willing to proceed to that level of intimacy without at least kissing first."

Her look was serious. "I'm going to propose tomorrow to inaugurate a study concerning what makes Aristoi into Aristoi."

"It's been tried. The category was found to be unquantifiable." He gestured with an arm. Pristine Way, looking at the moment as if she were cut from rose-tinted transparent crystal, nodded back. "Look at all these people," Gabriel said. "Each passed exams, each is licensed for certain dangerous technologies, and each controls a domaine— but each is individual, and over the years the domaine conforms to her image . . . Citizens with an interest in music or architecture migrate to my domaine, those interested in political theory show up in the Icon's territory or Coetzee's, those who yearn for the consolations of philosophy turn up in Sebastian's, and I imagine you get your share of mountain climbers. You know how eccentric some of us are. What d'you think we have in common?"

"I don't think the previous studies were done the right way. Or that they asked the right questions."

"You're an Ariste, of course. You can study what you like."

She tilted her head. Light danced in her eyes. "Which brings me to my next point. I really would like to get a look at your brain chemistry. In the normal course of things we're surrounded by people who defer to us, who make things easy, who accept our judgments without question. Some of us are even worshiped."

"Oh please." Gabriel held up protesting hands. "I just needed to give my mother something to do after she retired."

"Unlike most of us here, I quite believe you. But still, some of us are worshiped. What does that do inside our heads? We're natural leaders— that's one thing we've got in common— and we're still all primates, even the most modified of us. We're more absolute than the leader of any baboon troop ever was. More absolute than Louis XIV."

"I wish you would come up with more cultivated examples. I don't know which of the two I'd prefer as a house guest— probably the baboon."

"Moi aussi, monseigneur. Le roi, c'est l'etat et un cochon. But then, his brain chemistry must have been as abnormal as ours."

"I am going to demand a kiss if you're going to discuss my brain chemistry and make odious comparisons."

She stepped up to him and kissed him quite decisively on the mouth. Her breath had a spicy tint. The Welcome Rain went into ecstasies. The rest of Gabriel wasn't much less affected.

Zhenling stepped back, her look managing to be both teasing and smug. "What I would like to do," she said, "is compare your brain chemistry now with what it is at the end of Graduation, and with what it will be about six months from now. Because what's happening here is that you're interacting with your peers, not what for lack of a better term we'll call your inferiors. It's a greater strain, we're not as deferent as the people you're around normally . . . It's going to do things to your head."

"Where do you plan to go with this?"

"With your head?" She narrowed her tilted eyes. "Very far indeed . . . " Welcome Rain commenced a dance of triumph. "But later, I think." She stepped back, gave him a Posture of Respect subverted by a careless wave. "There are other people I need to speak to. I'm sure we'll be able to see each other at one of the receptions."

"I need to know what you want in the way of brain analysis."

"I'll send you a memo of what I'm interested in."

Gabriel watched her leave and listened to the voices in her head. Her metalinguistics were consistently flirtatious. Augenblick's contribution. Rather deliberately so.

We're in business, boss, said the Welcome Rain.

Gabriel continued to drift among the throng. He observed that Dorothy St.-John had pasted her cat's eyes to the forehead of Han Fu, and wondered whether Han knew it. Asterion, whose body had been altered for a subaquatic existence, swam elegantly overhead, webbed hands and turned-out dolphin feet moving gracefully through invisible waters.

The music now playing, Gabriel's reno finally reported, is untitled and unpublished, but is by Tunku Iskander. It is unavailable in the Hyperlogos but a recording exists in the archives of Rival Island, where Tunku played it last week for Aristos MacReady.

Not in the library, but in obscure records half of human space away— no wonder the search had taken so long, almost four minutes. Tunku Iskander, Gabriel knew, would be installed as an Aristos tomorrow, and had apprenticed under MacReady and Dorothy. Gabriel hadn't ever met him, or heard his music. He told his reno to call up as many recordings as were available and store them for later.

The reception drifted onward to its conclusion.

*

Gabriel, hair tied back with golden ribbon, performed wushu alone on the sward behind the Red Lacquer Gallery. Cool morning air brushed over his limbs. His mind was in the oneirochronon, and Spring Plum guided the two-sword form, controlling his body with grace and imagination. The heavy broadswords sliced air, one-two, and the red flags tied to the hilts made supersonic cracking sounds as they wove dragon-back images through the air. Gabriel could feel, dim in his conscious mind, the strain on muscles, the beat of pulse and harshness of breath in the throat, the feel of whirls and leaps and stances of wushu, martial arts abstracted to dance, an aesthetic distillation attuned to Spring Plum's psyche. He could see, if he wanted to, the spears of green grass, the long expanse of the Red Lacquer Gallery, grey upthrust mountain peaks beyond the golden web of Labdakos, all whirling in the focused dance . . . but his mind stayed firmly in the oneirochronon, and concentrated on the Involved Ideography of Captain Yuan.

Yuan's Ideography was based on the notion that writing had greater impact the more senses it evoked. Old-style European script was fine for communicating data efficiently, but it had to work hard to achieve the kind of psychic resonance that Yuan desired— not simply to communicate, but to involve.

Old Asian scripts were better, insofar as the ideograms not only communicated words but drew (admittedly rather abstract) pictures. They involved more levels of the mind in the translation, and the impact— at least for Yuan's purposes— was greater.

Yuan's Intermediate Ideography, in which Psyche had presented her conception-poem for Marcus, was based on age-old Chinese characters but adapted for modern grammar, vocabulary, and expression.

The Intermediate characters were only a stage on the way to the Involved Ideography. These were intricate hieroglyphs based on the First Aristos's own ideas about the wiring of the human mind and its relationship to information, were another step toward complexity and many levels higher in symbolism. Looking like a peculiarly convoluted incorporation of baroque Mayan glyphs and circuit diagrams, the Involved Ideography's radicals, modalities, and submodalities were designed to involve as much of the reasoning cortex as possible. They required intense mental concentration to use or read, but were unexcelled in packing complex information into small packages. The system was incomplete, as Yuan hadn't finished his work when he set on his long, presumably fatal quest toward galactic center, but the ideography continued to evolve more or less randomly at the hands of thousands of individual scholars and information theorists.

Gabriel was using the Involved Ideography to design an oneirochronic seal for Clancy, one she could use to get into the secure areas of the Residence. He would be having breakfast with her shortly, in Spring Plum's room of the Autumn Pavilion, and wanted it ready.

He used a glyph for rose, a radical for redden, modalities for medicine and music and pleasure and caring . . . He wanted to evoke her precisely, create a poem in glyph form.

He became aware that Spring Plum had finished the wushu form, that his body was poised in salutation position, swords heavy in his arms. Gabriel had his reno analyze his bodily state. He concluded he'd exercised enough, and he summoned Kouros to perform cool-down exercises. The Kouros daimon was a child, carefree and happy, innocent of consequence— skipping about the sward and gardens during the cooldown period was something Kouros would find interesting.

He buried himself in the creating the hieroglyph.

*

By the time he finished the cool-down period he thought he had finished the seal. He bathed and dressed and had breakfast delivered to Spring Plum's room, where there was a graceful rosewood dining table, and in a matching cabinet a porcelain service rimmed with silver and painted with white plum blossoms. Spring Plum possessed an intent fascination for biological detail: the dark silk wall hangings were covered with exactingly-rendered flora, petals, stigmata, anthers, and beaded, glowing droplets of dew.

Clancy arrived at the door. Gabriel embraced her and kissed her hello, then led her to the buffet. There was enough food to feed a dozen guests. Clancy took coffee, a scone, and jam, and sat curled in a chair covered in stitched dogwood blossoms. Gabriel took a plate of fruit and sat by her side.

She cocked an ear at the music. "Tien Jiang Chun."

"Yes."

"I played it years ago on Darkbloom. In a recital, at university. Accompanying a friend, who sang Li Jingchao's words."

Gabriel's reno sifted gently through Clancy's biography. "You play piano, flute, persephone."

"The first poorly, due to a lack of time for practice. The second with a bit too much restraint. The third too cleverly, because modern instruments encourage that."

"Do you compose?"

"No."

"You should. You're bound to find a daimon that will help you."

"I would be mediocre." She sipped coffee. "I'm an outstanding physician and surgeon, however, and a damn good geneticist." There was defensiveness in her tone.

"I know," gently. He took her hand and kissed it.

"Marcus," she said.

"Yes?"

"Is it ended between you?"

"'How am I fallen from myself, for a long time now I have not seen the Prince of Chang in my dreams.'" He smiled. "I'm building him a house."

"A house? An estate, you mean."

"An estate, then. And why not? With a stunning view, and a large nursery, and room for all the playthings and gadgets he likes to build."

"Don't build me such a place, when the time comes."

He sensed the tension in her forearm. He kissed her hand again. "Not if you don't want one, Blushing Rose. But architecture is one of my skills— I hate not to indulge it."

She smiled. "Build me a research clinic if you like. On an asteroid, where I can work with nano."

Gabriel was pleased to discover this hidden thread of ambition.

"Tell me where you want it, and what you want in it, and it's yours. Now. It doesn't have to be a parting gift."

Clancy blinked at him. "Sometimes I forget that you can do that. Wave your hand, and it's done. As easily as if you were in the oneirochronon."

"It takes a little more effort than that."

"But still. It doesn't cost you anything. Does it?"

"Why should it?" He smiled, took a knife, began to peel a hothouse peach. "I like pleasing people. I have the power to do it. Why shouldn't I indulge myself in harmless benevolence?"

She thought about it, then shrugged. "Whyever not?"

Another chord chimed briefly. Clancy tilted her head. "I've told Rabjoms."

"I hope it went well."

"I think he's a bit . . . overwhelmed." She gave a tight little smile. "So am I, really. Rabjoms doesn't want to resist— part of it's the conditioning, okay, but— " There was an uncertain flutter in her eyes. "Well, I don't want to resist either."

Gabriel left his chair, sat crosslegged before her, took her feet into his lap. "I'm pleased, Blushing Rose."

Her look turned uncertain. "Should I move into the Residence? Do you want me to?"

"I would be pleased to have you near me. The Carnation Suite is open, and its decor would suit your coloring very well."

"I'll move, then."

"I've already taken the liberty of designing you an oneirochronic seal that will grant you access to the secure areas and the private passages and galleries in the Residence. I've put it in your message box, and instructed the Residence to open its sealed areas to you."

There was a glimmer of interest in her eyes. "There are secret passages in the Residence?"

"Not secret. Just private. If you want to go somewhere and not have to meet people." He smiled at her. "I find it useful."

She gazed at her plate for a moment, then down at him. "Disturber? Can you tell me why I feel sad?"

Gabriel could not. "How can I make you happy?" he said.

She gave a thin smile. "I should return to work."

"If that's what you wish. But I can still declare that planetary holiday."

Her smile broadened. "That won't be necessary."

"Perhaps," he said, "some other time."