"Do you think there are answers to everything here? Is that true in the place where you come from?"
This question, posed by the relatively newly-met Agia to Severian as they tour the mysterious Botanical Gardens of Nessus, stands out to me on this reading as one of the most blatant cases of direct authorial taunting Gene Wolfe -- or perhaps any author -- has indulged in. It also feels like the central question of his Solar Cycle.
But first, let us backtrack to where we left off last time. Severian has met Dr. Talos and Baldanders, and has more or less agreed to be part of their traveling show, or at least to travel alongside them for a while. And he will do this, eventually. But not just now. As Chapter 16 opens and the trio sit down to breakfast at a cafe, Severian is already pretty much making plans to ditch the pair as soon as he can.
But first, they meet someone. Someone who will also be joining the troupe, though she won't be recognizable when Severian next sees her: the Waitress!* But all she does here is serve some mocha and gruel and let herself be sweet-talked by Talos into letting him make her into a beautiful actress. Well, what girl can resist an offer like that?
And then they all part ways, supposedly for a time; Severian agrees to meet them at a place called Ctesiphon's Cross**, does Severian know where that is? Uh, sure he does (no he doesn't). Aaaaaand skeedaddle. Because...
It's time for Severian to go shopping. That's right. SHOPPING. He took those law enforcement buffoons from last time seriously when their boss advised him to get something to cover up that fulgin cloak, badass sword and, oh yes, naked chest. So first, he does the Dying Earth/Faux Medieval equivalent of window shopping, and then, because he's Severian and nothing happens without this vital element, he sees a pretty girl, whom he ogles:
She wore a pavonine brocade gown of amazing richness and raggedness, and as I watched her, the sun touched a rent just below her waist, turning the skin there to palest gold.*** I cannot explain the desire I felt for her, then and afterward. Of the many women I have known, she was, perhaps, the least beautiful - less graceful than her I have loved most, less voluptuous than another, less reginal far than Thecla... I loved her with a love that was deadly and yet not serious.And this is Agia, she of the provocative question with which I opened this post. She's in a rich dress that's seen better days because she and her twin brother, Agilus, own a used clothing stall. When Severian approaches her, she checks him out and seems to like what she sees (namely his amazing and expensive sword, and his darker-than-black cloak) and talks him into going into her shop, though she neglects to inform him that it's her shop. She does not go in with him.
Behind the counter is her brother, Agilus, wearing a strange mask "more frightening than any torturer. His face was a skeleton's or nearly so." Like any good shopkeeper, he immediately goes into dickering mode, but Severian is hung up on his mask and comments on it, so finally Agilus removes it. The dickering continues; Agilus is hell bent on buying the cloak and sword, but Severian is interested in parting with neither. Then he notices that "the ribbons that held your mask... they're still there."**** Before this interesting point can be discussed further, though, they are interrupted by an armored and helmeted hipparch (a cavalry officer, basically), who doesn't speak, but forces a black avern***** seed on Severian and leaves. As Agilus explains, Severian has just been ordered to fight a duel, not with swords (Agilus tries to get Severian to leave Terminus Est with him, har har) but with averns. Severian has no idea how this has come to pass, and is kind of in shock, so Agilus takes him in hand, sells him a mantle to cover his torturer garb, and says since Severian is his customer, and he's never abandoned a customer, he'll help by sending his sister to help Severian get his avern. What a nice guy, that Agilus!
Of course, Severian, who seems awfully insistent on convincing us that he was in love with Agia, even though he had just met her, is more than happy to have her company on this weird adventure, and burdens us with a bit of Ishmaelian philosophizing to justify and enlarge his decision to play along with this scheme the twins have cooked up. He evokes, for instance, a simple story of an Autarch from the long, long ago, Ymar, and how there are so many different interpretations of that little story. "Of me it might be asked why I accepted the shopkeeper's sister as my companion." Yeah, it might.
Step One: Cut an avern. No wait. Step One: get to the Botanic Gardens so they can cut an avern. No wait. Step One: Hire a fiacre to carry them to the Botanic Gardens in style. Okay, got that? So. Step Two: Get to the Botanic Gardens so they can cut an avern. No wait. Step Two: get into a stupid race with another fiacre, piss off everyone in the marketplace, go crashing into the Cathedral of the Pelerines and "accidentally" trash their altar, where is kept that super valuable gem we keep hearing about, the Claw of the Concilator. In the chaos, Terminus Est gets misplaced, and the straw on the floor catches fire, and it is in that setting that an exultant-tall woman, angry in scarlet, comes marching up with Severian's sword. Is there, perhaps, something of value of theirs that Severian might return, also?
Very well, the Pelerines conclude. "The Claw has not vanished in living memory, but it does so at will and it would be neither possible nor permissible for us to stop it." Which is a strange thing to say about a gem, even a gem called a Claw.
So yeah, about the Claw. Finally we learn some more about it, courtesy of Agia as she and Severian now walk to the Botanic Gardens. Remember the Botanic Gardens? But anyway, the Claw. It is understood to have had "some real association" with a quasi-messianic figure from ancient-ish history called The Conciliator, whom Agia, and by association/extension the Pelerines who keep this figure's memory, can't quite refer to as historical or dead because maybe he never lived, or maybe he's still alive? This will all, of course, be sorted out for us in a later novel, but for now, he is supposed to have been the Master of Power "Which means the transcendence of reality, and includes the negation of time." And so this artifact, which may or may not be actually his, is believed to have certain powers. It "forgives injuries, raises the dead, draws new races of beings from the soil, purifies lust"... no word on the julienne fries, but come on, it's a Claw, right?
Severian (paraphrased): huh huh. You said lust. I lust you.
Agia (paraphrased): I don't lust you back, because you might get killed.
Severian (paraphrased): Yeah, about that. You sure this isn't just you and your brother trying to trick me?
Agia: (shakes her ass)
And they kiss.
So now, let's talk about this a bit. What do we think is really going on in all of this? Is Severian onto the Twins' real plan now, and just going along with it for his own ends? Was the crash into the Cathedral Tent really an accident? The Pelerines saw no deception in Severian when he claimed not to have stolen the Claw: is that because he didn't steal it, or because you can't steal what's already yours? Or rather, something that you might have stolen a really, really long time ago but then substituted something else for that you sort of found along the way but then that became the real thing and...
Ow, my brain.
But so here's what I think this time. I think Severian is telling porkies. Here. I think he played dumb with the Twins because he saw a way to "blunder" into the Cathedral to get the Claw and that getting the Claw was the whole point of his little detour through this part of Nessus. Because he was going to need the Claw's powers very soon, because Dorcas (whom I think of as the one he loved most, and never mind who else she is, just now). I realize this is going to make no sense at all to first-time readers who don't yet understand just how much mucking about with time and space is really going on here. But that's how I'm reading it. The priorities here are Claw and Dorcas.
So okay, back to the story. It's time to visit the Botanical Gardens, a place we are soon led to conflate with Father Inire's mirrors, the Corridors of Time, and Tzadkiel's spaceship because this is not just any hothouse. It's a hothouse of many ecosystems, each supposedly just cunningly designed so they feel bigger on the inside on the outside, but every once in a while, things happen to betray the Gardens' dual/treble/OMGble nature. Like the roar of a smilodon Severian hears in the Jungle Garden.
And then there's the Jungle. Oh, the Jungle. Tell me this doesn't feel like a little slice the planet Green from Book of the Short Sun. But anyway.
Severian and Agia meet some of the staff, who are members of the Curators' Guild and brag about, among other things, the Garden of Antiquities, which features "Hundreds and hundreds of extinct plants, including some that have not been seen for tens of millions of years."****** Now, how do you suppose they got those?
As for Agia, she really wants to get Severian into the Garden of Delectation, for reasons that are never made totally clear to us, but might be prurient (in his dreams). They explore for what doesn't seem to be much time at all but which Agia insists was too long; they've missed out on a chance to do anything now but cut his avern. Wait, what? "The gardens affect some people like that," Agia explains. The Autarch has decided having some people kind of stuck in each scene will make them more realistic, and so Father Inire has "invested them with a conjuration" so that people will want to. Severian says he felt as if he belonged there, and that there was a woman waiting for him just out of sight. Well, of course he did.
Me? I wonder if this isn't a point where he suddenly ducks into the life of Apu-Pinchau for a while.
Oh, Father Inire. Just the mention of his name in conjunction with places that mess with your head leads Severian to his another big delve into memories of storytelling, this time, Thecla's (wink). And whether Agia is listening or not, he tells her the story, all about a young girl whom Father Inire caught posing in front of his giant twinned mirrors in the House Absolute and summoned to his sanctum to "see the fish." No, this is not a euphemism for anything tawdry. It is both an extended metaphor/hologram of/for Severian's story and a real encounter with a partly real fish, which Father Inire conjures via a dazzling array of bright lights and otherworldly mirrors: "In the center, the fish flickered to and fro, a thing formed, as it seemed, by the convergence of the light." As the child watches the light-fish, Father Inire discourses on how light travels, and how things might travel faster than light, and how the image of a thing can, in time, become a thing.
And how much do we really, really know about where Severian came from, anyway?
*And of course, lots of people will cough and say "that will not be the first time he didn't recognize her" because this woman, the waitress-who-will-be-Jolenta, is a leading candidate for Severian's-lost-twin-sister-if-in-fact-he-has-one. Borski certainly thinks so, based on his essential criteria of hair color and other criteria I'm avoiding mentioning because of spoilers.
**Unusual name for a place that's supposedly in a far-future Buenos Aires, no? Ctesiphon was the capital city of the Parthian empire in Persia, a great city of ancient Mesopotamia. It was the winter seat of the Parthian kings, and was later captured a stunning five times by the Romans -- Emperor Julian died trying to take it once -- and was the site of a major battle of World War I as well. I can't find anything about anything called Stesiphon's Cross as such, but there is this:
The Taq-i-Kisra, which was a sort of imperial audience hall. This is all that remains today of the ancient city. It looks like the sort of place where the kinds of plays that Talos et al perform might go over rather nicely. One problem, of course, Ctesiphon is geographically nowhere near Nessus/Buenos Aires, at least as we conventionally understand geography in the 20th/21st centuries. However, as we'll see in the next few chapters and, hell, the next few novels, where -- and when -- are kind of plastic.
***The gold and some other things, of course, leading Borski to conclude that Agia and her brother are Severian's cousins.
****Something else has just occurred to me, guys. Guys. The MASK thing. Who else wears masks alla time in BotNS? I mean besides Severian? Barbatus and Famulimus! Screw this Agia and Agilus are Severians cousins hoo-ha. Agia and Agilus are the first appearance of the Hierodules. And if you think about it, Ossipago is maybe here too. Wink.
*****This is a bizarre and poisonous giant flower we'll hear more about later. The term may come from the Latin "avernus" with more or less means "without birds" and often referred to a lake or other body of water that emits poisonous fumes or steams and over which birds were believed to die if they flew. Keep this in mind in the immediate future, when we get to the Lake of Birds. I'm pretty sure there are no coincidences in Gene Wolfe.
*****And some of which have escaped the confines of the Botanical Gardens and are growing out in the world again. D'oh.