Nobody that Korshak had met in his thirty-one years of mostly traveling, nor any of the preserved writings that he knew of, had been able to tell him precisely how long ago the old world had destroyed itself in the Great Conflagration. Some put it at two or three generations; others said centuries; a few thought as much as a thousand years. Different schools of history had different ways of estimating, and no two seemed able to produce the same result. The ruins of cities that had once extended for miles decayed away under weather, weeds, and encroaching sands, and the machines that had animated them corroded back into the earth without divulging their secrets.
He stood looking down over the site of one of those old cities now, from a stance among the rocks on the hill where they had camped the night before. It was called Escalos, in the land known as Arigane. Little appeared to have changed significantly since the last time they were here. The outer parts of what had been the original city had long turned into mounds of overgrown rubble risibg above jumbled streets of clay-brick and wooden hovels, although in places the lines could still be discerned of broad avenues made to carry thousands of vehicles that now existed only as rare, faded pictures or piles of unearthed rust. Farther in toward the center, thrusting here and there above the roofs of the state offices and court building, and the domes of Shandrahl's palace, the skeletal remnants of towering structures stood in mute testament to arts that existed here no more. But elsewhere they had been revived. And one day Korshak would learn them.
"The cabinet is ready." Ronti's voice came from below.
Korshak turned. "How about the stew?" he called back.
"That's ready too. And we still have half a bottle of wine."
"Ah, right! First things first, eh?" Korshak picked his way back down to where the wagon stood in a glade among the trees, by a pool formed from a widening of the stream. Sprung high on its axles, it was enclosed under a barrel roof and painted bright red with elaborate designs and mystical symbols along the sides, and a driver's bench up front, behind which a flap door opened from the interior. The two horses were tethered a short distance away, where there was water and plenty of grass. The descent down into Escalos would be an easy haul for them.
Ronti was behind the wagon, squatting on a box by the fire as he ladled from the hanging pot into a couple of earthenware bowls. He was slight and wiry in build, with a mat of black hair, pointed mustachios adorning a mobile, sun-darkened countenance, and dark, beady eyes that never seemed quite able to take the world seriously, but saw more than they pretended to. Korshak had first encountered him five years previously in the seaport town of Belamon, working as a street acrobat and contortionist. Such talents were exactly the kind of thing needed for an assistant in a new routine that Korshak had devised, and he offered the position on the spot. Ronti turned out to be the most capable partner that Korshak had ever worked with, and they had remained together ever since.
Korshak sat down on a folded blanket placed over one of the rocks, took the bowl that Ronti proffered, and broke some bread off the loaf lying on a board by the fire. On the far side, Sultan gnawed at a bone of mutton chop nestled protectively between his paws. Ronti poured wine into a couple of earthenware mugs. "Anything of note?" he inquired as he handed one to Korshak.
"They've been rebuilding where they had that fire near the market. Otherwise, everything looks much the same. There are what look like gibbets outside the main gate. Shandrahl must be having another of his purges."
Ronti made a face. "Let's hope there aren't any hitches with the act tomorrow, then," he said.
"I'd be more concerned about anything going wrong with what happens afterward," Korshak replied.
"Thanks, but I'd prefer not to think about that."
"Then think about longer after still--what it will all be for," Korshak suggested. "Do you know what Masumichi told me one time when I talked to him in the window that sees across vast distances? The stars, where we will be going, are all suns, but just farther away. Do you know how far, Ronti?"
Ronti stirred the food together in his bowl for a few seconds and shrugged. "If the world were the size of my hand, then, say, the distance to the middle of Escalos?" he guessed. He thought while he continued chewing, and then added, "But since I don't really know how big the world is, I suppose that doesn't mean very much."
"I'm not sure I do either," Korshak confessed. "But Masumichi gave me a different example that I did understand, which will amaze you."
"Go on, amaze me," Ronti invited.
Korshak looked around, then touched the end of a finger on a sliver of charred wood that had fallen outside the hearth stones. "The whole world would fit inside the Sun thousands of times," he said. "Now imagine the Sun reduced to the size of one of those specks of black there on my finger. Well, have you any idea what the distance would be to the nearest other star? About four miles!"
Ronti stopped chewing and stared. "I'm amazed."
"And where we're going is thousands of times farther even than that."
It took Ronti a while longer, of breaking and oiling bread, more munching in silence, and then a draft from his wine mug, to absorb the information. "And did Masumichi tell you how this is possible?" he asked at last. "Since I, for one, cannot conceive it. To fly through the sky and talk over huge distances I can grasp, even if I don't understand how it's done. But what kind of old-world magic is this?"
"Real magic!" Korshak answered. "Except that it isn't magic. Magic without tricks. We'll know wonders that we never dreamed of, and that's what makes the risks worthwhile. Without some risks, life is not a life at all--no more than eating and sleeping and existing from one day to the next, all of them the same, is for the horses back there, until you live out your spell. Is that how you want it to be? That's what you should be thinking about, Ronti."
Ronti mopped his bowl with the last of his bread, and finished his wine. "Well, I say life is to be dealt with a day at a time," he said. "And right now that means making sure that our own, this-worldly kind of magic, modest as it may be, will work. Otherwise we'll never get to what you're talking about anyway. Do you want to check the cabinet?"
Koshak tossed a remnant of meat to Sultan and stood up. "Yes, let's see it."
Ronti had assembled the cabinet on the lowered tailboard of the wagon beneath the rear shutter, which hinged upward to form an overhead shade. It was as high as a man, wide enough to accommodate two standing side by side, and the same in depth. Its front consisted of a pair of doors ornamented with designs that were echoed on the sides. The doors were open, revealing a pole with a lamp at the top standing in the center, but the details beyond were in shadow. Ronti sprung up the step onto the tailboard and produced a match book from a pocket of his jacket. He leaned into the cabinet to light the lamp, and then stepped aside. The light showed the two sides and rear of the interior lined uniformly in quilted maroon silk, and a dark, matted floor. Korshak ran his eye over it critically. There were no tell-tale stains, blotches, or other irregularities whose reflection would give the secret away. The hidden edges blended into the pattern of the lining invisibly.
"Fine," he pronounced. Then, letting his voice rise to a showman's tone, he went on, "As you can see, a perfectly ordinary box in every way, as deep as it is wide," which Ronti demonstrated by turning the cabinet around on castors fitted beneath its corners. He opened the rear wall, which could now be seen as also comprising two doors, enabling a view right through, while Korshak continued, directing his words and gestures at Sultan since there was nobody else, "No false back or hidden compartments. Would anyone care to inspect the inside and satisfy themselves before we proceed further?" Sultan was following alertly but remained with his bone.
Up on the wagon, Ronti turned the cabinet to face forward again, still with both sets of doors open, and stepped into it through the front and then out through the back. Closing the rear doors behind him, he then walked back around to the front.
"Good," Korshak told him. "Carry on. I want to see the effect from here."
Ronti stepped into the front of the cabinet once more, but this time he turned and closed the doors. Korshak listened for any giveaway squeaks or clicks, but detected nothing. Inside the cabinet, Ronti would be opening the two top-to-floor panels that hinged out at the rear corners from shallow recesses in the side walls to meet at the central pole. Thus, they partitioned off a triangular space at the back of the cabinet, between the pole and the two rear corners, large enough to hold a man standing, or with a squeeze, two. Normally, Korshak would open the front doors at this point, but since he was down on the ground, playing the part of a spectator, Ronti let himself out the back of the cabinet, came around again, and did it for him.
The reverse surfaces of the two hinged panels--the surfaces that faced inward when the panels were in their recesses--consisted of high-quality mirrors. In the opened position, each mirror reflected an image of a silk-lined side wall, which to an observer looking in the front appeared to be the rear wall. Korshak checked carefully for correct alignments and continuity of hue. The illusion of the cabinet's being empty was perfect. It could be used to make a person vanish, or if the preliminary see-through demonstration were omitted, to have one person walk in and a different one step out. As was his custom with all his creations, Korshak had inscribed his name cryptically into the ornamental patterning.
Mechanical illusions were Korshak's specialty. The disappearing cabinet was his latest invention, into which he had invested his greatest skill and care. The performance would need to be his most compelling ever. He intended to steal a princess from under the eyes of her tyrannical father and a man she despised to whom she had been promised as a bride, before an audience of courtiers and officers in the center of the royal palace. One of the problems with life tended to be that it didn't permit any rehearsal.
Later, when they were preparing to depart, Korshak dismantled the cabinet and stowed the parts away, while Ronti attended to packing the cooking ware and harnessing the horses. By the time Korshak climbed down to close up the rear. Ronti was already up on the driver's bench, waiting with the reins. As Korshak bolted the tailboard, a light low in the sky to the east caught his eye. It moved discernibly even as he watched, and he smiled. Aurora was passing over. Before very much longer now, they would be up there too. Then he would learn real magic.