The Light of Ancient Mistakes
The barges lay on the darkness of the still canal, their lines softened by the snow heaped in pillows and hummocks on their decks. The horizontal surfaces of the canal's paths, piers, bollards and lifting bridges bore the same full billowed weight of snow, and the tall buildings set back from the quaysides loomed over all, their windows, balconies and gutters each a line edged with white.
It was a quiet area of the city at almost any time, Kabe knew, but tonight it both seemed and was quieter still. He could hear his own footsteps as they sank into the untouched whiteness. Each step made a creaking noise. He stopped and lifted his head, sniffing at the air. Very still. He had never known the city so silent. The snow made it seem hushed, he supposed, muffling what little sound there was. Also tonight there was no appreciable wind at ground level, which meant that -- in the absence of any traffic -- the canal, though still free of ice, was perfectly still and soundless, with no slap of wave or gurgling surge.
There were no lights nearby positioned to reflect from the canal's black surface, so that it seemed like nothing, like an absolute absence on which the barges appeared to be floating unsupported. That was unusual too. The lights were out across the whole city, across almost all this side of the world.
He looked up. The snow was easing now. Spinwards, over the city center and the still more distant mountains, the clouds were parting, revealing a few of the brighter stars as the weather system cleared. A thin, dimly glowing line directly above -- coming and going as the clouds moved slowly overhead -- was far-side light. No aircraft or ships that he could see. Even the birds of the air seemed to have stayed in their roosts.
And no music. Usually in Aquime City you could hear music coming from somewhere or other, if you listened hard enough (and he was good at listening hard). But this evening he couldn't hear any.
Subdued. That was the word. The place was subdued. This was a special, rather somber night ("Tonight you dance by the light of ancient mistakes!" Ziller had said in an interview that morning -- with only a little too much relish) and the mood seemed to have infected all of the city, the whole of Xaravve Plate, indeed the entire Orbital of Masaq'.
And yet, even so, there seemed to be an extra stillness caused by the snow. Kabe stood for a moment longer, wondering exactly what might cause that additional hush. It was something that he had noticed before but never quite been bothered enough about to try and pin down. Something to do with the snow itself...
He looked back at his tracks in the snow covering the canal path. Three lines of footprints. He wondered what a human -- what any bipedal -- would make of such a trail. Probably, he suspected, they would not notice. Even if they did, they would just ask and instantly be told. Hub would tell them: those will be the tracks of our honored Homomdan guest Ambassador Kabe Ischloear.
Ah, so little mystery, these days. Kabe looked around, then quickly did a little hopping, shuffling dance, executing the steps with a delicacy belying his bulk and weight. He glanced about again, and was glad to have, apparently, escaped observation. He studied the pattern his dance had left in the snow. That was better...But what had he been thinking of? The snow, and its silence.
Yes, that was it; it produced what seemed like a subtraction of noise, because one was used to sound accompanying weather; wind sighed or roared, rain drummed or hissed or -- if it was mist and too light to produce noise directly -- at least created drips and glugs. But snow falling with no wind to accompany it seemed to defy nature; it was like watching a screen with the sound off, it was like being deaf. That was it.
Copyright © 2000 by Iain M. Banks
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