Mark Charan Newton
Nights of Villjamur
This much was obvious:
They'd sent him to kill her. And here she was, weeks away from comfort, weeks across the Archipelago and halfway across the night. Still, at least it was a good time to be on the run.
The lanes of Ule were cold and body-thick. Flames illuminated everything, fire from within pits, or from torches. In the shadows you could see young men and women sitting up late, smoking, talking philosophy, all elaborate hand gestures, loud voices, a little laughter here and there. Children slumped bleary-eyed or asleep by their knees. Older people drifted past the stores behind, scrutinizing faded signs, something about their manner suggesting they might be hoping to find the moment where their lives had slipped away.
They just get in the way, Papus thought, such is the nature of an Empire island. You can't stand still.
The island of Folke:
An outpost on the fringe of the Empire, with Jamur soldiers waiting to launch a raid to push back a tribal uprising at dusk, also crowds of locals, passing travellers, morbid tourists. Paranoid, she would frequently see something strange, an erratic gesture between two silhouetted figures, a moment where they'd stare back at her, then she'd wonder at the meaning behind it. On nights like this, it was as if everything happened out of context.
She needed to return to Villjamur.
This far east it was said that war inevitably brought out the curious. They'd come in droves, as if they had forgotten about all the possible ways in which you could die. Despite all the cover these people offered her, despite all the places to hide – he'd be waiting for her, maybe within the trading crowds of the iren, maybe somewhere between the packed fishing stalls where old men chanted their prices in hybrid dialects.
'A charm, lord…' A grubby woman speaking in broken Jamur. Dressed in rags, reeking of manure. In her muddied hands she displayed several blackened bones. Her face was wrinkled, smeared with smoke-stained sweat, a worrying distance in her eyes that indicated she was too far detached from reality for simple reason. 'Bone charms from slaves – holy items blessed by a Jorsalir priest, these. Please. I need coin-'
'I haven't got anything,' Papus said.
The woman leaned forward so close that you could smell the death.
'Get out my way.'
The crone muttered something, spit dribbling from her mouth. 'Put your spirit in a good place. We sin too much…'
Papus drew a sterkr from her cloak, wafted it before the woman's eyes.
A subtle, contained crack of purple light, and the woman was forced into stillness.
Damn, that would've drawn him to me. Papus left the old woman in her statue-still pose, placed the relic back in her pocket, and continued to walk with purpose through the town. All the time acting as if everything was fine, nothing to worry about here, while wishing she could evanesce into the community.
Street corners became hubs of activity. Young lads in particular gathered, armed with dreams of battlefield fame. Women were here to offer their bodies to soldiers and those few travellers with money. Beautiful enough to make a living, but not enough to marry wealth, their place in the economy was unknown, and they each stood alone with expressionless gazes that said too much. Nearby, wine bladders exchanged hands for a little coin. Even the children were drinking to keep warm, but this was a festival night, and so the people of Folke didn't mind.
Papus scanned the town cautiously.
Every detail mattered to her. It could be the difference between dying and getting home to Villjamur.
Despite the eddies of locals that crowded her with a dirty intensity, she felt utterly lonely, a sensation that only heightened her fear of being murdered. Nights like this made her question her path in life, question who she was and where she'd come from, and if her life would amount to anything more than power and secrecy, power in secrecy.
– A man through the darkness.
Was that him?
Perhaps her route across Folke was too obvious. It was meant to be hectic here, provide her with some sort of cover. Should she rip through empty space, he'd find her quickly, if he was as good as she thought. He'd sense where she'd left, all right, sense where she'd gone, and he'd be waiting for her, waiting to beat her unconscious. Besides, you couldn't travel that far in one go, not if you weren't familiar with the surroundings. For all she knew, she could reappear over the sea and then drown in icy water.
Relics couldn't get you out of every situation, because life just wasn't that considerate.
A clamour of armour meant the Jamur soldiers were leaving the town to prepare for their coastal raid. She weaved through thinning tides of locals in their weather-faded clothing, wanting to be lost in their simple throng. As long as people were around her she'd be safe.
She had a relic to get to Villjamur, to show to the rest of the order. He won't have it, she told herself, a mantra by now, a repetition on the tip of her tongue to convince herself this was more than just a possibility.
Down a thin alleyway between two wooden buildings, then under a clothes line, out behind the town towards the coast, and all the time glancing behind to see if he was tracking her shadow.
In the background could be heard the thunder of the sea.
Captain Brynd Lathraea of the Jamur Second Dragoons squinted through the dark towards the wall of water as it crashed onto the shores of Blortath, way off in the distance. Terns fled the wave, screaming as they scattered uniformly, like seeds thrown from a hand.
This was no natural phenomenon.
A hooded man was crouching in the shallow water, a few feet below, a device in his hands which he dipped rhythmically in and out of the sea. Occasionally he closed his eyes, tilted his head towards the night sky as if to perceive the world on some entirely new level. He was a cultist, from the Order of Natura – a minor sect – and he specialized in using apparatus that could change aspects of nature. Brynd ran a hand through his white hair. With a piece of equipment and a method that the captain could never comprehend, the cultist was throwing freak tides at Blortath so as to weaken their defences before the Second and Third Dragoons launched their coastal raid before sun-up.
The mission briefing was simple:
Assist the forces approaching from the north.
Slaughter wherever possible.
In all the major towns and cities, any Froutan and Deltu prisoners were to be executed. As a lesson to prevent other tribes from uniting against the Jamur forces, the Emperor Johynn requested that no tribesmen should remain alive. This was an Empire island, had been for years. A simple statement, the Council would say, no point in rebelling.
Don't fuck with Imperial strategy.
The island of Folke was a different environment to Jokull. Murky sandbanks and sand dunes expanded along the rest of the shoreline. Brynd was standing on top of the foremost dune, long reeds clawing at his knees. Lichens smothered a few stray boulders. Everything here was a fraction wilder – not like the civility of Villjamur. In the distance, dark smoke from the warning beacons drifted around Blortath, only a short journey away by longship. Unseen, two garudas circled the island, and Brynd was becoming impatient for their reports.
The cultist began to load the tide. Groundswells commenced, tips of the surf rolled and then leaned, the water groaning under pressure, waiting to collapse, but instead moving further upwards in some unlikely physics. And an alien noise as waves banked up sharply in a thin wall between the islands, waited unnaturally in the air – then launched themselves towards Blortath.
Brynd wrapped his cloak around him, glad for the extra shirt beneath his uniform, although the additional layers made his new leather vest feel restricting.
'Hardly a bloody battle, this, is it?'
Brynd looked back to see who had spoken. A line of the Second Dragoons stood motionless in their black and green uniforms, leaning on their long shields, viewing the wave that rolled into the distance. The men and women weren't yet wearing armour, only the traditional brown cloaks, each with the Jamur star stitched in gold on the left breast. With them he had long stopped being self-conscious for being an albino human as well as their captain.
Amongst other things.
'And who said that, then?' Brynd asked.
'Me,' said a distinctively higher-pitched voice this time.
Kapp Brimir, a boy native to Folke, started squirming his way forward between the soldiers. More of the other islanders were visible in the distance gathered around their fires. The first voice certainly couldn't have been his, for Kapp was perhaps only ten years old. To avoid local uprisings, soldiers were told to be friendly with the local people before campaigns, but it was a difficult task with some of them. This boy seemed especially keen on annoying everyone. Kapp insisted on asking questions of any senior officers encountered around Ule: details about sword play, about how people dressed in Villjamur, about what they did for fun and did they dance?
'Yes?' Brynd said. 'Your voice's pretty deep for such a young age, and you can swear in Jamur, too? That surprises me for a native. If this isn't much of a battle, just count yourself lucky. Were you looking for a full-scale war?'
'No.' Kapp stepped forward, stood right next to Brynd, looking up at the soldier. 'Doesn't seem very fair, though, using one of them.' He indicated the cultist on the shore below.
Brynd said, 'You'd rather we all died, instead?'
Kapp shrugged, stared out to sea, played with a lock of his hair as if he'd already forgotten their conversation.
Brynd said, 'You want to be a soldier?'
'Might be useful to learn how to fight one day.'
'I can fight already.' Kapp turned to face the unlikely tide again.
'Captain Lathraea!' someone shouted. It was the cultist, now wading up the sand without his relic. He was grey-haired, with bird-like features, a thin medallion strung around his neck, the symbol unclear in this light. 'Captain, they've a cultist, too. They've got a bloody cultist!'
'Shit, how's that possible?'
'I don't know, but look.' He indicated the wall of water coming back towards them, the lip of the wave breaking over itself.
Brynd turned in time to see Kapp pushing back through the troops.
'I think I can stop it, or at least weaken it,' the cultist continued. 'I'd get everyone inland, anyway.'
'Thought I gave the commands.' Brynd placed a hand on the sheathed blade by his side.
'This isn't the time for ceremony, captain.'
'I suspect you're right.'
'Have you seen the rest of my order?'
'Not for some time.' Brynd shook his head. 'Can't you lot keep a track of yourselves by using one of your own damn contraptions?'
'You'd do well to keep it friendly, brother,' the cultist snapped, then ran down the shore, skidding on the sand, and placed his device in the water again.
Brynd commanded the Dragoons to move back, and the soldiers retreated up to the plains.
To the north of the island, tribesmen were clambering up the shore on to the grass ridge, axes in hand, and how they had arrived unnoticed, Brynd had no idea, because the garudas should have spotted them, wherever the hell they were.
If that boy really wanted a battle, Brynd thought, drawing his sabre, it's bloody well on its way.
Kapp ran so fast it seemed as if he couldn't stop if he wanted. The path was bounded on either side with broken buildings, and his feet thundered into the ground as he sped down Flayer's Hill towards his home.
He stopped as he heard the first wave surge against the landscape, rocking it. Then he turned back to watch seawater frothing as it spilled over the crest of the hill, sparkling in the moonlight. The water wasn't enough to fully breach the bank, but you could see that the next wave would. And he next heard shouting, then there they were, hundreds of the Emperor's Dragoons changing direction, marching now to the north of the island.
That albino soldier was leading them, his weapon raised.
The troops began to line up on either side of him. They locked their shields together, began to beat on the massed metal. As Kapp ran into the distance and downhill, the last image he had of them was that they were a dominating force.
He no longer wanted anything whatsoever to do with them.
The tribesmen clambered over the shore in an endless stream, the whites of their bone-charms visible, their axes held high, their flesh barely covered by primitive clothing.
Nothing made sense. Only moments earlier, the Dragoons on his native island were about to take another neighbouring island under the Emperor's wing, but now it was his island that was suffering a coastal raid. Like burning insects, fires were scattering in Ule as people fled from the main town and out into wilder land.
Kapp had to warn his mother.
Arms aflail, he sprinted towards his home, a large wooden construct surrounded by a herd of half-asleep goats that swarmed away from him as he approached. He stopped when he heard a strange crackling. Frowning, he spun in a full circle to see where it came from, yet somehow it seemed to embrace every direction, fluxing through the air. He caught a glimpse of a spectral glow and headed towards it.
There were two figures beside a betula tree, both of them in black clothing, barely noticeable in this dim light.
One lay on the ground, a net of violet light surrounding him. The other stood above, a small metal box clasped in his hands, and it was from this the strange energy emanated. The one on the ground was screaming in pain, blood on his face. Kapp wanted to do something. It hurt him to witness someone in so much agony.
Scanning the ground for a fist-sized stone, Kapp picked up two knuckles of granite, then scampered in an arc to approach from behind. He threw the first stone, which hit the tree.
The standing-man turned.
Kapp threw the second stone, which struck him square on the back of the head, and the man collapsed against the tree with a grunt of pain, dropping his box.
The net-light evaporated.
The injured figure suddenly rose, slashed a blade across the other's chest, then drew it again across his neck. His victim collapsed to his knees, shuddering, his mouth agape in either confusion or surprise, then slumped sideways.
The killer hunched over the corpse, panting, then concealed the box beneath his cloak.
Kapp was stunned by the incident. Apart from the wind sliding across the tundra, all sounds were improbably absent. Kapp felt an immense guilt, wanted to run. Had he actually contributed to murder?
As the remaining figure approached, Kapp experienced a sudden sense of calm. This was a cultist, or some official – you could tell by the medallion he wore around his neck. The rest of the outfit was elaborate, with the subtle red stitching of a small crest on one breast. The survivor was chubby, blond hair dishevelled. Kapp watched in silence as the cultist knelt down before him, bloody scars webbing across his face in symmetrical perfection.
'Thank you, boy. Seems I owe you my life,' the figure declared in elegant Jamur. He took Kapp's hand and shook it. Kapp was uncertain of the gesture.
'That's all right,' Kapp replied in Jamur, dazzled by the man's intense blue eyes. They seemed unnaturally feminine… and there was no stubble.
He reached into his pocket and placed an object firmly in Kapp's palm. A coin, silver and heavy and stamped with strange symbols: a single eye, shafts of sunlight radiating from within.
It would probably be worth enough to buy his family home.
'I always pay my debts,' the cultist continued. 'Should you ever need a favour, you can find me in Villjamur. Show them this. Ask for me and I'll be found. Otherwise it'll not buy you much. Some may not even accept it.'
'What's your name?' Kapp said.
'Why was that man hurting you?' Kapp nodded towards the bloodied body in the mud.
The stranger stood up, smiled in a way that suggested the whole story was too complicated to explain. 'Because – among many things – I wouldn't let him have sex with me.'
'I don't get it.' Kapp frowned. 'You're a man. Why would he-?'
'A one in two chance, boy, and you still got it wrong. Still, I don't get offended easily. The offer stands, should you ever need a favour. But first, I suggest you avoid this conflict. Go, take shelter in Ule.' Then with a harmless laugh, she jogged into the distance as cries of war began to spill across the tundra.
Snow and ice are isolating creatures. But there is nothing as successful in this world, no ruler, no king, that creates the illusion that the land is bound together, as one. Translation from Dawnir runes found on Southfjords, circa 458 BDC
Garudas swooped by, engaged in city patrols, whilst cats looked up from walls in response to their fast-moving shadows.
One of these bird-sentries landed on the top of the inner wall of the city, and faced the dawn. The weather made the ambience, was the ambience, because the city forever changed its mood according to the skies. These days, there was little but grey.
The sentry was attached to Villjamur. He admired the citizens who were its fabric, from the slang-talking gangs to the young lovers who kissed under abandoned archways. All around were the signals of the underworld, discreet and urgent conversations in the dark. It was the only place he knew of where he might feel a nostalgia for the present.
His precise vision detected another execution taking place on the outer wall. Didn't remember any being scheduled today.
'Anything you wish to say before we release the arrows?' a voice echoed between the stone ramparts.
The garuda looked on with dull satisfaction from his higher battlement. He ruffled his feathers, shivered as the wind built up momentum over the fortifications, a chill quietly penetrating the furthest reaches of the city, a token of invading winter.
The prisoner, some distance away, wore nothing more than a rippling brown gown. He looked from left to right at the archers positioned either side of him on the outermost wall, their bows still lowered to one side. Down at the city-side base of the wall in its shadow, people marched circles in the freezing mud, staring upwards.
A thin, pale man in green and brown uniform, the officer giving the orders, stood further along the crest of the wall, as the prisoner opened his mouth cautiously to answer him.
He merely said, 'Is there any use?'
A girl screamed from the crowds gathered below, but no one bothered to look down at her except the officer, who said, 'A crime of the heart, this one, eh?'
'Aren't they all?' the prisoner replied. 'That is, of the heart and not the mind?'
A harsh rain, the occasional gust of something colder, and the mood turned bellicose.
'You tell me,' the soldier growled, apparently irritated with this immediate change in weather.
Some sharp, rapid commands.
As the girl continued her wails and pleas from the base of the wall, the two archers nocked their arrows, brought their bows to docking point, then fired.
The prisoner's skull cracked under the impact, blood spat onto the throng underneath, and he buckled forwards, tumbling over the city wall, two arrows in his head. Two lengths of rope caught him halfway down.
A primitive display, a warning to everyone: Don't mess with the Empire. State rule is absolute.
It was followed by a scream that seemed to shatter the blanket of rain.
The banshee had now announced the death.
With the execution over, the garuda extended his wings, reaching several armspans to either side, cracked his spine to stretch himself, crouched. With an immense thrust, he pushed himself high into the air, flicking rain off his quills.
He banked skywards.
Villjamur was a granite fortress. Its main access was through three consecutive gates, and there the garuda retained the advantage over any invading armies. In the centre of the city, high up and pressed against the rock-face, beyond a lattice work of bridges and spires, was Balmacara, the vast Imperial residence, a cathedral-like construct of dark basalt and slick-glistening mica. In this weather the city seemed unreal.
The refugee encampments pitched off the Sanctuary Road were largely quiet, a few dogs roaming between makeshift tents. The Sanctuary Road was a dark scar finishing at Villjamur itself. Further out to one side, the terrain changed to vague grassland, but well-trodden verges along the road suggested how the refugees never stopped hassling passing travellers as they sought to break away from their penurious existence. Heather died back in places, extending in a dark pastel smear, before fading into the distance. There was beauty there if you knew where to look.
The garuda noticed few people about at this time. No traders yet, and only one traveller, wrapped in fur, on the road leading into the city.
Back across the city.
Lanterns were being lit by citizens who perhaps had expected a brighter day. Glows of orange crept through the dreary morning, defining the shapes of elaborate windows, wide octagons, narrow arches. It had been a winter of bistros with steamed-up windows, of tundra flowers trailing down from hanging baskets, of constant plumes of smoke from chimneys, one where concealed gardens were dying, starved of sunlight, and where the statues adorning once-flamboyant balconies were now suffocating under lichen.
The guard-bird finally settled on a high wall by a disused courtyard. The ambient sound of the water on stone forced an abstract disconnection from the place that made him wonder if he had flown back in time. He turned his attention to the man hunched in furs, the one he had noticed moments earlier. A stranger, trudging through the second gate leading into the city.
The garuda watched him, unmoving, his eyes perfectly still.
There were three things that Randur Estevu hoped would mark him as someone different here in Villjamur. He didn't always necessarily get drunk when alcohol was at hand, not like those back home. Also he listened with great concentration, or gave the illusion at least, whenever a woman spoke to him. And finally he was one of the best – if not the best – dancers he knew of, and that meant something, coming from the island of Folke. There everyone learned to dance as soon as they could walk – some before that, being expected to crawl with rhythm even as babies.
Provincial charm would only add to this allure of the stranger, a little accent perhaps, enough for the girls to take an interest in what he had to say. A tall man, he'd remained slender, to the eternal envy of fat gossiping women back home. Altogether, he rated his chances well, as he advanced upon the last of the three gates under the dawn rain, armed with only his few necessary belongings, a pocketful of forged family histories, and a thousand witty retorts.
Randur already knew his folklore and history, had learned further during his journey. You had to be prepared for an important city like this, because Villjamur was the residence of the Emperor Jamur Johynn, and this island called Jokull was the Empire's homeland. Once known as Vilhallan, it had been a collection of small farming settlements scattered around the original cave systems, now hidden behind the current architecture. Most of the city's current population were in fact direct descendants of those early dwellers. Eleven thousand years ago. Before even the clan wars began. The community thrived on myth. With such a history, a wealth of cultures and creatures, the city was said to possess an emergent property.
Randur had been travelling for weeks. Somewhere on the way, on a superficial level, he'd become someone else. His mother was back in Ule, on the island of Folke. A stern yet strangely faithful woman, she'd raised him on her own in spite of the collapse of their wealth, which had happened when he was too young to know about it. He remembered hearing her coughing upstairs, in a musty room, the stench of death all too premature. Every time he entered it, he never knew what to expect.
She'd found him a 'job' in Villjamur. It came through the influence of one of his shady uncles who was well connected on Y'iren and Folke as a trading dignitary, though he'd never shared his wealth with them. The man had always commented on Kapp's good looks as if this was a hindrance in life. Then that same uncle informed Kapp's mother that a man the same age and appearance as the lad had disappeared only the previous week. His name was Randur Estevu, and it was known that he was headed for employment in the Emperor's house. He had even been a rival of Kapp's at dance tournaments and in Vitassi bladework during the island's festivals. The young man had made enemies all right, boasting all too often that he had sanctuary guaranteed in Villjamur before the Freeze came.
'You lot'll turn to ice, fuckers,' the lad had said at the time, 'while I got me safe digs at the warmest place in the Empire. Can't say more, though, because I wouldn't want you lot getting in on my connections.'
They'd found his body, or what was left of it, stuffed inside a crate on a decaying boat that hadn't left the harbour at Geu Docks for as long as anyone could remember. No one was even shocked the boy was dead. They were more interested in the old boat itself, as it seemed to fulfil some maritime prophecy someone had mentioned the week before.
Kapp then became Randur Estevu. Fled south with fake identification to the Sanctuary City.
He was told by his mother to seek his fortune there, where the family line might have a chance to survive the arrival of the ice. He had no idea what the real Randur Estevu was to be doing in Villjamur, as the stolen papers didn't explain. Besides, Randur, as he would now be known, had his own schemes.
He fingered the coin in his pocket, the one the cultist had handed him all those years ago, in the darkness, on that night of blood.
Garudas loomed above on the battlements beside the final gate leading into the city. They stood with folded arms. Half vulture, half man: wings, beaks, talons on a human form. Cloaks and minimal armour. White faces that seemed to glow in this grey light. During his few days in a Folke station of the Regiment – which he joined on a poetic whim, and primarily to impress this girl who was all longing glances and unlikely promises – the men talked much about the skills of the garuda. It seemed only a talented archer stood a chance of deleting one from the skies.
Soldiers had checked his papers at the first and second gates. At the third they searched his bags, confiscated his weapons, and questioned him with an alarming intensity.
'Sele of Jamur,' Randur said. 'So, then, what news here in the Sanctuary City?'
One of the guards replied, 'Well, the mood ain't good, to be honest. People ain't happy. See a lot of miserable faces, both outside and in. Can understand it out there, like,' he indicated the closed gates behind which huddled the refugees. 'But in there they've got faces like slapped arses, the lot of 'em. They're the ones who're safe, too, miserable sods.'
'Perhaps no one likes being trapped, even if it is for their own good,' Randur speculated.
'Hey, they're free to fuck off any time,' the guard grumbled. 'Nah, it'll bring more than just ice, this weather.'
After this final search, Randur continued through, and at last he found himself standing inside the Sanctuary City.
Whoever built Villjamur, or at least whoever designed its intricate shapes and eerily precise structures, could surely not have been a human. Garish buildings were coated with painted pebbles, whilst other oddities possessed coloured glass in the stonework so they glistened like fractured gems. Randur stared around in awe, not quite sure which way to go first. Possibilities grew exponentially. The chilling rain transformed into drizzle then began to stop. Fish was cooking in some far alleyway. Nearby, two signs said 'firewood'. From the windows of one of the terraced houses, a couple of women started hanging out sheets. Two young men talked in some local hand-language, their sentences needing a gesture and a glance for completion. Ahead of him, roads branched on two sides, each leading uphill in a gradual arc, while pterodettes raced up the cliff faces looming in the distance. Kids were sliding on patches of ice in horizontal freefall. A couple walked by, the blonde woman much younger than the man, and he judged them 'respectable' by the quality of their clothing. Randur was tempted to make eye contact with the woman, and perhaps tease a reaction out of her. It seemed to matter, stealing a smile from that man's life. Not just yet, though. He had only just arrived. He had a cultist to find.
In a top-floor bedroom, in one of the expensive balconied houses gracing the higher levels of Villjamur, a woman with a scarred face relaxed on top of a man who was still panting from his sexual exertions.
They kissed. Tongues slid across each other – only briefly, as it didn't quite feel right, and she wasn't sure which of them was causing that reaction. She pulled away, then clutched his chest, began playing with the grey hairs. His face was small, his features delicate, and his hands were rough, but at least they were touching her. Neither of them had ruined the sexual act with words, something she at least was grateful for. Meanwhile he continued to run his hands along her sides, rubbing her hip bones gently with his thumb, as if he had a fetish for the firm ridges of her body.
She pushed herself forward till her long red hair fell across his face. She then waited for him to brush it aside, and slowly, she could see the inevitable disappointment appear in his eyes, just as she had learned to notice it regularly over the last few years. At first his eyes remained fixed on hers. Then she saw his pupils clearly register the terrible blemish on the side of her exposed face. This one's reaction isn't so bad, she reflected. He had been a little drunk when they met, and his vision easily blurred. She had remained disappointed, though, in his overall ability to maintain his erection.
It always seemed to end up the same when she sought her own pleasure – something very different from when she was merely doing it for the money. Her job made it hard for her to meet normal men, certainly stopped her having a decent relationship. Her visible disfigurement didn't help either, that blistering down the right side of her face.
But this was her night off, and she had wanted a fling to make her feel better. She so much wanted to feel close to someone, had wanted that for so long.
In her younger days, she had known the world was cruel, how people judged you by first appearances. How that childlike prejudice against the unnatural could continue into adulthood as people merely found a way of better hiding their revulsions.
She pushed herself off him slowly, and then reached for her dressing gown. Walking over to the window, she looked out across the spires and bridges of Villjamur as if she was now trying to put the greatest possible distance between the two of them. In the opposite corner of the room, covered canvases of various sizes were stacked against the wall. She could still smell the chemicals from the painting she had begun yesterday evening.
'Wow,' he said at last. 'By Bohr, you're amazing.'
She now gazed at the bruised skies hanging over the city, the last of the rain driving lightly across its architecture. Lifting the window sash, she could hear a cart being drawn across the cobbles, could smell the scent of larix trees from the forest to the north. She looked up and down Cartanu Gata and the Gata Sentimental, alongside the art gallery – a place where she doubted her own paintings would ever hang. People merged with shadows, as if they became one. Directly under her window, a man stumbled in and out of her vision, his sword scraping against the wall. For some reason she couldn't understand, each of these qualities of the city merely heightened her sense of loneliness.
'Your body… I mean, you move so well,' he was saying, still praising her performance like they often did when it was clear they had little in common.
She eventually spoke. 'Tundra.'
'In the tavern, last night – the lines you used to get me back here. I suppose politicians are good with words. You said my body is like the tundra. You said I had perfect, smooth white skin, like drifts of snow. You even said that my breasts are as dramatic as the crests of snow banks. You admired my breasts and my smooth skin. You said I was like ice incarnate. Yes, you fed me lines as awful as that. But what about my face?'
She immediately ran her hand along her terrible scar.
'I said you're a very attractive woman.'
'Horses can be attractive, councillor.' She glanced back at him. 'But what's my face like?'
'Your face is lovely, Tuya.'
He lifted his head up to take a better look at her as she dropped her gown to the floor. She knew what his reactions would be as the dreary light seemed to gather momentum on her bare skin. She reached over to a tabletop, picked up a roll-up of arum weed, but she waited until certain he was no longer looking at her before she lit it. The intense smell of its smoke wafted across the room, drifted out the window.
Still in vague shadow to his vision, she walked over to the bed, offered him the weed. He involuntarily grabbed her wrist, rubbed it gently between his fingers and thumb. His gaze was weak-willed and pathetic.
'You're beautiful,' he said. 'Delicious.'
'Prove it, Councillor Ghuda,' she said, climbing on his smile, watching him submit.
The roll-up fell to the floor, exploding ashes across the tiles.
Later, when he had fallen asleep again, she thought about their conversation just before he drifted off.
He talked a lot, which was unusual for a man after sex. She reflected deeply on what he had said, about the details that he had gone into.
He had shocked her.
A man in his important position should surely refrain from talking so much, but he was probably still rather drunk. They had been drinking vodka for much of the dawn. He didn't leave her until the sun was higher in the vermilion sky, the city fully awake, and her breath sour from alcohol. When he did, there was no fond goodbye, no intimate gesture. He had simply slipped on his Council robes and walked out the door.
But it wasn't his casual exit that caused her upset, it was the words he had spoken before he slept, those simple statements he had maybe or maybe not meant seriously.
Already his words were haunting her.
Afterwards, as he did frequently, Councillor Ghuda imagined his own cuckolding.
Four years ago it had started, four years since he realized that he couldn't invest all his emotions in one person, in his wife. He had caught her, Beula, in bed with her lips at work on a soldier from the Dragoons, and the image pursued him – his personal poltergeist – constantly undermining him. His sense of value in the world hung in the air like an unanswered question, and as a man he was unmade.
Sleeping with prostitutes helped his state of mind.
It was a fantasy, at first, an escape – then something more, a need for tenderness and cheap thrills with another woman. When he lost himself in the bad lines and the awkward over-stylized gestures, he managed to scramble something of an identity together. After the act, the women he paid for would watch him absent-mindedly whilst wiping themselves down with a towel to remove any traces of him from their body. These women would not love him, and the words they spoke were not their own, but Tuya, the woman from last night, seemed almost genuinely affectionate, as if in Villjamur, a city of introverts, two introverts could find a sense of belonging – if only for a night.
Ghuda looked up as the skies cleared, red sunlight now skidding off the wet cobbles, and the streets appeared to rust. He stepped from the shelter of the doorway into the relative brightness of the morning. He needed to get to the Council Spire to start the day's work.
Whether it was a symptom of his guilt, he didn't know, but he felt certain he was being watched. He never requested a guard to escort him anywhere, in fact usually slipped away before one might appear.
There was much to deal with for the day ahead. Primarily he had to deal with the increasing refugee problems: the labourers from elsewhere that were flocking to Villjamur to survive the coming ice age.
People were heading to the various irens to trade and shop, overseen by soldiers from the Regiment of Foot, who patrolled along the streets in pairs. It was a trenchant policy of safety he'd personally initiated to ease the citizens' concern in these anxious times. You didn't want general panic to set in, even though the public fear of crime was more intense than its current levels actually warranted.
Up the winding roads and passageways, he continued.
On the way he encountered an elderly man sitting on a stool with a sign beside him that said 'Scribe – Discretion Guaranteed'. With one palm resting flat on the small table to one side, he sipped a steaming drink with a contented look on his face. There were quite a few of these men around the city, writing love letters or death threats on behalf of those who couldn't write themselves, including those whose fingers had been broken by the Inquisition. Ghuda speculated on what he might write to Tuya, the redhead he had just spent the night with. What would he say to her? That he would like to fuck her some more because she was so good at it? That was hardly the basis of an ongoing relationship.
The incline had become a strain on Ghuda's legs, so for a while he rested on a pile of logs heaped outside one of the terraced houses. Again, he had the uneasy sensation that someone was watching him. He looked around at the quiet streets, then up at the bridges. Perhaps someone was looking down at him.
He rose to go and heard footsteps behind him, running into the distance.
A short cut led through to an iren, a trading area located in a courtyard of stone. As he stepped through a high and narrow alleyway, seemingly endless, his heart began to beat a little faster.
He quickened his pace.
He burst out onto the busy iren…
Then he felt as if his chest had exploded and its contents were spilling onto the cobbles. Except it hadn't, he was still in one piece, he was still alive, but he gaped down at the wound as it expanded, at his shredded robes exposing his flesh to the cold, damp air.
A truculent pain shot through him, and he screamed, trying to look behind him, but through welling eyes saw only a silhouette heading back, bizarrely upwards, into the darkness. He stumbled forwards, his hands clutching for wet stones, then began to spit blood on the ground. People were now crowding around him, watching wide-eyed, pointing. Sensing his life fluid filling the cracks between cobbles, the blood beetles came and began to smother him, till his screams could be heard amplified between the high walls of the courtyard. One even scurried into his mouth, scraping eagerly at his gums and tongue. He bit down so he wouldn't choke, split its shell in two, and spat it out, but he could still taste its ichors.
Councillor Ghuda was violently febrile.
Standing outside a bistro with a rumbling stomach and a small pie raised in one hand, Randur watched the unsteady figure shamble towards him. People scrambled in fear, men holding their women protectively, as glossy beetles began to pullulate around the victim's gaping wound.
Randur stepped aside into an alley by a gallery, too stunned now to take a first bite of the pie. A small child screamed and turned to run, while the dying man – eyes wide and aghast, and coughing blood – stumbled on into the same small passageway.
He stared straight at Randur, hunching to his knees just paces away from him. He continued to howl as the insects ripped at his flesh, tossing it into the air in a fine pink mist. He fell forwards, and was silent.
Within moments, a banshee appeared in the passageway, as if she had been following the incident all this time. Cocooned in a shawl, her face was gaunt and striking against the untidy strands of jet-black hair. With a distant look in her eyes, she sucked in a deep breath, then began her keen, her mouth opening impossibly wide.
The sated blood beetles having scurried out of the passageway, a gathering crowd soon cast a shadow over the body. Randur, having lost his appetite, handed the pie to an urchin in filthy rags.
'Welcome to Villjamur,' Randur muttered.
It was the explosion that woke him, a bass shudder that seemed to shift the ground beneath him. Commander Brynd Lathraea opened his eyes, panting in the cold air, and looked up to realize that he was lying on the floor of a betula forest with dead twigs stabbing into his back. By his fingertips were wet knuckles of roots. He used them to help pull himself up, but his grip failed. He fell back, nauseous.
He tried to make sense of things.
Through the gaps in the trees, he watched a corkscrewing cloud of smoke, as branches swayed in the chilling wind. His ears were ringing. Strands of white hair blew across his face.
How had he got here?
The deck of a ship.
Then a blast.
He pushed himself upright, realizing how much his entire body hurt.
Next to him lay the remains of a wooden door, which he recognized as a hatch on his longship. His sabre and short-axe were nowhere to be seen. Had his knife remained in his boot? Yes – good.
Through his daze, thoughts gradually returned.
As a commander of the Night Guard he had sailed to the shore recently, following the Emperor's useless orders. He had set out from Villiren, that sprawling mess of a trade city, their mission ensuring that Villjamur had a good supply of firegrain before the icy weather became too severe. He considered it a pointless task.
At the next attempt he managed to stand. Brynd then stumbled through the aphotic fagus forest, peering between its mottled bark for any sign of movement. His eyes caught subtleties, as he gripped branches, slipped on moss-laden rocks. At some distance on, he passed the disaggregated body of one of his Night Guard – and could tell it was Voren by the elaborate bow cast to one side. Dog-like black gheels lingered around the corpse, their triple tongues and double sets of eyes shifting in rhythmic twitches around the open wounds, in a ritual as old as the land itself. Bones crunched.
Shapes shifted in the far umbrage either side and he questioned their meaning.
He recognized the boundaries of the Kull fjord, hills towering on either side of it, then fading into the distance. This was Daluk Point, a natural port, but one rarely heard of outside military circles. Its rocky shores led down several feet to where the deep saline waters began.
The horizon was gradually filled with black terns flying in arcs towards the north. A strange serenity, as ominous skies loomed over the snow-tipped tundra in the distance. Brynd noticed an arrangement of stones on one dark hillside, signifying an upsul. It meant the Aes tribe had already moved further west across the island, perhaps to reach their winter camps. They'd be staying there a long time.
Above the constant sound of water on stone, the screams came echoing back, along the shoreline.
He limped around a nook of the forest that leaned over the water.
Two of his three longships had been totally destroyed. The smell of burning fuel was pungent. Tiny pyres floated on the water's surface, shattered wood and cargo were strewn around the shoreline, once-proud sails had become burning rags, propped up by masts that were sinking even as he watched. Three Night Guardsmen floated face-down, their cloaks ballooning with trapped air. Several soldiers were still fighting on the shore. At that moment one of them fell under the incoming arrows. They were fighting in close combat, with dozens of clansmen already dead or dying at their feet.
More tribesmen kept streaming towards them from beneath the trees, axes in hand. One shambled across his line of vision, his half-severed left arm gripped in his right hand. Blood stained the man's furs, war paint mixed with the sweat streaking down his face. Then an arrow exploded into the back of his head, shattering his skull.
Attempting to assess the situation, Brynd glanced across to the forest clearing nearest to the ships, where a few horses were still tethered to the trees.
As he shifted closer to the engagement, an arrow whipped across his face, and it skimmed across the stones to pierce the water. Following its origin, more figures were moving amongst the trees further up the shore, their axes glinting dully within the gloom.
He heaved an axe from a dead man's head, and shambled through the shadows until he came alongside a tight cluster of four of his men fighting under the remnants of the third and surviving ship. They looked to him when they could, then followed his directions.
He didn't recognize the attacking tribe's origins, but they fought inefficiently. He cleaved one in the head, then snatched the man's sword from his slackening grip. He pulled the axe free and threw it at another assailant. It wedged into his shoulder, and while the enemy was pinned in agony, Brynd rammed his sword through the front of his ribs. Warm blood poured onto his hands as Brynd tugged to free both weapons.
By now the remaining tribesmen were looking at him with wary fear – not for his fighting skills, but because of his colour.
Perhaps they assumed him a ghost.
Another approached him. Brynd managed to knock away the savage's blade. He made a quick strike which his attacker tried to avoid, the blow splitting his left cheek. The clansman collapsed with a high-pitched scream.
One of Brynd's soldiers, meanwhile, had his head smashed in with a mace. Another received an arrow through his eye. In his peripheral vision, Brynd could see the gheels had arrived to maul the dead, flensing, then hauling out innards, trails of intestines vividly colourful against the grey stones.
Everyone suddenly looked up and the scene became inactive.
A flaming orb ripped through the sky from deep within the forest.
Crashed into the remaining ship.
Throwing up great hunks of wood.
'Fuck!' Brynd yelled. 'Get away from here!'
The Night Guard retreated quickly up the shore.
'Head up into the forest!'
The fire spread rapidly, then another orb landed in the water. Brynd counted the time until the flames reached the cargo.
A white flash, and he pulled his cloak up to shelter his eyes, falling to the ground as the third ship exploded.
Noise saturated the air. Debris clattered on the stones around him, raked across the water, rattled the trees.
Men screamed as they were hit by burning shrapnel.
Brynd stood and pulled back his cloak as he looked up to see who called his name. He shambled up the bank, glancing around wildly, whilst his men fought on.
'Commander,' the voice beckoned, nearer now – from the darkness of the trees.
Fyir was lying on the ground, and as Brynd approached he noted he was clutching what was left of his leg. The stump had bloodied rags tied crudely around the end.
'Sir…' Fyir pleaded again, before screaming, tears covering his blackened face.
Brynd squatted beside him. 'Lie still.'
He peeled back the rags: Fyir's lower leg must have been destroyed in the explosion. The blond man's ear was also missing, a fragment of skull glistening in its place. 'Don't think about this,' Brynd said. 'Think of something. Anything… Do you know who's attacking us?' He then slid a strip of bark between Fyir's teeth.
Fyir shook his head, wincing as Brynd tied some of his own torn-up cloak around the wound, and he screamed again, spat out the bark, moaning, 'Ambushed…'
'Sabotaged,' Brynd muttered. 'No one was supposed to know we were here. There, that should hold it. You'll live, so that'll at least stop the gheels getting you. How badly does your head hurt?'
Fyir closed his eyes, squeezed out more tears, whispered, 'Cultists?'
Brynd shook his head. 'I doubt it was cultists. Since when do they use something as simple as arrows and axes? Have you seen anyone else?'
'What about… orbs?'
'Yes? What indeed?' Brynd reached into his top pocket, pulled out a small silver box. Inside it there were several coloured powders in tiny compartments. He pinched a bit of the blue, and placed it under Fyir's nose. Within seconds the man's eyes rolled back and he passed out. Brynd stood up, placing the box back in his pocket. He was vaguely surprised at the severity of these wounds. The Night Guard were artificially enhanced, albeit slightly, and they were meant to recover quickly, suffer wounds hardly at all.
As he moved away, he gathered up a sword lying on the ground, a sharp Jamur sabre. Pieces of butchered flesh littered the shore like after a cull of seals, and the skies around the fjord were black with smoke.
Another arrow skimmed past, and Brynd dived to grab a ragged piece of ship's timber on the rocks nearby. Using it as a shield, he advanced towards the archers firing from the darkness of the trees. Shafts drove into the wood or clipped the stones around his feet, as he ran into the relative safety of the forest. Casting the timber aside, he headed further along the shore to hunt down the archers and whatever it was that had launched the fire upon his ships.
On reflection, it might be foolish to attempt to eliminate personally an enemy that had obviously planned this attack in such detail.
But who? Why? All he was doing here was handling the collection of fuel. The Emperor had insisted on sending men he could trust, men for whom his paranoia was at a minimum. The Night Guard.
One of the enemy could be seen crouching at the forest's edge, peering out across the fjord. Like a hunter, Brynd stalked wide so as to keep outside of his target's range of vision, drew the dagger from inside his boot. The crackle of the burning ships was enough to enable some stealth in his approach, and when Brynd was just twenty yards from his target, he flung the blade through the air.
It lodged in the archer's face and he fell silently to the ground. A second tribesman ran to his side. Brynd was on him, immediately scraping his sabre across the man's throat.
This tribe wasn't from Jokull, or any other of the Empire's islands. The clothing wasn't local for a start, and there was no adornment save the bone charm hung around the remains of the man's neck. Brynd withdrew his dagger from the first victim, cleaned it off, placed it back in his boot.
Gheels crouched in the half-light, awaiting their moment. He decided to go back and wait near Fyir, killing only those who approached him. Revenge could wait until later.
Night-time, and in these moments Brynd's mind became ultra-rational. Things became lists, strategies, probabilities. He knelt next to Fyir, a man in a resting state, now calm and peaceful. Whilst he'd been away, blood beetles had begun feasting on Fyir's damaged leg, shredding the cloth Brynd had used to staunch the bleeding, and reducing his truncated leg by at least a hand span. In the process, the fist-sized insects had secreted a resin that stopped the bleeding and induced healing, so maybe they weren't completely a bad thing. Brynd had to scrape the creatures off with a sabre, then split them down the centre of their shells to kill them.
The skies cleared, and the world became unbearably cold. He couldn't yet light a fire because it would inevitably draw attention. Three horses were hidden deeper within the forest so they wouldn't be stolen. What strategy now? If only he'd brought Nelum along, a man who could generate plots in his head with simplicity, but Nelum was back in Villjamur, because Brynd hadn't thought he'd need him.
There had been several more explosions, sparks that shattered the darkness as barrels of firegrain were touched by the spreading flames, but Brynd was confident that the night ahead would be calm. Thirteen of the Night Guard were dead. That left five more unaccounted for, so he assumed them dead too.
Shadows had moved in front of flames for a while, a few hours back.
A featureless ship had rowed away.
Eerie stillness now lingered.
He could barely remember a time when the Night Guard were made to look so easy to defeat. The Empire's forces usually dominated battles, clearing rebel islands with brutal efficiency. All those years of early confidence since he'd begun his service for the current Emperor in the Regiment of Foot, then transferred to the Dragoons, and finally to the Night Guard. For his loyalty and renowned fighting skills, he had climbed to the rank of commander. Was he really so loyal? Or, because of the colour of his skin, did he feel he always had something to prove?
He needed to show he was normal, steadfastly loyal to the Empire. That made his life easier. Being one of only a few albinos known in the Jamur Empire, he was used to being considered as a permanent outsider. True, people found him curious more than anything else. Their gaze usually settled on his red-tinted eyes, hesitating there a moment because of either fear or amazement, he'd never know – because people liked to stare, didn't they? As a result of his abnormality, he had worked on improving his fitness and knowledge with remarkable dedication.
He stared out from the cover of the trees at the fires that still burned where the firegrain had spread amongst the debris. Most of the grain would be underwater, soaked and useless. Some of it had caught on the wreckage floating along the fjord, and small fires lit its passage to the sea as if there was a festival for the water god, Sul. He wondered vaguely if priests from the Aes would come down to the shore to look for shells as a result of these fires to supply their divinations.
And what would they tell me tonight? That my luck's out? No shit.
He picked up an arrow he'd rescued from a dead soldier, held it close to see if he could work out its origins. Most likely it came from the island of Varltung, though there were no runes inscribed to indicate a maker. Varltung had a long history of resistance to the Emperor's forces. Being naturally fortified by its high cliffs, it was difficult for a sea landing. But, because of the Freeze, the Council was reluctant to acquire new territories.
How could a foreign force even arrive on Jokull, the Jamur Empire's main island, without anyone noticing? His mission here had been ordered from the highest levels in the Empire, with only the Council, its governing body, being privy to that information.
A man lurched out of the darkness.
'Ha! Some bloody Night Guardsman you are,' the figure said. 'Could've slit your throat in a heartbeat.'
'I noticed you over an hour ago, captain, a hundred paces up the shore. With the noise you made, I'm surprised you're not on the rocks right now wearing several arrows.' He looked up. 'How long did it take you to realize I'm not the enemy?'
Captain Apium Hol ignored the jibe, instead paced around Fyir's sleeping body. He was stocky, pale skinned with red hair. On his breast, Apium wore the distinctive silver brooch of the Night Guard, a seven-pointed star representing all of the Empire's occupied nations, and it was only then that Brynd noticed that he'd lost his own.
'Looks like old Fyir here bit off more than he could chew,' Apium remarked.
'Not even funny, captain. You should've seen him when he was still awake. Never seen a man in such agony.'
'Beetles?' Apium enquired.
'Yes, some of it. He'd already lost up to his knee from the blast. I stopped the bleeding, left him here for a bit, and… well.'
'At least it wasn't gheels. So, how many of us are left, sir?' Apium sat down on the ground beside Brynd with a groan.
'You're looking at us.'
'By the balls of the dragon gods of Varltung.' The captain shook his head.
'I wouldn't mention that nation's name right now.'
'You suspect it's them?'
'Ah, who knows.'
'So, what happened to you, commander?'
'Think I was thrown right from the ship into the forest,' Brynd explained. 'But the trees must've broken my fall. How about you?'
'I was on the shore when your ship… went up. Saw the archers heading into the forest, so I followed them. Got one of them, saw two others dead as I came back. I looked around for a catapult – because something must've propelled that fire – but there was nothing to see. Just an empty clearing. There were at least four of us on the shore – like, Gyn, Boldar, Awul – but they weren't there when I got back.'
To see your comrades die was something to be expected in the army. It was tough, of course. You formed a close bond. Men became an extended family. You saw more of the world together than most lovers ever would. There would be mourning, that was certain, as there always was. Brynd couldn't let it get to him right now, though, so he placed the issue into a region of his mind that he would later revisit.
'Any idea who did this?' Apium asked. 'Not the clansmen, I mean, but who actually planned it?'
After a pause Brynd muttered, 'It's a set-up. Someone in Villjamur wanted this to happen.'
'So we're not properly prepared for the Freeze, I guess. Otherwise, no idea, really.'
'Leaves us well screwed,' Apium continued. 'Do you think we should've brought a cultist along with us?'
'It's all well and good saying that now, but everyone wanted to keep this low-key. That was the whole point, wasn't it? Cultists would've only drawn more attention. And they would've known too, which defeats the objective. Although why all this secrecy just for a bit of fuel? I realize Johynn wants us relying on them less. You know, he even told me before we came away that he suspected the cultists would bugger off to do their own thing during the ice age. It's not exactly classified information that he wants to be able to manage things without them, get used to them not being around. He might be a little weird at times, but there's some wisdom there, I'll say that much.'
'Hmm.' Apium wore an expression of uncertainty. 'Still, would've helped though.'
'I'm going to be asking some awkward questions when we get back home.'
'So you think we're going to be in trouble?' Apium suggested.
'It's not by any means an emergency. There's enough wood in the forests across the Empire to keep the home fires burning, for sure. This was more Johynn's doing. He was convinced the firegrain was needed – and you know what his mind's been like of late.'
Apium stifled a laugh, then he pointed through the trees.
Two moons could be seen between the tall hills rising either side of the fjord, one moon significantly larger than the other, and both an ethereal white, hanging low in the sky. Astrid, the smaller, appeared sometimes to be unnatural, as if it was made of some pale ore, out of place even – something Brynd felt an affinity for.
The men stared for several moments. There was a sense of stillness. Stars gradually defined the hillside.
'Looking nice tonight, aren't they?' Apium said. 'Strange to think they'll do it.'
'The ice age. Strange to think just the moons are causing it.'
'When you think about it logically-'
'You see, that's your problem. I just said it's weird that it comes to that. You never just think plainly about stuff.'
'It's not a plain world, captain.'
'You need to get laid more often,' Apium grumbled, lying back flat on the ground, his arms behind his head.
Brynd stood up suddenly. He could perceive movement nearby.
'What's wrong with you?' Apium said. 'Touched a nerve, have I?'
Brynd gestured for him to silence.
The red-haired man pushed himself upright to follow Brynd's gaze. 'Can't see anything.'
Brynd stepped to the right, his eyes wide, alert. Within seconds he knew Apium had lost him, could see the man's gormless face lit up by the moon, even at a distance. How Apium had managed to stay alive in the Night Guard was beyond Brynd. Perhaps he worshipped some outlawed god who knew something no one else did. The injections this elite group received on their induction should have worn off over the years due to Apium's excessive drinking.
Brynd took several slow steps over to where he had seen the foliage move. He reached carefully for his sabre. Behind a sapling, he saw him. A man, naked, covered in mud. Brynd frowned, then reached for a stone from the ground. He threw it, the stone connected, but the man didn't move, didn't even flinch. Brynd repeated the action. Still no movement. He whistled back to Apium.
After a few seconds, his companion shambled through the forest to his side. 'What's up?'
'There's a man over there.' Brynd indicated the figure. 'He's naked.'
'I said naked.'
'You're right,' Apium said. 'What's he doing way out here with nothing on? Bit of outdoors action, eh?'
'How the hell should I know?' Brynd said. Little harm could come from investigating this, surely? There was no sign of anyone else around, and he was sure they were alone. 'Let's get closer.' Brynd led the way towards the naked man, who had remained still for some time. If he was aware of their approach, he didn't show it.
'The Sele of Jamur to you, sir,' Brynd said, thinking the traditional Jamur greeting would prompt some response. Nothing. He looked the man up and down. 'You, er… you must be cold.'
Apium snorted a laugh.
The man still didn't move, just stared vacantly ahead. They stepped cautiously to within an armspan of him, noticing his face lacked blood as if totally drained of it. His eyes were slightly slanted, and they gazed directly past Brynd. There were strange wounds around his neck, then Brynd noticed that his head was shaven unevenly, so that tufts of black hair blossomed on it in patches.
'Looks dead, doesn't he?' Apium remarked.
Brynd reached out, prodded the man in the chest. Still no reaction. The commander took a bold step forward and reached out to feel his wrist. 'Well, I'll swear by Bohr, he is.'
'What?' Apium gasped. 'Dead?'
'Yes. There's no sign of pulse.' He let go of his wrist, and the man's arm slumped back to his side.
'This is cultist work, Brynd,' Apium warned, reaching for Brynd's shoulder with fear in his eyes. 'Nothing natural here. I don't like it. I've no idea what they've done to him, but we should send this fellow on his way and stay with Fyir. In fact, I think we ought to move off a little.'
Although stunned, Brynd didn't know what to make of it. A hardened soldier, he was used to seeing the worst of life, but this individual out here spoke of technologies he was unaware of. What options did he have? If they killed this man, there might be more in waiting. Should he provoke it? In their depleted state, Brynd considered it best to leave things be and report it back in Villjamur. 'I think you're right. This can wait. I'll maybe put it in a report.'
They carried Fyir gently to the ruins of an Azimuth temple.
Little was known about that civilization, and hardly anything was left there aside from hidden and subtle masonry. One of the towers had fallen so that it rested flat against a hillside, just beyond Daluk Point, the lower side now wedged firmly into the slope. Lichen and mosses suffocated much of it, but there were still discernible patterns, squares within squares, that were known to be traditional religious symbols. It was thought that the Azimuth had worshipped numerology and mathematical precision, a sentiment he liked: looking for beauty in the most abstract of places. Brynd pondered this reverence as Apium fell asleep alongside Fyir.
The commander sat at the foot of the tower, his knees pulled up, back resting against the stone. His sabre remained unsheathed at his side. Stars now defined the hills surrounding the fjord, and he concentrated on sounds, the way you always did on these shifts, hoping and yet not hoping to hear footsteps, maybe snapping branches, someone coming their way. But there was little activity apart from that of nocturnal birds and mammals, every one of their eerie calls reminding him how they were quite alone.
In fact, he began to feel he was barely there himself.
The hardest cynic, Investigator Rumex Jeryd thought, is often fundamentally the most romantic person, because he so often feels let down by the world. He couldn't detect much romance in himself today, but all the cynicism he could wish for.
He could hear the rain driving against the old stone walls. He liked the sound: it reminded him of the outside world. Lately, he'd spent far too many days in this gloom, had begun to feel a little too disconnected from Villjamur. Everything the city stood for these days was something he found a struggle to perceive.
The rumel looked down at the returned theatre tickets in his right hand, then his gaze switched to the note in his left hand.
It read: Thanks, but it's just all a bit too late, don't you think? Marysa x
Jeryd sighed, his tail twitched. It was from his ex-wife. They were a rumel couple, and had been together for over a hundred years. There were benefits in not being human. Not only was rumel skin tougher, but because of their longevity they could take time with things, have some patience. As a rumel you never ended up running around frantically after matters. You let them come to you. However, it made his being away from Marysa all the more painful, because it was as if he'd lost half his life along with her.
He folded up the paper, placed it and the tickets in the drawer of his desk. He would have to find someone else to take to the production. Or not go at all, just forget about it.
The Freeze was going to be cold enough without spending it alone. He sighed.
She'd hinted she was going to leave him, before that final day, but that was during one of the months of fighting between groups of the newly arriving refugees and Villjamur's far-right protesters, so a period where nothing really registered in his mind. The Inquisition had hauled in and executed several men – all disillusioned ex-soldiers of the Regiment of Foot – just to set an example, and it was known secretly that the soldiers were sympathizers with these extremists.
But it all meant Jeryd had been ignoring Marysa.
She liked antiques. In a city as old as this there was a plentiful supply. Sometimes, she told him, she hoped she would find a grand relic, one that the cultists had overlooked, maybe make a fortune with it. But Jeryd had his head in the real world, or so he said. It was only his job, after all. He brought home the trauma of these ancient streets, carried it as his own burden. Keeping order in a city of over four hundred thousand individuals was partly his responsibility, and when he came home there she was: parading some new item around the house, telling him eagerly about what its history might have been, researching it in those pointless books she purchased. A luxury! The Jamur society was the latest in an endless line of civilizations, and each had left their own funk and detritus. Of course, the cultists would have long claimed anything useful from the Dawnir remains. All that was left now was a hint that things were once greater – that life in Villjamur today was more primitive and less civilized than life under those ancient societies, the Qintans, the Azimuths, despite the city's constant attempts to hide that under the veneer of Imperialism.
It was only natural the couple would drift apart. One night she looked right at him, through him, continued that fixed stare, as if she was weighing up there and then whether to leave him. There was no argument, no discussion, and he didn't even want to ask in case he found out some harsh truth.
When the truth did arrive, it wasn't such a bitter exit, and that somehow made things even worse. Sometimes when he closed his eyes he could hear her footsteps as she departed, the sight of her tail trailing out before the door finally closed. The stillness of the room afterwards. He didn't think there was another rumel man involved. He supposed there had never been any real man in her life, which was why she went. She had left only a forwarding address, and an instruction for him not to follow her there.
Jeryd was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with his life.
Not only that, but those kids from further along his street had been throwing stones at his windows again. Every winter they'd regularly arc snowballs into the door, and he'd end up answering it to encounter nothing as they vanished with urban skill down lanes and backstreets. They knew he was a member of the Inquisition all right, and that prestigious honour only made him more of a target. He had become a badge of honour, a snowball medal, the ultimate highlight of their day.
He looked up from his desk in mid-yawn as his aide, Tryst, entered his office. 'Work keeping you up late, Jeryd?'
'Like always,' Jeryd replied. 'But I try my best.'
He studied the young human form of Investigator-Aide Tryst, though didn't linger on his athletic physique, bright blue eyes or his thick dark hair. He wasn't even envious, strictly speaking, but the young man was a reminder of times long past – a hundred years ago, or thereabouts, when Jeryd had kept himself trim. Still, Jeryd retained a sharp mind, and he had his experiences.
Something wasn't right, however. 'What's wrong this time?' Jeryd asked. 'Is it about the promotions? You know I think you're one of the best aides there is. You're nearly family to me by now, but you're a human – and rules are rules.'
Jeryd felt bad for not actually nominating Tryst to be promoted, considering the young aide had shown great promise, had done well to even achieve his current position. They'd worked on hundreds of cases together. Jeryd genuinely wanted to nominate him, but knew how the powers-that-be would frown upon it. Humans were simply not allowed to achieve senior positions in the Inquisition. They didn't live long enough, and it was as simple as that. A rumel averaged around two hundred years, which meant truly great wisdom could only be achieved by that species. It was an ancient ruling, decreed by the first Emperor, to help smooth over the uneasy coexistence of the two hominid races. You couldn't break tradition, so Tryst would go no further.
'It's not that,' Tryst said, with a glance to the floor. 'That's fine. I understand.' Clearly, it was still a sore point, whatever he might say. 'No, you'd better come and see for yourself. Warkur is out of the city, so they need you to take a look at the scene.'
'I hope it's not the refugees again,' Jeryd said. 'We could do without another scene there.'
'No, not that. It's a murder.'
'Murder?' Jeryd said, standing up, his tail perfectly still.
'Yes. Very high-profile.' Tryst said. 'We've only recently heard the banshee's keening. It's a councillor, this time.'
Randur studied the rumel investigator and his aide. They both wore official-looking robes in dark red, although the rumel wore brown breeches underneath, as if he never really liked his uniform. They were taking notes at the scene of the death, where Randur had been told to remain as a witness. He hadn't encountered many rumel on Folke and now wondered if it was a result of their evolving alongside humans that ended in both species becoming so alike in their thinking. Was it nature or nurture? It was probably a result of both.
The rumel was black-skinned, and you could see the coarse creases of age even from a distance, so Randur guessed he'd seen more than just a few winters. There were the usual rumel broad features with sunken cheeks, black, glossy eyes. He meandered around the alleyway as if with no real purpose, his tail waving back and forth with each step. Every now and then he'd turn his head to the sky, as if to check it for snow.
The iren behind was busy with traders and customers. A food stand was starting to cook thick hunks of seal meat, the smoke rising between the bridges and balconies higher up. Furs were available straight off the hide – bear, deer, lynx – so that you could craft them yourself in any number of ways. There were shoddy tribal ornaments and spurious island craftsmanship on display. They were manufactured on the cheap, but the people of Villjamur couldn't tell or, if they did, they certainly didn't show it.
Randur paid special attention to clothing, noting all the latest styles – tiny collars with little ruffs, pale earthy tones on the women that did nothing for them, two brooches worn where possible right next to each other. The swords people carried tended to be short messer blades, and he thought that they must be more efficient to kill with in the narrow corridors and pathways of Villjamur.
The Inquisition had eventually sealed off the area around the dead body, and they were now beginning to erect wooden panels to hide the death scene.
The rumel approached him, a cool and graceful individual.
'Sele of Jamur to you, sir. I'm Investigator Rumex Jeryd. Could you tell me your name, please?'
'Randur Estevu, from Folke. Just arrived this morning.'
'You're from out of town? I thought I could detect an accent. You speak Jamur well, though. I'm surprised the guards let you in.'
Randur shrugged, a lock of hair falling across his forehead.
'Do you mind if I ask what you're here for? People from outside aren't generally admitted because of the Freeze, you see. We get all sorts of trouble here.'
'Not at all. I've got employment at the Emperor's halls, and I've shown my identification at each of the three gates. It's all official.'
'Right, well, we can't ever be too careful. We've got a bit of a refugee problem, as you've no doubt seen on your way in.'
'Yeah, poor guys.' Randur pulled up the collars on his cloak. 'Are you, y'know, letting them all in before the ice comes?'
'It's not up to me, but the Council assures the people of the city that the matter's in hand. So, can you now tell me everything you saw? Please, leave nothing out.'
'Well, not much to say really. He came running and screaming from up there somewhere.' He indicated an alley at the opposite end of the iren. 'Beetles were already swarming all over his wound, then he just collapsed on the ground, right where he is now.'
The rumel scribbled some notes in a small book. 'Nothing else that seemed odd or out of place?'
'Everything seems a little odd to me today.'
The rumel grinned. 'Welcome to Villjamur, lad.'
Jeryd crouched by the body, taking in the details of the wound, how the blood trickled across the cobbles. A while later he glanced up at Aide Tryst, who was stepping carefully around the confines of the alley. At the far end lay several broken frames and pots of paint from the adjacent gallery.
Around Cartanu Gata, especially where it intersected with the Gata Sentimental, nothing had changed for thirty or forty years, ever since it had been arrogated by the evening bohemians.
All along its lower walls were scribbles etched deep by knife blades over the centuries. Odes to lovers. Threats to all and anyone. Who watches the Night Guard? So-and-so sucks dicks. That sort of thing. Some of the cobbles were splashed with paint, too, and you could smell stale food despite the dampness. At night, lanterns cast long, feral shadows down here, and if there was no breeze the darkness was suffocating in such narrow confines. And there were always rumours of cultist-bred animal hybrids walking along here with awkward gaits before sunrise.
Weighing up all these possibilities, Jeryd was trying to build a picture.
Delamonde Rubus Ghuda. The victim – a human male, in his forties – was a senior member of the Villjamur Council. His ribcage had been opened and exposed in a most bizarre way. The robes had just melted away around the wound, and some of his flesh appeared as if it had been scooped out. There were no traces of anything else around the corpse. Jeryd had never seen such an injury before.
This made a difference from the usual crimes he investigated. An old rumel like Jeryd could easily become bored with his job: people only ever committed the same few misdemeanours. You had murders, usually affairs of the heart; people stole things because they couldn't afford them; then you had the excesses of drug addicts. Generally it was about people either snatching more from life, or people trying to escape it completely.
But this crime had indications of something else…
Tryst paused alongside him.
'Not a pretty sight,' Jeryd observed.
'What's this?' Jeryd shuffled over to one side, dabbed his finger to a cobble. A blue substance stuck to it.
'Must be paint,' Tryst suggested, 'from the gallery. Load of paint pots stored back there.'
Jeryd stood up, wiped the finger on his robe. 'No witnesses yet from there?'
'I'll get someone to ask questions. Knock on a few doors, maybe. I'm not hopeful, though.'
'Get one of the others onto it immediately. I need to know if there was anything remotely strange going on here. Anyone unusual walking by. Any scuffles or swordfights, anything. And we need to find out what he was up to last night and earlier this morning.'
'OK.' Tryst turned to go.
'Meanwhile don't tell anyone about this,' Jeryd continued. 'I'll contact the Council myself, let them know. We can't do with this getting out just for the moment. The people who witnessed him die didn't necessarily realize his position, and I don't want Emperor Johynn finding out via rumours. Bohr knows, it'd just become part of a conspiracy in his head.'
Jeryd walked slowly to the far end of the alley, glancing up through the morning drizzle at three spires visible in the distance, and at the bridges that arced between them.
Tryst interrupted his thoughts. 'Investigator, should we take him back to headquarters now?'
Jeryd slipped his hands in the pockets beneath his robe. He was studying the dead-end behind, where a heap of garbage lined the side wall of the gallery. Considering himself a man of the Arts, he had always wanted to visit all the galleries, but had never quite found the time for this one. Marysa had often mentioned it, painting a wonderful picture he never quite got to see. Then again, she always did exaggerate. He'd seen far too much crime here over the years for him to look at this part of the city with naivety. Especially nearby Caveside, where the buildings themselves breathed decay.
'Yes, get him back now,' Jeryd said. 'We could do with wrapping this up as soon as possible.'
They rode past hundreds of refugees camped alongside the Sanctuary Road. The numbers grew daily, conditions worsened. Filthy children ran between tents on either side of the road, where grassy banks had become mud baths. Livestock had been brought, too, and makeshift pens had been constructed. The previous evening's fires had been reduced to ashes overnight. This morning faces were glum, and they looked at him with a sense of embarrassed pleading – these were people, unused to poverty, who had never dreamed that this might be where they'd end up.
Another city was growing outside the city.
People had come here in hope. Hope that they wouldn't be left to freeze in the wild when the ice came. Hope that the Empire's main city would be able to house them in its labyrinth. Hope that there would be enough food and warmth. They'd come from Kullrun, Southfjords, Folke, Y'iren, Tineag'l, Blortath – heard in their accents. They had gathered whatever belongings they had and set off for the Sanctuary City. But the city could only accommodate a limited number during the estimated fifty years of ice to come – that was the official line. The very government that ruled over them did not want to offer them shelter. Had they been landowners, there might be an open door, such was the way of things here.
Brynd felt pangs of sympathy as he moved past, a desire to help.
Behind him, on the cart, Apium was still half asleep.
'Captain,' Brynd said sharply, and the man jolted awake.
'Eh? What? We're here, then, commander?'
The horses approached the main gate, a towering granite structure framing huge iron doors.
'Sele of Jamur,' Brynd addressed a city guard dressed in a blood-coloured tunic, who straightened his fur hat and saluted.
'Commander Lathraea, the Sele of Jamur to you. Everything well?'
'Been better,' Brynd said sourly.
'Commander, we're obliged to ask you about the contents of the cart.'
Brynd nodded, knowing the security procedures. The guard walked over to the cart, greeted Apium, pulled back the blanket covering their wounded passenger.
'Spot of bother at Daluk Point,' Apium said. 'And he was one of the lucky ones.'
'What happened to him?' the guard asked, covering Fyir up again.
'We'd like to know that, too,' Brynd confessed.
The guard gave him that knowing smile between soldiers. 'Right, in you go.'
He signalled for the gates to open. As they groaned apart, twenty more city soldiers advanced towards and around them, to prevent any of the refugees from attempting to get into the city. Not that they could, because there were two more gates to get past. And both were firmly closed to them.
So the Night Guard soldiers entered Villjamur.
Today was Priests' Day in the city. Twice a year, otherwise forbidden religions were allowed such an airing. The streets were filled with priests from the outlying tribes, allowed in on a one-day permit, but watched closely by soldiers from the Regiment of Foot. Sulists gathered around their shell-reading priests. Noonists were standing semi-naked in a circle, smeared in fish oils, holding hands and singing a melisma while a bunch of city cats tried to lick the oil off their legs. Ovinists were holding up pigs' hearts, as was their custom, allowing the blood to drip from them slowly into their mouths. Apparently this brought them closer to nature, but Brynd could think of less disgusting ways.
Aside from the devotees of the official two gods – Bohr and Astrid, worshipped under the umbrella of the Jorsalir Church – no priests were normally allowed to practise in the streets. Tradition allowed only these two days of the year for citizens to be exposed to other religions. Brynd thought it all rather pointless, since even if you did decide to follow some other creed, you would be forced to leave the city to pursue your new persuasion.
Brynd led the surviving Night Guardsmen along the main thoroughfares that would take them up on the next level where the streets and passageways became quieter.
Brynd leapt off his horse as a flicker of purple light caught his attention.
'What?' Apium demanded, puzzled.
'Back in a moment.' Brynd headed off down the narrow passage, till he spotted a cultist slumped against a wall. The man was clutching a slim cylinder to his chest, from which purple sparks flew onto his bare skin. The device itself was somehow fixed to his hand, a web of skin keeping it in place. The man's face was contorted into a mixture of bliss and pain. Brynd turned away in disgust.
'What was it?' Apium enquired, as he returned.
'Magic junkie,' Brynd muttered, mounting his horse again.
'What?' Jamur Johynn demanded, looking up from his dining table.
The Emperor was chewing on a fish platter, now and then examining his food for stray bones. His distant gaze suggested he might as well have been eating a plate of lemons. At times, Johynn refused to eat at all and sometimes he would assure servants that he'd eaten everything, only for them to find remains of his plate on the rocks directly below the window, or maybe stuffed into one of the ornamental jugs. Whether it was because he suffered from anorexia or was paranoid about being poisoned was anybody's guess. No explanations were offered, and no one dared to ask.
The dining chamber was a narrow room, but the numerous mirrors everywhere made the palace seem larger that it was. Early Jamur murals depicting grid-like astrological phenomena were painted between a myriad of identical arches. No one knew what they really meant. A row of plinths held the smoke-stained busts of previous Emperors, all Johynn's ancestors, like silent guests, while a handful of servants looked on, as always, from behind the pillars, neither wanting nor required to be seen. There was always a hint of fear in them as Brynd walked past, an inhalation of breath, a straightening of the back. Maybe they just feared this military intrusion because Brynd himself usually felt relaxed and informal in the Emperor's presence. They had developed over the years a relationship of intimacy, till Johynn could trust few people apart from the albino. Maybe that was because as Johynn had once hinted, it looked as if Brynd had some secrets to conceal himself.
'Killed to the last man, my Emperor. All apart from those of us you're now looking at.'
'So this means…?' Johynn made a steeple of his hands.
'No firegrain, Majesty, so the only resource there will be now is wood.' Brynd stood to attention alongside Apium, but Fyir had been allowed a chair, a rare concession in the Emperor's presence.
'Our heat sources are therefore questionable,' Brynd continued. 'But let's not overlook the fact that half your personal guard has been slaughtered.'
'No heat, no heat…' Johynn moaned, as if reciting some destructive mantra.
Brynd glanced across at Apium. The captain merely shrugged.
Jamur Johynn walked over to the window. 'And how, how am I now going to keep the people of my city – of my Empire – warm?'
Brynd thought, As if you give a shit about anyone who's not Empire-issued nobility or a landowner.
'How can I look after them now the moons are in place? Everyone depends on me, Commander Lathraea. Everyone needs me.'
'Perhaps we'll manage OK without-'
'Don't be ridiculous,' Johynn snapped. 'This failure makes it even worse for everyone. They're going to rebel and have me killed now, aren't they?'
'Who?' Brynd said.
Johynn turned to face him again. 'Them.' He tilted his head towards the window, and the city beyond. 'My people.'
'But it's not your fault an ice age is starting. There've been hundreds of years of accurate predictions, you were merely the Emperor to face the challenge. There's always stocks of wood-'
'But I have to look after them. It means four hundred thousand responsibilities. You wouldn't have a clue what that's like.'
'They know you try to look after them,' Brynd insisted. 'Your Imperial lineage has always been popular.'
'The ones already living here, perhaps. But any other idiot arriving from whatever benighted corner of this Empire they inhabit will be surprised when we can't let them enter. Then they'll hardly love me, will they?'
Johynn's voice started to falter. His fingers were drumming the sill as he stared out of the window again. Every movement suggested an increasing sense of panic.
Johynn said, 'But I'm their saviour, oh yes. It is my right, before the Dawnir, before the movements of Bohr and Astrid. I'm their saviour.'
'My Emperor, perhaps this isn't the best time to ask, but do you know who else was aware of our mission?'
'The one from which we've only just returned,' Brynd said patiently, looking to Apium, who raised his eyebrows, shook his head, and mouthed the word 'nuts'.
'Only a few of our Council members – Ghuda, Boll and Mewun. Chancellor Urtica, too. Only those four, no one else. No one else. No, absolutely nobody.'
'Is it possible that any of them could've informed an enemy? Is it possible one of them didn't want us to succeed?'
Johynn spun around, approached Brynd. 'Are you saying we've a traitor within our own halls now? For the love of Bohr, what next? Are you quite sure, Commander Lathraea, that such accusations have good foundation?'
'Our force was almost wiped out. You say no one outside the Council knew of our mission, yet we were ambushed. Sire, I'm only trying to find out who might threaten the Empire.'
'You're a good man, Commander Lathraea. A good man. You were all good men, you Night Guards.' He leaned close to Brynd, then whispered, 'I can trust you, can't I?'
Brynd straightened up, bowing fractionally. 'Beyond my life, your Majesty.'
Johynn came closer still, the smell of alcohol on his breath now as intense as a bad perfume. 'It's over.'
'I'm not sure I follow,' Brynd said.
'I've had increasing suspicions that someone in here is after me. They all are, maybe. They want to take my life, my existence. They want this.' Johynn indicated the halls, the furnishings. 'They want it all before the ice comes. I've heard them whispering in their chambers, making decisions for me. Doing my job for me.'
'My lord,' Brynd said, 'they're your Council. That's what they're supposed to do. No one is out to get you.'
Brynd considered his own words, because perhaps that wasn't altogether the case. There was usually something devious going on. This was government, after all.
Jamur Johynn took a step away from Brynd and looked him up and down as if judging his character in one simple gesture. A childlike gesture. Brynd began to feel self-conscious again. Johynn opened his mouth, but the door opened just then.
A welcome break as the Emperor's daughter walked into the room.
When he had first joined the Night Guard, he remembered seeing her, in her younger days, when she seemed confined in this building like a butterfly in a net. Hers seemed a delicate energy waiting to be restrained. Serious meetings would be interrupted by her childish conversations with her older sister, Rika, the heir to the Imperial seat, and their joyful shrieks filled the corridors with warmth. But those days were soon gone, departed at about the same time their mother was killed. Johynn had tried to replace parental love with treats and indulgences, something the little girl never seemed to desire, but altering her in some remote way.
Eir possessed a certain natural grace, a distinctive quality of manner. With short-cropped black hair, and tall for her age, her attitude to dress was cavalier, wearing items from any number of eras without caring how they matched. Her eyes were intense, her eyebrows two thin lines, and her face lacked the symmetry necessary to appeal to Villjamur convention. She liked to dress a little bit different. Despite her non-traditional looks, a queue of eligible suitors waited to claim her hand, and maybe decisions had already been made for her by her father over who she would be betrothed to. Maybe that was why she was rude to almost every boy she ever spoke to. For all her privileges, Brynd guessed it was no real existence for a woman in Villjamur.
'I apologize for disturbing you, father, but the Dawnir wishes to speak to the commander.'
The Emperor stared at her as if he did not recognize who she was.
Brynd intervened. 'We were just discussing what our Dawnir could want-'
'Some more plots against me, no doubt,' Johynn muttered.
'Should we see him now, my Emperor, if you've finished with our business?' Brynd asked.
'Yes, yes. Why not.' He waved Brynd away, walked to the window. This time he opened it, allowing the icy air to enter the room, stepped aside, his fists clenched, then suddenly burst past them, out of the room, leaving the three men and his daughter behind with the echo of a slammed door.
'Hello, commander,' she said.
There was always a slight informality between her and the Night Guard soldiers, engendered by their close proximity over the years. 'Lady Eir, I fear your father's been drinking.'
'And you think that's my fault?' Anger dissolved into disappointment on her face. He knew she had been trying her best to stop her father from drinking excessively, taking away half-empty bottles once he'd fallen asleep, had stared at him reproachfully with those big green eyes every time he refilled a glass. Now she just gazed at the wall as if some comfort could be found there, but there were too many mirrors to encourage her to look for long.
'Yes, I didn't mean to be harsh, but your father has islands and cities to help run. There's enough bad judgement being made in this city without our ruler drinking as well.'
'I know, I know,' Eir said. Her tone was confident, though her posture suggested it wasn't natural, that she had something to prove to herself. 'Anyway, what happened to you all?'
'Ambush, and massacre. We're the remaining survivors from… from where we were sent last.'
Eir said, 'The firegrain trip? Who were you fighting?'
Brynd couldn't believe it. 'Even you know about it. Is nothing sacred in these halls?'
'I'm sorry,' Eir said. 'Fyir, will you be all right?' She lay a hand on him kindly, a gesture that other men might envy.
'Suffice to say,' Fyir squirmed in his chair, 'that my soldiering days are over, Jamur Eir.'
'Girls' talk,' Apium snorted. Then, to Eir, he murmured, 'No offence.'
'He'll be up and about in no time,' Apium continued. 'We'll strap a decent bit of wood on that leg and he'll be back on horseback ready for training-'
Brynd gestured Apium to be silent.
There was a disturbance outside.
He hurried over to the window. Shit!
A scene was developing down below in the drizzle.
Emperor Jamur Johynn could be seen retreating to the outer edge of the balcony below, almost as if he was being backed into a corner. In his own mind he had probably reached such a position long ago.
Several guardsmen edged tentatively towards him, uncertain of how to act. A move forwards suggested a threat to him. A move back might mean they would be too late.
Brynd fled the room to go and help.
'Stand back,' he shouted, pushing his way through the growing crowd. From this stone platform you could view the whole front section of the city, the spires, the bridges, the sweeping dark hills in the distance, even the sea in the other direction. Only a knee-high granite wall separated you from a vertiginous drop. Servants and administrative staff were here to witness the drama unfolding, and even some councillors had come to watch, too. The Emperor was still positioned as before, but he now faced the sky as if experiencing a purely religious moment. And maybe he was – in these moments you could never tell what was really going on. Brynd knew he had to stop him doing something stupid, had to bring the Emperor back safely into the hall. With the ice age setting in, Johynn would be needed as a national figurehead. People required his guidance, support, because in times of crisis you wanted someone to reassure you it would be OK, even when it wouldn't be.
They needed someone to lie to them clearly and loudly.
'My Emperor, what're you doing?' Brynd called out, icy sleet gusting against his cheeks.
'It's easier this way,' Johynn said. 'As I said before, it's over.'
His motions were awkward, like those of someone who had been drinking heavily. He regained his footing, shuffled further along the low parapets.
'I have no great words, commander,' Johynn said. 'Nothing profound to say, at the end.'
'Please, I think you should step back a bit,' Brynd argued. 'Think about what you're doing.'
'Think is all I damn well do, Commander Lathraea. All I do is think about things. All the time thinking.'
'But the people of Villjamur need you,' Brynd said desperately. 'That's what you said earlier. That they need you!'
'Father!' Eir appeared, running onto the scene.
Whether it was because he lost his footing, or he genuinely intended to step off the edge, Brynd would never know, but just then the Emperor collapsed ungracefully off the wall, a flurry of his robes the last thing to be seen.
Surged forwards in disbelief.
Eir had to be held back, launching muffled screams into Brynd's chest.
A moment later they were greeted by the keening of the banshee.
'I'd like a room – just for the night, please,' Randur said.
'Yes, a room. For the night.' He fluttered his long eyelashes at the landlady, pushed a lock of glossy hair back in order to gaze at her more intensely, but she kept on peering down at the register.
'One night.' She was old enough to be his mother – old enough, but not actually, so it was all right by him. You could tell she had once been a beautiful girl – her eyes showed you that, not so much a spark within them, but definitely something to provoke wild rumination. Short brown hair, good skin, a decent figure: not too much, not too little. Not that he really cared – he could enjoy any shape of woman. Most ages, too. Her white blouse, unbuttoned to reveal cleavage like a bad cliche, she made the most of what she had. Randur made the most of it too. Made sure she saw him looking. He gave her a smile, all teeth and soft eyes, trying to suggest there were things she needed to know about herself.
'Well, we're pretty busy at the moment… but I'll see what I can do.' She turned with something he took and hoped to be a grin, walked away from the bar.
It was a crowded but clean bistro-tavern located on the second level of Villjamur. The furnishing was wooden throughout, tables were shiny from polishing, and it was crammed with equine decor: horse shoes, parers, rasps, farrier tools, riding boots on the higher shelves. Randur guessed the landlady was an admirer of horses, or a fan of horse riders. He noticed the whips.
Now there's a thought.
As Randur sipped his apple juice, he glanced about. He wanted to listen in on conversations, to discover what people talked about in Villjamur, to maybe capture the mood of the city. If you wanted to charm your way up the social ladders, you had to know what the main concerns of the local people were. You could perhaps learn something that way, because whatever image a city presented in the history books, it was the ordinary people who delineated the depth and character of a place, ended up moulding the outsider's judgement and experiences.
'… It's possible we won't see our Ged ever again,' a middle-aged woman confided to her friend. 'And Dendu's going to have to quit his work just to stay in the city. I'm not sure what we'll do…'
'… Well, we're very lucky. I haven't seen my own child for ten years. But, I'm nearest family, so she can come to the city to stay with me, you see. And her partner, too…'
A smartly dressed man at a nearby table glanced up as a lady of around the same age approached him and asked, 'Is anyone using this chair?' He shook his head, stood up as she sat down at the same table, then commented something about the weather as he lowered himself again slowly. Randur wondered how many people of his own age he'd ever seen make that polite gesture. Too few in this city, at least: maybe younger people felt threatened in some way. Or, perhaps, when people reached 'a certain age', they felt themselves to be a dying breed, and considered it best if they stuck together. Either way, it was sweet to still see such courtesy enacted.
There was ubiquitous conversation about the Freeze, how the temperature was falling further. Always talk of the weather, but he also heard gossip regarding some of the outer islands of the Empire. And chatter about cultists acting strangely…
He focused immediately on the latter conversation.
'… You shouldn't hang 'round there, you know. Cultists is bad news.'
'But there were purple flames sparking from whatever he was holding, I'm telling ya,' a swarthy lad explained to someone Randur took to be his father. There was something vaguely bird-like about their appearance, something similar about the nose.
'Anyway, this wasn't near any of those temples of theirs.'
'Just steer clear,' the older man said. 'I've never trusted them, or their damn relics. All stupid magic if you ask me.'
The landlady returned. 'You're in luck. We've got a room. It's right next to mine, so try not to keep me awake.'
Randur leaned closer and whispered, 'If you promise not to keep me awake.'
'You outer-island boys,' she said, waving her hand dismissively, repressing a grin. 'You're all the same. Come on then, bring your bags, and I'll show you the way. What's your name?'
'Randur Estevu.' He scrambled after her. 'So, I take it you like riding?'
A simple room – just a bed and a table and a chair. Some shoddy reproductions of island art on the walls. The window looked out at the rear of the building, which he actually preferred, as he didn't like the idea of being woken early by morning traders heading for irens.
He didn't bother unpacking much, as he derived an almost masochistic pleasure from having the entire contents of his life contained in a few small bags. It offered him a freedom he'd never before known. The idea that you could get up and go anywhere, at any time. What was more, he was living someone else's life. And he was living that one near the edge.
After a lunch of fish and root vegetables, he wandered aimlessly for a while, just absorbing the flavour of Villjamur. He felt a sense of melancholy about the people of the busy city. That wasn't surprising considering they were going to be confined more or less as prisoners here in order to have the best chance of staying alive through the ice. Families were being either torn apart or reunited, jobs were being lost, and people talked about a 'Caveside' where most of the inhabitants would end up living. But few people ever seemed to speak of cultists.
He would have to ask someone.
'Excuse me, madam,' he addressed an elderly woman with a basket of fish, 'I'm trying to find a cultist.'
Her eyes turning ferocious, she spat at him as she walked away. After another couple of such incidents, he realized that cultists were generally not much liked, but, finally, a little girl was prepared to answer his question.
'You'll find them on the level just before you reach Balmacara. Best to ask more directions up there.'
Randur smiled at the somewhat grubby child, and gave her a couple of Drakar, thinking she might spend them more wisely than himself.
He walked on.
A black-feathered garuda with clipped wings was slumped in a doorway, rags across his legs, nervously smoking a roll-up of arum weed, and in front of his feet was a hat and a sign asking for donations for an ex-soldier. As he passed, Randur flipped him a couple of coins, and the bird-man was grateful, creating shapes in a hand-language that Randur couldn't comprehend.
'Really, it's OK,' Randur mumbled, wondering what happened to those who offered service to the Empire?
Around the next corner, two men stepped out from an alleyway. They wore brown tunics, heavy boots, no cloaks, and had a dirty look to them, as if they slept on the streets. He guessed them both to be around their thirties, but you couldn't be sure.
'Fuck you staring at me for?' one of them snarled.
'Sorry,' Randur mumbled.
'Hey, gay boy. Nice shirt. Expensive, yeah?'
Randur felt suddenly conscious of his clothing: well-sewn black breeches, white shirt with all those traditional Folke cuts. A fine cloak on top. Did people in this city really object to men being stylishly dressed?
'Can tell by your accent you're not from around here,' one of the men said, approaching. 'So no one will notice if you disappear – isn't that so?'
'That's right. Disappear,' the other man echoed. 'Happens a lot round here.'
Randur noticed the edge of a blade protruding from under a sleeve. 'What's this about?' He stepped back.
'Money,' one of them said.
'Ah, well, I can't help you there.'
The street was now empty save for the three of them, the rattle of sleet having become more prominent over the last few minutes. The ambience seemed like a fight premonition.
'An expensive dresser like you, I'm sure you've got something on you,' the other said. 'A Lordil or a Sota would do us fine.'
'Ah, and I thought he didn't speak, this one,' Randur said.
'I'm warning you,' the man snarled, wiping drizzle from his face.
Short blades were produced, glinting weakly in the poor light.
'I really haven't got anything on me,' Randur took off his cloak, scrunched it under one arm.
The first man lunged forward, swiping his weapon across Randur's midriff. Just as quickly Randur leaned away, took steps to one side, lightly. Then two to the other side. A dance manoeuvre modified for duelling.
'Come here, you bastard,' the man said, enraged now, swiping repeatedly. He was grunting with frustration each time Randur slipped out of his reach.
Taunting them physically was fun. Made them lose a little control, become angrier. They stepped away from each other, coming at him from separate sides. Randur allowed himself to drop to the floor as they attacked simultaneously, then he kicked one behind the knees, watching him fall as Randur spun away.
'Look,' Randur said as he wiped his wet hands on his breeches. 'Let's just leave it here, and you can keep some dignity.'
'Cunt,' one of the men yelled, and lashed again. His blade flashed across Randur's knuckles on one hand, instantly drawing blood. Randur stepped back, kicked the knife from his opponent's hand, then kicked the man in the groin. The attacker collapsed in agony to the ground. As the other now made to attack, Randur ducked expertly, grabbed the arm holding the knife, spun him around and brought the arm down over his knee with a crack of bone. The man screamed in pain.
Randur retrieved the knife.
Sleet meanwhile became drizzle became rain sparkling off the cobbles. Randur was now drenched, his black hair limp, shirt clinging to his lean body, his cloak heavy with moisture. He glanced down at it dubiously, reached down again to rip a section off one of the men's cloaks, wrapped it around his stinging knuckles.
His attackers lay unresisting on the ground.
He walked away, flipping up the collars on his cloak.
Each of the lower levels of Villjamur looked much the same, but on the higher levels the buildings became taller, narrower, somehow more elegant. They were also built of a lighter-coloured stone – limestone rather than granite. Wealthier people lived here, or at least they were certainly better dressed.
A smartly turned-out man in a red cloak walked by.
'Excuse me,' Randur said, 'you don't know where I could find a cultist, do you?'
The man gave him a cold stare, but answered politely. 'There's a bistro, just up there, near one of their temples. You'll likely find a couple of them drinking there.'
Randur approached the bistro: a narrow, white-painted building that appeared to tilt to the right. He pressed his face against the roughly made window, but the glass was too steamed up.
He entered to find the place packed mostly with men. Several of the chairs had cloaks draped over the backs, a counter at the rear was serving pastries, and there was the faint smell of perfume from the only woman, sitting at a table by the door. He walked up to the counter. The girl behind it was short, blonde, pretty – a suitable target if he didn't have other things on his mind. He ordered a drink made from juniper berries, like they used to make on Folke.
As the girl handed it to him he said, 'Thanks. I love your hair.'
'Really?' she said, eyes round and wide.
'Stunning.' Sure that he had her attention, he persevered. He leaned forward over the counter to gaze at her absorbedly. 'Look, miss, I don't suppose you know of any cultists around here, do you? I'm new to the city, and it's quite important.'
'There's two, over there in the corner. Another just here. One there.' She pointed them out in turn. 'But if you ask me, you should stay away from them.'
'Thanks.' He handed her a Lordil for the drink. 'Don't worry about the change.'
He studied the various figures she had pointed out. The one seated nearest to the counter was of slender build, with a pointed black beard that enhanced his well-carved features. Randur stepped up to his table. 'This seat taken?'
The man stared at his food. 'If no one's sitting there, then I'm guessing not.'
Randur sat down with his drink, took a sip. Beneath his black shirt, a small medallion glistened. On it was a strange symbol, two letter Cs, one reversed so that the curve touched what was a diamond between them.
'Girl at the counter mentioned you're a cultist,' Randur said.
The man looked up. 'What's that to you?'
Randur reached into his pocket and brought out the same coin he had been given all those years ago on Folke. He placed it alongside the man's plate. The man instantly stopped eating. Randur continued sipping his drink.
The cultist regarded him acutely. 'And where would an island boy get hold of a coin like that?'
'It was given to me once by one of your lot,' Randur explained. 'Said her name was Papus.'
'She's not,' the man replied firmly, 'one of my lot, as you put it.' Something about the way he said it suggested that these cultists weren't so much the close bunch everyone made out.
'You're not a cultist, then?' Randur enquired.
'Oh, yes, but she isn't a part of my sect.' He took another bite.
'Right.' Randur stretched his hand forward to take back the coin.
The cultist stared at his recent wound. 'Been in a fight?'
'Wasn't my choice,' Randur muttered, bringing his arm off the table.
'Country boy ought to watch himself in this city,' the cultist said.
'I can look after myself.'
'Everyone says that. But, no one really can. What's your name, kid?'
'Well, Randur Estevu, I'll tell you something for free.' The cultist rose from his seat. 'There's a temple at the end of this road with a double door made of Quercus wood. Knock hard on that, show them your little coin, and you may find you're in luck.'
Randur stood up, offered his hand to shake. 'Thanks, um… Sorry, I didn't get your name.'
'That's because I didn't tell you.' The cultist slung on his cloak and stepped out of the bistro.
With a free hour ahead, her last appointment having not shown up, Tuya sat down to paint. Inspired by the current mood of the city, she was starting afresh. She wanted to paint something fantastical that spoke about the people of the city feeling trapped in their homes. Perhaps she would paint a ycaged bird of sorts.
She was wearing no clothes because, that way, there would be nothing to spill paint on except her unprotected skin. Similarly, she pinned her thick red hair up. Sitting herself on a stool, she tilted the easel so that she could look out of her window, across the architecture of the city, and she carefully noted the spires, the bridges, the pterodettes arcing across the sky. Water fizzed off the rooftops and suddenly the bell tower rang. She felt serene – all these pieces of the city coming together in a comforting collusion.
She applied blue paste to the small canvas using a knife and a wide brush. The paint was her own concoction. Using local pigments, she blended this paste with an ingredient that only she knew of – in Villjamur, at least. A cultist had given the secret to her before he died, having been a client of hers, when he fancied someone normal. The substance was grainy, opaque, and he had instructed her carefully on its qualities, as rare as any other ancient relic the cultists used, perhaps originally ground by the Dawnir themselves. Or so the myth went. And myths went rather further than they should have in Villjamur.
From time to time she closed her eyes, let the cold breeze tickle against her body until it aroused her again. She concentrated hard, took her mind away from what she was drawing in order to perceive it in a different way. Life was all about perception, and art was important to her. Maybe it wasn't to the people who walked past her window or used her sexually, but for her the least chance to express herself became simply wondrous.
The creature she envisaged began to take form.
It was something like a pterodette – same scales and batlike wings – but it possessed a noticeably mammalian body. It was blue simply because that was the pigment she had chosen today. Though it stood no higher than a child, she'd built a strong musculature into its physique, so much so that it could probably break down a door.
It wasn't until the bell had struck again that she felt satisfied that she had finished for the moment. It wasn't meant to be precise yet, but would eventually take true form.
She stood up from her stool, stepped closer to the window. Sunlight was reflecting wildly off the Astronomer's Glass Tower.
Turning, with the breeze at her back, she regarded her painting again. It was definitely coming to life. The blue creature was almost pulsing, as if drawing real air into its specious body. She now began to paint in earnest the background, the life-source of the creature, summoning abstract ideas that would feed its soul. Powerful urges thronged in her mind, a desire to fly off into the distance, to explore the Boreal Archipelago, this land of the red sun. Maybe to know freedom, of a sort.
Suddenly the creature began to peel itself off the canvas in fast, vacillating movements. It bubbled upwards, shook itself…
And fell to the floor.
Tuya laughed and cooed as she picked her creation up and placed it on the windowsill. It crawled along, then stood up properly on four legs. Its wings spread. Tuya gave a cry of delight. She didn't know how she made it happen each time and, if she was honest, she didn't really care, because her art didn't just reflect life – it created it.
The creature flapped its new-found wings, then threw itself out the window. A gust transferred it to a new current, and it drifted across the spires and away from Villjamur, leaving her once again with that same sense of loneliness.
Randur found the door eventually, an inconspicuous entrance in an inconspicuous street. Certainly nothing to suggest it concealed a haven for cultists. He might have expected some kind of inscriptions in the pale stonework surrounding the door, some elaborate decoration, something to indicate an elite building associated with the Order of the Dawnir, the oldest and largest sect of all. A nice plaque even. There was merely bare stone and a single hanging basket with thrift sagging over the sides. A city guard on horseback was riding by, and there was something in his brief glance that made Randur feel guilty.
He knocked on the door.
The hatch opened, exposing a man's face to the daylight. 'Yes?'
Randur held up the coin. 'I'm looking for someone called Papus.'
The man's gaze was fixed on the coin. 'Hang on.'
The door opened with the doorman gesturing for him to come in. The doorman wore a black cloak, underneath which Randur could see a dark, tight-fitting uniform, almost military in its design.
'Wait here,' the man instructed, and walked away.
The room was dark, but Randur could make out elaborate wood panelling, a few framed sketches on the wall. Incense burning gave a strangely comforting feeling about the room. It wasn't unlike the church of Bohr that had been built on Folke in the name of the Empire.
The man shortly returned with a chubby blonde woman dressed similarly. The pair of them searched Randur for weapons, then sat him down on a wooden stool.
They asked his business in Villjamur. And questioned his request to see Papus.
He held up the coin again, explaining how she had given it to him. The pair looked at each other.
'She's busy right now, but if you want to wait here, we'll enquire if she can see you sometime,' the woman said.
They left him slumped on the chair in that cold dark room. As his eyes became accustomed to the light, he had started to see the framed sketches in more detail. Diagrams of devices that he supposed to be relics, strange lettering surrounding each. He couldn't read Jamur as well as he could speak it, but this must be some older form of the language.
He waited there for the best part of an hour before he was finally summoned.
He was led into a large stone chamber that obviously served as an office, judging by the books and papers that littered the shelves and floor as if it hadn't been tidied in years. Tiptoeing around the clutter, he was told to sit on a chair by the large pointed-arch window. It seemed these were the chambers of Papus. The two leading him used the bizarre term in reference to her: the Gydja of the Order of the Dawnir. A bit much, really…
As he was left alone, staring through the window, a strange blue creature caught his eye. It flew down from one of the balconies on some higher level, arced awkwardly out of sight, then back into view briefly before banking up to one side.
The ancient chamber had a musky smell, with broken bits of masonry here and there. He knew the city was old, but had never imagined buildings like this would still be standing. Everywhere, there were books littering the shelves and even the floor. Mouldy with their broken spines, pages stuck together, sprouting sheets of paper exposing diagrams and equations to the air. There were pieces of equipment too, strange unrecognizable masses of metal, mechanical-looking insects, precise and advanced shapes.
Seeing all of this accumulated wisdom generated a feeling of inadequacy about his own education. He knew he was intelligent, but here was a more structured knowledge: ancient languages, history, the names of rare flora and fauna, whereas he mostly knew about swords and dancing and women. He had his wits, though, and you couldn't find every answer in a book – some were out in the real world.
The door opened, and a woman stepped in, garbed in the same outfit as the other two cultists. Her hair was darker than he remembered, and she was leaner.
'Who wants to speak to me?' Her voice was deep, her blue eyes dazzling.
Randur walked over to her, drew out the coin.
She took it and studied it. 'Yes, I remember. Folke, 1757. You're the little boy that saved me.' She handed it back, and gave him something like a smile. The severe lines on her face suggested that this was a rare gesture. 'You've grown, I see.'
'It happens,' Randur murmured, placing the coin back in his pocket. 'You said, at the time, if I ever needed a favour to come and find you.'
'You have had a successful journey then, so far.' Papus walked over to the table, and began to shuffle some papers. 'Well, what is the favour?'
'I need to find a cultist who can stop someone from dying, or else bring them back from the dead.'
Regarding him seriously, she put down the papers she was holding and took a step closer.
'I did save your life,' Randur said lamely. He thought at this point it might be an appropriate reminder.
'Yes, so you did – but you're making an incredibly serious request, you realize? I mean, why would you want to live forever?'
'It's not for me. It's my mother.'
'Oh, I see.' Papus perched on one end of the table. 'Could you just wait here for a moment?'
'I'm used to that by now.'
Papus reached under her cloak with her right hand-
– and vanished in a flash of purple light.
Randur jumped up, as if scalded, and stepped towards the table. He scanned the heaps of books and papers as if they'd offer any clues. 'Now how the hell did she do that?'
Randur was back in the seat by the window, trying to fathom one of the books that he clearly didn't understand. He decided that he liked the diagrams aesthetically, however.
The door opened. Papus re-entered.
'I see you're using the door now?'
'Look,' Papus said, 'I do owe you a major favour, and I've talked it over with a few of my colleagues here, but I fear I must tell you that what you've asked for isn't really where our expertise lies.'
Maybe he was naive, but this was getting frustrating. 'You're magicians, aren't you?'
'No,' she said, briefly.
'No, we're much more than that. It isn't simple magic. There's a whole craft involved. We devote years to studying the subtleties of our technology.'
It sounded like a speech recited many times before.
'You made a promise. So what d'you suggest?'
'Well, I'm referring you now to another sect. You've got to understand that we normally have nothing whatsoever to do with them. I'm not placing you in any direct danger, but you must be particularly careful. I'm only doing this, remember, because of your service to me all those years ago. I would not be doing it for any other reason.'
'They sound pretty unsavoury,' Randur said. 'I'm not sure I like where this is going.'
'Let's just say that this is a tough time for the orders. Relationships are strained.'
'So I gather your lot and this other group don't like each other.'
'That is putting it mildly.' Papus laughed. 'But I'm now handing you over to them, and that is my favour to you in exchange. I don't think you'll ever understand just how big a favour it is.' She paused, then explained. 'We have radically different ways of thinking.'
'How so?' Randur enquired, noticing the anxiety in her expression.
'They – the Order of the Equinox, they're called – like to… take the world apart. We prefer to put it back together. That's as easy as I can make it for you.'
'Make it harder,' Randur said. 'I'm curious.'
'They want to take the world to pieces, to find out all its secrets. To know how everything works, and they won't let anything like ethics get in the way. They're ruthless, cruel and destructive. Whereas I like to unify, to keep order, observe a high level of morals. We give our help to the Council of Villjamur, and the Emperor, whenever they need us. But, nevertheless, it is to the Order of the Equinox that I must take you, if you're ever to find that which you seek.'
'There are two sides to every coin.' Randur had the token in his hand again. 'How do I know that you're not just finding an easy way of getting rid of me?' He flipped the coin in the air so that it shimmered in the light.
She grabbed it even as it span, and handed the coin back to him. 'Come,' she said. 'I'll take you to meet them.'
'Who exactly?' Randur said, his head tilted slightly.
'Dartun Sur,' Papus replied, turning to leave the room. 'He's the Godhi of the Order of the Equinox.'
'Means bugger all to me,' Randur muttered.
She said sharply, 'It will, soon enough.'
'One question,' Randur said. 'What was that thing you took from the man who was trying to kill you, all those years ago?'
'That's not important now. It was a weapon, it was meant to hurt people, but nothing fancy, nothing world-changing. Nothing prophetic. We just didn't want it in his hands. As I said before, Randur, we're the ones with morals and ethics. We're just trying to keep order, to safeguard things for the benefit of the Empire.'
Through the streets of Villjamur once again.
Down a route he wouldn't have noticed existed. Through constricted alleyways, along hidden bridges. Much about the city had faded, died – disused chambers and archways, remnants from another time with no place here any more. As they passed under passageways he could hear carts being hauled above, and if he looked up through drain holes he could see people walking. Down here there were different styles of brickwork, crumbling stone where moss and lichen had colonized profusely near constantly dripping water.
'You know,' Randur said, 'the people who run this city could always ship those refugees from outside and set them up right here. It might be squatting, but still, if it means they don't die…'
She looked at him dismissively and Randur knew when to shut up. Papus gave the air that she knew a great deal, and would put down with great skill anyone who got a bit too clever with her.
They finally arrived at an underground chamber accessed by a door that you could barely see. Papus knocked, then turned to face him. 'These are the only cultists who can help you in what you're looking for.'
The door opened. A bald man in a grey cloak stood there to greet them.
'This is him,' Papus explained to the doorman, an anxious look on her face. She then walked away quickly, and Randur found himself visiting his second cultist sect of the day.
'So you see what I was promised.' Randur was sitting across a stone table from the man called Dartun Sur, who was sprawled in the chair opposite. 'And that's why I was told you could help.'
The chamber exuded a wonderful smell that reminded Randur of some herbal wash worn by a girl he once knew. Otherwise the room was rather plain, with none of the carefully arranged relics, containers of strange liquids, preserved specimens, or crazy men with mad hair he might have expected.
Dartun leaned forward in his plush chair. He had an assessing gaze, and there was an unsettling, ageless look to those eyes. They shone too bright for the dim light. 'An intriguing task, I'll give you that. But quite doable.'
As an awkward silence stretched before them, Randur examined the man. Dartun was annoyingly handsome, with his square jaw, gently muscled physique. He had somehow even found some sunlight in this city to give his skin a healthy glow. Despite the greying hair, his looks remained youthful, and Randur placed him at around forty years, even though he gave the impression of being a more experienced man.
'That's a smart cloak you've got there,' Randur said to break the silence – and thinking he'd look good in it himself, with a little customization. 'Very dark. What colour's that?'
'Fuligin,' Dartun replied. 'That's a colour darker even than black.'
Another period of reflection, and Randur said, 'So, d'you think you can help me?'
'Of course,' Dartun replied, looking amused at the naive question. 'That's well within our talents. It's one of my own areas of expertise, shall we say. No, my reflection on the matter is what can you do for us in return.'
Randur knew that the favour Papus had given him was to introduce him to Dartun. He would now have to come to some agreement of his own with this cultist leader. 'Well, if it's any help, I'm on my way to take employment in the household of the Emperor himself.'
'Old Johynn's place?' Dartun said. 'Now that's certainly an interesting point. And what'll you be doing there exactly?'
'This and that,' Randur replied coolly. This encounter was beginning to give him a sense of angst. He waited a moment before he asked the inevitable. 'Would you want paying?'
'A-ha! Now that, Randur Estevu, sounds more like it.'
'I would've thought that, being cultists, you could get your hands on all the wealth you needed. And what would you need money for anyway?'
'I love the way everyone assumes we can do anything, as and when we please. Our technology is rather specific, you see. And, precious though they are, relics don't buy food or sustenance. I have an order to pay regularly: that's what keeps people happy. No, money is useful indeed. I think to cover our time and costs for this task… say, four hundred Jamuns should do it?'
'Four hundred!' Randur stood up with shock. Stunned someone could assign a monetary value to such a request. Was that how they did things deep in the Empire? Where was the fairness in that? He locked eyes with Dartun, but could see that the cultist leader wasn't a man to be argued with.
'Well, what price would you put on a life, Mr Estevu?' Dartun said.
Randur sat down again, feeling miserable. Four hundred Jamuns? An impossible sum. Calculating that a Jamun was worth ten Sota, each of which was worth fifty Lordils, he realized you could buy up most of the farms on Folke with that kind of money. It seemed utterly alien to price up a person's life.
'Don't look too miserable,' Dartun continued. 'Just think about it, you'll be ensconced in Balmacara, where there're many wealthy people hanging about. I'm sure you can use your imagination in finding a way to ensure that some of that money comes your way. You're a handsome lad, and you'll find that being pleasing to the eye gives you a head start in these affairs.'
Randur ignored the man's bluntness. He stared at the stone table nearby, at the small engravings around it, the runes. He wasn't aware of how long he remained lost in thought, but when he looked up, Dartun was still grinning at him.
Randur said, 'Is there a time limit on this sort of thing? I mean, say my mother passed away today, how long would it be before it gets too late to… you know, do whatever it is you can do?'
'A fine question. Well, we experiment all the time, because progress is what I'm after. It's what this entire order is after: to distil the essence of life, to discover just whatever it is that makes us all us. So far we've successfully reanimated a man who had died up to two years before we worked on him, although his mind wasn't quite what it used to be. This is the result of generations of our research, Randur. We're not just some iren trader trying to offload a stack of cheap tat.'
That was a relief to Randur. It provided some time for him to get hold of the four hundred Jamuns.
'A deal?' Dartun said.
'Yeah, a deal.'
They shook hands.
'Could I just ask one thing?' Dartun folded his arms. 'Why the hell d'you want to do this for your mother?'
A wave of nausea surged through Randur's body, as his mind raced back to that night, to the one thing he would forever regret. He needed to repair the damage that his lack of thought and consideration had led to. He needed to prove himself as his mother's son. After all, mothers brought you into the world. They then fed you, clothed you, showed you immeasurable kindness. They gave you everything they had. True, his mother was a bitter woman sometimes, but that wasn't important. All that mattered to Randur, in retrospect, was that the one night she needed him, he had not been there.
He had failed her.
'So,' Randur said, ignoring the last question, 'what… I mean, how will you manage this?'
'Just leave that to the specialists, young man. Believe me, this isn't the first time I've been approached to play about with the laws of the cosmos. I've been in Villjamur for… a lifetime. Women come asking to be made prettier, or slimmer, or younger. Men come asking me to increase their virility. I've had prostitutes ask me to stop the pain they suffer in their jobs, have their internal muscles numbed or senses stopped so doing their work does not hurt them. I've even had drug addicts crying out for help. I've been around a long time, and I've seen it all, and I say to them all – let me see your coin, and I'll investigate if the technology exists.'
In a glass orb stationed in the corner of his primary workroom, Dartun watched the young man leave. The orb was linked to another on an external wall, surrounded by marbles as a decorative feature, and it displayed an exaggerated caricature slipping away along the backstreets of a black and white Villjamur.
So, this Randur wanted his mother to live a long time. Fine, that's possibly simple enough – a few months or a year at the most. He might even make her outlive her son if he was lucky. Randur had some charm, some vague charisma that appealed to Dartun. He would help the lad, but knew that the treatments would not last, knew that it wasn't a process good enough for himself. Dartun once possessed eternal life, thanks to the Ancients' technology. Once a year he had injected himself with a serum generated by relic-energy, a relatively simple procedure considering what else he had achieved – but now he was dying.
He discovered that the Dawnir relic technology was beginning to fail him the day he cut himself with a razor. Some time ago now: there it was, a red line through his skin. Standing up against the mirror. Candle brought close to his face. A line of cut skin that filled quickly with blood. Red liquid leaked into the sink, little drops of his own death.
He was suddenly aware of so many things that could kill a person:
A back-hoofing horse.
Disenchanted young swordsmen with something to prove.
Mishandling a relic.
There were banshees waiting at every corner.
He gathered as many of the relevant relics as he could find, spent sleepless nights in distant places until he could figure out what was going on and so prevent his ageing, utterly convinced that he could find some solution.
Some cure for his forthcoming death.
And he hadn't yet. At the time he wrote down his thoughts in a journal, wondering about the words lingering after he had gone: So how is it that I can still communicate from beyond the grave? How can I talk to you now? Words on the page, no less. Is this how we live on, in these little gestures? These trails left throughout our own existence – a note here, a pissed-off lover there? Something poignant we said to someone. Advice we gave. A joke we told.
Little pieces of ourselves donated to the world.
Is this what makes me live eternally?
Spurred on by these thoughts, and by the visit of Randur, Dartun went deeper into his labs to look at the Shelley tanks.
A darkened room in the deepest corner of his order's headquarters. To one side seven corpses were laid out, claimed from the streets of Villjamur by good old Tarr, but he had hopes for the ones in the Shelley tanks: they were not dead to begin with. The tanks were arranged in two rows, the bathtublike metal basins filled with regeneration fluids. Bodies lay submerged beneath, their lips touching underneath the surface of the water.
They were disturbed people, the mental patients, the radically disfigured, the severely disabled – people that Villjamur and the Jamur Empire did not wish to acknowledge, let alone look after. They had no opportunity to contribute to the Imperial system, and up until recently, they constantly stalked the backstreets with haunted looks on their faces.
He could imagine nothing worse than being forgotten about, than being shunned by every face that he ever looked at. One of the batch told him that when people would not speak to them, would not even look them in the eye, they may as well have been dead already. Do we rely on being noticed by other people to confirm that we are alive?
Dartun wanted to experiment on them: if he was successful, it would offer them a way out – if they could not die, would they be alive in the first place? He wanted to see if they could have their lives extended with his newly developed techniques. Then he could try them on himself.
Chemicals smeared the air.
Blindly, he lit a blue-glass lantern in one corner. Modified relics were submerged in each of one row's tanks, a faint purple glow shimmered above them: it meant they were ready. Riddled with pangs of anxiety, he walked over to the first, raised up on a waist-high platform, and the light on his face made him quite aware of his reflection in the thick fluids. Bombarded with test formulas, these bodies faced toxic chemical structures that no ordinary person could survive a minute of, let alone several hours.
Turning off the relics within, one by one, the fluids began to drain through thick pipes, polluting somewhere deep within the city. As the liquid levels descended, a male body was revealed, glossy and slick, naked and scarred with traces of minor operations and major rewirings – Dartun's attempt at preserving them. He plunged a syringe into its chest and within seconds it lurched and began to shudder violently. Its eyes opened and the figure clutched the air above its head, then gave a perversely bass baby's cry.
Dartun was ecstatic, drunk on optimism – had this attempt been successful?
It suddenly collapsed back into the tank, shaking silently. Then ceased to move at all, as lifeless as a pre-op undead.
He sighed, and repeated the procedure with the five other Shelley tanks on this side of the room, each one eventually falling uselessly into death. They should have been preserved, their internals had been rewired to prevent decay. He could see nothing but the futility of life in his experiments, and again he became depressed and sad. These people had no other choice and surrendered their lives to him, and he had let them down.
He could not even tell if it was good enough to convert to one of the undead.
Dartun was enraged. With only the dead for company, he kicked things about the room, and when someone from his order came in to see what was going on, Dartun indignantly shoved him back out again. He knew he was being immature and unstable, but that's what failure did to him. He hated it, hated that his own life was failing him.
Did anyone even think of their own death, or did they also assume the day would never come?
The days now seemed merely a heartbeat long.
All these failures had removed most of his options down to just the one. One decision, then, in honour of his recently acquired mortality: to push the limits of Dawnir technology to its fullest. If he was going to die, he wanted to do so as a legend – a name to be remembered – as a pioneer. There is so much in the world that he had spent his life detailing, and now he was going to put it into practice. And not only that, but he needed to find some supreme relics, some intense piece of technology. Because any sufficiently advanced technology was indistinguishable from magic – and he had run out of technology.
At least in this world.
Investigator Rumex Jeryd sat at his desk, feeling like a victim. Already he had suffered from the first snowballs from the Gamall Gata kids. The street, central in the Kaiho district, seemed to breed the little buggers, but he couldn't move home, no, because they'd only follow him. The weather over the past day or so had been mainly sleet, so where they'd found such a supply of firm snow, he had no idea. Either way, the kids had woken Jeryd up much too early. As he left his house that morning, he could see their little heads cresting stone walls, attitude glaring from their eyes, communicating with whistles and urgent street-slang he didn't understand, calls of 'Hey, Jerrryd, watch your back, yeah?', derisive calls of 'Hey, Jerrryd, where's your missus gone? You need us to keep you company? We lurve you, Jerrryd.'
You couldn't do much about kids like that. You could maybe arrest their parents, if they had any around, but the kids themselves would vanish fast through any number of broken stone alleys to avoid being caught.
Jeryd was old. He couldn't keep up with them. Couldn't keep up with a lot of things around Villjamur.
As he picked up a weekly news pamphlet on the way to work, he was shocked to discover that the death of the councillor was headline news. The case would now mean having to work with the Council, something he really wasn't looking forward to.
To his right lay a file, left for him by one of the night-duty investigators. It detailed yet more violence near the city gates and the immigrant camp. Two refugees had been seriously injured with sword wounds to the head. People were even alleging rape. Accusations were flying everywhere. Meanwhile, the hygiene standards in the refugee camps were plummeting. There had been demonstrations by Villjamur's extreme right-wing activists. They didn't want these types stealing what was 'rightfully theirs' in the face of the Freeze. They didn't want disease brought into their city. Things were now happening at a level of hysteria no one was familiar with.
People were getting angrier, and more desperate.
He spent an hour writing up notes from yesterday, while finishing a cold cup of tea the administrative girl, Ghale, had brought him earlier. She was dark-haired, attractive, but she didn't have a tail and her human skin was too soft for his tastes.
Jeryd peered again at his observations so far. Delamonde Ghuda was forty-three years old. Married, with no known children. Once elected, Ghuda had spent fifteen years on the Council, regularly endorsed by popular vote. Whatever the masses wanted, he was with them, and their vote was with him. He helped push through various educational and tax reforms, spent one year as Treasurer of Villjamur, before being promoted to overseeing all of the Jamur Empire's resources on behalf of the chancellor. That was a position he had held for four years.
So, who specifically would want to kill him?
At that moment, Aide Tryst entered the room without knocking. 'Investigator, we've got a lead.'
Jeryd looked up, stifled a yawn. 'Great. Out with it, then.'
'Witness statement has the deceased sighted the evening before in a tavern, drinking with a woman in her forties.'
'Nothing unusual there, lad.'
'They were seen leaving together, and rumour has it that she's a prostitute. Has a noticeable wound on her face. Another witness has the same two spotted entering a residential tower next to the gallery.'
'Great, we now have a city councillor using whores. Like to explain that to his partner and the other councillors? I can bet you we'll have orders to keep that little fact quiet. And considering the Council's supposed to be a symbol of truth and probity…'
Tuya wiped him off with a towel, which she then threw into a basket in the corner. The guy had only wanted a handjob in the end, which suited her fine. Said he didn't want to cheat on his partner, a last-minute change of mind. He lay on his back, panting for a while – men looked so pathetic after they'd come.
As she walked out of the room she said, 'I'll leave you to get dressed. Just leave the money on the side and let me know before you go.'
In fact he left her enough money to last her a week – four Sota and ten Lordils – and she watched him leave, dressed again in his smart robes on his way back to his office in the Treasury. It no longer amazed her just how ordinary her customers could be. They went back to their families, their wives, to their jobs, to their commonplace negotiations, and all the time nursing this guilty secret. Ah well, was what she did for a living wrong if no one got hurt? She wasn't one of those poor street girls who suffered sleepless nights under the guilt and shame, men coming and going like ghosts in their lives.
How had her existence got to this point?
Was the reason that she had become capital – goods and services? – was that why she would remain trapped in Villjamur? She suspected that her position was shared, in some ways, by many other ladies in the city. Mothers and housewives, and women like her who might actually earn money. For as long as women could be viewed in such transactional manners, their emancipation would remain incomplete. When had it become too late to change everything? Did she even choose this lifestyle or did it force itself upon her?
Sighing, she went back to her bed, lay down, drew the sheets over her. Watched the light through the window. Listened to the busy sounds of the city.
And closed her eyes.
Jeryd knocked, and a woman eventually opened the door. She wore just a flimsy gown that wasn't going to keep out the chill. Red hair, a fuller figure, the sort that came with a little expensive dining now and then. Down one side of her face was a livid scar and Jeryd tried desperately not to focus on it.
'Investigator Rumex Jeryd, Villjamur Inquisition.' He held up his Inquisition medallion. 'And this is Aide Tryst. We're investigating the murder of Delamonde Ghuda, and we're hoping you can help us with our enquiries.'
'Delamonde Ghuda?' she said. 'Oh, my… Come in, please. Can I offer you something to drink?'
'No, thanks,' Jeryd said.
Tryst took out a pencil and notebook.
She found two ornate wooden chairs, and placed them for the men to sit on near the window.
'Many thanks,' Tryst said, seating himself.
'These are impressive.' Jeryd indicated the chairs, but remained standing. He decided that he didn't want to get too comfortable. 'Antiques?'
'Yes. Do you yourself collect, investigator?'
'Nah,' Jeryd replied, glancing over at Tryst who merely stared around the room. 'My wife was once a collector of sorts. Sometimes I tagged along with her to various markets. Never got into it myself, but I can recognize something half decent.' For a moment he appreciated the fact that Marysa had taught him enough to pick out a decent antique. Then appreciation transformed into pain, again.
'Was once a collector. You're no longer married then?' Tuya said, sitting down on the bed, her crossed legs revealed in the gap in her gown.
Jeryd sighed. 'We're here to investigate a murder, Miss…?'
'Daluud. Tuya Daluud.'
Tryst began taking notes as Jeryd started his routine. 'You were seen with the victim on the evening of the murder.'
'Yes,' she agreed. 'Yes, that's right.'
'What exactly is it you do for a living, may I ask?'
She said, 'You two are men of the world, I take it?'
Jeryd glanced at Tryst, then back to Tuya. 'Where's this leading?'
'Follow me.' She gestured them over to the elaborate door leading to her bedroom, paused them briefly with her outstretched arm. 'Just a quick glimpse, OK.' Then she opened the door.
It was clearly a whore's boudoir. Luxurious bed, oils, candles, the large mirrors, the smell of sex. Jeryd stepped back out of the room, nodding to Tryst, who blinked rapidly. Tuya closed the door and turned back to them.
Only then did Jeryd realize just how tall she was. 'None of this is of any concern to us, Miss Daluud.'
Jeryd placed his hands in his pockets, walked slowly around her living room, noting further the fine ornaments, paintings, furnishings. 'Still, it obviously pays well.'
'Yes, and there's no one else for me to spend the money on. But at least I get time to myself, and to pursue my other pleasures.'
Jeryd paused, looking over at Tryst who was sitting by the window again.
Jeryd noticed the covered canvases in the corner. 'You dabble in the Arts, Ms Daluud? We allowed to take a look?'
'I'd rather you didn't,' she said. 'I'm rather shy of some things.'
'Miss Daluud, would you be so good as to explain your dealings with Councillor Ghuda on the night in question?'
Tuya looked quickly between the two officers, before her gaze settled on Jeryd. 'I was drinking by myself in that place next to the street iren.'
'The Amateurs' Tavern?' Jeryd enquired.
'Yes, that's the one.'
'And you go there regularly?'
'Quite a bit. I like its character, and the view from its windows. When the first of the winter rain comes in from the sea, it makes the cobbles and the roofs all around it shiny black.'
'Huh.' Jeryd liked her engaging description. This woman obviously loved the city, but he needed questions answered. 'What time was this exactly?'
'About seven, maybe even eight. I always take a book in there with me, and the time passes.'
'So, you were in the tavern sometime after seven.'
'Yes, and I was sitting alone to begin with, but after a while someone asked if he could join me.'
'This was Delamonde Ghuda?' Jeryd prompted.
Tuya sighed, 'Despite my scarring, he seemed to find me attractive. What can I say? Men seem to think I'm something special.'
'And are you?'
He could see then that something shifted in her mind. Whether or not she now had respect for Jeryd, he couldn't be sure. 'I'm sorry. And then what happened?'
'He sat down opposite, and I thought he was handsome. We discussed literature for a while, and he kept ordering drinks for both of us. He was altogether quite a charmer. I was lonely. He was intelligent. You're a man of the world, so you know how these things happen.'
'Indeed.' Well no, actually, he reminded himself. It's been far too damn long since I've done any of that. Jeryd sat down on the other chair, confirmed that Tryst was noting every detail. 'And you came here afterwards?'
'Yes,' she admitted.
'What time was that?' Tryst asked.
'He was obviously a quick operator,' Jeryd observed.
Tuya's laugh was surprisingly hearty. 'I was lonely and he seemed fun. We came straight back here.'
'You didn't notice anyone or anything strange on the way?'
'No. Nothing at all. Not that I was paying a great deal of attention.'
'OK, then what?'
'We came back here and… you know.'
'You had intercourse?'
'Yes, investigator, but I prefer to call it making love.'
'A little quick for love, don't you think?' A mild feeling of pique overcame him.
Tuya played with the ends of her gown.
'What time did he leave you?' Jeryd said.
'He was here until early the next morning. I was pretty much asleep when he finally left.'
'And you didn't hear or see anything you would consider out of place?'
'Nothing more than you'd hear on any ordinary night. Drunks quarrelling down below. Horses' hooves on the cobbles.'
There was something about the way she smiled – she didn't seem happy when she did it. Jeryd stood up, looked at Tryst. The young aide got up and pushed his chair back.
'I think that's a start, anyway,' Jeryd said. 'We've got a few more people to interview.' He didn't actually have any immediate plans, but he wanted to make her sweat a little by creating the illusion there was a lot to follow up on.
'You're off already?' Tuya said. 'Surely I must be your main suspect?'
'If we need to ask you some more questions, I assume we can normally find you here?' Jeryd glanced once again at the antiques filling the room.
'Yes, although you might be advised to knock and wait first.' She winked at Tryst.
Jeryd stifled a laugh at the lad's embarrassment.
'So what d'you reckon?' Tryst asked as they were walking down the spiral staircase. His voice echoed hollowly against the bare stone.
'Too early to tell. The councillor had a lot of enemies.'
'Maybe his wife found out about this fling?'
'In just one night? Doubtful. This was a one-off thing, surely. Lonely woman, rich crafty man. I've seen it all too many times.'
'Well, maybe my date with Ghale will have a happier ending.'
Jeryd looked to his aide. 'You mean Ghale, our administration assistant?'
'Yes indeed, the very same.'
'Ah, too soft-skinned,' Jeryd muttered, pushing open the exit door. 'You need to get yourself something tougher. Something more like a rumel girl. They're built to last, you see.'
'And when are you going to get another one, now you're a free man?'
Jeryd squinted up into a sharp beam of sunlight, as he stepped outside, and Tryst closed the door behind them. He couldn't think past Marysa: it was too soon since she had gone. There was too much for him to learn again. 'Too old for those sorts of games.'
'You're never too old,' Tryst said.
'Well, I was never much good at all that stuff, anyway.' He remembered immediately all the things Marysa had done for him, and how unfinished he was without her.
He headed off along the street, his thoughts returning to the prostitute and the dead politician.
Brynd waited patiently alongside Eir in the corridor outside the Council Atrium, the chamber where all the plans and schemes for Villjamur and the Empire were debated. They had been sitting there for hours. Brynd understood then that, as a servant to the Empire, his life was spent arriving, departing, or waiting.
The two of them sat in a miserable silence, and he pitied Eir for having to witness her father's death when she was still so young. He tried to convince her that it was not her fault, that it was an accident. She hadn't wept openly, but when Brynd had gone to fetch her earlier that day, he could hear her sobbing behind the closed doors of her chamber.
However, she stepped out to greet him as elegantly composed as could be expected.
After her sibling Rika had left, all those years ago, the younger girl had become more quiet, rather withdrawn. She shouldn't have had to cope with Johynn in his deteriorating state, not at her youthful age. Brynd wondered if she'd eventually come to see her father's departure as a release from his powerful emotional grasp over her.
Eventually, the large Quercus wood doors of the Atrium were opened and they were both summoned inside.
The Atrium itself was a high-domed white chamber about fifty paces wide. The twenty-five councillors, each representing a sector of the city as stated by the old maps, sat in a circle of benches, ranged above them.
The Council had already been locked away for most of a day, anxiously deliberating the consequences of Jamur Johynn's death. They had ordered that the Emperor's mortal remains be cleaned up rapidly. As yet no one in the general population of Villjamur realized that their Emperor had killed himself. Palace servants had been threatened with torture and execution if any rumours were traced back to Balmacara.
Brynd and Eir took their seats silently on a wooden podium at one end of the chamber for esteemed guests, although Brynd felt more like a prisoner. On it was carved the emblem of the Jamur Empire: a seven-pointed star.
A low-level muttering rippled through the Council.
Eir was dressed soberly in a dark red shawl covering a black gown of mourning. Brynd took the opportunity to rid himself of the scars and dirt and memories of military ambush, and wore a freshly cleaned all-black uniform.
Though Brynd had earned the Emperor's trust over the years, he was never quite sure how this parliament reacted to his being albino. Brynd had his own suspicions about these councillors because of what had recently happened at Daluk Point. If he scrutinized them carefully, perhaps one of them would betray guilt in his or her eyes.
Silence fell as Chancellor Urtica stood up.
Brynd glanced at him with secret disdain. You couldn't really trust a man who, it was rumoured, had spent a year of his youth mixing poisons as an apprentice to a senior torturer for the Inquisition. Urtica was a swarthy handsome man in his forties, his greying black hair cropped close to his ears. The Council uniform of green tunic and grey cloak fitted his slim body well.
'Jamur Eir. Commander Lathraea, welcome to the Atrium,' he began in his smooth and deep voice. 'As you will understand we've been debating our current predicament, and I'll get straight on to the details of what we've concluded. It may come as no surprise to you that we wish to bring the late Emperor's eldest daughter, Jamur Rika, back to the city. It is, of course, law and tradition that the closest senior relative should inherit the throne, ensuring there is an unbroken chain of command, as decreed by our divine father, Bohr himself. Jamur Rika is to become Empress of Villjamur, being the most appropriate choice, we feel, in these uncertain times.'
Brynd had anticipated such a move.
'Commander, we're now charging you to escort Lady Rika back from the Southfjords immediately. It should take you several days, and on your return there shall be a festival combining both mourning and celebration. It is essential that we look upon this as a positive move and not a crisis. As a senior member of this Council, I'll advise the new Empress at every stage. We will be happy to welcome her as the new ruler.'
I bet you will, Brynd thought. You'll use the poor girl's innocence and ignorance to drive through every selfish policy you've ever dreamed of.
'Commander,' Urtica continued, 'we've set things in motion for your imminent departure, with a longship moored at the port of Gish ready for you to join it. Take as many of the Night Guard as you feel necessary.'
'Yes, thank you,' Brynd said. 'Talking of the Night Guard, I take it you've heard what happened to us at Daluk Point?'
'Yes, indeed. One of your men – a certain Captain Apium Hol, I believe – made it his business to inform all of the customers in several bars last night, as well as the entire main dining hall in Balmacara. I was myself told about it by a member of the kitchen staff. A most upsetting way to learn such news, for a man of my-'
'My point,' Brynd interrupted, 'was to discover how we came to be ambushed. Our mission was supposedly known only to high-level members of this Council.' Brynd was staring directly at Chancellor Urtica. The man shifted slightly, but kept an expression of concern.
'This is indeed a tragedy, but such things do happen in military operations, commander. If there was a way-'
'I'm just trying to find out why my men died unnecessarily, chancellor.'
'We will set up an investigation into this matter for you, but meanwhile your assignment is to escort back Jamur Rika.'
'What if she doesn't want to return?' Brynd said. 'It's no enigma that she despised the Emperor for his treatment of her late mother.'
'The Emperor is no longer with us, and it is your job to persuade her. We here need her. Villjamur needs her.'
Brynd did not quite understand the urgency – it was the Council that dictated Imperial strategy, and Johynn had only really ever been required for his signature. 'I'll leave tomorrow morning then,' he agreed.
At that point, Councillor Boll interrupted, a slender, short man who would have looked like a child except for his withered skin and grey hair.
'Commander, there have also been a number of sightings recently,' he began, 'of phenomena we are not entirely certain of. We're getting reports of a series of murders on Tineag'l,' Boll explained. 'And people disappearing in large numbers. Admittedly these are only word of mouth from impressionable locals, and we've yet to hear anything from more reputable sources.'
'You wish me to investigate? Report back on what I see?' This wasn't exactly the sort of mission Brynd was used to.
'More or less,' Urtica concurred. 'Nothing to concern yourself with particularly at this moment – at least not until you return. But you can understand our concern that something may be on the loose out there, picking at what's left of our Empire. Killing valuable subordinates.'
'What's left of them if the ice doesn't get them first,' Brynd said sharply.
'Indeed,' Urtica said, then turned to Eir. 'Jamur Eir, in this most unfortunate time for you, I ask that in the interim you take stewardship of the city on your sister's behalf.'
'Of course, Chancellor Urtica,' Eir replied flatly. 'I shall do everything that is necessary.'
'We will make a public announcement shortly,' Urtica concluded. 'Thank you both for your time.'
A rather abrupt dismissal, but at least they were out of there. As he followed Eir from the Atrium, Brynd had to stifle a laugh. No sooner had he returned to Villjamur than he had to leave it again.
Brynd was invited to take dinner with Eir, the temporary Stewardess of Villjamur. He had often eaten with the late Emperor, when their conversation would inevitably turn to his most recent mission, or battle tactic, but he had always felt uncomfortable when she was present, because he felt he should not be talking war at the dining table. Tonight, while she picked at the lobster, she was sitting bolt upright, still wearing that black gown which, in this light, made her pale skin glow as white as his own.
'How're you feeling?' he asked eventually.
A distance in her eyes, a disconnection. 'I'm fine,' she snapped. She looked down at her plate again.
The hides of various animals covered the walls and floors. As a fire spat loudly nearby, the poor lighting made the place look as if there were reanimated carcasses all around him.
'Are you looking forward to your sister's return?'
'Yes, very much so.' Eir looked up, her eyes suddenly brighter. 'It's been so long since she… since she left us.'
'Do you think that she'll ever forgive him?'
'I hope so. It's possible. She's become a rather different woman since she embraced the Jorsalir Church.'
Brynd considered the point. 'Perhaps the Empire will benefit from someone with such strong beliefs. Do you forgive him, if you don't mind my asking?'
'I hated him.' Eir pushed her plate away, slumping back in her chair. 'You don't have to stay here just on my behalf, commander.'
Brynd replied, 'I know that. But you're better company than most in this damn place.'
She said, 'I hardly think I'm good company for anyone at the moment.' She was clearly struggling to control her emotions.
Brynd did nothing to fill the silence.
Eventually she spoke again. 'Well, now that he's gone… This sounds awful of me to say…'
'No, go on, say it.'
'It's like a burden has been lifted from my shoulders.'
Brynd said, 'Yes, I think I understand. Talk.'
'I had to keep an eye on him all the time. That means I've not had much of a life here.'
'Eir, you've had as good a childhood as you could expect in your position. Your mother would be proud if she could see you.'
She continued, 'But now he's gone, I don't have to do that any more. I don't have to watch out when he starts drinking too much, or apologizing to servants when he soils his bedsheets. I don't have to stand the other side of a locked door when he's ranting because of his paranoia. Yet every time I don't have to do something, these free moments, it reminds me he's dead.'
'Which means you've got a life of your own back now.'
'Really?' She smiled bitterly. 'This isn't much of a way to go about things. Because of my blood I get treated a little better than most women in Villjamur, certainly. But there's a list of men waiting to marry me within the year, and I've never even met half of them. Think of how valuable their prize is now. I understand Imperial policies, commander. I understand my life will be little more to this government than supporting income flows.'
'Sometimes, in this world, we don't have the option to find love,' Brynd muttered, and realized he was addressing both of them. 'Matters of the heart are not always for us to decide. Situations don't always allow it.'
'Love.' She almost sneered at the word. 'You're a man; you wouldn't understand.'
Brynd motioned for the servant to take away their plates. As the boy left the room, he continued, 'It's OK to be upset, Eir. It's natural to mourn.'
'I'm not upset.' Her tone had changed from before, and he could tell she was closing herself up, protecting her mind with walls.
Conversation had slowed, an awkward silence taking its place. Eir stared at nothing, occasionally closing her eyes completely as if to shut out the world.
After a moment he stood up.
'Are you going?' she asked, but she still wasn't looking at him.
'There's a good chance someone with my personality might make you even more miserable,' he said, and a half-smile seemed to suggest she liked that comment. 'The Dawnir wants to see me. Since I'm off soon, I'd better go and visit him now. Get some sleep if you can.'
He left her alone in the room with the sound of his boots leaving and the spitting fire.
Brynd set off along the winding stone passages until he finally reached the Dawnir's chamber, a secluded vault built some way into the cliff face, far away from the rich adornments of Balmacara. This was an ancient remnant of an older structure, the stonework of its walls worn smooth over hundreds of years.
Brynd banged his fist on the iron door of the Dawnir's vault. It looked rather like the entrance to a gaol.
Slow footsteps sounded on the other side. The door opened. A shaft of lantern light fell upon his face. 'Sele of Jamur, it's Commander Brynd of the House of Lathraea.'
A gruff voice said, 'Please, enter.'
Immediately behind the door, the Dawnir stood, stooping slightly.
'Sele of Jamur,' Brynd replied, and shuffled forwards.
'I am very glad you could come and visit me, Commander Brynd Lathraea,' the Dawnir said. 'The times are interesting.'
'As always,' Brynd agreed, watching the Dawnir close the door behind him. Standing one armspan taller than Brynd, and covered in a bush of brown hair, his host wore a simple loin cloth.
He always seemed to be hunching, probably because there was no one else of his height to talk to. His eyes were like large black balls set deep in a narrow, goat-shaped head, while his gums exposed a pair of tusks the length of a forearm.
'And how are you, Jurro?' Brynd asked. 'I received word you wished to see me.'
The Dawnir waved an impossibly large hand towards a chair. Three walls were lined with books from floor to ceiling, and more were piled up around the simple wooden furniture. There were beautiful bindings, and some had degraded significantly.
A sheep carcass was draped upon a table across the room, quietly stinking the place out.
'Could do with some incense in here,' Brynd muttered.
After a moment of intense frowning, Jurro spoke. 'Ah, a joke. Very good, Brynd Lathraea, very good. Irony, you call it, yes?'
Brynd reclined further in the chair, and picked up a book, but found it was in a language he didn't know. The fonts suggested it might be something from Boll or Tineag'l, or some other Empire outpost.
'That one is a history of dance on Folke,' Jurro explained.
'Doesn't look like Folken,' Brynd replied.
'Indeed not, Brynd Lathraea. It was written over a thousand years ago, and language changes.'
Brynd pursed his lips, placed the book to one side.
'I was looking at it because of the Snow Ball that the highborn humans and the rumel have organized. I do hope I will be able to attend it.'
'Don't see why not,' Brynd said. 'You're no prisoner.'
'Indeed not, but I do feel like one at times. I don't get many true visitors either, just those hoping I can help solve their petty problems. Yet I am not an oracle. I know no magic. And, besides, as if I would know…' the Dawnir trailed off to replace the book on one of the shelves.
'So how does the study go?'
'Nothing new. No revelations. These histories of the Boreal Archipelago are fascinating, though. There are many inconsistencies in the texts, which leads me to believe the history is deeper than is publicly known, and known less than is publicly history. And I have some… some considerable time on my hands. I'm in no hurry, therefore. The books I've read on the previous ice ages are indeed interesting. They seem to have been the bringer of death to many a good civilization, so I can see why our Council are anxious.' Jurro pushed forward a large chair constructed from iron, with heavy padding. The Dawnir sighed thunderously as he reclined. He held up one large text, a leather-bound tome the size of a small tabletop. 'This is called The Book of the Wonders of Earth and Sky, and it details eras so far ago that they are assumed legend. I read today our forests were once lost entirely. We now call trees by the names in which their seeds had been stored below the Earth. I read once again that the sun was once much more yellow than our own. If this is true, then our sun is losing strength, and it is dying slowly. There is, perhaps predictably, nothing within the pages to suggest my own origins. I remain full of pathos.'
Brynd had heard many philosophical meanderings from Jurro. This creature had reportedly been within the city over a thousand years, nearly as long as this pile of stones had been called Villjamur. That's what Jurro himself claimed anyway. He had been originally discovered wandering the icy coastline of north Jokull, with no memory. Having survived this long, he was now assumed to be immortal, though Brynd wondered morosely what it would be like to live for so long without even knowing your roots. He himself shared something with the Dawnir in this respect. Brynd had been adopted as a child by wealthy parents, and therefore had no real concept of his own origins. Who would ever want to know where an albino came from anyway?
'So how about your health? Do you feel well?' Brynd said.
'No, I need more exercise. I envy you, endlessly on your little missions here and there.'
Somehow, Jurro had just managed to belittle Brynd's entire career with a single sentence.
'You must take me along with you some time, because I would like to see more of the Archipelago. It could jog my memory; I might recognize something of my own past. It might even be fun.'
'Why not, if it helps at all? But, you obviously won't have heard about our latest mission.'
Then Brynd gave the Dawnir the details of his last few days.
'Indeed, a complex situation,' Jurro said. 'I will put my ear, as you say, to the ground for you.'
'Thanks,' Brynd said. 'You heard about our Emperor?'
'Yes. Again, curious. But his mind was never quite there, was it?'
'I'll be fetching his elder daughter to be our new Empress.'
'Jamur Rika? Of course. Is she not a child still?'
'No, she's twenty now.'
'How quickly you grow, you humans!' The Dawnir seemed utterly delighted at this observation.
They talked a while longer about news from the city, the refugees camping outside the gates. And then Jurro began to ramble about the wild flowers of Dockull and Maour. Brynd could only listen to Jurro's expositions for so long, and gently interrupted him.
'Jurro, I don't suppose you know anything of the killings reported on Tineag'l, do you?'
'Killings?' Jurro made a contemplative steeple of his massive hands.
'I don't think it's tribal revenge. Perhaps a new creature, or something?'
'I know nothing about this – although, yes, I would like to know more. According to what I have read, there has not been any creature capable of large-scale killings for several dozen millennia. Fossils of such beasts exist, of course, on Y'iren. I will begin some research.'
'Thanks,' Brynd said. 'I'd better be going now. I'll be back to see you when I return.'
'Farewell, Brynd Lathraea,' the Dawnir said, hardly paying attention.
'You know what your problem is?' Apium said to Brynd. They were leaning over the bar counter in the Cross and Sickle. Close to midnight and the place was nearly empty. A veteran of the Ninth Dragoons slumped asleep in the corner still clutching his tankard, wearing the uniform he'd never need again. Two elderly rumel sat nearby in companionable silence. A fire crackled cosily, and you could hear the clink clink clink of empty glasses that a serving girl was carrying into the kitchen. The tavern was one of those places that made an effort with its decor: engraved mirrors, imported dark woods, lanterns bright enough to make women feel comfortable drinking here.
'Go on then,' Brynd said. This wasn't the first time Apium had explained to Brynd what his problems were. Certainly it wouldn't be the last.
Brynd took another sip of lager.
'You're a pushover,' Apium continued. 'That's what you are, a pushover. You'll take anything up the arse and not complain about it. You're just a bitch to these councillors.'
'Really?' Brynd said. 'Thanks for your support.'
'Just stand up for yourself once in a while – that's what you should do. I would've given them hell!'
'You're not really one for diplomacy, are you?'
'Diplomacy's never won us soldiers a war.'
Brynd pondered the inherent truth in Apium's statement.
'Perhaps you're right.' As he spoke he realized that Apium's attention was drawn to the barmaid who was busy cleaning tables. 'You with me?'
'I was with her in spirit,' Apium stated. 'I have been since we walked in here.'
Brynd stared at him. 'Stop leering. Haven't you got a sense of decency?'
'No, I'm not armed with a sense of decency,' Apium said. 'That way, my other senses are as sharp as they can possibly be.'
Brynd laughed, shook his head, then glanced over the bar, silent in thought.
Because they were carousing at the top level of the city, they didn't have far to walk to reach the military quarters of Balmacara. Brynd considered such privileged accommodation a wasted luxury, because they were so frequently away from the city on military service. This housing could so easily be used for refugee families. Instead, the chambers they occupied were set into the cliff face just to the north of the late Emperor's private quarters, and usually a minimum two members of the Night Guard remained in residence at all times, in case the Emperor should need to call on them in an emergency. Not that there had ever been one in Brynd's memory, but it was a sensible precaution.
As he was commander, Brynd's own chamber was by far the most extravagant, set slightly apart from the others. He liked the decor inside, a mixture of polished marble and slate, with purple drapes hanging on every wall. Hidden behind them were maps of the Empire's far-flung territories, should he need to examine them quickly. It often helped during sleepless nights, to study these lands that he was charged to protect. It affirmed his sense of duty. Military medallions hung from the mirror on his dressing table.
Then he noticed the letter left for him on a side table. He lit a lantern before opening it to reveal precise details, provided by Chancellor Urtica, of where Jamur Rika was living near the settlement of Hayk, on the Southfjords. The letter also confirmed that Chancellor Urtica would like an interview with Brynd before he left, in order to discover further details of the disastrous ambush at Daluk Point.
Brynd was disturbed by the thought of now finding time to come to terms with the deaths in his regiment, and discovering who was responsible for their ambush. Such quieter moments were difficult for soldiers, as the killings they witnessed worked over and over again in the mind. He would have to organize letters of sympathy to be sent to the families of the deceased soldiers – there was still so much to be done, and he must be ready to leave early the next morning. Brynd settled down at his desk for a couple of hours' paperwork.
Brynd paused to look up at the clock. Not even an hour had passed, and he wasn't feeling particularly tired, but he decided the letters could wait. He needed some fresh air, he needed some relaxation. Perhaps Apium was right, and Brynd took life too seriously. The pressure was starting to get to him.
He changed out of his uniform into a featureless brown tunic, threw on a hooded cloak, then walked quickly out into the chill of the night.
Brynd knocked on the door. The darkness felt suffocating, one of those nights when you felt like someone was watching your every move.
Brynd's secret would then be out.
And he would be executed on the city walls.
He was standing outside an inconspicuous doorway near Gulya Gata, not far from where painters from the gallery customarily loitered in the company of poets inside bistros by Cartanu Gata and the Gata Sentimental. Nearby, past the bad hotel in the exposed street, there was always the sound of activity: erratic laughter, retreating footsteps, the clink of glass or the scrape of metal. Depending on the mood of the city, it could also mean drunkenness, lovemaking, even a murder. Such sounds were interpreted according to your own degree of paranoia – Villjamur was constructed by a state of mind.
The door opened, and a slim young man stood there wearing only a flimsy robe. High cheekbones, thin lips, a wicked grin that Brynd could never stay away from too long. The young man brushed his sleek black hair back with his fingers. 'Well, if it isn't my big war hero. Haven't seen you for a while.'
'I've had a hell of a week,' Brynd breathed, his gaze flickering from Kym's face to the ground. In a way it was a refusal to see himself reflected in Kym's eyes.
'You look like you have, too,' Kym said. 'You look bloody terrible. And you haven't even come in uniform. Well, you're a right scruff, but I can live with that.'
'If someone catches us together while I'm uniform we'll both be hanged. And think of how my unit would react if they discover the truth about me. My fellow soldiers are suspicious enough of me already.' Having no wife might arouse suspicion normally, but at least being an albino gave him an excuse to hide behind.
Kym said, 'You're just paranoid because of the colour of your skin, honey. So stop being so self-conscious. People give less of a shit about you than you believe.'
'I didn't come here to argue,' Brynd said.
'Well, in that case, you may as well come in.'
Still hesitant now. 'Are you… alone? No one else here?'
'Of course I am, otherwise I'd say so.'
Brynd followed him inside, looking around carefully before he closed the door. Kym was always so casual, and there was something deeply attractive about his carefree attitude. Or was it more carelessness? His lack of care was seen as a sign of strength by many. Women in particular were attracted to the deep confidence from which he drew his plenitude of sarcasm and humour and surreal wisdom. They felt the urge to be noticed by him, but he always came back to Brynd in the end.
'That a cut on your face?' Brynd had noted a thin line under Kym's eye, in this clearer light.
'Experienced some rough treatment, you know how it is. Well, you don't quite, I suppose, being all military and precise. This was just a little bit more than name-calling, though, a threat to inform the Inquisition. Just so happens the guy I was seeing at the time was tough, tall and muscled. Gave the guy who did this a broken jaw, poor bastard. Can't eat his meals without help now.' Kym gave the gentlest of smiles.
'Indeed.' Brynd was not sure whether to feel jealous or angry. He had no right to be either. 'So how've you been? I see you've decorated the place again.'
Brynd indicated the metal-frame chairs, the elaborate new murals, the stylish new lanterns that cast shades of green and blue all around them. He found it impressive, Kym's ability over the years to always find something new to do with the place.
The first time they'd met was when Brynd was just a captain in the Second Dragoons. He didn't have such a high reputation to protect, so they were good days, relatively stress-free, when he could spend his evenings in lovemaking and easy companionship. The two of them would visit the galleries, even stroll on the bridges through the warmer evenings, just to get closer to the stars. But always in the darkness of the executioner's shadow because of a few lines in an ancient Jorsalir text. Back then, the Freeze was not something people even thought about, and he didn't have a crucial role to play in the Empire's development or safety, so he was less bothered about his reputation.
In those more directionless younger days, he went about the city screwing man after man. There were always places to find it, discreet clubs dark enough so married men could be hypocrites. He'd felt a discreet thrill at the fact that he could be killed simply for being what he was. It always made sucking a cock so much more exciting. Brynd had now settled on just one man – in personality a strange opposite that he needed more than chose, for reasons he never wanted to investigate. Perhaps it was the distinct lack of machismo in Kym, a quality that was so evidently postured during his time in the army.
'I sold a painting and got decent money for it…' Kym paused as he followed Brynd's gaze around the room. 'It wasn't even very good, but taste is a matter of taste.' He laughed at his own joke – something Brynd also found endearing. 'So, I thought I'd give the place a new look. You could do with one, too.'
Kym walked towards Brynd and the two men held each other for a moment while their expressions relaxed into something more raw. Brynd inhaled and exhaled deeply, waiting for the moment, waiting for the sign in Kym's eyes, and then they thrust their faces together, lips touching with a soft aggression, time falling apart.
Eventually Brynd withdrew with a sigh.
'I hate you, just invading my evening like this.' Kym ran his hands along Brynd's arm, testing the ridges in his triceps. 'I hate you, and love you. How long can you stay?'
'Only for the night, and I've got to be up early. Then it's not long until I leave the city again.'
'I don't want to know.' Kym placed a finger to Brynd's lips, and for a moment Brynd closed his eyes and tasted it.
Brynd parted Kym's robe, reached out, without really thinking, to feel the warmth of his body, more of a familiar reaction than an intention. He moved his palms very slowly down his lover's torso.
Kym shuddered. 'Astrid, your hands are freezing.'
Brynd smiled. 'Sorry.' He continued until Kym became hard, then kissed his stomach. 'I've got something a little warmer.'
Brynd fell to his knees, then took Kym in his mouth.
Heading upstairs was something Brynd always enjoyed, as it prolonged the moment and the anticipation. Brynd taking solace in one of these rare moments when he could unbuckle the stresses of his complex, dangerous existence. It would be another one of those special nights in which he engaged solely with Kym.
A soldier, a battle hero, and this was the most dangerous thing Brynd ever did.
Brynd was up with the sun, or what could be seen of it in this dank weather. Sometime after the bell tower had struck five, he spent a while poring over the maps of the Boreal Archipelago, Kym now a distant memory.
Then, leaving his chamber, he joined Chancellor Urtica for a simple breakfast in one of Balmacara's dining halls. They were the only two there, but a fire had already been lit to warm the great chamber. Aged Imperial standards hung in strips in various states of decay. Some of them were over a thousand years old: faded icons of faded glory.
'Please, commander,' the chancellor began after a few mouthfuls, 'tell me some more about what happened at Daluk.'
At least the chancellor seemed more interested this time. Brynd carefully explained all that had happened, produced the arrow. He insisted it wasn't so much who had attacked him that mattered, more the point of how they managed to find out about his expedition.
'You suspect that we've a spy among us, commander?' Urtica suggested.
'I would say, chancellor, that it might be likely. The loyalties of certain people within Balmacara are complex. Councillors possess external connections that Emperor Johynn wouldn't have been informed of. People with friends in distant places. If you call that the activities of a spy, then, yes, but it didn't come from my mouth.'
'You could make a politician yet, my dear fellow.'
Brynd didn't respond, just ate another mouthful.
Urtica picked up the arrow again. 'Varltung, you think?'
'It's certainly possible, judging from the rune marks, while the metal work is definitely something I'd associate with non-Empire craftsmanship. I think it'd be worth you showing it to some of the experts in the arsenal workshops.'
'I'll do that.' Urtica looked from the arrow to Brynd, then back again. 'Of course, if this was an attack mounted from Varltung, with the Freeze taking a firm grip, we may well need to brace ourselves for something more serious.'
'We must fear that the Varltungs are getting ready to seize Jamur territories,' Urtica said.
'You mean the islands nearby?'
'We must be ready to defend them, yes. The most northern and easterly islands are always heavily manned, considering we see little war from there. But I suspect we must also be ready now to counter-attack. They have killed some of our best men, commander. We can't allow this to go unpunished.'
'Surely a campaign against the Varltungs is unnecessary – and likely to be unsuccessful, too? We've tried that before, several years ago. Decades, in fact. And what about the Freeze? You want to deploy all these men at a time when so many refugees are clamouring to get into our city?'
'Exactly so,' Urtica said. 'We must strike them fast and hard, and in a sufficiently damaging way that makes sure they can't counter-attack for the foreseeable future.'
'I would think the ice age means all this is pointless?'
'Not at all. Because of the Freeze, because of all these years of being locked away, we'll need those islands kept safe for our future generations.'
Brynd said, 'And you're so confident that any of us will survive at all?'
'Times will be very difficult, commander, and of course many may not survive. We don't even know the potential extent of the icecap. But it is possible that people will indeed survive, and safeguarding those islands would guarantee them the best possible chance of survival after the ice retreats.'
Chancellor Urtica had donated a few luxuries and a considerable sum of money for the brief journey – all of ten Jamuns' worth of the latter, broken into smaller coin: Sota, Lordil, Drakar. Brynd couldn't help feeling a bit suspicious, but accepted these supplies courteously. Perhaps he is just trying to make me feel better after losing so many of my troops.
They set off out into the cold grey morning.
Two pterodettes arced in the sky, their shrill cries penetrating the quiet of the city. Behind them they left the ringing of the hours for morning worship, the smell of breakfasts from assorted dining halls.
Waiting at the front entrance to Balmacara were the four men he had chosen. Standing by their immaculately prepared horses, patiently waiting to leave. Staring up at the sky, Apium was sitting on a black gelding alongside a vast, gleaming carriage which the new Empress would travel in. The other three Night Guard soldiers, none of whom had been at Daluk Point, were talking together quietly: fit, young, ideal for such a casual expedition. The two blond men were Sen and Lupus, twenty-six and twenty-two years old respectively. They could have been brothers, both lean, both tall. Both with those cutting blue eyes. Something almost wolf-like about their appearance. They had risen dramatically through the army because of their talent, and they respected Brynd above all others. Brynd valued Sen particularly since the lad was easily the best swordsman he had ever trained. He constantly worked on developing his skills, so Brynd would lay money on him being the finest swordsman in the Empire within a year or two.
Nelum Valore, a heavily built black-haired man, was a little older. Should have become one of the Imperial academics, but he preferred life outside of musky chambers. Said what you could learn from books could be learned from the real world too. Brynd admired that quality, and made him one of the youngest lieutenants ever serving in the Night Guard. The man rarely discussed his Jorsalir beliefs, either, and the commander didn't know what to make of his dedication to gods he couldn't see.
These four were the best of the remaining regiment. In full uniform, black on black, the seven-pointed star glistening on their chests, they stood to attention, each with his left hand resting across his stomach.
'Sele of Jamur,' Brynd greeted them. 'We all set to go?'
'Yes, sir,' Sen replied for them. 'All weaponry's been fixed to the carriage and we've got our rations inside. Lupus arranged for the vehicle to be thoroughly cleaned overnight, so it'll be good enough for whoever it is intended.' This last statement hung in the air, hoping for an answer.
Brynd peered underneath the carriage to confirm four crossbows and four spears were fixed to the base between the axles. Short-handle axes were there too, and none of those extra weapons could easily be seen, being a useful addition to the sword and bow each man would carry. Having the benefit of young eyesight, Lupus was a highly skilled archer, while Apium and Nelum used their mature strength for axe work, but knew their way around a sword as well.
'Good. I've requested for a garuda to track us in the skies – to scout around also, so that we don't get surprised again. So you know in advance, while we're away, the Council will make an announcement revealing that Emperor Johynn has died, and that his elder daughter, the Lady Rika, will become ruler of the Jamur territories. Villjamur will be officially in a state of mourning until our return.'
'With the new Empress, I take it?' Nelum tapped the side of the carriage with his palm.
Brynd nodded. 'Yes, we're collecting her from Southfjords. She knows we're coming to meet her, but not that her father's dead.'
'Whose job is it to deliver the news?' Sen said.
'That honour appears to be mine,' Brynd said grimly.
'I've heard she never liked him that much anyway,' Nelum muttered.
'Meanwhile…' Brynd faced each of them in turn, 'no flirting, no smiling – in fact, no talking to her, unless I say so. Just remember, she's your new ruler. You serve her loyally. We're her guard.'
They nodded in confirmation.
'Just us five going?' Nelum enquired.
'No point drawing too much attention to our departure. It'd alert too many people that something was up. We won't get any trouble going to Southfjords, so no need to waste extra men. There aren't enough of us Night Guardsmen left, anyway. I'll have to recruit more after we return.'
Silence passed as they reflected on dead comrades.
'Right,' Brynd continued, 'we've a longship waiting for us at Gish, and that's where we ride first. It'll take the best part of two days, so let's get going.'
They all mounted their horses.
'You're very quiet today,' Brynd remarked to Apium. The redhead was clutching at his stomach.
'Aye. Seems that I can no longer handle a bit of lager like I used to.'
In the centre of the Atrium, Chancellor Urtica stood before the assembled Council. He flicked back his grey cloak dramatically, looking around with a falsely solemn expression. If he wanted to initiate a combat situation, he would have to be at his most persuasive, most charming. The reactions of the other members were uniformly glum.
'Fellow councillors,' he began, 'I've only this morning had a private meeting with Commander Brynd Lathraea of the Night Guard. He has informed me that he strongly suspects the Varltung islanders as being responsible for the surprise slaughter of his men.'
Urtica produced the arrow that Brynd had given him earlier, passing it to the nearest councillor to hand around the chamber for inspection.
'Somehow these wretched people have found out about our secret mission to secure more firegrain, and are now planning to make sure we crumble before the Freeze properly settles in.'
There was a murmur throughout the chamber, and someone spoke up, 'Are you quite certain this is from Varltung?'
'Indeed, the armoury will take a look to make sure, but we're confident it's from Varltung. They clearly knew of our plans and consequently destroyed some of our best regiment.'
'But they're merely barbarians,' Councillor Mewun protested. 'How could they do this?'
Urtica's voice became bolder, a well-rehearsed ploy on his part. He felt it important to inject some drama into these meetings. 'I strongly recommend that we act on this outrage promptly. We should send a naval assault to seize the entire island and disable it, and take their resources. Who knows what they will be capable of later, whilst our city gates are closed?'
'Should the new Empress not decide this?' Urtica couldn't see who spoke.
Silence, for several heartbeats. 'She'll have many other concerns once she arrives, and I don't think she is capable of conducting a military operation yet.'
'I'm not certain we should consider going to war on such little evidence. How can you launch an attack without more definite proof?' It was Councillor Yiak, a chubby woman that Urtica had never liked much.
'We do have evidence,' Urtica said. 'But I can tell you need further encouragement on the issue. This is about defence of our Empire, about protecting it against crimes such as that perpetrated at Daluk Point. I suggest we should have another debate this very evening, following the evening prayer bell.'
Urtica was delighted as the motion was carried overwhelmingly.
Councillor Boll then stood up, his skinny frame barely noticeable. His manner was nervous, his voice uncertain. 'Um, I'd like to announce briefly that we've had an approach from the Inquisition concerning the recent murder of our fellow councillor, Delamonde Rubus Ghuda. They would like to come into the Atrium itself to discuss the case.'
'Indeed,' Urtica replied. 'But I'd recommend they come when we're not in session, and instead interview us one by one in our private quarters.'
They all voiced their agreement, because Ghuda was a popular man, would be missed by all, and the sooner they reached the solving of his murder, the better. No one felt this more than Urtica. They shared the ideal that the city should be rid of the scum of refugees, that they presented the danger of disease and discontent. Urtica would endorse everything it took to find who had disposed of his ally.
A few hours outside of Villjamur, on the road to Gish, Brynd caught a glimpse of a curiously caparisoned horse being ridden through a clearing in the betula woodland ahead. They had come off the main road some time ago, preferring instead to follow one of the smaller gravel tracks that ran along the coast. They had avoided the villages and hamlets of Eelu, Fue and Goule. He thought it best that as few people as possible were aware of their movements.
He could tell that the horse was from one of the famous gangs, but he wondered which one. He always found the gatherings of these horse gangs to be a wonderful sight, and he halted his men with a gesture, interested to see if they were racing today.
'What's up?' Apium said, following his gaze to the trees.
'Only a gang rider,' Brynd replied. 'Might take a look to make sure. Let's pause here for a quarter of an hour.'
The gap through the larix led him onto an open expanse of tundra, where two horse gangs were currently assembled. There were mainly men as the lead riders, but some girls rode alongside, all dressing their horses similarly to whichever group they favoured. Many wore leather, even daggers, since this was about raw masculine pride: young people dressed up with nowhere to go. Such gangs would gather on exposed areas of tundra to race one another, or just to hang out, drinking alcohol away from the eyes of parents or city guards, and at night they would lie with each other indiscriminately. During races money would change hands as the onlookers gambled on the winners, and rags of different colours were attached to the horses' legs or tails in a code Brynd didn't understand. Tribal tokens were fixed to the reins, personalizing the horse as far as possible, in mimicry of the military cadres of the Empire.
Behind the rival groups lay a flat dark plain, under a drizzle-filled sky, with the smell of forests and of salt wafting from the sea to the south. For a short while they would be happy enough here, all the cares and impending changes now forgotten. Two young men presently lined up their horses, paused, then belted across the horizon, the others cheering on in feral calls.
The sight of such carefree enthusiasm made Brynd feel he was getting old. He had youthful dreams once, which seemed to be travelling further and further out of his reach. Perhaps he should stay out of Villjamur when the gates would be shut for all those years…
The garuda suddenly landed next to him. Brynd didn't even flinch. He had spotted the creature hovering overhead only moments before.
With a chalk-white face offset by golden plumage, and large wings now tucked neatly behind his back, the garuda stood nearly six feet tall. He was wearing black breeches, with nothing covering his upper torso, revealing ferocious muscles beneath the downy feathers of his chest. Tied to the garuda's waist was a belt with two long sheathed daggers. The creatures were always an amazing sight. They now primarily inhabited several towering cliff faces at the Fugul Colonies on the island of Kullrun, which was sealed off as a military training ground. There, over a thousand of them lived in caves. They had been an essential part of the Imperial armies for thousands of years. Although communicating with each other through shrill bird calls, they used sign language to interact with humans or rumel. How and when it had come about was anyone's guess, but such communication was essential to their joint campaigns.
'Sele of Jamur, wing commander,' Brynd said.
The bird-man, Wing Commander Vish, then raised his arms to sign, Why have you stopped?
'We're only stopping to rest the horses. Did you spot anything on the way here?'
Just more refugees approaching the Sanctuary Road. There are probably at least a thousand camped outside the city now.
'As many as that.' Brynd shook his head. 'What'll you yourself do – during this Freeze?'
The wing commander eyed him expressionlessly, then signed, What do you mean?
'I mean, when the ice comes so densely that people are sealed in. That's not so far off now. You're intending to stay in Villjamur, right, for all those years? What're you going to do there?'
Just because the gates are closed, doesn't mean I can't fly. I can still serve the military, serve the Empire. You appear rather philosophical today, commander.
'I guess the Emperor's death will bring about changes for the city. Maybe I should be thinking of a change myself.'
Maybe you have never quite felt a part of things in Villjamur. I always thought you were too self-conscious about the colour of your skin.
Brynd looked away as if to cut him off. 'Well, if that's the case I've picked the wrong career.' He wasn't aware garudas could be so perceptive. 'I'm just getting old.' Brynd laughed. 'Perhaps I've started thinking about myself too much.'
Then you'd be the same as the rest of your race.
'Come on. Let's get something to eat.'
Chancellor Urtica strode through the armoury as if he owned the place, yet was almost knocked back by the change in temperature. Rows of men drenched in sweat were working at benches. They looked up to inspect the intruder, their white eyes startling against dust-smeared skin. In the background, a huge furnace burned violently, producing a heady smell. Everywhere, the clunk clunk clunk of metal being beaten and contorted into shape.
'Can I help you, chancellor?' A short, stout man, blond hair, wearing a short-sleeved black tunic and black breeches. His arms, shimmering with sweat, were totally smooth because continual exposure to the flames had burned away all the hairs. This was the Chief of Defence for Villjamur – in reality, a retired soldier who still directed the smiths according to battle orders.
'Indeed you can, Fentuk, my dear fellow,' Urtica replied, smiling around at the other workers, who glared back sceptically. 'Walk out with me, if you please, so that we're not heard.'
'Sounds important,' Fentuk muttered.
Urtica led Fentuk out of the building and over a darkened bridge nearby, where you could look directly across the roofs of Villjamur.
It was approaching dusk, a carnelian sky. House lanterns scattered throughout the city seemed to mirror the stars. The twin moons Bohr and Astrid hung on opposite sides of the sky, giving a brilliant light that seemed to catch all the spires and bridges in an ethereal glow. Some distance below them, a horse was being led along a dully lit street, its hooves clopping loudly on the stone. There was a flash of magic. A door opened and closed, chattering of women heard in-between, and there was a lute playing sevenths in some tavern nearby, a dreary tune accompanied by an off-key singer.
One of those perfect Villjamur nights.
'So, Chancellor Urtica, what've you brought me here for?'
'Insurance.' Urtica leaned against the parapet of the bridge. The wind ruffled his cloak and he shivered. 'One can never be too certain who's listening in, these days.'
'Listening in.' Urtica reached under his cloak, produced the arrow. 'I urgently need to know where this came from.'
Fentuk took it, examined it closely. 'Hard to tell in this light.' He rolled it between his fingers, lifted it this way and that. 'Well, it ain't Jamur,' he continued. 'Not from any of the islands to the west or south. My guess would be Varltung, but I can't be certain. Made very poorly, you see. Could also be Maour, Dockull or even Hulrr.' The man pursed his lips thinly. 'Why? Where d'you get it?'
Urtica clicked his tongue against his teeth. 'It was found in the corpse of a Night Guard soldier. The commander suspects it was a Varltung ambush. I was hoping to get your confirmation, to support the case for a campaign against that nation, before the Freeze sets in.'
'Oh, well, I… I couldn't say for sure it's from Varltung, no.'
'Are you certain you can't be sure? We need to strike back against the Varltungs before it's too late.' The chancellor waved his hands in the air to stress the point.
'No,' Fentuk said. 'I really can't be sure, not if it could mean war. Not on my word. Is this all the evidence you have?'
'We've more,' Urtica said. A lie, of course, and he didn't think twice about saying it.
'I can't help you in this case, chancellor. I'm sorry.' He handed the arrow back to Urtica, who concealed it beneath his cloak again. 'Was that everything?' Fentuk said, running his hand through his hair. 'I have to be getting back now.'
'No, there was something else – something much more important.' Urtica looked around the parapet. He stepped in closer to Fentuk. 'I must whisper this.
'I can offer you a substantial sum of money to make sure that you never have to step foot in that rancid armoury again – we're talking safe accounts and country estates. All you have to do is confirm for me that this arrow came from a Varltung bow, and back me up officially if I wanted to initiate an order of war. You could do that for me, couldn't you, Fentuk?'
The chief of defence was solemn as he clasped the parapet. 'I… I really don't know.'
Urtica placed an arm around him. 'I wouldn't like to say what might happen otherwise. I mean, there are some prominent pro-military Council members with significant investments in armoury and ores – and in times of war their incomes and influence are known to rise hugely. Should they be denied this opportunity – and your name will be thrown about the Atrium – well, I have heard tell of punishment beatings for this sort of thing in the past. Such stories…' He shook his head and sighed for effect.
A moment later, as if ordered, a banshee began keening in the distance, somewhere possibly Caveside. As time passed, Fentuk was visibly shaken by this potential premonition. 'How much money are we talking about exactly?' he muttered eventually.
Urtica smiled. 'That's the spirit, Fentuk. You won't regret this. You should maybe join me for drinks sometime, socially.'
Brynd had ordered his men to set up camp for the night on the edge of a copse of trees seven hours' ride further on from the hamlet of Goule, and just past the Bria Haugr, a conical hill that was reputed to be an ancient Azimuth burial mound. The surrounding fagus would provide them with some concealment.
They were now halfway to the military port of Gish. Brynd didn't want to travel via E'toawor, a significant port town and favoured entry point to Jokull. He couldn't afford to go further north either, to the towns of Vilhokteu and, on the estuary of the River Hok, Vilhokr. He certainly did not need the eyes of common tradesmen, dockers, and farm labourers to be the first of her subjects to set eyes upon the new Empress.
As the sun set Brynd and Sen sparred with sabres a little to fend off the boredom. But as the sky became a bold shade of purple, it was clear that Sen was getting the better of him. The others, including the garuda, sat around the fire, backs against the wheels of the carriage, watching.
'He'll have you, Brynd,' Apium said. 'I can see your defences falling apart. Sen doesn't even need a sword.'
Brynd ignored the taunts.
'Go on, lad,' Apium continued. 'Aim low. Go for his cock – he's not got any use for it these days.'
Finally they sheathed their sabres and Brynd turned to the others. 'Time for a close-range scout. Sen'll stay here with the wing commander. The rest of you want to take a look around with me?'
Everyone groaned but they stood up.
Apium brushed himself down. 'Which way we heading, commander?'
'I think we'll follow a circle going east, nothing too far out, just a few hundred paces. I need to make sure there'll be no surprises tonight.' Brynd wasn't sure exactly how wary to be. This was Jokull, after all, and there hadn't been any serious fighting on the island for years – before Daluk Point. Before that incident, the idea of any threat on the home island was something not even considered.
The others followed him in a huddled group, taking a three-hundred-pace radius around their camp. The terrain was largely flat, and away from the forest, an open view for leagues. Underfoot was a mossy grass that concealed rocks and dips. Apium managed to fall over just twice.
The sky blackened further. The glow of the campfire stood out as an intense beacon, revealing the silhouette of the carriage. Somewhere in the distance a wolf howled. Only one of the moons was showing – the larger one, Bohr – but it was now cresting the horizon just before leaving the landscape in utter darkness.
After a while, Brynd heard something strange in the distance. He had spent enough time in the wild to know that it was nothing natural.
He regarded the carriage.
Apium asked, 'What's up?'
Brynd gestured for him to be silent whilst he scanned the scene with the enhanced vision which the Night Guard benefited from, but it wasn't enough for a clear identification.
Shadows moved across the landscape.
Nelum and Lupus moved alongside, staring back to the campfire. Lupus said, 'I see something.'
'Strap your weapons and armour tight,' Brynd said. 'Let's get back quietly.'
The four soldiers jogged in stealth across the tundra, back to the carriage. Brynd began to slow, waved for the others to follow suit, then signalled for them to unsheathe their weapons. Lupus swiftly nocked an arrow, Apium and Nelum drew short axes, Brynd pulled out his sabre. As they approached the campfire they spread out.
Sen and the garuda were nowhere to be seen, the only noise coming from the crackle of the fire.
And something was wrong, an uncertainty hovering in the air, and once again the environment became to Brynd a matter of statistics, of distances, chances, arrows spent. He turned back to study the copse of trees. He concentrated, heightening his level of perception.
To the other side of the carriage: a strange lump on the ground. It was difficult to make out in the darkness despite his superior vision.
He went over and knelt down next to it.
Lurched back in disgust.
It was Sen's head, severed cleanly, blood draining away from it in a small trickle between Brynd's boots.
Brynd hailed the others in an urgent whisper, and they ran to his side. The sense of shock amongst them was palpable.
Brynd looked up. 'Stay calm. Stick together.' He analysed the scene as if the trees would produce instant answers. What the fuck is happening on this island of ours?
He noticed the trail of blood leading under the cover of the fagus trees. The rest of Sen's body must be there somewhere. The treetops fizzed under the night sky.
'Wait, commander,' Apium whispered. 'I don't think we should follow. Whatever did this to Sen is obviously skilled at picking people off quietly. Best we don't separate for the moment.'
'You might be right there, captain,' Brynd murmured, though uncertainly.
'What, we're just going to let Sen's death go without investigation?' Lupus said indignantly.
Brynd gestured for him to lower his voice. 'One of the most promising young soldiers in the Empire is dead. One of our garudas has gone missing. So you think we should pursue this right now, at night, in the dark in the woods? There're just four of us now. Already two down.' Maybe I should've brought more men along, but no one but me could've known we were taking this route.
'So we simply wait here,' Lupus protested, 'and get picked off one by one?'
A rustling from the trees.
Everyone looked towards the copse.
Three figures lurched forwards and Lupus brought an arrow to anchor point, aimed it.
'Not till I say.' Brynd held up a hand, but was reaching for his axe with the other.
The dark figures started running towards them.
Brynd signalled. Lupus released an arrow.
It whipped through the air, struck one of the intruders powerfully in the face. By then he was nocking another arrow, and soon another figure was falling to the ground. The final one stepped forward with sword raised.
Brynd hurled his axe though the intervening space.
It cleaved the attacker's face and he too slumped to the ground.
Then suddenly the unlikely happened: all three fallen bodies began struggling to push themselves upright, trying to pull out the arrows, with jerky, improbable movements.
Lupus fired repeatedly, pinning the bodies to the ground, twitching. And again they tried to stand with a jagged motion.
'Aim for their legs,' Brynd yelled, running to reach under the carriage for a crossbow. Then, returning to Lupus's side again, he began shooting at the heads and torsos.
They fired until finally the bodies lay still.
'Cover!' Brynd swept in towards the dead, seized one of the corpses back into the light of the campfire. Soon the others had done the same with the rest.
Brynd began tearing open the ragged clothing on each of the corpses. 'By Bohr, these men we've killed were already dead.'
'Are you sure?' Nelum questioned, and was rewarded with a glare of annoyance from his commander. Yes, I'm sure. These things are fucking dead, many times over.
'Look at this one. His skin is ice-cold – blue, even in this light. He isn't even bleeding, just the remains of some black gunk. He's been dead for several days at least.'
The soldiers remained silent.
'Draugr,' Nelum said eventually.
'Y'what?' Apium demanded.
'Draugr. Undead. A purportedly mythical creature. Well, that's what it looks like anyway. Give it a while longer and I suspect they'll be back to life, in some sort of manner. So we might want to make sure they're finished off properly, commander.'
Even as soon as he spoke, one of the bodies began twitching, the fingers moving gently and impossibly. With a sigh, Brynd stepped quickly to the carriage and pulled out one of the larger axes. Over the next few moments he hacked away at the reviving corpses with relentless brutality, grunting as he hauled the metal blade down on them again and again, releasing his frustration in the process, and Apium soon joined in the frenzy with another axe till the camp was carpeted with bone and smashed heads. They then gathered the individual fragments together away from camp, and Brynd fervently hoped there was no way that they could resurrect themselves from that destruction.
'Now,' Brynd demanded, with disgust on realizing he was covered in small chunks of flesh, 'could you tell me about these draugr, lieutenant. Please.'
Nelum had this scholarly way about him when he was explaining, always had done for the years Brynd had known him, and the act in itself was a comfort now, the return to business-as-usual. He began casually, pacing around in slow strides. 'A few volumes of collected folklore report sightings of undead, mainly on islands like Maour and Varltung. Ascribed to distant mythology, mainly. So you certainly wouldn't expect to encounter them in this day and age, or for many centuries past. From the accounts I've read in bestiaries of the Archipelago, they're last reported about as far back as the Mathema civilization. That means myths of sixty thousand years.'
'Yes, but what exactly are they?' Brynd interrupted impatiently.
'Exactly what I said: the undead. Corpses that in some way become animated again. Normally, their bodies have to be disposed of in certain ways, so I'm guessing and hoping your little dissection would have covered the requirements rather effectively.'
'So what are they doing here on Jokull?' Apium broke in. 'How did they ever get on the Empire's home island? With something as sinister as that coming ashore, you'd think some of the coastal guards would have noticed, eh.'
'Your guess is as good as mine, captain,' Nelum admitted. 'I wouldn't say that they'd feel constrained by water, though. Perhaps they didn't arrive, and were here to begin with.'
'It can only be cultist work,' Brynd said firmly. 'You remember that figure we saw at Daluk, captain?'
'Bohr's balls,' Apium gasped.
'Eloquently put, captain,' Nelum said. 'But I don't see how – and I don't see why.'
'How? They've found some relic that'll do the job. But why? I can't answer that.' Apium sighed. 'Well, so much for a quiet night.'
Nelum frowned. 'I can't understand what they're doing out here, and why they're attacking us. It's as if they attacked on some primitive instinct.'
'They're even frightening off gheels,' Brynd observed. 'And that's saying something. All this blood and not one gheel in sight.'
'Commander,' Lupus hissed.
Brynd stepped alongside him, peering out into the darkness. 'What is it, Lupus?'
'Over there, about fifty paces. Looks like Wing Commander Vish.' The private was pointing to the north, beyond the fringe of the copse, at a silhouette with wings protruding over its back.
'Keep me covered, private,' Brynd whispered, then stepped forward to meet the garuda. As Vish came closer, Brynd could see that he was dragging his left leg along with both hands. One of his wings hung out raggedly to the side.
Flesh had been removed in chunks from his torso as if devoured, and his feathers were slick and heavy with blood. Brynd kept the sabre in his hand as he supported the garuda along until they were back in the glow of the campfire. There, they eased him to the ground and wrapped him in strips of cloth torn from a cloak to serve as bandages. Finally, Brynd used some of his medical powders to knock the garuda unconscious so he wouldn't feel so much pain, and Nelum helped him stitch the wounds together.
I should've been more prepared. What the hell is happening here?
The wing commander bled to death during the night, his story untold.
Brynd took solace in the fact that he passed away without pain. No one else had slept at all through the night, and they burned his body the instant the sun rose. As they rode off across the sparsely forested sections of tundra they looked back to see a thin stream of smoke carrying the garuda's soul away. The cold air was sharp against the dried sweat on Brynd's brow. It was, at least, enough to remind him that he himself was still alive.
Investigator Jeryd stepped into his chambers, bleary-eyed. The sun had been up for a short while, not that you could see it yet. His head was mostly clear – an impressive feat considering the amount of whisky he'd imbibed. He never let it get too far and always knew when to stop. He'd seen too much of what happened to the lives of alcoholics to prevent the same from happening to him. No, if you drank all the time, that meant you wanted to use it to control your life, as if that was the only solution, and Jeryd was not looking for control, merely one night of escape. Two hundred years of it had taught him that you could never control the world around you.
He slumped into his fine wooden chair with a grunt, and for a brief moment contemplated giving up his career. How had things come to this? His tail felt stiff, his body ached. As he rested his head in his hands he was staring directly at an envelope on his desk until it came into focus.
Fumbling with eagerness, he tore open the letter.
He read it anxiously.
She wanted to meet him for dinner at the end of the week at one of their favourite bistros.
He tossed the letter on the desk, reclined back in his chair. So she wanted to meet him? That was a start. The Bistro Juula was where he had first taken her for dinner immediately after they had been married in a Jorsalir church. A dimly lit place, with wooden floors, patient staff, and crammed with large potted ferns that gave each table a degree of privacy.
He heard the bell tower strike thirteen: midday already, and he was meant to be meeting Tryst to look more closely at the body of Councillor Ghuda.
Jeryd swore at the horse that splashed an icy puddle onto his breeches. Tryst, a good armspan away, stared at Jeryd in faint amusement as the offending carriage proceeded into the distance.
The iren across the road was packed. Cold in the shade of a nest of architectural monstrosities, dozens of stalls lined the cobbled streets edging this trading centre of the city, not far from the Council Atrium. The investigator's hands were clasped behind his back as he glanced casually at the arrays of food imported in from the surrounding agricultural communities where cultists had been treating crops to help yields survive the bad weather.
Noticing a display of several pots, vases, ornaments, he made a mental note to investigate some of the antique shops further away in the city's expensive iren district during his lunch hour. Maybe he could find an interesting object for Marysa, something to impress her when they met for dinner. Moving on, he guided Tryst up a spiral passageway leading to the next level of the city.
Along some of these higher roads they encountered some huge flies that must have just swarmed in, their wings a handspan wide. They were feeding near the stables of the chancellor's horses. They made a rather pleasant drone, and in a mildly disgusted way, he admired them. Usually they were harmless enough, occurring in twos or threes, the pterodettes keeping their numbers in check. It was not known if these giant insects had some collective consciousness, but he remembered investigating an odd incident last year, where a two-bit stage cultist used some of these creatures in his routine, to aid with his levitation. One night the insects picked him up, led him to a window, then promptly dropped him to his death. No one in the audience seemed to care that much at the time.
The investigator and his assistant reached a low wooden door set in an unimpressive stretch of limestone. Whereas much of the upper city was decorated and ornamental, this thoroughfare was plain to the point of functional. A remnant from earlier days, perhaps, in a city that had changed its perspectives innumerable times.
Jeryd knocked, turned to Tryst and explained, 'This should bring some leads, I hope.'
Tryst was silent.
'It was the Big Date last night, wasn't it?' Jeryd leaned against the wall, folded his arms.
'Yes, it was nice,' Tryst murmured. 'But we didn't kiss at the end.'
'Bloody hell, it doesn't always have to end with a kiss. You should be happy it didn't end with a slap.' He banged on the door again.
This time it opened, and a man with a haggard face beckoned the two of them inside, his white gown stained an alarming red down the front. 'I'm sorry to have kept you gentlemen waiting, but I was in the middle of cleaning a corpse. My name's Doctor Tarr, and I'm pleased to meet you.' He offered a wrinkled hand.
Jeryd eyed it uncertainly, and introduced himself and Tryst. So this was Tarr, then, a man who dealt daily with the dead. Jeryd wondered if he would be as jolly or remote compared to the other doctors he had worked with in the past. They were certainly an odd bunch, these people who chose to spend their day away from the living.
'It's interesting to finally meet you, after reading so many of your forensic reports these last couple of years,' Jeryd said. 'And interesting that we should meet over Councillor Ghuda, certainly my biggest case.'
'Yes, yes, Delamonde Ghuda is a most interesting case.' Doctor Tarr gestured for them to follow him.
There were no windows in the room they entered, which was lit poorly by lanterns. Due to a proliferation of dried flowers and herbs, the odour wasn't as bad as Jeryd thought it would be. There was faint melody coming from another room. 'You employ a musician here?' he asked in surprise.
Doctor Tarr stopped. 'Why, yes, of course.' He glanced at the investigator with mild disbelief. 'The patients wouldn't like it if I dismissed our lute player.'
'Patients?' Jeryd looked incredulous. 'I was under the impression that this place was a morgue?'
'That's correct, investigator. However, I prefer a soothing ambience, even for the dead. He's not the best musician, but people need to earn a coin, given the harsh times ahead.'
'Indeed,' Jeryd replied. He thought he could hear a faint noise behind the sound of the lute. A buzz maybe, perhaps some cultist device to aid the process? Jeryd studied Doctor Tarr in the light of the lantern. He was a man perhaps in his fifties, with a slight stoop, weathered face, thinning blond hair, elegant fingers.
He led them into a smaller well-lit stone chamber with a stone slab in the centre. The naked body of Delamonde Ghuda was displayed upon it, a white sheet keeping him decent.
Jeryd and Tryst stood either side of the corpse as Doctor Tarr pulled back the sheet.
'Now, as I stated in my report, investigator, these wounds look most mysterious. I've not seen anything like them before.'
'Talk me through your findings, doctor, if you will.'
'Well, there were no intrusions to the body, meaning nothing had penetrated it, but, as you can see, there is a significant amount of flesh missing from the torso. Tissue appears to have been removed from this region.' Tarr indicated an area from the base of the neck to halfway down the chest.
'When you say "removed", what d'you mean precisely, Doctor Tarr?'
'Exactly what I said. It's gone, removed, without any intrusion by a sharp instrument. I can't give you any obvious conclusion as to what did this, because I've simply never seen anything similar before, nothing like an ordinary knife wound, which is, of course, simple to recognize. That's why I wanted you to drop by, so you could see for yourself what an interesting case this is. You see, it's as if the flesh has been removed by some unknown substance that had either consumed the flesh or exploded it outwards. The area of wounding is roughly circular, but you couldn't class this as a crime unless you established whatever the instrument was that caused this unusual wounding.'
As Doctor Tarr went on to speculate on various possible causes, Jeryd began to realize he was wasting his time being here. He would have to go to the Council Atrium itself to find out if the popular Delamonde Ghuda actually had any secret enemies. Whilst he was weighing up the options, Tarr was delving further into medical analysis. Jeryd wanted to leave, as the doctor unnerved him. The lute player merely added to this sinister atmosphere.
'Would you like me to show you some other victims,' Tarr said, 'to see how their wounds differ?'
'No thanks,' Jeryd said.
'I'll just show you one more.'
He showed them four.
They entered a chamber lined with recent corpses. Many of the bodies were male, and over thirty. Their faces were peaceful, their wounds dreadful – two inflicted by swords, one from a mace. One of them had clearly died only moments before Jeryd arrived.
Tarr was almost motherly in his pride. 'This one took poison,' he explained, standing next to a body resting on a raised platform. 'It wasn't the poison that actually killed him, because he choked on his own bile. Note the dried blood on his fingertips. He spent his final heartbeats clawing at the stone floor on which he had collapsed.' Tarr shook his head solicitously. It looked as if he wanted to stroke the body to comfort it.
They came upon the lute player finally, a young man perched on a crate in the corner of one of the various rooms. The whole place was a network of small chambers. Its complexity reminded Jeryd of the interior of a lung. What is the real point of this musician – to drown out their dying screams?
'We really must be going shortly,' Jeryd decided.
Tarr eyed the investigator fixedly. 'I hope you can visit again. Not many people seem as comfortable around the dead as you do.'
'My assistant and I, we're pretty used to being around corpses. It comes with Inquisition business.'
'There's far too many that like to avoid being reminded that life tends to be a little shorter than we'd like.'
'Some think it's too long,' Jeryd said. 'Suicide is less rare than you'd think, especially with the ice age on the horizon and families being split because of the lack of accommodation in the city.'
Tarr walked over to inspect a young woman. 'This one was raped, slaughtered, left on her doorstep.' Her face was pale, calm-looking, as if her death came as a relief to the terrible moments leading up to it. 'What a waste every time this happens. Very few people have a true appreciation of life. If we realized death might come upon us at any moment, do you think we'd waste time arguing or fighting or being idle?'
'You can't force people to appreciate such things,' Jeryd said. 'They've got to come to terms with it for themselves. And I suspect that it's rumel nature too, as well as human, not to want to think about it. It's all too sobering for most of us to cope with. Now, we really must be on our way. Do contact me if you need anything from us. Good day, Doctor Tarr.'
Tarr watched the two investigators leave, closed the door, then headed back into the chambers. He found the lute player. 'You can stop now. They've gone.'
Tarr heard that hum again, louder than before. As the lute player disappeared into the darkness, leaving Tarr alone, where he waited until the humming ceased.
Dartun Sur entered the chamber.
The cultist leader had been working somewhere else in the building, the doctor did not know where. Maybe it was that damn strange cloak that allowed him to hide so effectively in the shadows. Tarr felt the tall man bearing down on him.
'Dear doctor, that was a wonderful tour you gave our investigator.' Dartun gripped the other man's shoulder.
'Thank you, sir.'
'So, what else've you got for me today? I've just finished working on that last fellow.' Dartun clasped his hands, and looked eagerly around the room as if he were in an iren.
'Another one?' Tarr said.
'Yes, we must keep busy, you know,' Dartun said. 'That's what I was doing in the other room – just a bit of practice on an older corpse. And that was a nice touch of yours, covering it up with the lute player.'
'Well, I couldn't have the investigator poking around and getting suspicious. You should have warned me you were coming. The lute player was the best I could do. I bet our friend Jeryd now thinks I'm totally insane.'
Dartun clasped his hands together. 'Can't have the Inquisition prying around too much. I heard you saying you had some fresh ones? The fresher they are, the easier they are for me to work with.'
'But those ones all have families,' Tarr protested. 'We've not had any unclaimed bodies arrive today.'
'That's a bit of an inconvenience, really.' Dartun frowned, rubbing his chin. He ambled around the room, his boots loud on the stone. 'Listen, d'you think I could reserve the next unclaimed one that comes in? I'm having to… begin some other schemes of mine very shortly, and I might need to leave the city very soon. And I could do with a few more corpses, no questions asked.'
Tarr hated Dartun for this secretiveness, but he had been embroiled in it for far too long now. And it was no longer out of choice, since every time Dartun made a suggestion, it seemed to come across more as a threat.
'Right,' Tarr said, 'look, I'll try and keep one for you, but you know this really is most abnormal.'
'So are most things, doctor.' Dartun turned, something flashed in his hands, and even before he walked into the wall he had vanished.
'Why can't he just use the door like everybody else?' Tarr muttered.
Randur made his way through the increasingly bad weather up towards the Imperial residence of Balmacara, his travelling bags slung across his shoulder, his shirt soaked and clinging to his skin. Sleet to rain to snow to sleet, Villjamur was now only differing shades of grey, and he prayed to Bohr that the waxed leather on his bags was holding the water at bay or the rest of his clothes would be ruined otherwise. His long hair trailed lankly in front of his eyes. He was thoroughly miserable.
Shitting weather, he thought. Just a day of sunshine, that's all I ask for.
Balmacara was an intimidating sight, and its dark stone was imbedded in symmetrical lines with stabs of some shimmering-black material. It seemed impossibly high, almost reaching into the low cloud base. Bold pillars and arches, crenulations in the surface and crenellations crowning towers, all with a design nothing like he'd ever seen, and it didn't even seem to match anything in the city. The building loomed. It imposed itself upon Villjamur.
Having shown his papers to the guards at the gate to the outer compound of Balmacara, he was mortified to see yet more steps rising between two octagonal pillars marking the main entrance.
He wondered what he'd be doing if he was back on Folke. When he had left, people were starting to panic because of the Freeze. People in his hometown had begun building and excavating new homes underground. His mother, fortunately, was going to be looked after by a brother residing in one of the harbour towns, so he knew exactly where she'd be when he returned to find her with the cultist's cure.
As he dragged his sorry, soaking body up the steps to the door of Balmacara two men barred his way, ordinary city guards by the looks of them, red uniform, basic armour, fur-lined hats. After they checked his papers again, he was instructed to wait in the entrance hall.
Though it was impressive on the outside, Randur wasn't expecting quite this level of grandeur or skilful decoration inside Balmacara. In fact, the level of detail and wealth everywhere on display was simply arrogant. There were carvings of naturalistic foliage adorning every wall, every doorway. Gold and silver leaf glittered on the coving and picture frames. Floors and fireplaces were made from slabs of black marble, and elaborate lanterns shone along the main corridor, people's footsteps echoing some way in the distance.
Now this, Randur thought, is definitely somewhere I could call home. A fine luxurious lifestyle to match my fine tastes.
Another pair of guards escorted him to an antechamber. Within a heartbeat several more guards had entered, stared at him closely. Randur felt uneasy, began to reach again for his fake identification papers. Then suddenly he saw a young girl approaching defiantly through the corridor of guards. She marched up to him – all long strides and flowing hips, black-haired and definitely cute, but a little innocent for his tastes.
She stood there, and glared at him.
'Morning, lass.' Randur offered her his papers.
She glanced briefly at them without saying a word. He knew enough about girls like that to know to put his documents back in his pocket.
'Randur Estevu.' He risked offering her his hand to shake. 'Can you show me where I need to go?'
'I am Jamur Eir,' she announced, not even glancing at his offered hand. 'I am Stewardess of Villjamur.'
'I believe, Randur Estevu, that you are the man from Folke?'
'I am, yes.'
'I am, yes, my lady,' she snapped. 'Do they not teach manners on your island, or do they breed you all to be as backward as yourself?'
Well, so much for her prettiness lasting, with a scowl like that on her. He looked her up and down, still considering whether or not to keep on flirting. 'I humbly apologize. My lady.' He was never much one for formalities, unless there was a chance things might lead towards a little bedroom action.
'I was expecting someone a little older.'
What was he supposed to say to that? A little older for what? 'So was I,' he returned, his face expressionless.
'Do you have a sword? I can't see one on you.'
'No, they said I wouldn't be allowed to bring one in with me.'
'Well, that's not very useful now, is it? How is a teacher meant to instruct without a sword?'
A teacher? What in Bohr's arse am I supposed to teach?
'At least you don't need one to dance, I suppose,' Eir said.
'Yes, dance. You did realize you were to teach sword and dancing, didn't you?'
'Indeed, lady.' Ha! So all I have to do is dance and fight! 'I apologize, but my thoughts were distracted momentarily, uhm, by the liquid depth and beauty of your eyes, my lady.' There was a quiet groan from one of the guards, and he flashed her one of his better grins.
'I see there's nothing wrong with your island-boy oiliness.' Eir was already turning away. 'Balmacara is full of men. Don't think I don't know how the male mind works. Well, come along then. We can't have you dripping water all over these floors.'
One of the servants showed Randur to his room, a small, well-decorated chamber with animal hides draped across the bed and floor. There was no glass in the window, but a thick tapestry kept the draught out, and a roaring log fire kept the heat coming. Several lanterns gave it a welcoming look. He considered it fit enough for entertaining ladies, should the opportunity arise.
He dumped his belongings on the bed, then turned to the male servant. 'Stewardess of Villjamur is a strange title,' Randur probed. 'What happened to the Emperor?'
'There isn't one, not at the moment.' Little emotion came from the servant's answer. 'The Emperor passed away a few days ago. The lady is in charge of matters until her elder sister, Jamur Rika, returns to the city.'
Jamur Eir looked too young to be in charge, he reflected, but perhaps such a life of public duty had matured her. Her eyes had showed nothing for him to analyse.
Still, he was due to be paid a whole Jamun a month. Which was phenomenally high considering his food and accommodation were also provided.
Over the next hour, Randur discovered more about his new duties, about why they were hiring a dance master from so far away. 'I mean, from Folke of all places,' he had said with surprise. 'I imagine there're numerous candidates to be found around Villjamur.'
Why had the actual Randur Estevu been chosen? Was there some hidden agenda?
When they met later, the Lady Eir herself provided the missing details. 'We'll hold a dance competition, which is now a part of my sister's investiture celebration, called the Snow Ball,' Eir explained. 'The problem is that I can't dance particularly well, and it is known that Folke islanders are famous for their skills in that art.'
What a ridiculous name for an event.
Randur remembered how very seriously they took dancing at home. It was more than just entertainment – it was a way of communicating, a kind of language, an art that had to be worked at, assiduously, that could tell stories, heal wounds, bring lovers together or drive them apart. Indeed, a physical expression of the soul. As a child he would often slip out of his mother's house at night to watch the local people expressing themselves in complex physical ways.
'And why sword skills? We know how seriously you Jokull folk take your fighting.' He couldn't help a touch of bitterness as he said it, considering how the now-dependent populations of the Empire didn't exactly bask in the joy of Jokull's military dominance.
'My father's always warned that if I ever found myself in danger, it would be most likely from within the gates of Villjamur. I believe you on Folke have a special art of fighting at close-quarters.'
'Yes,' Randur said. 'We call it Vitassi. It was originally part of Vitassimo, the dance which is one of our oldest traditions.'
'Well, quite,' Eir said, clearly losing interest. 'The point being, my father urged me to learn some duelling style different enough to perhaps give me an advantage.'
'This Snow Ball… Is it particularly important?'
'To some,' Eir said. 'It's to take everyone's mind off the Freeze. There is an award of around two hundred Jamuns for the winning participants.'
Two hundred Jamuns. Randur tried not to show his eagerness. That was halfway to paying the cultist's fee. 'I wouldn't have thought the money mattered to people like you – at the top of the social ladder, I mean?'
'Oh, it doesn't. We can buy anything we ever want.'
Randur wondered why she had to say it with so much pride. 'Well, with so much money, the people here must have all the happiness they could wish for.'
'You might think that,' she said, then quitted the room, leaving him alone with the remnants of her melancholy.
Randur couldn't put his finger on what exactly, but there was a strange mood in Balmacara. Everyone talked continuously about the gates of the city being closed. It made Randur wonder how he would ever get out of this city, should he gather up enough Jamuns to pay the Order of the Equinox. At all times, in Villjamur, it seemed there was someone, somewhere, talking about the impending ice. Many people prophesized doom – the end of civilization as they knew it. Randur himself generally lived for each day at a time, so tended not to think about the future. If it was something you could not see for yourself, why worry about it? He was more concerned with how quickly he could pull a girl.
And there were plenty of them in Balmacara. Randur was soon conscious of turning the heads of the female servants and courtiers. He was used to such attention, so he smiled at the more attractive and winked at the least pretty ones. It helped that his personal guard was so ugly, too. There was a certain amount of tactical calculation in this, since a few of these women might have money he could extract with a kiss. Dartun's demands had forced such thoughts into Randur's head. Was he prostituting himself? This didn't really bother him. Sex was sex, and that was that – people made such a fuss about it.
He made sure always to be wearing good attire to mark himself out as a man of distinction, of rare breeding. He wore shirts as black as his own hair, the collar a fraction undone, breeches worn tight, boots with pointed toes – as was fashionable in this city.
A declaration of intent. Here was someone to reckon with.
The next day he was taken to a small, rather poorly lit stone chamber in which the Lady Eir was waiting for him dressed in a baggy white outfit.
Randur studied her clothing, shook his head. 'Well, for a start, you'll be better wearing something that fits to your body tightly.'
'Really?' Eir said. 'Why exactly would I need tight clothing? To enable the fetishes of your mind to flourish?'
'Lady, I'm afraid my mind gets its kicks from much wilder fetishes than that…' He shrugged. 'No, I meant you'll get your sword caught in such loose material.'
'I shall be wearing loose clothes most of my time. What's the use of training in things I won't be wearing when I'm attacked?'
'Whatever you wish. Now, first we'll need swords.'
The door burst open.
Two city guard troops stepped in, then bowed to her. 'My Lady Stewardess, Chancellor Urtica requires your urgent presence.'
'What is it?' Eir said irritably.
'The chancellor's pressing for a motion of war, and this step requires your presence in the Atrium.'
'War?' She frowned. 'Who with?'
'The Varltung nation, my lady. There is now evidence that it was they who slaughtered our Night Guardsmen at Daluk Point. Intelligence suggests they may well now provoke further attacks on the subsidiary nations of the Empire.'
Randur listened carefully. Would the Varltungs really dare attack the Empire? If so, his home island of Folke would be first in line.
'Tell him I'll be there immediately.' She turned her attention to Randur. 'We'll continue this practice some other time. Meanwhile, the smiths are expecting you. You can choose any weapon you like.'
'Cheers.' He bowed and watched as she left the room.
Out into the corridor, and he shambled around a corner into a gallery area where he spotted several richly dressed women about fifty paces away, their hair elegantly pinned up in the latest styles. His eyes lit up, a thousand opportunities flashing through his mind. For a moment he paused to watch them from behind the cover of what looked like the shell of a giant insect. At first he had taken it to be a suit of armour, but on closer inspection he realized the plating wasn't made of metal. It was the exoskeleton of some bizarre creature, pinned to the wall with a bolt, its mouth still open as if in a dying scream.
Randur shivered, regarded the women instead. He tried to listen to the snippets of conversation that echoed along the corridor.
'He's got a lot of Jamuns to his name, so I've heard…'
'Not quite sure he's marriage material…'
'Could you love him, though?'
'That's not the point, is it? He doesn't have to know what you might get up to on the side.'
'Astrid knows, I've seen better examples of a man… Not much physically, and he's also pretty old…'
'But still, there's a lot to be said for his house. I know I could be very happy living there. So I think you should go for him…'
Money-grabbing sows, Randur thought.
He took a deep breath, and proceeded towards them, arming himself with a few sweet lines to deprive them of their wealth.
The horses rode in a rhythm matching his heartbeat, or was it the other way around? Brynd had done this for so many years it had become a dulled instinct, the sort of routine only noticed when he was not riding the length and breadth of the Empire. Brynd had been forcing his companions to ride until the horses were exhausted, only stopping at hamlets and villages when the wilderness proved more violent then anticipated. Bitter winds, followed by harsh sleet. The few remaining Night Guards crested the hill that overlooked the port of Gish. It was a bleak landscape this side of the island. Low clouds skimmed the horizon, undermining massive skies.
Because of the recent deaths of his comrades, at nights when they rested he sometimes stared at his sword blade and at the white-skinned man reflected back, and tried to make more sense of himself. Perhaps he had grown used to the luxury of command, standing so far back from any direct combat. He had wanted this, an opportunity to prove himself a true man – because of his unusual skin tone as much as his sexuality. People always judged him in unspoken terms, so he had to respond with action only because that was expected of him. And look where that action had taken him – many good soldiers and friends, dead.
Maybe there was too much time to think on these journeys.
The estuary was crowded with sailing vessels of the Jamur Second Dragoons. Brynd's own first regiment. Two dozen longships were blocking off one side of the harbour, allowing only a few fishing boats to pass out to sea. He could see the raised standards of at least two divisions – the Wolf and Eagle Brigades – on the shore this side of the port town. Gish had only become a military port in recent years, following assessments of how the ice age might affect the navigational channels of the major island of Jokull.
Blink while reading the history of this region and you might miss that it had become a significant commercial centre too, based upon supply and billeting of the army. It was now humming with armourers licensed directly from Villjamur, innkeepers, fishermen, wool merchants. And, below the gloss, the side of life that respectable people always looked away from: brothels, gambling dens involving big dogfights or dice, slaves beaten senseless over a chore forgotten, and brawls between soldiers over a spilt tankard.
Brynd looked back towards the ships, deciding after his recent encounters that he wanted as many vessels as possible to escort them on the return voyage. If nothing else, it would provide a positive statement: Here she comes, the new Empress, and she's well protected.
Two hours later, they boarded the Black Frieter, the largest of the longships docked at Gish. An old boat, once thought to house souls of the damned, it had been recovered from pirates decades ago, and now took its place in the Empire's fleet. Sea Captain Sang greeted them, if it could be called a greeting, then made sure the carriage would be well protected on the adjoining shore by several women of the Wolf Brigade. These quieter moments of travel always forced Apium to analyse the current status of the military.
Apium was always suspicious of the Dragoon Marines, despite them being a focal component of most military campaigns. They were a crucial force across the entire Archipelago, having developed effective techniques for short raids, and larger-scale invasions. A formidable reputation preceded them, even though it hadn't been put to good use in recent years. An air of arrogance surrounded them; they assumed nothing could be done without their participation. Sang herself was the embodiment of this, a low-born, in cultural terms, who had achieved great things. And even Apium was certain she was more vulgar in her manner than most male soldiers he'd known. She'd boasted to him once about all the islands she'd visited – travels around the entire Archipelago that no one else had managed. Said she'd even circumnavigated the Varltung islands, but he wasn't so sure, since there was no proof of such a voyage. She would customarily employ mainly women sailors, using the few men simply for raw physical chores. And he could make a good guess as to what services these might include.
Apium had joined Brynd, Lupus and Nelum on deck. Brynd was commenting on the salt refinery recently built, and that as yet stood as nothing more than a precarious shack on the quayside. He was clearly unimpressed.
Gish was altogether a decrepit place. No major division of the army had been deployed from here for a good while, so many soldiers were rotting away here – their time taken up with gambling, brawls, casual sex. That, he reflected, was what you got from doing nothing more rigorous than training exercises.
Brynd was exceptional in taking the opportunity of using cultists to develop training strategies on Kullrun, an islet off the opposite coast of Jokull. Cultist technology was normally used to scare men senseless, to drive back arrows, form illusions of troop movements, create phantoms that followed them long into their dreams at night. Any threatening scenario could thus be recreated, played out again and again, until the soldiers learned how to kill their enemy in the most efficient manner. A time-consuming business, but essential for producing the best soldiers. When it came down to it, when a soldier aimed an arrow at another man's face for the very first time, releasing it could prove difficult. And many of the soldiers currently in the Dragoons, Marines or Regiment of Foot were fresh recruits who had signed up to avoid the hardships of the ice age since the military provided a guaranteed wage.
Boys and girls from the poorest parts of the Empire fighting for the richest.
Was that how all armies had been recruited throughout history?
A few hours later, Brynd was the first to step down off the Black Frieter and onto the main island of Southfjords, under a massive sky filled with fast-moving cumulus, looming over a landscape littered with small wind-ravaged trees tilting at an angle. Terns arced over their heads, heading off towards their high cliff colonies further along the shore.
The four guards set off along a gravel track that cut up through a green hill, and Brynd suspected that those black-clad strangers, carrying swords and axes, would be an intimidating spectacle for a young woman who had been told nothing of why she was summoned home.
Even in decay the temple was an imposingly beautiful building, with its limestone arches and soaring spire flanked by two smaller ones. As Jorsalir structures went, this was certainly one of the more extravagant temples, more sizeable than the churches Brynd had seen back in Villjamur. Maybe several hundred years old, so not remotely ancient by the Archipelago's standards, obviously it had been constructed in a period when the Jorsalir had commanded phenomenal power and wealth, unlike now, when the Council even levied tax upon them.
As they approached the building, three women stepped out, their green gowns whipping around their bodies in the wind like banners of war. The looks on their faces were just as grim, and Brynd asked his companions to remain still while he moved ahead alone.
Two of the women were ageing slightly, greying hair framing their delicate features. The third was younger, but the graceful way she walked and her general demeanour made her appear ageless. He noticed a white dryas attached to her breast.
'Sele of Jamur,' Brynd greeted them. 'Commander Brynd Lathraea of the Night Guard.'
There it was: that shocked look on their faces as they took in his skin, his eyes – always the same reaction.
'Ah, the albino? Sele of Jamur, commander,' said the youngest of the three. 'My name is Ardune, and I'm a priestess here. These two are my clerics.'
'You received notification of our arrival?'
'Indeed,' Ardune said. She blinked several times in the wind, as she looked back over his shoulder towards the other three men.
Brynd tactfully drew his cloak over his sword. 'And does the Lady Rika know what has been happening?'
'She's been told very little, but has been waiting inside the temple for some time now.'
'Right,' Brynd said. 'Well, I'm here to return her to Villjamur. We must leave as soon as possible.'
'You're taking her away then,' Ardune said. 'Just like that?'
'She has a role to fulfil, priestess,' Brynd explained. 'We can't always choose what we want to do in life.' And I myself know all about that.
'Indeed not, commander, but you cannot simply take her. She has a life here, you understand?'
'Yes, I do,' Brynd continued, trying to be sensitive to the priestess's feelings. 'However, she's been enjoying a quiet life here because of who she is. If she was a native, or simply a peasant, she'd never have been able to live in such a privileged position. Well, now the time's come for who she is to really matter. You understand, it's not just a few priestesses that this matters to – it's an entire Empire?'
Something faded in her eyes then, conceding defeat. 'Quite. Well, please be sensitive. She's a person, not just a title.'
'Of course I will. Remember, I'm the one who has to tell her about her father. I promise I'll not crush her.'
Ardune appeared to have a genuine affection for Rika. Still, Brynd didn't know what to make of her, since he wasn't one to trust the mind of a Jorsalir. Not that they were untrustworthy in themselves, more that they had conditioned their minds to think on a different level, to question the world in a way no one else did. It gave them an air of superiority that he felt was unjustified.
Ardune led him inside the temple.
Rika's room contained minimal furniture, a few parchments on the wall, faded through exposure to sunlight, fabrics smelling of dried lavender, darkened limestone, a small burning fire in the corner. If there was indeed Bohr or Astrid up there, Brynd assumed they didn't much care for elaborate furnishings.
She was sitting on a chest, Rika, staring out of a narrow arched window, a book forgotten on her lap. This was clearly Eir's sister, although her face was more slender, making her cheekbones jut out unattractively. Her black hair was tied back plainly – no style in her appearance, no finesse.
'Jamur Rika, Sele of Jamur, I am Commander Brynd Lathraea and I have some… bad news for you, I fear.' He hesitated. 'Your father, Emperor Johynn – I'm afraid he passed away some few days ago.'
'Oh,' Rika replied. No emotion in her voice, nothing whatsoever. 'Why, thank you for telling me this. It really is very kind of you to journey all this way.'
Brynd held her gaze as if to work out what was happening in her mind. She appeared to be barely disturbed by the bad news. He may as well have just told her it was going to rain today. He knew she had problems with her father, which was why she had spent the last few years in exile here. Was that her anger forcing out any other emotions? Or was it her religious training, her perfectly controlled mind making her emotionally dead?
'The Council of Villjamur have nominated you as the one to inherit all that was your father's, since you're his eldest blood relative. You realize what this means?'
She met his gaze with silence, with a cold stare – no, a neutral stare, nothing in it. This girl seemed the embodiment of emptiness.
'Jamur Rika, you're to become Empress,' Brynd said. 'Ruler of the Jamur Empire, its nations, its people. I'm here, therefore, at the request of the Council, to escort you back to Villjamur immediately.'
She stood, gazing out of the window again – at the sea, the clouds. Gulls screamed as they accelerated upwards. More life in the natural environment than her reactions. 'And what choice do I have in the matter?'
'Honestly?' Brynd said.
'Very little.' He sighed. 'You have a duty.'
'I also have a life here, commander.'
'Yes, that's not gone unnoticed,' Brynd said, with a step towards her. He followed her gaze to a wild cat out on the grass below. It was ripping into a gull, blood covering the victim's white wings that were half-extended, broken. 'Strong cats you have here, for it to bring down a gull.'
'Indeed,' she said. 'Everything here is that little bit more… wild.'
'Nature's creatures learn to cope in any conditions presented to them.'
'It depends, of course, on what exactly those conditions are,' Rika said.
Silence followed yet again, while Brynd stood next to her, hoping that this proximity might symbolize to her that he was at her side in more than just the physical sense. He watched the skies begin to bleed snow. Winds blew in stronger, the wall hangings rattled.
'I'll come with you,' she sighed. 'Just give me a moment to get ready.'
Apium hurled a pebble into the sea some distance away from the Black Frieter. It vanished from sight long before it pierced the water, lost in the eruptions caused by surf beating granite.
'Well, at least she's coming willingly,' Nelum said, trying to light his pipe against the strong wind. He was failing miserably. 'And, when she eventually strolls down here, we can embark and get her back home. And then we can put our feet up for a while.'
Brynd glanced over at Apium.
'We can put our feet up for a bit, can't we?' Nelum said, examining their glances worriedly. He placed the unlit pipe back in his pocket.
'Not exactly, no,' Brynd confessed. 'Chancellor Urtica has informed me of some strange occurrences further north, and we've to protect the Empire by investigating. It's serious, according to eye-witness accounts. There have been reports of extensive killings, and it's up to us to establish order, and to give the local populace reassurance.'
'So why not send the Dragoons to investigate?' Lupus asked. 'Why send the elite soldiers?'
'Lad's got a point there, Brynd,' Apium said.
'Elite soldiers are required, and we've skills and training superior to the ordinary standards of the army. We in the Night Guard have access to some cultist-enhanced weaponry. After all, we're cultist-enhanced ourselves, let's not forget. And we possess better swords, bows that fire more accurately. And, anyway, I doubt that the sight of a massive army traipsing across the tundra would inspire any confidence that all is calm. It's easier to move in small groups, so I want one or two units with us, a couple of hundred soldiers at most.'
'Maybe the armies are needed elsewhere,' Nelum stated, his mind working ahead, processing all the possibilities.
'Not without my knowing,' Brynd said. 'You forget I've command of all the Empire's armies.'
'So now we're to be galloping around after three-cocked unicorns,' Apium grumbled.
'We don't know what these creatures are yet,' Brynd said. 'Unicorns or not, we shall go and investigate.'
'Aye, maybe you're right.' Apium chuckled. 'Look, here's our Lady Rika.'
As the sun rose lazily over Villjamur, Investigator Rumex Jeryd left his house in the Kaiho district. He walked past Gulya Gata, down alongside the irens near Gata du Quercus, Hotel Villjamur, and the inn called the Dryad's Saddle. There were a few eccentric shops down this way, high-end purveyors of drugs and erotica, where you could apparently find 'love potions' conducive to controlled rape. Nothing like as described in romantic songs, and why the potions were allowed, he had no idea. That was Villjamur for you – as long as you had enough money you could get whatever you wanted, and to hell with ethics. You could wander these streets and become defined by your fetishes.
In the shadows of high walls, where the road curved down to the right, the kids of Gamall Gata were already waiting for him. From the top of the street you could clearly see the two main culprits, the two that were always there, each maybe ten years old, a blond and a redhead, layered up with warm clothing, thick gloves on, and with snowballs ready in their palms. Jeryd stared hard at the kids – he had to make them wonder for a moment if this was a mistake.
They did not.
The snowballs came arcing through the air, but exploded too short, smashed at his feet, and he smiled. 'Not today, lads.'
He turned, sniffed the chill air, began to walk away-
– A snowball slapped his head.
He could see the blond and the redhead running off, their arms windmilling with excitement, the others nowhere to be seen, then all that was left was the echo of laughter as snow dripped off Jeryd's head.
Robes wrapped tight around him, snowballs nowhere to be seen, Jeryd proceeded along one of the lesser-known paths of the city, his breath clouding in front of his face like a ghost that wouldn't leave him alone.
He ran what few details there were of Delamonde Ghuda's murder over and over in his mind. The case was particularly difficult because the number of people who might have a motive to murder the councillor were high. So, a high-profile death, and such a cruel way of dying.
The only likely cause could have been use of a relic, so that made a cultist the most likely suspect. But in general, cultists seemed to have no use for councillors, considered that they operated at a level above government. Above everyone else, in fact. And because of their valuable services in military campaigns, cultists tended to remain on good terms with those high up in Villjamur. So no, a cultist didn't seem likely after all, although he still had to consider them.
He would have to penetrate the Council Atrium to find out what projects Ghuda was working on before he was killed. It must have been something significant, if his murder was the best way to stall it.
And what about the woman, Tuya, who was the last person to see him alive? Nor was he looking forward to confronting Ghuda's wife to explain how he had spent his final night on earth.
On top of all of this, he was due to meet with his own wife, Marysa, this evening. And how was he going to persuade her to come back to him?
What a day.
Tryst had arranged to meet him later. The young human was currently 'interrogating' a man suspected of burglary that had taken place in a street in Caveside. Jeryd let him get on with it on his own, because torture was something Tryst was good at – and it wouldn't necessarily be physical. Tryst had a gift for mental torture, would frequently have the suspect in fits of tears or else exploding with rage. Either way, he got what he wanted, which suited Jeryd fine so long as it was conducted within the legal guidelines. You had to do things by the book or those higher up would use it against you, some day when you happened to fall out of favour.
Jeryd loved this side of the city. He was now standing just beyond the Astronomer's Glass Tower, its bizarre octagonal structure towering above him, its expanses of glass capturing a rare moment of red sunlight that was trying to penetrate the cloud and mist. This side of Villjamur was certainly preferable to the neighbourhood adjoining the caves. Unfortunately, most of his cases inevitably led to Caveside. Living conditions were terrible there, back where poverty was kept hidden out of sight. Inferior sanitation pervaded the area with a constant stench, though many might think it preferable to being locked outside the city.
Armed with questions, he approached a little house virtually hidden amongst its neighbours. Despite being so central within the city, people usually walked straight past the place as if they didn't want to see, without even knowing they were doing so. Its inconspicuous metal door was set in smooth pale stone. He knocked firmly and waited, and it was eventually opened by a raven-haired woman, her long, thin face pallid and gaunt.
She was a banshee.
'Morning. Investigator Rumex Jeryd. I have a few questions.'
'Yes, of course.' Her voice was soothingly deep as they always were – unless they were screaming. 'Please, do come in.'
Jeryd stepped inside her fragrant home, drawing his tail in behind him so that it didn't get caught in the heavy door. The house was intensely dark, the smell of lavender powerful. He'd been here several times before, and on each visit he wished they had put in a window to let in some daylight and fresh air. Coloured lanterns burned, as did a small log fire. There were several women ranging from young to old, all wearing black, grey or white fabrics. They were sitting on chairs placed randomly throughout the house. All of them had similar gaunt faces, similar mannerisms. Some were reading or studying, others were weaving material. There was a claustrophobia here amongst these women, maybe sisters and mothers or something closer still, as if they were suffocating in unison, tightening their bonds on each other as they suffered. He never understood, or commented on their situation.
'Please, be seated, investigator,' the woman said. 'I'll go and fetch Mayter Sidhe.'
She left the room.
Jeryd sat himself down on a simple wooden chair. The furniture here was rustic – as if they couldn't afford anything else. It seemed out of place for a home so near the Astronomer's Tower and the richer irens, but maybe it had been here from generations ago. A few of the women hummed gently, rocking back and forth in their chairs as if mildly insane: not a comforting noise, more an eerie lament. Paranoia forced him to wonder vaguely if this meant he would die at any point soon, as if just being around them was putting him a step closer.
Mayter Sidhe suddenly arrived, the banshee who had been present at the scene of Ghuda's murder, and her wail had declared his death to the whole of Villjamur. Black-haired, white-gowned, young-looking, too, but with that same haunted expression that the other banshees possessed. Blue eyes, with a strange distance within them that he could never understand. As with the others, he had encountered her before, because whenever there was a death in the city, they were always the first on the scene.
He stood up as she appeared.
'Good morning, Investigator Jeryd.'
'Morning, Mayter.' He sat down again.
'So this is about Councillor Ghuda?' She pulled up a chair, sat next to him, and unnerved him a little, this close presence. This air of death.
'Yes,' Jeryd said. 'Just the normal procedure. But this has to be considered an extremely high-profile murder. The victim, as you know, was a very senior member of the Council.'
'We're all the same, once we're dead, investigator. Our titles do not follow us.'
'Right. But while the rest of us are still alive, there's work to be done that can make the whole… pre-death concept a little easier to deal with.'
'So,' Jeryd said, 'I take it, as usual, you knew he'd be killed.'
'Yes, but not until he was.'
Whatever the hell that means… 'And it was too late by that point?'
'It always is. We're not life-savers.' She drummed her slender fingers on the table. For a moment Jeryd was distracted by the rings adorning them that caught the dull light of the room.
'No one suggested you were. So you were… in the area then? Or at least on the scene pretty quick.'
'Yes, I was, as you say, in the area. I was merely buying some vegetables. Then came the vision – and you know what happens after that.'
'Right,' Jeryd said. 'Up until that point, you saw nothing?'
'No more than any normal person would.'
'What about after?'
'Again, no more than other people who came on the scene afterwards. I got there in reasonable time, but I saw nothing strange.'
Jeryd straightened. 'OK, so tell me about the vision you experienced, if you don't mind.'
'It was like any other – the same glimpse through the eyes of the victim at his final heartbeat. Except… well, all I saw was a shadow, but it was like… like nothing I've seen before. A wild creature of some kind, I'd say. And then it seemed to disappear into the light – upwards.'
'Go on,' Jeryd said. This was the first concrete statement he'd received so far. If you could trust a banshee.
'That's it, just a shadow. A creature I've never seen before. Then I knew where I'd find him. And I instantly felt as if I wanted to vomit, so I knew he was just about to die.'
Jeryd said, 'And you can tell me nothing more about the creature?'
'What did it look like?'
'I can't tell.' She began to seem impatient. 'It was definitely not human or rumel. That's all.'
'OK. There were no flashes in your vision that might indicate who'd want him dead?'
'No, investigator. City politics makes little difference to our lives.'
A chair scraped over to one side in the other room, and Jeryd glimpsed one of the other banshees rush outside. As she slammed the door behind her, one of the lanterns flickered.
He turned to regard Mayter Sidhe once again. 'Anything strange happening that you know of?'
'Nothing that seems related. There're rumours of some of the Council members being Ovinists…'
Jeryd was aware those rumours had been circulating for years, the degrees of information depending on which tavern you drank in. Stories told of politicians gathered in darkened rooms drinking pig's blood. Divining secrets from these animals' hearts. Bathing in offal. Ritualistic slaughter. Even if it was true, it was all possibly harmless. How much damage could you do with a dead pig?
'Well,' Jeryd said, 'I've not seen any evidence of such practices. And it's very hard to bring the law down on those who think they're above it. Short of forcing them all into a Jorsalir church for cleansing, there's not a lot we can do.'
Faintly, in the distance, there was a scream, and he realized that it must have come from the woman who had left a few minutes earlier.
Meanwhile, Mayter Sidhe regarded him with an unsettling gaze. Jeryd never knew what these banshees really thought about anything: they never opened up, never showed any emotion. Yet they seemed to get distraught and upset whenever a death was near, as if they felt the same pain, and were sharing it with the sufferer. Nor did they ever seem to age. Mayter Sidhe herself could be anywhere between forty and ninety years, yet she looked eternally young, didn't she, and even vaguely beautiful. If anyone knew much about the secrets of these witch women of Villjamur, they didn't share them. Amid all gossip purveyed in the taverns of the city, the banshees were least spoken of. Perhaps it was a healthy fear that they could announce anyone's death simply at their own volition. As there existed the possibility it could be your own death, he felt it was best not to anger them.
Jeryd realized he would get no further information here, so he said goodbye, then proceeded on to interview the person whom he was least looking forward to talking to.
Up here the houses were also tall and narrow, three-floor constructions, most elaborately decorated with ridiculous statuettes of angelic creatures. The place reminded him of the ghost he was plays he'd watched in the underground theatres when he was still a young rumel. Beula Ghuda, of course, already knew about her husband's death, something at least for Jeryd to feel relieved about. Dealing with dead bodies and criminals was much easier than talking to the relatives of someone who had died in suspicious circumstances. You had to look them directly in the eye while being prepared for any number of reactions, any number of extreme emotions.
How could this happen?
What do you mean, dead?
You bastard, don't lie to me.
In his more morbid moments, back when his wife loved him still, he would wonder how she might react to being informed of Jeryd's own death, and played out her possible reactions as if he was a fly on the wall. No matter how many years he had been in the Inquisition, these parts were often the most difficult, and as he knocked on the door the feeling was still as unpleasant as the very first time. A fragile-looking blonde answered it. She was about mid- to late-thirties, a green silk dress draped loosely over a tiny frame, with a face as gloomy as the banshees he had just been visiting – and you couldn't blame her for that, could you, at a time like this?
'Beula Ghuda? I'm Investigator Jeryd. Would it be all right for me to ask a few questions relating to… to your recent loss?'
'Yes, of course, investigator,' she said. 'Please, step inside.'
Inside the house seemed as grand as the exterior, overloaded with what Jeryd considered were pointless ornaments and bad taste. To be rich in Villjamur seemed a waste of money: all they did with their wealth was buy unnecessary objects. The city having not been under threat for so long, the Empire having expressed its dominance far and wide, the result was that the wealthy citizens of Villjamur had become more attached to their material comforts, and the gap between the richest and poorest had only bloomed.
Beula Ghuda sat him down in an over-warm room full of jewelled lanterns, coloured lights. Rich fabric, desirable brand-weave from Villiren, was draped from each corner of the ceiling to the centre point. There was a large window of the highest-quality glass, from which were views over the summit of the city walls to the snow-flicked tundra beyond. The room smelled of stale incense, and he guessed by the number of books lying casually around that Beula was something of a lady of leisure.
'How are you managing?' Jeryd began tentatively.
'Oh, so-so.' She gave an ironic wince that he didn't find unattractive. 'Truth is, investigator, we were not really that close – in the end.'
He was surprised by her matter-of-fact response, but it made what he had to say a little easier. 'I'm sorry.'
She shrugged. 'Yes, these things happen.'
She perched herself on the edge of a cushioned armchair of a style so typical of the era of the previous two Emperors, Gulion and Haldun, with motifs glorifying combat carved into its thick Quercus wood side-panels. She clasped her wrist with the other hand and stared to the floor for some time. He gave her a little while to gather her thoughts.
Eventually, she glanced up. 'So, how can I help you?'
'Were you aware of his final movements?' Jeryd said.
She looked right past him. 'No.'
'I'm afraid it's not what a wife would want to hear.'
'He was last seen leaving the apartment of another woman. She has confirmed that they spent the night together.' He held her gaze for as long as she would allow.
'I understand, investigator,' she said. Then added, 'What was she like?'
'You mean the woman he was with?'
'Yes, the woman.'
'She was a prostitute by profession, although I believe it wasn't something he paid for in this instance.'
'That's a relief,' she murmured bitterly.
Jeryd contemplated her words. It wasn't as if he actually understood the female mind these days. He gave her a moment before he spoke again.
'You know of anyone who might want him dead?'
'Other than me? Is that what you mean?'
'No, I mean because of his activities within the Council, mainly.'
'Well, there were plenty who were jealous of his success, but he was a popular man other than that.'
'Were you aware of any controversial new policies he was campaigning for?'
'No, regarding his work, he never really talked much to me. You know, for such a popular man, he wasn't all that popular here at home.'
'If you don't mind me saying, you seem fairly comfortable with his death.'
'I'm a strong believer in Astrid, investigator. I therefore believe in rebirth, and that he'll be reborn soon in a position reflecting his behaviour here in this past life. You know, investigator, I did love him in my own way.'
Jeryd felt sympathy and some concern. He himself wasn't much of a religious type.
'Over the last year or so I was hurt that he stopped coming with me to church. He wouldn't pray in the Bohr section, and seemed to forget all about spirituality. I'd even almost say he'd discovered something else.'
'Yes. As if something took his mind. I say this only as I'm a moral and spiritual woman, but it was like he stopped being the man I knew, and began operating with a different set of beliefs entirely.' She stood, turned to the window. 'Just look how much it's snowing now!'
Jeryd stepped alongside her, looked out across Villjamur.
The snow had begun to fall as hard as he had ever seen it, leaving the spire-crowded skies of Villjamur looking even more claustrophobic. By Bohr, this is enough to fuel those brats in Gamall Gata for several weeks now.
Despite the thick drifts building up, it was hypnotic, gentle. Beula began to cry quietly as if the snow itself had altered her emotional state, bringing on some primitive madness. Jeryd walked away to the other side of the room, as he always felt uncomfortable with the intensity and depth of emotions that humans seemed so ready to express.
He watched her crying at the window, framed by the snow falling outside.
Randur stepped back with a flamboyant gesture, watched Eir tumble to the cold floor, her sword slipping across the stone in a sideways fall. She cursed at him as she retrieved it.
'Pretty keen to inflict a wound, weren't we?' he remarked. 'And I didn't realize you Imperial ladies had such a sweet way with words.'
Eir pushed herself up, panting heavily, much more than anger in her face.
'With Vitassi, you shouldn't fight with the heart,' Randur reminded her, sauntering back to his starting position. 'Such sentiments are likely to make you appear brave in your obituary, admittedly. You weren't mindful enough. You weren't in the moment. You let anger cloud your skills. Remember, it's not all about the sword – that's simply an extension of you.'
Eir eyed him with contempt, and he had left many bedrooms in the dawn light to be familiar with that look. She moved in to attack him again, but was then rapidly on the defensive as he forced her into a series of classic Vitassi postures. Metal clashed, boots scuffed on stone, noises so familiar to him that at times like this he could often forget he was still even holding a sword.
'Good,' Randur said. 'That's much better.' He sighed as he pushed past her, then slapped her buttocks lightly with the flat of his sword, deliberately fuelling her anger, working her into a rage, forcing her to get more control of herself. He tripped her up, and she fell forwards.
'I hate you.' Eir's lip began to bleed.
He walked over to retrieve her sword. 'I'm not here to be liked. I'm merely here to make sure you don't get yourself killed – an unlikely task, as it currently stands. And for the moment, you still need my help.'
'And you expect me to actually dance with you after all this humiliation?'
'No, you expect me to dance with you.'
She sat upright with her legs crossed, appearing to contemplate her bruises.
He offered his hand to help her up, but she ignored it and got herself on her feet once again. Randur handed her back the sword. 'Well, anyway, your sword technique's improving and I can see you've got some good potential. You could be fighting with the Dragoons within the month.'
She said nothing, began walking stiffly away, then she stopped, and he followed the line of her eyes to the window. A cold wind gusted into the chamber.
They stepped together to that opening in the thick stone walls which looked over one entire side of the city. The view was partially obscured by numerous bridges and spires. A thick fall of snow drifted down from the grey sky. In its smothering embrace, the horizon was no longer perceptible.
'So much of it,' Eir murmured, lost in her thoughts.
'Yeah,' Randur said, becoming lost in his own.
Dartun watched the young boy snatch the relic from the group of cultists. The lad had guts, he'd give him that. Those men weren't from his order, and were simply holding the device out for all to see. Too cocky, too arrogant, not nearly careful enough. The fuckers deserve to lose it.
Dartun drew his fuligin cloak around him, absorbing shadow, then followed the boy who now ran in his direction, a scruffy little chap dressed in thick rags, obviously from Caveside. Darting down an arterial series of alleyways, the boy had soon lost everyone except Dartun.
Last night he had coughed so much he thought he would emit blood, and he had never felt like this before.
The cobbles were slick with snow in the sun since the last snowstorm. Some streets had already been washed down with salt water. The wind worked its way relentlessly through the cramped alleys. Dartun cornered the boy finally at a dead end where buildings towered up on every side, leaving the pair in shadows. A strange serenity prevailed this far away from the main streets of the city, suggesting that the further he walked down these passageways, the less easily he'd find his way back.
'Hand it over,' Dartun demanded.
The boy eyed him with a mixture of curiosity and arrogance, obviously weighing up the cultist. His blue eyes were dazzling. 'Fuck you, mister.'
Dartun laughed. 'Some spirit in you, I see.'
'What's it to you, wanker?' The lad shuffled from one foot to the other, looking for a way past.
'Just give the relic to me.' Dartun extended his hand. 'You don't want any harm to befall you.'
'No, it's meant to be mine, it's my destiny,' the boy said. Then, he threatened, 'I'll use it on you.'
'You really don't want to try that.'
'No?' The boy reached into his pocket, then was holding up the silver device itself. It looked like a compass, a subtle navigational tool of some kind, perhaps used to divine directions.
'No,' Dartun insisted.
The boy ignored him, flicked the relic open, began to press on it at random, looking to and from Dartun with eager eyes, and all Dartun did meanwhile was take several slow steps backwards, guessing what might happen, wondering only what form it would take.
A ball of purple smoke erupted, extending in every direction.
Just enough time to see the skin of the boy peel back before he became a myriad of chunks of flesh and bone, which distorted then liquidized as if it was paint. Dartun had ducked in time before he heard the gentle explosion, bringing his fuligin cloak over his face. He felt the remains of the child hitting him first, then slapping against the cobbles.
Dartun stood up to regard the mess. Blood was sprayed in a circle all around the relic, which remained intact on the ground, a glistening unstained piece of metal. Mere fragments of the boy remained: the odd bone, a tiny segment of skull. At least his fuligin cloak was so intensely dark that the stains were barely showing up on it.
Primed with an explosion detonator. Haven't seen one of those for a while.
'They'll never learn,' he said out loud; he reached down, scooped up the relic, pocketed it, then walked away.
Two nights earlier, he had felt a stiffness in his legs that he'd never noticed before.
Four days ago, he had grazed his hand on stone, drawing blood.
He'd looked at his injury for an hour, contemplating why this was happening, contemplating that narrowing line between life and death.
If you cannot die, it means you're not alive to begin with. And now the system of relics is gradually failing me.
Dartun repeated this mantra over and over again in his mind, forcing himself to believe it. Home, in a darkened chamber within the headquarters of the Order of the Equinox, he stared at the relic taken from the dead boy. Every relic was somehow protected against use by any lay person, the secrets of handling it known only to the numerous cultists who frequented these islands. Ignorant meddlers were poisoned for their trouble, or corrupted by holding something unknown, the lucky ones only losing a single limb. Other relics used bolts of energy to stop the heart, and some used a toxic gas. Their fate was never pleasant, but it ensured that cultist secrets remained exactly that. And so it had worked for tens of thousands of years.
He held the artefact up to a shaft of light penetrating a slat in the wooden shutter. This new relic was a type of wend, that would have assisted the Ancients in their travels. Even though it wouldn't help him regain his immortality, he was always delighted to find another relic, whatever its powers. This one was a particularly wonderful piece of equipment. The internal materials were not of this era, that was nearly always certain, although the casing was some form of current silver, so perhaps it had been modified. Round, fitting easily in the palm of his hand, it absorbed the thin beam of light from the daylight outside, and it held his attention endlessly.
Dartun considered himself the best cultist around. He could not only use relics, but modify them, develop his own devices from the ancient wonders. He could combine them, could manipulate the different technologies for his own research and, over his abnormally long lifetime, he had made countless notes, developed theories, tested them, tried to fill in the numerous gaps in knowledge. He had pushed the boundaries of what was known and, by doing so, blurred the boundaries between life and death. But there was something evading him that he wanted to achieve. And he wanted to attain it more than ever because of his sudden awareness of mortality.
This is the way my world ends, he reflected: not with a whimper, but with a fucking big bang.
Again, today he had contemplated the signs of his ageing.
Deeper lines in his face.
Cuts and grazes on his skin.
These were the legacy of mortals, things he hadn't been used to. Every time he identified one of these minor deteriorations, he would stand still and examine it for the best part of an hour, trying to accept the fact that he was dying. It took over nearly every part of his mindspace. There seemed no room to think of anything else.
He finally placed the relic to one side, walked over to one of his numerous bookshelves, selected a notebook. From another shelf he drew a map from a large stack. Then he lit three lanterns, placed one on his desk, set to work.
Last month he had suffered a migraine for two days. His first such inconvenience in hundreds of years.
The main subject of concern for everyone in Villjamur, on Jokull island, and every other island of the Empire, was the Freeze – the ice age, long predicted by astronomers and historians. But it had to have its good points, and for Dartun, it meant that he could finally investigate one of the celebrated myths of the world.
The Realm Gates.
The mythical doors to other worlds. It was said that the Dawnir built them, the race that constructed the islands under the red sun, to link worlds with others. Some priests whispered that there would be direct access to the realms of the gods, some said that instead you could walk straight to the realms of hell. No one seemed to know for certain and, as a result, many assumed that they were simply stories spread by Jorsalir priests. Dartun himself had spent hundreds of years documenting all the historical accounts available. But he had access only to what the empires of the west had detailed, a skewed history. The nations of Varltung and further east passed on their history by word of mouth only, by the warmth of a fire no doubt. Romantic, Dartun thought, but it only gives me one side of the picture. He had, however, pieced together the rough location of where he thought the Realm Gates lay. That meant traversing endless water, over the seas to the north of the Empire's domains, way beyond Folke and far north of Tineag'l. But the Freeze had now caused the formation of thick and stable ice sheets. It meant he could now explore those regions more easily, without being knocked endless days off course by the hazards of rough seas.
The coming ice age meant he was finally able to travel to other worlds.
The fact that his immortality was fading only spurred him on to achieve this quickly, didn't it, because there was no more luxury of time. So he would soon be leaving Villjamur accompanied by members of the Order of the Equinox, some of whom had already left in advance. They'd find new worlds to the north. And there was always a vague, desperate hope in his mind that somewhere in these new worlds would lie the technology to help him prolong his life. He had little else to bank on.
There was a knock at the door, and he looked up in surprise. 'What is it?'
'It's me, Verain,' replied a female voice.
He registered her slender figure before her face; as he tended to do, even though her face was equally exquisite – slender and symmetrical features beneath rook-black hair. She always wore a snug-fitting dark uniform, too. Dartun had come upon her as an orphan girl using a relic to entertain customers for money in some questionable Caveside tavern. Firstly he wondered how she had got hold of it, then he wondered how she had learned to use it. It turned out she'd stolen it off a cultist who'd been trying to get her to give him a blow job, so she'd taken what was his after he'd shown her how to use it. She was only thirteen at the time, but quickwitted from the start. Dartun had immediately hunted down the cultist in question, one from some useless, minor sect. He had beaten him with Dawnir energy and left him with just enough life so that he could realize he didn't really have a life any more.
It was soon obvious that even at such a young age, Verain connected with the Dawnir technology in a manner worthy of any cultist. So he decided to take her in rather than leave her on the streets of Villjamur. Ten years later, they had entered a relationship. He was flattered by the young woman's attentions, perhaps, but when he had been immortal he found it easier that way, to be attracted to someone for their looks only, rather than connect with someone who would inevitably die before he did.
Verain smiled at him with one side of her face, as she always did. His attraction to her was mainly sexual. Being immortal meant that he would frequently lose the partners he'd form emotional ties with. None of them had wanted to live forever, even on the rare occasions when he dared to offer that gift, so he had been hurt more times than he cared to remember. It was these light-hearted, purely sexual partnerships that brought him most pleasure, and as little pain as possible. Even now he knew he was dying.
'Some of the others are setting off to reach Tineag'l by boat,' she announced.
'Are the first lot there already?'
'Not quite, but any day now.'
'OK,' he sighed with relief. Everything was now starting. Everything was about to be put into action. All his years of experience and study and knowledge would soon be tested; his theories, his hopes, his desires fulfilled.
'Are you feeling OK?' Verain said, noticing his exhalation.
'Do you think I wouldn't be?'
'No. It's just… well, things are going to change, aren't they?'
'Of course. That's the nature of the world.'
'I'm just worried, Dartun. You've been so different these past few weeks. You once said if I ever got scared I was to come to you. But what if it's you I'm scared of?'
'Me?' Dartun laughed. 'Why be scared of me, you of all people?' He walked over and took her hands in his. Then he kissed her forehead in a way that was more parental than lover.
She glanced up at him with that familiar distance in her eyes. There was a lack of understanding, he sensed – perhaps a lack of willingness in her to understand him. But maybe she couldn't.
It was possible no one could understand him.
'Go to the others,' he said, 'and tell them to prepare. Next stop, the north. Then we'll find somewhere warmer.'
Somewhere I might recover my immortality once again.
People showed signs of moving around the city out of context. They arrived places late, routines were disrupted, because normal routes were blocked in places. More time was needed to navigate the usual paths, and it was as if everyone had now come out of their homes simply in defiance of the longest winter they'd ever know. For many humans this extended season would be the last they would ever see. For rumel there was a greater chance of seeing the summer again, to watch for that moment when the trees and plants would explode with life.
Jeryd was annoyed that people kept stopping suddenly, right in front of him. More than once he considered delivering a small admonitory slap to someone's head. It was always here they tended to pause, gazing around at the old Azimuth-inspired architecture, the smaller domes and intricate sandstone squares that contradicted the rest of the later additions to the city, which rose generally taller, and were hacked out of local limestone. Still, he liked the feeling of the snow under his boots, that crisp compaction.
Home to a lot of the oldest shops in the city, this street was a haven for antique dealers, traders in exotic products, spice dealers. On one side stood three cheap hotels. But things changed significantly at night: the street in front became the hang-out for dealers of less respectable substances. Quick hand movements in the moonlight, and something illegal was exchanged at an extravagant price. It was where you might meet a cultist who needed quick money, and some said that you could buy weird animals, sleek-looking hybrids, but Jeryd had never seen any in all his years.
As Jeryd headed down a narrow side alley, memories came flooding back of regularly accompanying Marysa here when they were both much younger. He couldn't think of the last time she'd actually held his hand, but when they were still in love she'd drag him along to look at all those items that appealed to her. He was once so keen to learn about her interests, to discover more about her. It must have been over a hundred years ago when he first started coming down this way, waiting outside the shops in the sun, enjoying a moment to himself as she rustled around inside. He still wanted to hold on to the idea of his being with Marysa, even if things didn't work out this time. Perhaps, in his old age, he was becoming sentimental, like humans did. Perhaps there were fewer differences between the two hominid species than anyone cared to admit.
Stepping over a bolting rat, Jeryd entered one particular antique store that looked familiar, and the door chime rang. His eyes adjusted to the murkiness, taking in piles of antiques stacked awkwardly wherever you looked, suggesting that one misjudged step on an uneven floorboard would bring about an expensive catastrophe. An old woman was standing behind the counter, while another stood with her back turned about ten armspans away. They looked identical, both in similar over-dresses, the sorts with floral patterns like the ones you used to see about thirty years ago, but now faded from over-washing. Nick-nacks and ornaments spilled on the floor amid random furniture. Strange instruments, pottery, art were propped up against any available wall space. Desperately, he hoped there were no spiders under all these objects waiting for him: because arachnids were this tough investigator's hidden shame.
Jeryd stepped carefully around the large room searching for something that might appeal to Marysa, some small token to impress her, to show her that he still loved her. Was there possibly one item that could do all that on its own? Probably not. He tried desperately to think about the things she used to like, cursing his inability to make a decision. He scratched his head as he leaned over tables, picking up items, replacing them immediately.
Ever so slowly he started to mumble in frustration.
'Talking to yourself, investigator? Maybe she'd like some of the brass instruments over there. They're enough to pique the interest of the most ardent collector.'
Tuya was wearing a light-blue robe, a colour rarely favoured in current fashions, with a straw hat tilted down over the side of her face. He tried not to let his vision linger on her lissom figure, which could be noted despite her thick clothing. Pouting lips, all cheekbones and soft edges, there was an uncomfortable intensity about this woman.
'You said your wife collected antiques, so you're here to buy her something, aren't you?'
She fingered a wooden statuette by her side. 'You should at least consider some of the items over there. There're some fine nautical gadgets.'
Tuya led him away.
She explained the various items to him in a way that unsettled him, though he couldn't work out exactly why. Maybe because he remembered similar times with Marysa. He wondered if it was wrong to be talking so casually, and made the decision to be wary of her charms. Greater rumel in the Inquisition than himself had succumbed to feminine wiles.
A musky smell in these rooms, the stale aroma of time having passed, the remains of forgotten civilizations. He found it odd that people should want to collect many such items, even though they did not know their original purpose. He thought about what objects he owned himself, and if in a thousand years they would each become a mere ornament on a rich lady's dresser. Perhaps some of the shit scrapers he used to flush out of the gutters would become some gift to charm a pretty girl. He smiled at the thought.
Tuya continued to point out and describe things, but his mind began drifting to his own past again.
'Rumex, you're not listening, are you? How're you ever going to win a woman's favour if you don't pay attention while she's talking?'
'I always did when she was around,' he said, a little annoyed. What business was it of Tuya's anyway? Did she get her kicks from sifting through other people's lives? 'Well, maybe I wasn't a very good partner.'
'But you could be,' she said.
'And you could tell me how?'
'So long as you don't mind talking about such intimate things with a murder suspect.'
The pressures of his personal life were beginning to distract him from his job for the Inquisition. Yet above all he needed to sort out his private life. It felt uncomfortable to be here with her, but every minute he spent with her, he might be able to observe her closely, find out who this secretive woman was, and, more importantly, to probe her further about her involvement with Ghuda. 'No, it's fine. Just don't take it personally if I'm obliged to arrest you later,' he said, and raised a questioning eyebrow.
She seemed to like that. 'Of course. Besides, because I spend a lot of time alone, I could do with the company. In my time, I've listened to a lot of men talk – and let me tell you, men do talk, if only to the right woman. You know my profession, so I get to peek into a lot of lives, see a lot of destruction – the amount of hidden secrets and lies that keep a partnership intact…' She looked intently at a small metal clock and picked it up. 'And, besides, I'm just making my living doing something I enjoy. If they didn't come to me for their kicks, they'd only go elsewhere. I'm not the problem – just a symptom.'
'No one suggested you were a problem,' Jeryd observed bashfully.
She put the clock down, tucked a loose strand of red hair behind her ear. 'Anyway, what I'm saying is I know quite a bit about relationships.' She laughed to herself, some hidden irony perhaps. 'Yet I myself have never held one together. But, I'd like to think I could help you. And your partner obviously had good tastes.' She gazed at Jeryd intensely.
He looked away awkwardly.
'Relax, investigator,' she said, laughing. 'I meant she liked quality antiques.'
'I know that,' Jeryd said, defensively.
'You shouldn't take things so seriously. You're so full of melancholy. I think you work too hard. What would you do if you didn't work?'
Jeryd frowned. 'I'm not sure really.'
'It's scary for some people to think what they'd do if they didn't have to work constantly. I think that's why many do work so much: because they're frightened of stopping.'
'What's all this got to do with helping me get Marysa back?'
'Because you've probably put your work ahead of her most of the time when she needed care and attention. You didn't listen to her enough. You didn't make her feel special. You therefore never earned the right to be loved. I dare say you worked so hard because you didn't feel comfortable loving her.'
'Compliments corner, this,' Jeryd muttered dryly.
'It's a reality check,' she said. 'I can tell by your face that I've hit a nerve.'
'Maybe you have. Look, I'm meeting her tonight. What could I do to… seduce her?'
She proceeded to give him some advice at length.
It was as if the secrets of womankind were being revealed to him.
He even had to make notes.
'So,' he said, after being numbed into silence by her advice, 'what should I get Marysa as a present?'
'A good-quality antique, one that could also be thought of as a relic. It'll arouse her curiosity, will mystify her, play on her mind. You must be on her mind always.'
'Of course.' Jeryd folded his arms, leaned back, playing it cool. Yes, he could appear confident, he could persuade Marysa to come back to him. This seducing business was clearly a breeze. 'You're pretty clued-up on all this stuff.'
'I know.' She seemed satisfied with the compliment.
Turning to what he was genuinely more confident about, Jeryd risked another attempt to dig for information, now that she was more at ease with him. 'So how did you really get to know Delamonde Ghuda?'
'You don't ever ease up on the work front, do you?' she said.
'My lunch hour is over, I fear.'
'I met him in a tavern, Rumex. That's all. He's just one more handsome man I went to bed with. A man I wanted to sleep with out of choice. Not a crime, is it?'
It should be, he thought, but then he didn't really understand his personal feelings in this. As a rumel who was out of touch with the way the modern world worked, he often understood himself even less than he did others.
Dusk, and standing outside of the Bistro Juula. Jeryd stared up at the pterodette that had narrowly missed excreting on him. The little reptile flew up to perch on the roof, looking down at him.
'Not on these robes, you won't, my friend,' Jeryd said confidently, empowered by the advice of another woman.
Antique present tucked under his arm, carefully wrapped. He wore fine silk robes, in black, over a white silk undershirt with matching handkerchief. The outfit had cost him nearly a Jamun. He had shaved with an expensive blade earlier on, too. Consequently the breeze felt chillingly fresh against his smooth cheek, despite his thick rumel skin. He had even – though he would never admit this to anyone else serving in the Inquisition – scented his white hair with fragrant oils.
I may stink like a tart's dressing table, but every little helps.
He tried to remember everything Tuya had told him. He had reread his notes a dozen times, and it put him in mind of those Inquisition entrance exams, back in his youth.
Jeryd cast an eye at the nearby clock tower. She was bound to keep him waiting – she always did. He felt nervous, as if this was their first date. The sky was darkening fast, the tall buildings becoming even blacker against it. Birds and pterodettes arced hypnotically above the countless spires. Lanterns were being lit along the street, their coloured glow catching the limestone. Sandalwood incense wafted from one of the taverns further upwind. Maybe he was going soft, but he thought the scene rather romantic.
There she was, Marysa, walking slowly along the path to meet him, hips swinging slightly as she came up the hill, and his heart was beginning to race. She caught his eye as she came closer, then looked at the ground. For a moment neither of them said anything. Her elegant, black robe was slightly darker than her skin, with a coloured scarf wrapped around her neck. Her white hair was tied up with something that sparkled, no doubt some current fashion he wasn't aware of, and the coloured make-up around her eyes opened up her face in new ways. Her tail swayed back and forth sinuously.
'Hello,' Jeryd gulped. 'You look incredible.'
'Thank you,' she said. 'And I like your new robe.'
He hadn't heard it for so long, that soothing voice. 'Oh, this is for you,' he forced himself to say, handing over the present. 'Just a little something you might be interested in.' He tried not to contain his eagerness as he urged, 'Go on, open it.'
She unwrapped it quietly, and her face lit up. The gift was small, possibly some ancient navigational device, only a hand-span wide, with an intricate mechanism.
'An antique,' she said in awe. 'Looks almost like a relic.'
Jeryd stood back, arms folded, feeling pleased with himself. 'Should keep you busy for a few days trying to work out what it is.'
'It's really wonderful.' She kissed him on the cheek, a gesture that could have meant anything, so he tried not to interpret it with wishful thinking.
'Now, shall we?' Jeryd indicated the nearby bistro.
After a deep initial awkwardness, the night went better than he could have imagined. He actually listened to her for the first time in years. Her main focus these days turned out to be ancient architectures – particularly newly discovered remains of the Azimuth Empire, undergoing restoration work here and there. She told him at length of the ancient Azimuth civilization: the great causeways now strewn under a hillside, the skeletal palaces submerged under marshes. Whilst she had been consorting with the archaeologists, bones of ancient creatures had been found, great mastodon ribcages unearthed near the coast, mammoth quidlo squids, human remains several armspans in length, even unknown beasts with three skulls. She gradually painted for Jeryd a vivid history of the Boreal Archipelago. Why had he never found her so fascinating before?
Gestures came and went, light touches to the wrist, a smile after meaningful words, catching each other's eyes through the flame of the candle, every nuance so much more powerful, so much more lingering than before, as if the very fact of being apart had made them realize just how much they filled a gap in each other's life.
Inevitably they got round to the breakdown of their marriage, whereupon Jeryd confessed to being a poor husband. She then gave him a list of demands, should they give it another go.
They were not unreasonable, he admitted, all to do with time, attention, details. Even he could manage that. He stopped short of pleading with her, was merely happy to be with her once again. And she responded positively to that, he hoped.
Later that evening, he walked her home to her temporary residence – a room on Gata du Seggr, the other side of the Gata Sentimental, where you found a lot of old soldiers living in retirement. She whispered to him that it would not be right to spend the night together, so at the door he merely pressed his lips to her hand, then turned away into the darkness.
On his way home he couldn't help but notice that he was being followed by someone with heavy footsteps, but there was no incident. Once inside the door, seeing with clarity how much of a mess his house was, Jeryd decided to have a quick tidy up. Afterwards he sat naked on his bed by the burning wood stove, with his head in his hands, his tail motionless, his expensive new robe folded neatly on a chair in the corner. There was an ache in his chest as he reviewed the evening in his mind. Things seemed to have gone well, but he didn't want to get his hopes up. Becoming over-optimistic could lead to very worst kind of disappointment.
It was interesting how Tuya had changed the way he looked at his marriage, at his entire life. She had been amazingly succinct in pointing out his errors, had been the only one ever to locate a direct channel to the things that were essential in his world. Without Marysa there would still be so much… emptiness. Emptiness which he had previously tried to fill with so much work, in some vague attempt to avoid thinking about how bad things had become.
He reclined back on the bed, began to drift off to sleep.
He was woken by footsteps, heels clipping the cobbles beneath his window. His heart missed a beat as the front door opened, then closed. He twisted round in his bed, rubbed his eyes, peering at the clock. He realized he had been asleep for only half a bell. Footsteps up the stairs, footsteps to his bedroom door. With one eye he watched it open, pretending he was still asleep.
A figure approached his bed, paused.
'Some inquisitor you are,' Marysa chuckled. 'What if I was a thief?'
Everything I have is yours anyway, he wanted to say, but didn't. She kicked off her shoes, slid her dress down, eased herself onto the bed. They kissed, and he was gentle with her, and as they made love she would bite his chest gently, and arc her back like a bow.
Tonight, and for as long as I'm alive, he promised himself, it will be all about her.
Outside Jeryd's house, Aide Tryst was leaning against the wall watching the glint of the moon on the slick cobbles. He had sifted through the backstreets to get here, mannered and methodical in his stealth, sliding by the tenebrous traffic of Villjamur, past all the hustlers and the slick magic and weird hybrid beasts that filled the hour with a night-noir exoticness.
And now Marysa's gentle groans came down to him occasionally above the noise of the breeze.
In his hand he held up the heart of a pig. Blood dripped along his arm under his sleeve as he silently incanted an Ovinists' mantra, the words forming in a hushed murmur on his lips.
I curse that man, he thought. Because he won't promote me to the position I deserve, yet instead of solving Brother Ghuda's death he's wasting his time with that wife of his.
Yet all the time he pretends to be my friend.
In his semi-trance, Tryst's thoughts drifted, took control of things again. How had he got to be here, outside this house, in the middle of the night, so full of rage and jealousy?
As he reflected, memories came back to him, the ones of his youth, back when the summers seemed endless. The cottage just south of the city where his parents lived. His father, that colossal bearded man, a priest of Bohr, and an alcoholic, who abused both Tryst and his mother. His mother herself, small and fragile and beautiful, so undeserving of the hell his father brought home with him. Tryst loved her, wanted to protect her with every instinct of his being.
But to his father she meant nothing, because Bohr had become everything, a god Tryst could never see, and perhaps that was the reason why Tryst had become an Ovinist.
Because he excelled at his lessons, it was his mother who fought for him to stay at school as long as possible, even as his father's drinking habits and bouts of violence worsened. She invested in him a sense of motivation, of freedom to get on in life, not to be held back by conditions. Perhaps some of her own fears laced her words. When she died of some mysterious illness, it destroyed his optimism. Strangely, it broke his father too, and Tryst didn't expect that. So now that it turned out Tryst couldn't expect any more promotions in the Inquisition, he thought back to those days constantly, relived those moments of helplessness again and again.
His mother had told him he was so clever he could achieve anything, and now Jeryd was stopping Tryst from achieving.
Tryst slid an ornamental dagger from his sleeve. He cut a slice of the pig's heart, then took a bite to show his devotion to his new god – the one that had helped process his bad memories.
But he still could not do much about the problem of Jeryd.
Seething, he walked home, contemplating ways to hurt the investigator.
Verain pulled up the hood of her fuligin cape to escape the cold wind that channelled through the passageways of Villjamur as if it was chasing her, haunting her like a relentless ghost.
As she continued on her way, old men leered at her from hidden doorways, called out to her with degrading suggestions. Some were so drunk they were falling against the walls, yet even then they were requesting sexual favours. She had half a mind to use a relic to castrate them – at least that ought to cut short their fantasies. She merely flashed a short sword by their faces as she passed, but their voices continued to pursue her long after she had gone. Otherwise there were only the cats infesting the alleyways, but she actually appreciated their company.
She felt so isolated now. She was going to betray her lover.
For that's how Dartun would see it, there was no hiding from the truth. He would scarcely care if she left him for another man. He scarcely ever had sex with her, certainly never bought her gifts. It wasn't as though she wanted much, just some vague show of affection – was that too much to ask? But that wasn't the reason she was about to betray him.
Over the past year, she had seen him become obsessed with his projects, even down to little things that kept him from interacting with others for days. Somehow he had retreated into his mind, and was becoming totally self-obsessed with his plans to step across the threshold of the world. He was going to tamper with the very nature of reality by opening a gate to another realm and stepping through it.
Dartun frightened her with his ambitions.
These were things that ought not to be decided by one man alone. Others should be warned, and if she – his lover – suspected it was immoral to proceed in such a way, then she should at least find a way of opening it to debate, shouldn't she? It was after all a decision that could affect her home.
She passionately loved Villjamur, with its antiquated buildings that leaned on each other through neglect and decay. Amid architecture that often contrasted violently in places, centuries of history was jammed in together, tens of thousands of diverse inhabitants criss-crossed in a mosaic that made up the daily life of the city. Without a family to now call her own, the city represented that familiar link to her childhood, her anchor, something she could always turn to in comfort. No one in her order liked her due to her proximity to Dartun. All she had in her life was the city. She would often walk across the bridges alone, looking down at the hundreds of citizens surging past, lost in their own thoughts. Nothing should be allowed to threaten their world. Orphaned at a young age, she had been passed between people she did not know, never feeling settled, never appreciating the love or guidance of a mother or father, or those gestures that defined who you were. Villjamur alone gave her context. It was while growing up on the streets of the city that she became involved with the cultists. It was in Villjamur that she learned about right and wrong. The place had taught her who people really were, no matter what strata of life they inhabited. And Villjamur had taught her that most fundamental truth – that most people were the same, because of experiencing similar sufferings, pains and pleasures of existence. In the end they were all of them equal.
She asked Dartun what if something came through the doors that he would open into new worlds? And he had told her, quite simply, that if something escaped into this world, if something contaminated the islands and then Villjamur, so be it. His life and the importance of furthering knowledge were more important.
So torn between her lover and her city, she had chosen Villjamur. That was not because she loved him less, but because she had to weigh up the happiness of more than one person. Here, she told herself, was a whole city to potentially protect.
Verain's destination was a featureless stone building, located somewhere off the usual avenues. She knocked on the door and a hatch slid open. To the questioning face behind it, she displayed her cultist medallion. She hoped that the mathematical equal symbol would be enough to declare the importance of the matter.
'What?' the face asked.
'I need to see Papus, Gydja of the Order of the Dawnir. It's urgent.'
'Wait there a moment.'
Minutes later the door opened, and three cloaked and hooded figures stepped out into the darkness of the street. 'We'll need to search you before you can enter,' one of them explained.
Verain nodded, handing over her blade. Three pairs of arms worked her over, prodding at her in vaguely abusive ways, but, eventually, when they were satisfied she carried no relics, she was led inside. She was made to sit on a simple stool in a bare, wood-panelled room, the only light coming through the open door from a lantern hanging on the wall. Since there was no fire, she watched her clouded breath catch this dim light.
Nearly half an hour passed before a silhouette appeared in the doorway. It paused, clearly examining her, then demanded, 'Why are you here?'
'Who wants to know?' Verain stood up.
'I do,' the figure replied sternly. 'I'm Papus.' She carried a candle into the room and began to light others until eventually Verain could see her face clearly.
What Dartun had told her about Papus had not been complimentary, but then he would say such things, because apparently she was a strict woman with so many ethics and morals that even her own sect feared her. There were stories though of her connections to those high up in the Empire, so she clearly was the right person to approach. And she was a powerful cultist: perhaps second only to Dartun. She would know how to process the coming information.
'My name's Verain Dulera, from the Order of the Equinox.' She followed Papus as she placed the final candlestick on an empty shelf on the wall.
As the woman turned to face her, Verain was surprised by her masculine features.
'I know who you are,' Papus said.
Verain pulled back her hood.
Papus said, 'And I see Dartun likes pretty ones.'
Verain was suddenly conscious of her own attractiveness. Not that Papus herself was ugly, but Verain had learned from other women that beauty was something everyone reacted to differently. 'It's because of Dartun that I'm here, actually,' Verain said, crossing her arms in front of her defensively. 'I've got some news I must give you.'
'And I'm expected to trust this news from a rival sect? Furthermore, news about the least trustworthy man who ever handled a relic?'
'Please listen to me,' Verain said. 'If he knew I was here then my life would be in danger.'
Papus gestured her to silence. 'I know plenty of things regarding Dartun Sur, many you wouldn't want to know. I doubt what news you have will change my opinions of him. But what information could you possibly have that would make me detest your lover even more than I do already?'
Verain explained to her Dartun's plans to open a door to another world.
Papus snorted with laughter. 'And you yourself believe that he will actually find these doors?'
'He's had a long time to find out about these things.' Verain wilted internally, having hoped that this woman would appear more receptive and reassuring.
'Why are you telling me this?' Papus demanded, propping her chin on her hands with her elbows on her knees, producing a defeated kind of body language.
How could she relate that she was scared of someone she loved. 'Because I care for him,' Verain replied. She didn't think Papus would understand, so she went on to explain. 'I care for him a great deal, despite the way he is to me, or rather isn't. Dartun may seem languid to these matters, but he's not cruel or anything. I'm starting to think a lot of other men are the same as he is – just too caught up in his own world.'
'I think you'll find,' Papus said, 'that most people are rather caught up in their own world. Men and women, rumel and human, that way they can escape the real one.'
'I just wanted someone else to know, who could do something about the situation if something came through into this world. And since yours is the biggest order, you're obviously the most influential.'
'Apparently so.' Papus sighed. 'Thank you for reassuring me.'
Dartun hunched in one of his special chambers. There were several lock mechanisms to pass through, with complex codes. He needed sanctuary at times, a place in which he could retreat, a place that more importantly offered somewhere for him to work in peace. No one knew of this place, and they would not have been able to find it. It was where he kept his more important relics. This small, dark metal-lined room was it, deep underground in his order's headquarters. He lit a candle and set about his search.
He was looking for the uphiminn-kyrr. It was a relic pioneered initially by one of the legendary underground cultists, the ones who worked alone without a sect but were skilful and elusive. Feltok Dupre was sometimes thought to be more a rumour than a person, a cultist who was said to have taken to alcohol and operated now in Villiren for coin to get by. The uphiminn-kyrr was his development, and he had sold the designs to a handful of cultists. Dartun was one, and he had been able to construct the device himself from complex plans that he thought initially were impossible to work with, written in old text and with root words he could barely understand. It took several years before he realized he had not in fact been conned.
Where is it? For a moment he leaned against the wall, pressure suddenly escalating in his head. It hit him just how much he wanted to do this, to find a new world, and to find a cure for mortality again. Why did people have to die? Why did their own worlds have to end? He fought back an urge to cry, something he wasn't used to. What had become of him? The lump in his throat seemed unmovable. What would Verain think of him, like this? Well, perhaps she would see that he was normal, after all, a quality it was often obvious she craved from him. He just couldn't be the man she wanted him to be. He wanted to discover things, didn't he, to push the boundaries of what was known, not to settle for something quiet. Yet she was the only girl who had affected him in recent memory. He knew that, often escaping into her company, her tender affections. Only last month they shared drinks in the corner of a bistro, just like a normal couple, shrouded in that anonymous darkness brought by their fuligin cloaks, and they talked of things that didn't matter, things that he never knew about her. That she never wanted to be a mother, even though she loved children – because of her own orphaned upbringing. That she disliked sweet foods – something he surely should have noticed. That she feared ever being imprisoned, and would suffer nightmares about it periodically.
It seemed there were worlds to discover in her, too.
She meant something to him, but his new-found situation of losing his immortality had changed the context in which he lived – and he could not let her know she was important to him, not if he was going to die. If only he had just a few more guaranteed years, some time to discover more about these islands that lay under the red sun, about what everything meant, about where their civilization had come from. Such a history had always been there to discover, somewhere. If only he had more time.
There it was, the uphiminn-kyrr, a hexagonal box constructed from some metal that he could not identify. It was certain there was no known current stock of this ore. It possessed a sheen similar to steel, but the properties and structure were different. Glass dials indicated the points of a compass, with marks indicating degrees of trajectory. He took the box to his chest and left the chamber.
Later, early evening, up on one of the bridges, staring blankly into the wind like he was doing so much these days. If he had so little time left alive, why was he spending much of it experiencing such existential crises? A laugh snapped him out of it. No one was around on this bridge, leading between one derelict building and one disused theatre. Occasionally a gust would draw his fuligin cloak across his face, forcing upon him a darkness so total he thought it death itself.
The uphiminn-kyrr was to clear the skies as best as possible. The clouds were potent these days, and they needed dispersal if he was going to travel north for long periods. He placed the device on the ground, set the dials for maximum trajectory, then set it to start. There was a timer that he salvaged from another relic, so he was never quite sure how efficient it was, so he remained focused on the device from a distance of twenty paces. It was like waiting for a firework. The sounds of the city drifted up from below, bottles clinking, a little laughter, reverb of horses' hooves navigating tight alleyways, every night so similar.
Eventually, a fizz – a light glow from the uphiminn-kyrr, and a small ball of white light launched with velocity into the skies.
He did not know how long it would take to know if it had worked, or even if the effects would be useful, but he had to do all he could.
Jeryd watched the night sky vibrate with light and colour. Marysa held his arm tighter. She shivered a little, and he couldn't tell if it was from the cold or the eerie event above their heads, but it wasn't important, just the fact that she was holding him once again, just like old times. As the lights reflected off her glossy black eyes, he was so grateful to be with her again. It had taken her absence to make him realize just how much she meant to him, and he was shocked that, as a rumel, he was actually suffering from such emotions as humans normally did. He had always assumed that it was that rumel quality of level-headedness that put them a notch above their hominid cousins.
'Rumex,' Marysa breathed, 'isn't this wonderful? What's causing it?'
Jeryd had no answers, and his tail was perfectly still in contemplation. 'Perhaps this is some prior indication of the ice age? Perhaps not. I'm even willing to put a few Drakar on it being some kind of cultist trickery.'
They were both hypnotized by the display, these beams and flickering shafts of light changing form and colour in front of the stars. All around them, other people were equally entranced, craning their necks to see more clearly between the tall buildings, stepping out on balconies, scrambling for the higher bridges, as if getting closer would enable them to understand the bizarre occurrence any better.
Jeryd had taken Marysa out for a few drinks that evening and to watch a golem dance display put on by cultists from the Order of Pugandr. He had been genuinely impressed with the dwarfish, clay-like creatures that skipped about on stage.
But all through this magical evening, he couldn't quite shake the feeling of being the victim of observation, even when he found himself lost in contemplation of the extraordinary events in the sky. This was a city where at night you would easily see shadows stepping out of alleyways behind you, or hear the sound of ghostly feet scuffing on the cobbles. It was a city that bred paranoia.
But who cares if someone is tailing me, just as long as it isn't those Gamall Gata kids.
Randur stared out of the window, his slender, naked body illuminated by the weirdly ignited sky. His sword, garments and boots lay scattered on the floor somewhere behind him as he grasped the edge of the window frame to watch the varying colours shoot across the heavens. A diffuse glow of green and red undulated like an immense curtain drifting in a slow breeze. Impossibly high. Impossibly wide.
Lady Yvetta Fol stepped up behind him, placed her palms on his buttocks. 'Impressive,' she said, sliding them slowly up and down, then giving a gentle squeeze.
'Yeah,' Randur said. 'I've never seen the sky look like this before. I wonder what the hell is happening?'
'I wasn't talking about the sky.' She slapped his rump. Her many gold rings stung his bare skin, and he shuddered at the cold metal. Her breath crept slowly up the back of his neck as she moved his long hair to one side. Her fingers skimmed the ridges of his shoulder blades and spine. She kissed one shoulder hungrily.
As he turned around, her palms continued to move across his lithe dancer's torso, which she had already compared favourably to that of her husband, old and fat and lazy, and she murmured something vaguely about waiting for him all her life. But he couldn't keep this up all night. Where the hell did she get her appetite from? It made him wonder if she had been storing up frustrated libido for years, releasing it all tonight, on him, and now he was the prey instead of the hunter.
His lips touched her rings, caressing the display of wealth. Earlier he had cautioned her about a thief, one of Randur's latest fictions, suggesting that a wave of crimes was washing through the upper levels of the city, with wealthy ladies being targeted for their vulnerability. And after seeing the concern on her face, he pressed her fingers to his lips and offered his loyal protection for the evening. 'You simply don't need all these right now.' Randur slipped the rings from her fingers, dropped them discreetly into one of his upright boots. 'You're beautiful enough just as you are, my dear.'
Eyes creasing, she gave one of those small exhalations of pleasure, like the ones he had been hearing all night. 'You really think that?'
He placed a finger over her lips. 'I imagine every man would.'
'Well, certainly not him.'
Him would be her husband, the influential Lord Hanton Fol.
Her grey hair was now ruffled after making love three times already. For a lady of fifty years, she was still slim, only mildly wrinkled. He had enjoyed what they did tonight – she was certainly a skilled performer, despite the dents in her confidence from her husband's complaints, and the fact that he was always sleeping with much younger women, whenever he was actually in Villjamur. Lord Fol was a wealthy landowner, who supplied the army with crucial foodstuffs distributed to their garrisons across the Archipelago. Lady Yvetta was rich in her own right, owning a substantial estate on Jokull, and also several trading ships. Randur was aware of these facts from gossiping with the servants before he came here. He confirmed her value from the proliferation of jewellery and ornaments that were crammed into her balconied mansion.
Her hand cupped his groin, and he groaned, partly in pleasure, and partly in dismay. She began kissing his neck, holding her lips for a moment on his collar bone. He ran his hands along her spine, noting the suppleness in her ageing skin. You can mix gain and pleasure so long as you're doing things right. He was now pushed against the window frame, the glass chilling his back. Her hand continued to work on him, perhaps a little too eagerly.
Oh please, not a fourth time…
To the bed again, sliding his hands along her legs, his tongue licking feverishly from her ankles to her thigh, until she couldn't stop groaning. The soft light from the window – the heavenly display – enhanced every curve of her body, smoothed every line of ageing. At an agonizingly slow pace, Randur's mouth advanced across her body. She groaned ecstatically, her fingertips gripping the bed sheets.
A thumping at the door.
Randur stared into her startled eyes.
Bugger. He whispered, 'Who is it?'
'How should I know?'
Thumping again. A voice shouted, 'Lady Yvetta, this is Anton!'
Yvetta whispered, 'My husband's brother.'
Shit, Randur thought, immediately checking for an obvious escape route. The window, the exit of so many a lover in the night, seemed an appropriate choice.
'I know you're in there, Yvetta,' the voice continued. 'I was brought news that you entered your chamber in the company of some young man. I can't allow our family name to be disgraced in this way.'
'Nonsense,' she shrilled. 'I'm utterly alone.'
Randur leapt off the bed, threw on his shirt and breeches.
Yvetta hurried over to the door to intercede.
While she wasn't looking, he flipped a couple of bracelets from the dresser into his pocket.
'There's no one here, Anton. Really,' she protested.
'Let me in to see for myself,' the voice said.
'Give me a moment,' she said. 'I must make myself decent.'
Randur, meanwhile, had alternative concerns: 'Where's my other fucking boot? Oh.' He grabbed it, fled to the window, opened it silently, then stepped out on the balcony. Before he closed the window again, he blew her a final kiss, and whispered, 'When you next read some sweet stanza, think of me, as I will of you, my love.' She returned his gaze with a look of anxious foreboding.
It was a freezing cold night. Colours still drifted across the sky, but there was no time to appreciate the view. With one of his boots still in his hand, he emptied its contents and pocketed the jewellery.
As the sound of raised voices came from within Lady Fol's room, Randur quickly shoved his boot on, leapt to the next balcony with his dancer's agility, then climbed up to the roof. There must, he reflected, be easier ways to acquire some money. Careful not to slip to his death on the icy stonework, he edged along until he came upon an emergency spiral staircase. He descended it quickly, then jumped out onto the street.
'Evening,' he greeted a couple walking by, waving while he began to button his shirt. 'Lovely night, isn't it?'
Commander Brynd Lathraea stared up at a sky fragmented into colour, vivid streaks of red and green drifting across the darkness like sheets of rain. They had been back on the island of Jokull for a day, and they had stationed further up the coast. Another hour or two for them to get to Villjamur, but after Daluk Point he was painfully aware of how badly their plans might be kept secret. They had then camped for the next night a fair distance up the coast.
'Shit me,' Apium said, clambering off his bedroll, and nearly stepping on the dying fire as he scrambled to Brynd's side. 'Bollocks.' He brushed sparks off his cloak.
Brynd stood with hands on his hips, craning his neck to see through the overhanging trees. The other two Night Guardsmen approached them, but said nothing, just stared entranced at the massive light show above.
'What, in Bohr's name, is that?' Apium muttered eventually. 'D'you reckon it's something to do with the Freeze?'
'Cultist work that, captain, without a doubt.'
Nelum agreed. 'Indeed, this is nothing natural.'
'I said earlier something strange was happening all across the Archipelago,' Brynd muttered. 'I don't like it at all.'
'Always the cheery sort, aren't you?' Apium said.
Brynd glanced across to Rika's carriage. By now one hundred soldiers from the Dragoons were stationed protectively in a perimeter all around their camp, while pairings of troops patrolled further out. He was deliberately monitoring an hour's journey in every direction, so if there happened to be any more draugr, they would be taken out quickly. Brynd wasn't taking any further chances, either with his remaining men or his precious charge.
Two hours after the heavenly display had finally faded, a female private from the Dragoons guided her horse quietly through the forest towards them.
'Commander,' she saluted him, then dismounted.
The other three Night Guards leapt to attention, then gathered around their leader.
'Yes?' Brynd eyed the solid young woman.
'Commander, your presence is requested urgently.'
'Apium, Nelum: stay here. Your life before the Empress's.'
'Sir,' the two men said in unison. They drew their swords and took up position by the carriage.
'Lupus,' Brynd turned to the third, 'come with me and bring your arrows.'
'Of course, commander,' Lupus replied.
The two jumped on their horses, followed the Dragoon into the darkness of the betula forest.
'Private, what's the issue?' Brynd enquired as he ducked to avoid branches, his sabre in hand.
'Those draugr creatures you warned about earlier. We've spotted some.'
'How many are there?'
'Approximately fifteen, it seems, commander – at the edge of the forest, on the Baering Moors.'
Brynd was above all determined not to let these creatures harm the new Empress. And furthermore he wanted to find out where they came from, what their motives were or who had sent them. He'd never heard of such a thing in the Empire, so why now, why on Jokull?
Through the trees, hooves thudding against the forest floor, twigs snapping as they brushed past.
They finally came across a group of Third Dragoons, the Wolf Brigade of around forty men, their helmets glinting in the light of the moon. Their official standard – a white wolf rampant, against a green background – leaned against a tree in the forest clearing. Brynd was reassured at the number of soldiers assembled.
Their sergeant stepped forward, a blonde woman wearing the familiar black and green uniform of the Dragoons. She sheathed her sword, placed her wolf's-head shield to one side. He saw her face was tracked with abrasions from the tribal campaigns she had led successfully a while back.
'Commander Lathraea,' she said. 'I'm Sergeant Woodyr. Has Private Fendur explained the situation?'
'She has,' Brynd confirmed.
Lupus jumped down, tethered both his own horse and Brynd's to a tree.
The three of them then proceeded over to the edge of the forest. Quietly, she pointed. 'Look.'
Brynd's eyes narrowed.
Across the moorland, about a hundred and fifty paces away, stood a group of draugr, the moonlight from the moon Astrid casting bold, eerie shadows across the earth around them. Wind blew constant ripples through the short grass, but the draugr didn't move, only their fluttering garments. It was an ethereal picture.
'They've been standing there, as if unwilling to move, for some time,' Woodyr explained. 'At least half an hour now since we first discovered them.'
Brynd's eyes grew accustomed to the scene, seeing the figures were dressed in rags, merely strips of cloth hanging off their flesh, both men and women. 'Have they done anything at all yet?'
'No, commander,' the sergeant confirmed.
'Has anyone approached them?'
'Not after your earlier warnings. We waited for you to arrive to assess the situation.'
'I'm glad to hear it.' Brynd turned to Lupus, said abruptly, 'Shoot one.'
The private walked to the very edge of the forest. With a clear aim at most of them, he nocked an arrow, brought it to anchor point. 'Any one in particular, commander?'
Brynd tilted his head, said, 'Try that one.' He pointed towards the nearest motionless figure. 'Aim for the head. We know that a body shot isn't all that effective.'
Lupus released the arrow. It whipped through the air and struck the draugr in the eye with a crack as the skull shattered. The creature fell to the ground under the force of the blow, twitched slowly, like a fish on dry land. None of the other draugr reacted. They merely remained stationary in the moonlight, staring ahead, or at nothing at all.
'Cover me,' Brynd ordered. 'And, sergeant, line up all the archers you've got. Make sure they watch my back and keep the rest of those things away.'
'Yes, commander,' Woodyr replied, and returned to her unit.
To his left, the archers lined up against the fringes of the forest.
Brynd made his way across the moor, stepping tentatively over the soggy grass, crept up to the creature that Lupus had just shot. Its skull had been split by the force of the arrow, the shaft still buried deeply. Stitching around the creature's neck, a black line evident across its blue-tinted skin. Brynd unsheathed his sword and poked at it, but it didn't respond, maybe it couldn't sense the touch of the metal against its skin. A worrying sign.
Brynd glanced back at the forest, reassured at the metal glinting in the moonlight, the swords and arrowheads at the ready should anything happen to him. He walked on between the other draugr. Their heads were all tilted to one side, making them appear to be asleep – except he could see their eyes clearly reflecting the moonlight.
He approached one of the creatures that looked like a woman, the long blonde hair stirring gently in the breeze. He scraped his sword down one arm, drawing black fluid from beneath the skin. The draugr didn't react, obviously couldn't feel any pain. Was this in any way a human after all? He realized that, whatever they were called, these creatures were not alive in any normal sense, but in all his years in Jamur service he had never seen anything like them.
Returning to the fallen draugr, Brynd untied his belt, hooked it around the creature's ankles, dragged it back to the edge of the forest, his feet slipping on the grass, and all the time looking back to check that none of the others were now following.
Sergeant Woodyr came forward to help him. 'What do we do, commander?'
'I don't see these ones as a threat exactly, but I think we should shoot them all down. We'll need a barred caravan, then pile them in and bring them back to Villjamur. They can't be left standing out here. Make sure to cover them up so the public don't see them. There's enough panic in the city already.'
'Sir,' she saluted, then gave her men the order to fire.
Dozens of arrows were instantly let loose.
Randur entered the complete darkness of the caves of Villjamur. It was the first time he'd ventured here, mainly because everyone had warned him of the perils. Too many unsavoury characters, they claimed. You'll get your head kicked in. Robbed. All the worst villains in Villjamur live there.
And that was precisely why he was heading this way.
It was the smell that got to him first, a rancid, surprisingly humid odour. The first street he came across was like those on the lower level of the main city, the same kinds of taverns emptying out drunken men and women who were clawing the walls to guide themselves home. Shops all closed, ghostly presences in the night. The few coloured lanterns burned steadily, however, in the absence of any breeze. Stray dogs pursued their solitary paths through narrow alleys. People walked by with hoods raised, giving them all a needful anonymity.
Randur slid his hands into his pockets, could feel the jewellery, sharp and cool against his palm. He didn't know exactly how he should be feeling about his latest behaviour, but he would sell the stuff and use the money to pay Dartun. Surely granting his mother the gift of life counted as a positive moral act. He could be doing nothing wrong if he was saving a life. Lady Yvetta would barely miss those trinkets, and he would continue doing the same with many other women in Balmacara. I'm fine with this, he decided. Lady Yvetta was hardly going to expose herself by branding him a thief.
An excellent plan had been initiated. Randur's fictional thief, the one that stole from rich lonely ladies, had been spotted. Or rather, Randur was spreading rumours to anyone who would listen about a short, fat, blond man that dressed in baggy breeches – crimes to fashion too! – who had been sighted on more than one occasion, slipping from windowsills into darkness. Randur even suggested that the culprit might have been loitering near Lady Yvetta's apartment the previous night. His tracks had to be covered. He had managed to blag himself this far through life – another set of lies would hardly hurt him. But from now on he would have to select his women and jewels with more caution.
The further he penetrated them, the caverns became bizarrely higher. Some of the spires from the main city could have easily fitted under here. There was the eerie high-pitched sound of bats echoing far off above, and there was a lot of thick smoke due to the lack of ventilation. How far back did this strange section of the city extend?
He came across a fenced-off open section, like an excavation. It was about fifty paces by a hundred, stretching back from his path to the rock of the cave itself. By the light of a lantern stood a hooded man working with a shovel in his hands.
'Hey,' Randur hailed him.
The man stopped digging. 'Fuck you want?'
'What's going on here? Archaeology dig?'
The man laughed. 'Graveyard, mate. A new one.'
'New one?' Randur echoed, resting both hands on the low wooden fence.
'Yep,' the hooded man said. 'They've filled all the deeper holes down in the caves. Our esteemed Council raised funds for a building here to be cleared, so we could fill the land it occupied with the dead.'
'Thought they always burned the dead. It'd save room, too, wouldn't it?'
'Aye, you're right.' The man began to chuckle. 'Only thing is, this place here is for murderers they've executed.' He leaned forwards conspiratorially. 'Burying them keeps their spirits trapped here. Can't have their foul spirits passing on to the next realm, can we? Ha! They'll be filling it up quick. Take it you've not been down this way much? Where y'headed, mate?'
'I'm not sure exactly,' Randur said. 'I'm looking to sell something.'
'A few bits of jewellery,' Randur replied. 'Not on me now, though. Any dealers down this way?'
'Depends. You won't get much cash down here unless you go, well… even deeper underground, if you follow. See, shops here in the caves ain't likely to hold much in the way of jewellery. Would soon get stolen.'
Randur said, 'So, where do I go to find such a customer?'
'That depends. You can look after yourself OK?'
Randur peered into the hooded darkness concealing the man's face. 'I reckon as well as anyone in this city.'
'That's the spirit, lad! Couple of taverns further in's what ya need. Probably a half bell's walk if you carry right on down this road. Look out for the Jinn or the Garuda's Head. You just tell the bar staff there that you're trying to offload some goods. There'll probably be some sort of brawl in there most likely.'
'Thanks for that.'
From under his soiled cloak, the man extended a bony hand that appeared utterly bloodless, as if he should have been lying in one of the graves himself.
'Right,' Randur acknowledged, and reached into his pocket for a coin.
'Much obliged,' the man murmured, and headed back to tend to his graves.
Deeper in, the houses became much more cramped together.
Randur peered through lantern-lit windows in the crudely built shacks to see large families huddled together inside – cheek by jowl, as his mother would have said. Amazing that the sunlight would never penetrate this far to brighten their lives. The walls were so flimsy that every sound could be heard by the neighbours. What must it be like trying to sleep with babies crying all around them in the night? Not even gardens in which children could play, and the damp washing was strung up in front of their doorways. Everywhere monotonous shades of brown, grey, black. Surely if those refugees outside the city knew what it was really like to live in Villjamur then they would prefer to take their chances with the ice.
The outline of a vague shape was stretching across the entire roof of the cavern. Something up there glittered faintly like starlight. But that would have been impossible.
And it suddenly struck him how completely anonymous he was in Caveside. Despite his new position at court, he was now in an alien city where no one had heard of him. That gave him a peculiar sensation when he paced the muddy cobbles.
Suddenly, from a building to his left, two men burst onto the street brawling. A cloud of alcohol followed as several men piled out of the tavern after them, cheering them on. Light from the open doorway spilled out on the grotesque scene. The brawlers cursed each other and rolled about on the ground. They punched each other's faces and grabbed each other's garments as if to frantically swap clothes.
I reckon this must be one of the places I'm looking for.
Someone from the crowd stepped forward and kicked one of the fighters on the head with a solid-looking boot. It snapped back, neck broken, its owner lying perfectly still. The other man got up, brushed himself down, patted the killer on the shoulder. Together with the gathered onlookers, who were muttering approvingly, they returned inside. Randur studied the inn's sign. He had indeed arrived at the Garuda's Head, a crudely whitewashed building, with a pair of external torches burning. As the corpse lay on the ground in a pool of blood, a banshee could be seen approaching in the murky light. Randur stepped quickly into the tavern.
Everyone turned to stare as the stranger walked towards the bar, the sound of conversation dipped. Even with a shelf of candles distributed around the room, the place was barely navigable. The walls were plain, with little decoration, just the odd dull and faded painting of battle and hunting scenes mainly, the odd seascape. Fishing nets hung from the ceiling, wood panelling glowing behind. He tried to gauge the tenor of conversations, but all he could hear was the hushed mumble of men talking into their drinks.
Randur leaned boldly against the wooden countertop at the far end of the tavern. Rough-looking types stared at him suspiciously through a cloud of pipe smoke. He could smell arum weed, lager, and fish being fried in some other room. The counter was littered with tankards and used plates that no one had bothered to clear up.
Randur produced a knife from out of his sleeve, and slammed it on the counter followed by a handful of coins, which eventually rattled to a rest. 'Lager,' he announced to the grubby man standing behind the counter.
'You'll need more money than that,' the fat barman replied, wiping sweat from his cheek.
Randur laughed awkwardly, pretended to rummage in his various pockets. He placed another few Drakar on the table. 'That's all I've got.'
The barman counted the coins slowly before grunting what sounded close to an approval. He turned to one side to pull the drink. Having given that little display, surely no one would think Randur worth robbing.
A grey-haired man propped to his right muttered, 'Pretty flashy blade that.' He indicated the onyx-handled knife that Randur had placed on the bar counter. 'You wanna be careful you don't get it taken from you. You can never be too careful in Caveside, like.'
'I wouldn't worry yourself,' Randur replied defensively.
'Just sayin', like.' The old man blew his nose into his hands, which he then wiped on his breeches.
Randur frowned at this display. The man who had addressed him was so thin and starved-looking, he appeared half-dead. His cloak was in good condition though, and still a deep green. He wore several polished copper bangles and brooches, all bearing leaf motifs, and even his boots were particularly well-shined.
Randur decided his neighbour wouldn't be able to give much trouble. 'Thanks for your concern.' The barman placed the tankard of lager on the bar. Having remembered his identity wasn't real, he felt safe in continuing the conversation. 'I'm Randur. Who the hell are you?'
'They call me many things round here, young Randur…' the old man began. There was an authority in his voice, the sort that made you suspect some kind of prophecy was imminent.
Randur waited for a moment as the man stared ahead aimlessly. 'Well, you going to tell me one of them at least?'
'You can call me Denlin.'
'Well, Denlin, what do you do exactly, apart from propping up this bar?'
'Ex-soldier. Jamur Eighth Dragoons – and for forty years, too. Forty years of the military.'
Randur sipped his lager casually. 'So, what did you fight with?'
'Longbow and crossbow, lad. I was an archer by trade, before my eyes started failing me, that is.'
'And is that why you quit?' Randur said. 'Your vision failed you?'
'Wasn't that really,' Denlin said. 'I'm no dribber – I can still bring down a garuda from the sky on a windy day.' He looked down at the beer-stained floor. 'Admittedly my vision's not what it used to be.'
'Well anyway, Denlin the Archer,' Randur raised his tankard, 'here's to things not being quite what they used to be.'
'You seem too young to be mouthing words like those,' Denlin muttered. 'Those're words only a man who's lived a bit should be saying.'
Randur shrugged. 'You don't have to be old to know that life will throw a good deal of shit your way.'
They clinked tankards.
'So, lad, tell me,' Denlin said, a new froth of beer on his lips, 'what brings you Caveside?'
Randur checked the barman was out of earshot. 'I'm looking for… certain people.'
'Know a lot of people, me,' Denlin pressed. 'Who you looking for? Anyone specific?'
'Look,' Randur decided suddenly that the old man could be a lead, 'I need someone interested in buying some stuff from me.'
'Buying and selling, yeah? Hmm. You wanna be careful with your valuables round these parts.'
Randur said, 'D'you know of anyone who might be into regular trading with me?'
'Well that depends, lad,' Denlin said. 'Depends what needs trading.'
Randur leaned closer to the old man. 'Look, I screwed a lady, and I took her jewels. I need to make myself some coin, and I need it quick.'
Denlin burst into a hoarse laugh. 'Ah, I used to do a bit of that myself, lad. Ha! You sort of remind me of me.'
I truly, truly hope not, Randur reflected, leaning back to examine him. That would not be a great reason to continue living. 'Anyway, can you help me out?'
'Maybe, maybe not,' Denlin said. 'What's in it for me?'
'One in every ten coin is yours,' Randur said. 'I've got a lot of jewels already, and I plan to have a lot more. You'll end up making a fair bit out of me.'
Denlin nodded thoughtfully, then brought a pipe from out of his pocket already loaded with arum weed. 'You in some kind of trouble, lad?' He lit the pipe. 'Someone who wants coin this way has gotta be havin' some problems.'
Randur shook his head.
'You in trouble?' Denlin pressed. 'Got the Inquisition pounding at your door? A wife who's blackmailing you?'
Randur snorted a laugh. 'I have my own reasons. But, all you need to know is that I owe a bit of money to someone.'
'You need this cash quick then, like?' Denlin took a sip of lager. 'Worry not, lad. I'll soon sort you out.'
'No funny business, though.' Randur picked up the knife, flicked it in the air, caught it by the handle, before concealing it within his sleeve again. He finished his lager, slammed the tankard on the counter. 'So we've a deal, Denlin the Archer.'
'That's a name I like the sound of, y'know – Denlin the Archer. Yeah, we got a deal, lad.'
'Good,' Randur said. 'So, where can we find a buyer?'
'Look around you, lad. There's dozens of buggers in here who'd buy anything you can offer.'
'Have they got enough cash, though?'
''Course they have. Why d'you think they can afford to spend all their time drinking?'
Randur shrugged. 'I guess so.' Maybe the barman had not been rooking him after all.
'Give me half an hour and sit over at that table in the corner.' Denlin indicated a bench at the far end of the tavern in a dark corner. A small brass instrument glittered next to it in the half-light. 'I'll be back with some punters, but you'll need to get another round in, though.'
Randur sighed, rolled his eyes, ordered them two more tankards.
'Thought you didn't have any more cash on you,' Denlin crowed, concealing a smug grin behind his tankard as he took a first gulp.
Randur muttered, 'Your ability to see through me is admirable. I guess your vision isn't all that troubling.'
Denlin raised an eyebrow in acknowledgement. 'Looks can be deceiving down these parts, lad. You just remember that, and you'll get on fine.'
After Denlin had made a quick inspection of the jewellery Randur had to offer, he disappeared without another word. Randur sat at the table on his own, staring out into the darkness and the smoke, listening to the furtive chatter, wondering how long the tavern would stay open.
He took a look around at the other customers. There was a blonde woman crying into her hands while the man reclining next to her was smoking away, uninterested in her distress. An old man was now standing at the counter without any shoes. On stools alongside him sat two labourers, covered in dirt, the grime suggesting there were mines underneath the city. Detritus of every kind was scattered across the floor, including specks and spots of something he took to be blood.
It suddenly struck him just how many physically damaged people he had encountered in the city. Many had hands missing or savage wounds across their faces, black eyes and ripped ears. One man nearby had a leg severed beneath the knee. Knives were brandished openly, and swords rested against the tables, on open display.
Randur hadn't really thought about it before, but he guessed that was what you should expect in a world where the sword, axe and arrow formed a common language. The inhabitants therefore wore the signs of constant violence. He ran his hand across his own pale face, reassuring himself in the absence of any wound. You made your own luck in this world, and you played the cards you were dealt. He had been lucky so far, but put it down to Vitassi, nothing more.
Denlin returned with a square-jawed swarthy man, dressed only in a black tunic in a gesture of defiance to the coming ice.
'This is the gentleman I spoke of,' Denlin said to his stocky companion.
Randur stood up, offered his hand. 'Randur Estevu. I'm pleased to meet you.'
The swarthy man nodded. 'Coni Inrun – trader.'
'Well, please take a seat,' Randur said, wondering if this man was capable of uttering words of more than two syllables. All three of them sat down at the table.
Coni leaned forward. 'Denlin says you got jewels.'
'That's right,' Randur said. He reached into his pocket, drew out an emerald set in a silver ring. Resisting any temptation to flamboyance, he placed it on the table before Coni.
The man pulled out an eyeglass and began to examine it in detail. Randur glanced over at Denlin who merely raised his eyebrows.
'Very good,' Coni said. 'Good workmanship this. Where d'you get it?'
'An old lady gave it to me,' Randur lied. 'Decided she didn't want it any more.'
'Hmm,' Coni said. 'Give you five Sota. Not a bad price for this.'
'I'd expect at least a Jamun for this,' Randur said.
'Seven Sota,' Coni said.
'Nine,' Randur said.
'Nine, and that's it,' Randur said.
'I'm sorry, Mr Estevu,' Coni said, standing.
'Eight it is,' Randur said.
'OK.' Coni sat down. He produced the coins, picked up the ring. 'You got more such items?'
'A few, but not as good as that one.'
The two younger men went on discussing the jewels that Randur had stolen for over half an hour. Denlin meanwhile had remained quiet, merely observing the transaction whilst keeping one eye open for trouble. With his first commission payment in his pocket, Denlin bought exotic drinks from the counter, including the legendary Black Heart rum. At first Randur refused, but the old man insisted they were not that strong. After Coni had departed with much less coin, but a good stash of jewellery, the men drank progressively. Candles burned low around them, men came and went from the tavern. Denlin related tales of his exploits in the military, himself and Randur talking the way an old man and a young one tended to do. Wisdom was shared: Randur happy to listen, Denlin happy to talk.
Randur drank and his eyes became heavy. He wasn't used to such quantities.
It wasn't long until he reached that point where he knew, in his heart, he was well…
… and truly…
Jeryd entered the Chamber of Inquisition, a dusty, ceremonial office in which the arch-inquisitor and his three aides of justice were already seated at a large marble table. They greeted him with the barest of glances.
Not a good sign.
It was a wood-panelled room with an expensive stained-glass window overlooking several of the lower levels of the fore-city of Villjamur. Shafts of coloured light filtered through, and a fire crackled welcomingly at the far end. Various ancient decrees, written on cloth, hung from the walls, something to inspire the current office-holders, they said. Or in Jeryd's eyes, something to remind him of all the forms he had to fill in daily. Still, it was nothing compared with the level of state control that the Council could impose elsewhere.
The arch-inquisitor himself was a brown-skinned rumel who had served nearly two hundred and twenty years in the Inquisition, and he could tell you about his life all right, giving endless narratives that always ended in him wondering what had happened to so-and-so. Because his tough old skin was so wrinkled, Jeryd initially had trouble making out where the aged rumel's eyes were. All three were dressed formally in the uniform of the Inquisition: crimson robes, with a medallion representing a crucible.
'Investigator Jeryd, please be seated.' The arch-inquisitor gestured to an empty chair.
Jeryd pulled his own formal robes aside and sat down. How he hated these meetings. He felt as if some people in the Inquisition lived only for moving paper from one file to another. They were not his kind at all, as he liked to get out and about. He placed his notebook on the table, met the drifting gaze of the senior inquisitor.
'My aides inform me that you intended visiting the Council Atrium. Is this the case?'
'Yes, arch-inquisitor,' Jeryd replied. 'And it's been approved, I believe, by these very same aides.' He indicated the three rumel sitting next to him. 'They've all given me the go-ahead, so we can maybe make this investigation quick.'
The arch-inquisitor leaned enquiringly towards each of his aides in turn. They muttered their agreement in unison, like a hypnotic lament for Jeryd's boredom.
'Very good then. Now, Investigator Jeryd, I've asked you here very simply to impress on you the fact that whenever one of our investigators ventures up there, inevitably a commotion is caused. We've famously not got on all that well with councillors. They don't like us poking around in their matters.'
'I understand, arch-inquisitor, but I'm investigating the death of Councillor Ghuda. In this case I think they'll be very cooperative, in case it should happen to any of them also.'
'Indeed, Investigator Jeryd. But we can't be certain it wasn't one of them who had him removed.'
'That's a possibility. But if they've nothing to hide, they'll let me go about my work.'
The arch-inquisitor gave a hollow laugh, which evolved into a cough. His aides passed him a wooden cup, and the old rumel slurped gratefully. 'Well, we've a frayed relationship with the Council, I fear, so please don't ruin it further.'
Jeryd said nothing, thinking, I don't give one iota as long as things get done and the streets are safe again.
The air was constantly filled with a bone-chilling sleet, enough to make you think that the sky was breaking up, that you would never again see the sun. People opened doors and windows to the same dismal sight every morning, hoping for a little sun, perhaps naively. It sent disappointment through the city like ripples on a pond of depression.
Jeryd showed his Inquisition medallion to the guards at the city level where Balmacara stood. The three grim-looking men eyed Jeryd and Tryst suspiciously, even more so after Jeryd reminded them of the rights of the Inquisition – including freedom of the city of Villjamur, free pass to all quarters of the Empire, which was the sort of privilege no guard wanted to hear. The pair of visitors left their horses to be led off to the stables to one side, and proceeded to climb the main steps leading to the Atrium.
Chancellor Urtica came to meet them with a well-rehearsed grin, a lightness in his step.
'Ah, the investigator,' Urtica said cheerfully. 'I'm delighted to welcome you to our humble chambers. May I ask you how you'd like to proceed?'
Jeryd shook his hand. 'I'm Investigator Rumex Jeryd, and this is Aide Tryst.'
'Aide Tryst,' the chancellor acknowledged. 'Sele of Jamur to you both.'
Jeryd noticed a strange look in Urtica's face, a sort of flicker of facial muscles – the classic, knowing look that suggested he might have met Tryst before. And if that was the case, Jeryd wondered how it would have been possible.
'As you know, we're here to follow up on the murder of Delamonde Ghuda,' Jeryd confirmed.
'Good.' The chancellor's face darkened. 'He was… a close friend of mine. Any idea yet who might have committed such a foul crime, investigator?'
'Some leads,' Jeryd said. 'But there's a lot of questions that still need asking. I'd like to see Ghuda's chambers, and trust that everything has been left exactly as it was?'
'I can't guarantee that precisely, but much of it is how it was.'
'Have you been in there yourself?' Jeryd enquired.
'Of course. Many of the documents were worked on by the two of us.'
'You were close then, it seems. Did Ghuda have any enemies? Anyone who would've wanted him out of the way?'
'We all would,' Urtica smiled. 'It's the nature of our position. We can't hope to please everyone, all the time.'
'That's not really answering my question, is it?' Jeryd said, perhaps more sharply than he should have.
'I can't think of anyone who would specifically want him killed, let's put it that way.' The chancellor glanced past Jeryd, down the corridor. Jeryd followed his stare. Some of the other Council members were heading through a large marble arch. 'You'll have to excuse me, investigator, but I've a meeting to attend. Feel free to contact me again, once I'm finished.'
Urtica brushed past him, proceeding down the corridor.
Tryst meanwhile was staring absent-mindedly at a tapestry on the wall.
Jeryd turned to the guard escorting them. 'Show me Ghuda's chamber.'
Smooth stone, dark-wooden panels, the smell of decay – such were the chambers in which every Council member performed his or her administrative duties. The decoration and carvings were old yet rich, as if, Jeryd thought dryly, to remind each official of the wealth they enjoyed at the top. Something that said Look how far you've come. Plinths held small busts of the Emperors of the current dynasty: Haldun, his son Gulion, Goltang, and of course mad old Johynn himself. Parchments were heaped upon a large wooden desk situated beneath a window that was carved in the mock-Azimuth design: simple rectangles, elegant precision. The view wasn't spectacular: a dreary sea and the sheer cliff face. Pterodettes had nested in the crevices of the latter, and their faeces stained it in bold grey streaks. None the less it was certainly an improvement on Jeryd's office.
The investigator had sent Tryst to interview one of the guards about the councillor's daily movements, something to get an impression of his typical routine. Jeryd was beginning to suspect his human assistant. The way he made eye contact with Chancellor Urtica had been rather unsettling. For the moment, Jeryd thought it best to get him out of the way. In this job, you had to follow your hunches.
He sifted through some of the parchments and scrolls strewn on the desk. They detailed movements of monies between some of the outer-island estates and Villjamur – most of the land across the Empire was owned by private individuals through inheritance or conquest. That way, the most efficient farms could be rewarded, and advancement in techniques easily encouraged. But recently large movements of funds were being treated as suspicious, especially if they were possibly being used by the wealthy to smuggle extra servants and labourers into Villjamur before the Freeze.
None of this stuff was of any use to Jeryd, however.
He moved on to a decree of death imposed upon several thieves from Caveside, for attempting to smuggle in refugees. One law for the rich, he sighed. He perused a scroll for transportation of grain to the Dragoons now being sent to Folke. He read about a landowner who was selling up all his properties before he came to the city to escape the ice. He read documents authorizing the movement of slaves from Folke to the mines on Tineag'l.
All in all, it was uninspiring stuff, and none of it seemed quite right, as if they had been left deliberately on his desk to create a positive image of Ghuda. Nothing damaging would have been left for the Inquisition to discover. These were politicians, after all.
There must have been somewhere that Ghuda concealed his private documents. It was always the way with councillors – their deceit and self-preservation were legendary.
There must be a loose stone in the wall, or maybe an opening behind a wooden panel. He felt along the walls first – no loose bricks. He tapped along the wood, but it all seemed to be set firmly against stone anyway. He approached the busts, eyed them. He picked up the one of Goltang, the Emperor who had died over two thousand years ago. Jeryd wondered how the artist could ever have carved something true to life. Goltang was the man who had created the Empire leading to its domination of the Boreal Archipelago, the land of the red sun. A history of brutal campaigns, then raping island resources and forcing subsidiary tribes into labour in his name. The history books said that he was exporting progress. And he did all this without recourse to cultist technologies, something his successors couldn't cope without.
Jeryd set Goltang down, picked up an image of Johynn. The first thing he noticed was how light this statue was in comparison. He brought it to his ear, then shook it. Something rattled inside. With a smile, he casually dropped it on the floor. It smashed into several large fragments, but with a piece of paper sticking out underneath.
Tryst entered the room without knocking. 'Everything all right in here, sir?'
'Oh, yes,' Jeryd said blandly. 'I just got a bit careless and knocked one of these chaps off their plinths with my tail. How're your own enquiries going?'
'So-so,' the human replied. 'I'm gradually building up a picture of his routine. All pretty dull stuff if you ask me.'
'It's all essential, though,' Jeryd pointed out. 'I don't suppose you could fetch me a mug of hot water, could you? This cold weather's playing havoc with my poor old chest.' He coughed for a little effect. 'After that, why don't you head back to the Inquisition chambers while I stay here and plough through all those documents? I'll see if there's anything worth taking away with us.'
'You sure?' Tryst's voice betrayed suspicion. 'I don't mind helping you.'
'No, it's OK. I need the silence to concentrate.' Jeryd began to cough violently again, rested one arm against the wall to enhance his performance.
'Certainly, investigator. I'll fetch your hot water.' Tryst left the room, shut the door behind him.
Jeryd bent down to pick up the piece of paper. He unfolded it fully, regarded the strange lettering and symbols. It was clearly written in some sort of code. One symbol at the top, though, he did recognize: a rough sketch of a boar. Instinctively, he looked back to the floor, began rummaging though the broken pieces, then paused to pick up a blue gemstone, a topaz. This was the first lead, since topaz was supposedly the secret emblem of one particular religious cult.
It seems our friend Ghuda had been an Ovinist.
Jeryd didn't understand the significance of Ghuda's connection to that underground religion, nor did he have any clue about what the lettering meant on the accompanying parchment taken from the statue. Back at his apartment, he contemplated these items at length.
After a while, he dropped another log on the fire, took a break to look out of the window. Night-time again, and, despite the cold, Villjamur vibrated with activity. Off-duty soldiers had come thronging in search of company for the evening. They staggered between taverns and street corners, bellowing and whistling into the chilly air. Such intemperance was becoming more noticeable as the Freeze became a reality.
Youths climbed on walls to throw snow at citizens. Running footsteps faded into the distance. In the neighbouring buildings, squares of light emerged at the higher levels as lanterns were lit for the evening. As his eyes focused, Jeryd noticed figures appear at these windows, gazing out across the city, perhaps staring right back at him. Directly below his own window, he suddenly noticed Marysa approaching quickly, wrapped in a thick winter cape, returning from her day of study in the library. As he waited for her to come in, he sat down at the table.
A moment later, she pushed the study door open with some force. She was breathless from her rapid progress, and walked straight towards the fire.
Jeryd rose to greet her, squeezed her cold hands gently. 'How was your day?'
'Rumex, I swear someone was following me.' Her dark eyes were wide with panic, her tail twitching anxiously from side to side.
'Following you?' His tone became serious. 'Please, sit down and I'll make some tea. Tell me, what did you see?'
'I'd prefer some whisky.' Marysa sat down at the table.
As he handed her the glass, she continued, 'I didn't get a good look at him. Every time I turned to look, he'd be gone. I know it sounds silly, but I swear that someone was there.'
Jeryd placed a hand on her cold knee as he sat alongside her. 'You're not being silly, because these are strange times. How did you first realize you were being followed?'
'Footsteps – always the same footsteps. I'm not going mad, I swear.'
'It's all right,' Jeryd soothed, giving her a look that confirmed he knew she wasn't making it up. He hugged her more tightly.
She sipped her whisky with urgency. 'Who could it be?'
For a moment he wondered if it had something to do with his own work. Perhaps someone was frightening her to get at him? He kissed Marysa's hand reassuringly, and she curled into him, resting her head on his shoulder. The intimacy made him feel like they were a couple again, that he could look after her. There was something so reassuring about this, and it affected him deeply.
He had no plans to let her go for the best part of an hour.
Shrouded delicately in lantern light, Tuya rested her hands on the windowsill to gaze out through the night. The window was open slightly and, because she wore only a white silk evening robe, the stirred air raised the hairs on her arm. The moonlight from Astrid was now concealed only slightly. Pterodettes arced upwards towards the nearby cliffs as a few pedestrians stalked the frozen streets hunched up in thick clothing. Not a time to be out. Why could she never connect to Villjamur? What was it that made her think she belonged outside the city?
She thought she could even hear refugees huddled outside the gates, in the icy conditions. Maybe it was her imagination, but the thought ceaselessly saddened her. Surely there was no need for them to remain outside?
She considered what Councillor Ghuda had revealed to her that night, which perhaps other than the councillors involved, only she knew. Surely she owed it to the city, owed it to herself to divulge it.
She needed to give something back to Villjamur.
She turned back to her painting, remembered who was next.
She began to apply herself to her only escape from her tenebrous world. She lifted up a brush and began to create.
Lines of paint spread thickly. Diagonals, verticals, curves. A body began to form.
Once she had finished, she stood back, her white robe splattered. This was certainly one of her most sinister pieces. There was no theme with such creations, no references, no premeditated allusions.
She walked to a mirror, noting her hair was a mess that would need fixing.
A gust of wind abruptly blew out the lantern beside her, bathing her in darkness. Already the pigments were beginning to glow, a subtle light pulsing with the regularity of a heartbeat.
She lay on the bed, her gown parting across her angled knee, gazing towards the window as the wind stirred her curtains. The glow in the room brightened, and she stared down her body.
Councillor Boll would die tonight.
Councillor Boll stepped out of the chamber facilities, realizing how he always hated communal toilets. It never seemed right to be engaged in a conversation whilst taking a shit. Especially to Councillor Eduin, who might have only just crept out of someone else's arse, for all Boll knew. Why did anyone expect you to conduct a conversation in those private moments? You couldn't exactly walk away from the situation either.
Boll shuffled down the corridor towards his chamber in Balmacara. He had to prepare for an early morning meeting with Chancellor Urtica, who apparently, judging from a message he had received only an hour ago, had discovered a brilliant method to eliminate all the unwanted refugees from Villjamur, involving someone from the Ovinists drawing on their expertise with poisons. But the last thing they wanted was for thousands of people to die on the doorstep of the city. That simply wouldn't do. They should die somewhere else, Boll reckoned, with subtlety, far enough away so that the stench of death wouldn't drift over its gleaming spires and bridges. The citizens of Villjamur deserved better treatment than that.
Boll entered his own chamber, which was littered with a collection of gold antiques from previous ages. Like many people in this city, he had a fondness for a previous era, but didn't know why. In his case he wanted to absorb as much as he could about the great Dawnir creations, of the legendary Pithicus race that was wiped out by the Dawnir in the War of the Gods. His shelves were accordingly crammed with texts on the Mathema civilization, about the Azimuths who followed. He also possessed an expert knowledge of the history of the Jamur Empire. That was his main strength, his knowledge of previous civilizations. He prided himself on it. He would stop people to get them to ask him questions about it – go on, anything from any era – and then he would let his words wash over them, a one-way conversation to say I know more than you do.
The lantern light was caught in a myriad places around the immense room. He stood at the window, scratched his groin, watching the lights in other houses being doused for the night, one by one. Then he lay down on his feather bed, picked up a history book entitled Mythical Azimuth Battles. He began to read, but the prose was so dry and lifeless that not one sentence registered, and he drifted off to sleep.
Boll woke in darkness. All the candles had gone out. The shrieking of pterodettes just outside made him strangely vulnerable.
'Must be the damn wind,' he grunted to himself. He climbed out of bed to shut the window that had blown open. Then he shivered, uncontrollably, sensing that he was not alone in the room.
He leapt onto his bed, reached up to the shelf above it, then stepped back down with a short sword in one hand. Circling with bare feet on the cold tiles, he held the blade out in front of him. His heart was beating so violently in his ears it seemed to suffocate all other sounds.
In the corner something began to glow, and eventually took on the form of a decayed corpse with luminous bones. In one, claw-like hand it held a gleaming metal axe.
'What… what d'you want?' Boll stammered, drawing his night robe tighter with his free hand.
There was no response, and Boll noticed the creature possessed no reflection in the adjacent mirror. He quivered with fear as it came nearer, seeing directly through the gaps in the glowing bones. The thing barely owned a face, just crudely assembled features of two sockets for its eyes, a black circle for its mouth. 'I have money…' Boll began pleading.
As the ethereal skeleton towered over him, Boll slashed the blade in some vague attempt at self-defence. It merely stood there regardless, the sharp metal passing through it as if slicing water.
The axe in its hand seemed real enough. As the blade descended Boll twisted to one side, but it still crunched into his shoulder generating an explosion of pain. He howled, sprawling flat on the floor, his right arm now functionless, blood pooling around him. The next blow gashed his groin, severing an artery before thudding into the floor tiles.
Investigator Jeryd was not at all amused.
He just stared thoughtfully at the wall, sipping a cup of tea, and for a long while no comment issued from his lips. Eventually, with a sigh, he said simply, 'Another councillor?'
'Councillor Boll,' Aide Tryst confirmed, standing close by Jeryd's desk.
'Councillor Boll.' Then, contemplating the paperwork, Jeryd said, 'Bugger.'
'I understand the body is now in the possession of Doctor Tarr, but he's spent all morning in the House of Life.'
'What the hell's he doing there?' Jeryd grumbled. 'Bohr, he's a miserable git.'
'Meditating, I believe,' Tryst said.
'Well, let me guess,' Jeryd pondered. 'Bizarre wounds again, no useful evidence, a general waste of time and utter confusion for all involved? Just more stress and paperwork for you and me?' Jeryd pursed his lips. 'How many people know about it?'
'According to the servant who found him, not many. He contacted another member of the Council who lives nearby, who in turn contacted Doctor Tarr's people to remove the body immediately, then he sent word straight to us.'
'That's one thing to be grateful for, at least,' Jeryd said. 'So, we've got ourselves a murderer with a taste for butchering members of the Council?'
'So it seems,' Tryst agreed.
'Let's drop in on Tarr again, then I think I'd better have another chat with Chancellor Urtica.'
The Hall of Life was one of the more depressing places in Villjamur. Though close to the octagonal Astronomer's Tower, it was located at a much lower level. The only access was via several stairways that spiralled deep down into the city. Reaching it required negotiating a complicated labyrinth of dark passageways, and rumour had it that if visitors strayed too far off the main route, they might never be seen again. It was like a route to one of the lower realms, a symbolic reminder of the final journey.
If Doctor Tarr even needed reminding of death, he had come to the right place. There, deep underground, in a high-ceilinged cavern, it was said that a candle was lit for every child born in the city. They burned there in their thousands, arranged in neat rows that extended on all sides.
It was an ideal place for meditation, as encouraged by the Jorsalir tradition – somewhere for contemplation. People entered and departed, some to sit quietly, some weeping, others staring blankly at the candles.
Time became lost in deep contemplation.
Doctor Tarr was seated on a wooden bench to one side, surrounded by shades of darkness, a metaphor for death.
The doctor glanced up briefly, then resumed his contemplation of the burning candles. Symbols of the fragility of existence, the slightest draught could blow out these flames, at any moment.
'Right, let's go talk to the morose git.'
Tarr sat up sharply as the words echoed across the vast chamber. He recognized Investigator Rumex Jeryd, emerging from one of the stairwells with his human assistant.
'Ah, Doctor Tarr.' Jeryd approached him. 'Sele of Jamur to you.'
'And to you, investigator,' Tarr replied, standing.
'What on earth are you doing down here?' Jeryd enquired. 'Surely you're familiar with the trappings of death by now?'
The doctor gave a gentle smile that rather unnerved the investigator. 'Familiar, yes, but prepared, no. I've seen too many mutilated corpses, and Councillor Boll's murder has to be one of the most horrific sights I've ever encountered.'
Jeryd said nothing, merely glanced across the sea of candles before them. Finally he said, 'I don't understand why you're here, though. Surely you should be examining the body?'
'There's not too much left of it to examine, truth be told,' Tarr said. 'I've come to realize through the years, investigator, how life can be so easily, and so horrifically, taken from us. This Empire has led an easy existence over the last few decades. No major wars, no great plagues, no crop failures on a large scale. Every single one of us has been safe, as if we have never left our mother's knee. Look at the flames, both of you. Yet we are a besieged city, investigator. Disease attacks within our city walls, and every sunrise takes us yet another step towards our inevitable death. One wonders what happens afterwards, on the other side.'
'Will you tell us what you've found, doctor?' Tryst interrupted.
'Of course,' Tarr said. 'You're quite right to ask. Come to the mortuary later, though. In all honesty, there's little to see, since his body was hacked into mincemeat.'
He sighed gently. These days anything seemed possible in Villjamur.
'I honestly knew nothing about it,' Chancellor Urtica confessed, the shock on his face genuine enough for Jeryd. He ran his hands through his hair, now clearly lost for words.
They were standing inside the door of Boll's chambers, staring at the huge bloodstain covering the floor. They stared, for what seemed like an entire bell. It had spattered the walls, too, and even the glass on the window was smeared with gore.
Jeryd was quietly grateful that at least the body had been removed.
'First Ghuda… and now Boll.' Urtica's gaze flicked about anxiously.
And next you? Jeryd wondered, recognizing the fear in the councillor's expression.
'Please excuse me,' Urtica turned, and left the chamber.
'Bit of a mess, all this,' Jeryd sighed.
Tryst approached the worst of the carnage with a narrow step. 'Guess we should have this cleaned up before we examine the room thoroughly?'
'Soon enough,' Jeryd agreed, 'but let's just take a look around first.'
For over an hour, Jeryd and Tryst examined every corner of the room. They rooted assiduously through all of Boll's books, documents, even ornaments. All the time Jeryd was careful to keep his tail well tucked in, away from the crimson mess. He finally did a search for hidden drawers, checked for concealed panels – but found nothing out of the ordinary.
He was about to give up when he noticed a stain on a mirror. As he brushed his finger against it, Tryst stepped next to him. 'What've you got there?'
'Blue paint,' Jeryd said in surprise, holding up his hand to inspect it.
'Was he an artist in his spare time?' Tryst suggested, staring at Jeryd's finger.
'I doubt it,' Jeryd replied. 'There're no sketchbooks. Not even any paintings on the walls – only tapestries. So how did he get blue paint on the mirror?'
'You reckon it's important?'
'Everything can have some importance, Tryst. The good investigator must always think that.'
Tryst walked away stiffly, as if wounded by the minor reprimand.
But Jeryd continued, 'You know, on the day of Ghuda's death, I saw some blue paint stains on the cobbles, right beside his body. At the time we assumed it was probably from a pot spilled on its way to the nearby gallery.'
Tryst stood by the window, staring out across the snow-burdened skies. 'So we have a link between the cases? It's not much to go on.'
'It's something, though,' Jeryd said. 'And it's more than we had before. Bohr, it seems we hardly even get a body to examine this time around.'
He pulled a handkerchief from inside his robe, wiped the blue paint from the mirror, then from his finger. He wrapped it up deftly, concealed it beneath his clothing, and made his way back towards the door.
'Doctor Tarr,' Jeryd said later, 'we're here, as agreed.'
'Good afternoon, investigator,' Tarr said, beckoning Jeryd into the mortuary. 'The human has not come with you this time?'
'No, he apparently had some administrative tasks to see to,' the rumel replied, stomping his boots to rid them of snow. 'Maybe the sight of Boll's chambers was enough to put him off.'
'But not you?' Tarr said, cheerfully.
'No, I guess not then,' Jeryd laughed dryly. 'Maybe I've developed a stomach for such things after all these years.'
They proceeded into the depths of Tarr's workplace, where a single lantern struggled to provide light. Its oil flame flickered as he shut the door. Jeryd found himself still pondering Tarr's presence in the Hall of Life. Why would a man so used to working with death bother to go there in the first place? He had clearly been in a state of intense soul-searching when Jeryd had found him there, so perhaps there was more to Doctor Tarr than his surface demeanour implied.
The doctor led him to a table on which lay a large metal tray about two armspans wide, three in length.
'What've we got here?' Jeryd enquired.
'This is it, investigator.' Tarr gestured towards the contents of the tray. 'This is Councillor Boll.'
Even Jeryd was amazed. In all his decades of work in the service of the Inquisition, he had never seen a body left in this horrific state. He had seen the results of torture, of fierce battles, of poisons that ate a body slowly – but nothing like this.
At one end of the tray were assembled the bones of the late councillor, or what was left of those that had not been fragmented into finger-length pieces. The other end contained the 'flesh' – a grisly pink and red mound like you might see in the gutters of a slaughterhouse. The stench was powerful.
Jeryd said in awe, 'How could this have been achieved?'
'With a large axe, and plenty of time,' Tarr said. 'I would reckon the murderer to have been kept busy for nearly two hours.'
'At least he was dedicated to his task then,' Jeryd muttered, scanning up and down the tray. 'And yet no one seemed to notice?'
'This was relentless brutality, investigator. It was evil, pure and simple.'
'You were right, doctor, I don't think there's anything for me to examine properly here. I'm going back to warn the Council Atrium immediately. If something like this could be done in such secrecy, any one of their members could be next. I'll see myself out.' Jeryd turned away.
As he stepped outside, he took a deep breath of the sharp evening air. He stroked his chin in disbelief, for a moment not actually wishing to catch this killer. Did he really want to encounter the individual who could turn a living being into slush? And how exactly would that confrontation go? Excuse me, sir, but I think you… Then no more Jeryd.
What had Villjamur come to?
He pulled up his hood, slid his hands deep into his pockets, strode off to find where he had tethered his horse.
'Chancellor Urtica,' Jeryd insisted, 'I'm not sure you understand. You'll need to consider maximum security. Double, triple your guard. I fear there may be someone intending to pick off councillors one by one.'
Urtica stared at him in alarm.
'This is a serious matter,' Jeryd continued, feeling he had got the man's attention. He was seated opposite a large table, in a pleasant wood-panelled chamber. The fire burning in the corner had nearly died to ashes. The rumel and human had already been chatting for half an hour.
'I see you don't collect many things,' Jeryd said, looking around.
'It makes for a purer mind, investigator.' Urtica sat back in his chair sipping tea. 'It makes my work more efficient. Less to distract me that way.'
'Maybe I should try that and clear the crap out of my chamber,' Jeryd said. 'Anyway, as I asked you earlier: what might have linked these two councillors? What common projects could they have been working on? Such a link might help me find a motive.'
'And as I keep telling you, investigator,' Urtica said, 'I just can't think of anything.'
There was something intransigent about his tone that Jeryd found frustrating. There was an air of superiority, a suggestion that he considered himself invincible. Perhaps it concealed something darker? Jeryd wanted to challenge him, You know something and you're hiding it. 'Remember your own life might be at risk.'
'We'll ensure all these corridors will be filled with guards by this evening.'
'May I ask as to what are the most important concerns to the Council at the moment?'
'Is it really necessary for you to know such things?' Urtica sat back in his chair, staring into the fire.
'Perhaps,' Jeryd shrugged. 'Perhaps it may offer some clue to the reason for these killings. After all, any of you might be next.'
Urtica merely nodded methodically, as if coming to terms with the threat. People reacted differently to such situations, didn't they, some not caring much at all, others getting into such a panic that they never left their homes.
'Our main current concern is the Freeze, of course,' Urtica said. 'It raises a number of crucial issues, the most important being the refugee crisis. There are already an estimated ten thousand of them camped outside the city gates, as you know.'
'We're working on several solutions' – Jeryd noticed Urtica's expression alter slightly – 'but ultimately, it will be up to the new Empress. She will make the final decision on what to do.'
'How are other cities of the Empire coping?' Jeryd said. 'Vilhokr, Villiren, E'toawor, Vilhokteu?'
'As well as can be expected. People have flooded in from rural areas. They're accumulating grain supplies and fuel, building ice-breaker longships, imposing rationing. Like us, they see it as a challenge. Investigator, there will be many fatalities because of this ice age, and everyone is working hard to ensure that ordinary folk will survive.'
'And you really care?' Jeryd said boldly.
'It's not about caring, necessarily, rather it's about making sure a city continues functioning. If you care too much, you get personal, and if you get personal, you inevitably fail. This is a business, investigator, pure and simple.'
Jeryd observed the body language of this consummate politician. Urtica crossed and re-crossed his legs repeatedly throughout their conversation. Also, he rarely made eye contact, and was obviously uncomfortable being questioned about Council matters.
'Tell me, Chancellor Urtica, do you know if any of the councillors like painting as a hobby?'
Urtica looked up, raised an eyebrow. 'I haven't a clue, investigator. Why do you ask?'
'I found small traces of fresh paint near both bodies.' Urtica merely shook his head. 'I've told you all I can.' Jeryd stood up. 'I think I've done all I can here.' Urtica said, 'Could you put another log on the fire on your way out? It tends to get very cold in here.'
Jeryd paused by the door. 'Yes, I suspect it does.' On his way down the corridor, Jeryd thumped the wall in frustration. Two murders, linked by only one bizarre similarity: paint. Why was there a dab of blue paint next to each corpse? Were they trying to fight their way out with a paintbrush?
The chancellor was no help so far. Neither was Doctor Tarr.
Suddenly he remembered how the suspect Tuya painted in her spare time. It was an obvious connection, maybe too obvious, but it was the only thing he had to go on. But why would an alienated prostitute want to kill top-level politicians, and so savagely? It just didn't seem quite right. Perhaps she might have some suggestions to help his thoughts, and he decided he would visit her very soon.
But not tonight. Tonight he would be going home to Marysa.
Everyone deserved a life of their own – even an investigator.
Chancellor Urtica made his way down the crumbling stairwell, glancing back every now and then, just in case, just to be sure.
He held a lantern high, drew his cloak around him. A gust of wind rattled down from above, transforming his shadow into increasingly esoteric shapes. Urtica was descending into a little-remembered quarter of Villjamur. Deep underground. Messages were etched across the stone, bearing the names of lovers and enemies from across the ages. Bats, rodents, lizards, all competed for dark corners, like a reverse image of life on the surface. The smell of their faeces was intense, but this did not deter Urtica. He had dealt with more shit than this in his time.
For half an hour he descended, knowing the way well.
Faintly, he heard chanting. It meant he was nearly there. Voices were raised in an ancient variant of common Jamur, the language in which the Ovinists still sang. They were engaged in prayer – but not to Bohr or Astrid, or any approved deity – and that would change, wouldn't it, when his time came.
A battered wooden door heralded the end of his route. After knocking seven times, the hatch slid open, curious eyes appeared. A flicker of recognition, then the door was unbolted, opened, and Urtica stepped inside.
A hundred candles were reflected in wall mirrors to create an unlikely brightness. Incense filled the air, as smoke wafted across the far side of the immense room. Dozens of black-robed, black-hooded men and women sat on benches facing the far wall, which was hung with ornate tapestries. Below them was a plinth supporting a metal tray containing a selection of pigs' hearts rescued from the city slaughterhouses. The chanting continued as Urtica walked towards the front of the chamber, the hoods turning minutely as everyone's gaze tracked his progress.
When he arrived directly before them, a young blonde girl stepped out from their ranks, leading a pig on a leash. She was dressed in white silk, which clung to her slender frame as she approached him, the pig shuffling behind her absent-mindedly. No sooner had Urtica stepped before the congregation than his audience drew out their rapiers simultaneously, brandishing the narrow blades in the air until silence fell. Urtica beckoned the girl to stand behind him, then raised both hands above his head. The swords were lowered and, once they were all seated again, Urtica began speaking.
'Neophytes, minorus, majorus,' he intoned.
'Magus Urtica…' the congregation replied in a chorus reverberating against the ancient stone walls.
'My brothers and sisters, I have grave news on certain matters. Last night our esteemed Majorus Boll was brutally murdered in his sleep. This is the second member of our holy order to have been killed recently.'
Murmurs all round. Beneath the hoods were familiar faces, their eyes glistening like those of beasts reflected in firelight. Among them there were several Council members, in shadow, all of them concerned for their own safety.
Urtica held up his hand for silence. 'Jamur Rika will arrive in Villjamur shortly, and I feel this interim period is an excellent opportunity for us to profit. I intend to make myself Emperor of the entire Jamur territories, and once in position, I can assure you all greater powers, greater influence.'
'How will you remove Jamur Rika?' someone enquired from the front row.
'All will be revealed in good time. But now, for our holy rituals!'
Applause filled the huge underground chamber, then solemn chanting in the ancient language. The little pig squealed in fright and the girl had to struggle hard to keep it under control. Urtica beckoned her over to stand in front of the sacrificial plinth. He loomed down over the tethered creature, tucked it under one arm, produced a knife from his sleeve. He held the blade high, smiling wildly, the room heady with smoke and adulation.
Quickly, he lunged across the young girl and slit her throat.
She crumpled to the floor, her white silk robe reddening like blossoming roses. The pig eagerly thrust its snout in her lifeblood.
'I promise that the sacred pig – our god reincarnate – shall feed well under my rule!' Urtica thundered. The swords were held high again, the cheers and chants rising to an eerie crescendo. Urtica stood with his arms raised, breathing heavily with excitement. Sweat glistening down his forehead, he indicated for several men standing in the front row to approach him. The first was Aide Tryst, his head covered slightly by the hood, the lanterns casting subtle shadows across his face. The handsome young investigator held out his hands as Urtica lovingly offered him a pig's heart.
'A word with you later,' Urtica whispered.
'Of course, Magus.' Tryst retreated with a deferential bow, and the next man stood ready to receive his dripping reward.
After the proceedings, Urtica walked with Tryst back to the city proper.
As they traversed one of the bridges, Urtica paused to lean on one of the thick stone parapets, examining the city from this great height. A sea mist had come in, now filtering through the city. Occasional citizens appeared, walking like ghosts with lanterns held out in front of them. There was the stench from crates of rotting vegetables discarded in corners behind bistros and taverns, disturbed occasionally by cats rooting through them for rodents. One of the tavern doors opened spilling light, and a group of men piled out into the cold evening air, singing wildly about a previous Emperor who had wreaked carnage all across Jokull.
Urtica glanced up to some of the narrow windows on the spire towers. Faint dabs of light, shadows moving inside the warmth. After a nod of confirmation from him, Tryst lit some pre-rolled arum weed, the embers glowing at the tip. Urtica didn't mind a few bad habits now and then.
'I love these bridges, Tryst,' Urtica confessed. 'They offer such a wonderful view, you can see nearly everything going on. And still, even after all these hundreds of years, the citizens below us always forget that other people can watch their movements at any time.'
'Indeed, Magus,' Tryst said, stepping up alongside the chancellor. 'Anyone would think the whole place was designed with voyeurism in mind.'
'Perhaps,' Urtica sighed. 'Yet I love this city. There is so much that it can do.'
'A pity the ice age restricts it,' Tryst said.
'Not a lot we can do about that,' Urtica said. 'However, it'll only last for a few decades. We inside can outlive that.' He then eyed the refugee camps, and the smoke-striated sky. 'It'll mean we come back stronger, afterwards.' Urtica slapped the stone with his palm, turned to face Tryst directly. 'Your commander. Investigator Rumex Jeryd. What do you honestly think about him?'
He took another drag on the roll-up and breathed slowly into the night. 'Well, Magus, it's complicated. I mean we used to be good friends, and admittedly, he has helped me a lot. But now I feel differently because he's thwarting my promotion.'
'All about the age thing?' Urtica suggested.
'Indeed. Because I won't live as long as a rumel, he reckons I'll never become experienced enough. So, he won't do anything to help me. He won't even try.'
'Of the fellow himself, then – is he a competent Inquisition officer?'
'Oh, yes, he's good at his job. But he'll never break with tradition. Won't even try.' He scowled. 'I think I deserve better.'
'Well, I'm not sure I like the sound of him too much,' Urtica said. 'Now, I don't want him removed, either. That would only draw attention. It might suggest corruption in the Council. No, if he's as good as some folk say, then I hope he'll find the murderer. I find something unnerving, though.' Urtica shivered as a damp wind stirred his robe. 'I want him to find the killer, yet I don't want him delving so deeply into Council business that he might stumble into Ovinist territory. Not now, with all these plans I have for us. He strikes me as one who takes his work extremely seriously, and I can't risk him exposing us.'
Tryst said, 'You wish me to help in some way?'
'Yes, tell me if there's anything we can distract him with so he does not dig too deep.'
Tryst related the renewed relationship of Jeryd and Marysa, that he messed up things with her before, couldn't afford to do so again.
'This might prove useful,' Urtica said. 'Perhaps you could distract our investigator by somehow disrupting their relationship. I don't know how, but don't kill her or anything. That would knock him off the case completely, and all I want is just a little distraction. Something that will keep his nose out of Council matters and concentrating only on surface issues. Anything to keep him on the streets hunting the killer.'
'I'm sure it can be arranged.' Tryst frowned. 'I only need to find a way.'
'You know, you've proved very useful to me, Tryst. I would like to see you standing a little closer to me in future. We've got some important schemes to develop, particularly regarding the refugee situation.' Urtica waved an arm vaguely towards the edge of the city. 'Those vermin beyond the walls, spreading their filth and disease. I need someone to help me deal with them. When the time comes, it won't be a pretty job at all. So do you reckon you're up to it?'
'Magus Urtica,' Tryst smiled. 'It would be an honour.'
'Good, then let me tell you more about my proposals on the matter, my dear boy…' Urtica turned his gaze once again to Villjamur.
It was, Randur concluded, pushing himself off the cobbles of an alley next to the tavern, an unwise decision to drink so much and so quickly.
He felt damp grit on his palms, and the muscles in his arms quivered as he levered himself upright. His head ached so much he wanted to cut it off. He looked up to see Denlin perched on top of a small wooden stool nearby.
'Morning, lad,' Denlin said cheerfully.
Randur collapsed to the ground with a groan, and the old man burst out laughing.
'Trouble with you youngsters is, you think you can keep up with us. But we've been at it for years, lad. I was drinking this horse piss before you could let go of your mother's teat…'
'Bollocks,' Randur muttered, then groaned again. His hair was dishevelled, mud plastered all over one side of his face. There was a faintly foul smell he hoped he had nothing to do with.
So, another night of drinking with Denlin. This ritual had been going on for days, the cycle repeating itself: seduction of a lady, take what pickings he could, then flee into the darkness of the caves where Denlin would soon arrange a buyer. Celebrations would ensue, naturally, and it wasn't normal for him to drink this much, but last night he had a particularly good haul. A diamond bracelet snatched from a sixty-year-old widow. Her age hadn't limited her sexual appetite, but it had taken her an age to reach orgasm, and she lay so still afterwards that he thought she was dead. As he left she kept murmuring thank-yous.
Before he had stepped into the night, he managed to swipe his most expensive trophy yet.
A clock tower chimed, each strike ricocheting around Randur's head. He counted eight hours, and realized that within the next one he had a dance lesson with the Lady Eir. He cursed loudly.
'What's up, lad?'
Randur said, 'I've got to go.' He stood up at last, brushed himself down, his damp clothes stinking of smoke and alcohol.
'Well, I'll be here when you need me,' Denlin said.
'I'll be back as soon as I've got more stuff to sell.' Randur turned and began to hurry away through Caveside.
He abruptly frowned, noticing the unusual light. It shouldn't be daylight down here, not still underground, though it occurred to him that he had only ever visited the caves at nighttime, and now it was morning.
Randur rubbed his eyes again, looked up. 'Well, would you look at that…'
Light ran in strips down the underside of the immense cavern, as if he was standing under the glowing ribcage of some gargantuan beast. These ribs sparkled like glass. At the apex, in the very centre of the cave, shone a bright hub of light that intruded from the outside, directly from the brightening sky above. There were similar smaller hubs located at intervals throughout the caves, each one projecting light to this neglected expanse of city. Perhaps this was the real Villjamur from time immemorial, not the other city that every traveller saw, or the one the wealthy and powerful now lived in.
But this was no time to dawdle, or speculate. He was late, and reeking of alcohol. He sprinted back to Balmacara.
It was the same morning that Commander Brynd Lathraea was bringing the new Empress to Villjamur, and a large contingent of the Fourth and Fifth Dragoons was riding towards the city through the mist. The horses' hooves thumped on sodden tundra, leaving a muddy trail. It wouldn't be at all difficult for anyone to follow, but there were so many troops in attendance that you need not fear a surprise attack. Brynd rode directly alongside the carriage in which Rika sat with the windows veiled. Apium was astride his horse, one of those pulling the vehicle, while Nelum and Lupus were riding directly behind. All around them on either side, keeping pace precisely, were columns of Dragoons.
The Lady Rika herself was the centre of all this.
Brynd eyed her frequently, but couldn't tell much from her expression. He suspected she understood exactly what was required of her in her new role, with its responsibilities. He also knew she had not seen Villjamur for several years. Its daunting walls and the three entrance gates had been there seemingly forever, but there were now differences, inside and out. The ice age was upon them, with thousands of refugees huddled outside. Families were being torn apart, there were suicides and murders daily.
And her father, the Emperor, was dead.
'Your breath, Randur Estevu, smells as if a horse has just passed wind. I trust you've a decent reason for entering my presence in such a state?' Eir folded her arms as she examined Randur.
'And what would you know of a horse's bodily functions, a pretty little rich girl like you?' Randur slumped into a chair in the minor chamber he had commandeered for dancing lessons. The fire was spitting rather too loudly for his liking, even though tapestries covered the windows in an attempt to exclude draughts. Randur was at least grateful for the dim lighting, since his head pounded even when confronted with a candle. His pupil was today wearing one of her green silk numbers, something he had to admit she looked particularly attractive in.
If only she could shut her mouth for more than a second.
Placing his head in his hands, he began to massage his scalp. 'Oh, Bohr.'
'And may I ask how you managed to end up in this state?' Eir enquired.
'You may not,' Randur groaned, glancing up at her. Her face displayed an expression of disgust he wasn't used to seeing from women. He was a man of style, after all, so maybe things weren't looking so great.
'Do you realize who you're talking to?' Her tone was indignant.
'Sure I do,' Randur replied.
'Yet you obviously have no respect for me?'
'I'm sorry.' Randur stood up, gave her as sarcastic a bow as he could manage, given the pain in his head. He wasn't in the mood for this formal nonsense.
Her expression suggested that she wasn't sure whether he was being serious. 'I thought you requested for a drummer to help us with the timing?' she persisted. 'Maybe he has got himself into Astrid-knows-what trouble, like yourself.'
'I wasn't in any trouble,' Randur protested, rubbing his eyes. 'I can handle myself just fine on these streets.'
'I'm sure you can,' Eir said tartly. 'Now I demand that you tell me where you were and what you were up to.'
'Caveside, if you must know.' He began to pace around the room in the hope of walking off his headache, occasionally stepping over to the window. Right now the cool air was the freshest he'd ever breathed.
'Caveside?' Eir said, frowning. 'Whatever were you doing down there? While you're in residence here, you ought to conduct yourself with more decorum. It's a bit reckless, don't you think, fraternizing with all those thugs? I've heard stories about serving girls who ventured down the wrong street and-'
'D'you have any idea what actually goes on down there?' Randur snapped, glancing despairingly at her. He shook his head. Bohr, how damn spoiled are people around here?
'Well,' Eir replied, 'I have been told of all sorts of thieves and murderers. Soldiers gone bad.'
'Yeah, well maybe there are some of those,' Randur admitted. They were so silent for a while he could hear the wind racing through Balmacara. Upon understanding the words she spoke, he said, 'You've lived here all these years and never actually been down there?'
Eir gave an impatient shrug. 'I don't really have much time for the business of such people. Why should I risk stepping foot in that darkness?'
Randur grunted to suppress a laugh. How could this girl be even temporarily in charge if she doesn't have a clue about half the type of people in her own damn city? It makes me glad I never grew up in a place like this.
Randur was feeling tired, knew he was getting grumpy as he always did when he hadn't had enough sleep. That, combined with his hangover, meant he was pretty pissed off. 'What is it with this place, this legendary city of sanctuary? The jewel of the Jamur Empire, the largest city in the Archipelago, yet you've got thousands of refugees camped right outside the gates, while the city's rulers turn a blind eye on the millions of ordinary citizens who don't own huge acreages of land, or who haven't grown fat off tribal slave labour, or what's practically wage slavery. They're just not real to you, are they?'
'Everyone's real to me,' Eir said.
'Reckon you're even real yourself?' Randur sneered. 'What kind of life have you ever led to make you so real?'
'A dutiful one, thank you. I've had pressures and responsibilities.'
'Responsibilities. Right. I bet you've always had every last thing done for you.'
'And who exactly are you to tell me this? I should have you strung up from the city walls as an example.'
'That's exactly my point, see?' Randur continued, unabashed. 'You just deal with life the way a spoilt child would. You want to eliminate someone just because he tells it how it is. What kind of ruler does that make you, if you can't even deal with ordinary people?'
She walked to the tapestry covering the window, drew it back and gazed over the countless spires of Villjamur. 'This is the only city I've really known. I've heard of the other places – Vilhokr, Vilhokteu, Gish. I've never visited them, never needed to, was always advised not to. Maybe I've been fortunate in my position and upbringing, but…' Anger now flared in those eyes, and frustration. '… Just because I haven't had to work for my living, doesn't mean my entire life has been worth less that anyone else's.'
Randur suspected he'd hurt her, though right now it was difficult to care. He had a throbbing head, a mouth as dry as a desert rock. He was angry at this rich girl. Her superior attitude added a whole new rancour to his thinking.
'For your information,' Eir said, 'there's perhaps a little more to me than you might think. I'm not a bad person. I've not wished ill on anyone. Every time we practise dance or combat you make a reference to my fortunate upbringing as if it was something you missed out on. Well, it isn't that lucky being imprisoned in a life you don't necessarily want. So maybe I'm a little short with people at times. To use a phrase of your own, maybe I do get pissed off. Some of us can't just go on pretending to be someone we're not.'
If she knew anything of his past, of his own secrets, she didn't show it. This was all getting a little bit near the knuckle.
She continued, her voice significantly softer, 'Perhaps you yourself should show me the other side of this city then, if you really think it would do me some good?'
'Like I'd be able to sneak you out of this place with no one noticing. I'll probably lose my head for that – but sure, why not? If you're genuinely up for it, we can find a way. But, look, we should be doing dance practice. Let's learn a few steps, shall we? I'll count time for us, in the absence of our drummer.'
Eir approached him. They assumed position, fingers locked, a close embrace, and more than ever she seemed small and vulnerable in his arms. She was now in one of those moods where she didn't seem to want to look at him, wanted to pull as far away as possible in each dance step. Maybe he would try to patch things up between them by just shutting up.
The door opened to reveal one of the resident guards. 'My Lady Stewardess, there is some urgent news.'
Eir stepped away from Randur quickly, as if she had been caught in some lewd act.
'What news?' she demanded.
'Your sister Jamur Rika's entourage is getting near the city, my lady. Garudas have sighted her carriage just under two hours away.'
The return of the elder sister, Rika, brought thoughts of his own family to Chancellor Urtica. Families were an important issue to him.
After all, he'd killed his own.
They used to ridicule him, and he just couldn't cope with that, no, not the everyday references to sneering at his shortcomings. Gathered around the table at night, every night, they would start to berate him for his failings, especially his mother. Even when he qualified for the junior ranks of the Council his family would carp at him for not progressing up the ranks quickly enough. They would question his lack of friends, they complained that he didn't earn enough; it seemed everything he did or did not do became a target, a focal point for savage criticism. Fearing that this constant undermining would ultimately limit his career prospects, the young Urtica decided one night that enough was enough.
Dispatching them had been a joy, a creative wonder, the kind of ingenious ploy to smile about as he remembered it. He contrived a way of tricking them into dropping something lethal in each other's food. One night just after he had turned eighteen, a treat to rid himself of all the shame and humiliation, the sheer joy of watching them cough up blood, retch bile, yet still take time to berate each other shrilly as they realized what was happening. He had a watertight alibi – paying off several old friends for their word, with promise of power to come – and he'd faked an entry in his mother's diary. When the Inquisition came they declared it an open and shut case. Sympathy had come pouring in from neighbours, for the poor boy so tragically orphaned. When he finally got away from their condolences, he began to savour the thrill to be obtained from the god-like power to terminate life. While he was engaged in the business of removing his family, he had taken the liberty to forge new wills – with ancient Jamur runes and seals and all – leaving more distant family members ostracized. Charitably, he gave them a little, because he was nice like that, but the majority of the wealth and estates came to him. Forgery, he thought at the time, is such a blissful art.
And soon there were others to suffer at his hand, like his older cousin in a freak sailing accident off the coast of Jokull, whose drowning was followed by a few drinks at the quayside celebrating the sudden inheritance of family estates on the east coast near Vilhokr. A glass to you, dearest cousin, for the comforts with which you've provided me. Cheers!
With his new-won independence and income, he had turned to the Ovinists. The traditional gods reminded him too keenly of his pious family. After all, a new faith for a new man!
Vaguely the whore he used last night had looked like his mother, a slender waif of a girl with sharp features. It brought back some complex thoughts to his mind. What does it mean, sleeping with a substitute for my mother? And in sleeping with whores, well, he was just becoming like his father, wasn't he? Bohr, families can fuck you up… Urtica slid out of bed, walked over to the fire to throw another log on it, then on went his favourite green tunic.
A guard entered the room. 'Sir, Commander Lathraea approaches the city with the new Empress.'
So, she was back at last, and it was time to see exactly how easily he might manipulate her.
He walked over to a window, pulled back the tapestry to reveal the view over the fore-city. A gust of wind whistled in, but he didn't even feel it.
Such beauty, such potential… Until his gaze focused on the refugees camped outside the gates of the city, their numerous little fires already coughing smoke weakly into the air. Their makeshift homes stretched far into the distance, where disease was spreading rapidly. Decent people feared leaving the city. Resentment at this encroachment was growing, and with it a feeling of hatred.
Other concerns loomed now in his thoughts, first and foremost the final campaign against the Varltungs. He had to convince Commander Lathraea to be out of the way so that Urtica himself could assume full control of the military. The Empress, too, would need to be persuaded to put her trust in him, but that fitted in nicely with the troubles now erupting on the northern fringes of the Empire. In fact he needed Brynd's expertise in handling this crisis, so that wasn't just a lie.
Rika leaned out of the carriage, looked up at the grey sky. The wind whipped her hair around her face as she pulled strands of it back. 'Why have we stopped?' she asked.
Brynd rode over, the spires of Villjamur towering behind him on the hilltop, and the sight of the city sparked a thousand memories in her, and she was overcome by a strange sensation in her stomach. This was the home of her youth that she hadn't seen for years. A part of her that she had almost forgotten about. It was an uncomfortable feeling to realize she wasn't that same person any more. A famous ancient scribe had once recommended never returning to a place with happy memories, because it could never be the same. What about bad memories – would they diminish too?
She had to confront the girl – now woman – she had once been, and remember the day she had walked out on her family. Well, her father, anyway, but he was gone now.
'I wanted to advise you of a problem, Jamur Rika, before you approach the gates of Villjamur.' Brynd steered his horse till he faced her directly.
His sinister appearance: burning red eyes, black horse, black uniform, narrow white features belied his true nature. The brooch of the Empire glistened reassuringly on his chest. She had never seen anyone quite like him in her life. There was something about his demeanour that said she was safe in his hands, that he would protect her. It was those things that really mattered, not the colour of skin or eyes.
'What is it you're saying, commander?' she demanded, hoping she sounded very much like an Empress.
'I must warn you there are thousands of refugees outside the city gates. They are hoping to find protection inside the city during the Freeze.'
'And they can't come in?' Rika said.
Mild regret in his eyes, despite his military firmness.
'No,' Brynd admitted. 'It's been decided there's a limited capacity for Villjamur once the gates finally close. The city has to protect its own interests during the many years of ice to come.'
'So please stop me if I'm incorrect in my assumptions that no one can come into the city? And these people will die here. In front of us. As we watch on?'
'Pretty much,' Brynd said. 'But they'll die anyway. Meanwhile military personnel will be allowed in and out – or people with the right documentation, of course. It's the only way the city could last for so long.'
Rika pressed on, 'And nothing can be done? Nothing in our hearts can be found for their plight?'
'Not my place to say, Empress,' Brynd replied. 'There are many other things I'm involved with at the moment. As soon as I'm equipped and rested, the Night Guard will be leaving to investigate some skirmishes in the north.'
'How significant are they, these skirmishes?'
'Too early to tell, my lady.'
So much for her to take in. She could have done with Brynd staying with her for a while longer, because although alarming on first sight, he radiated confidence, a quiet compassion – as much as any military man could. 'Commander, can I trust you?' she said. 'I feel… quite vulnerable here. As if people might take advantage of my naivety.'
'Empress. I was sworn in as one of your father's favoured guard, to be sent on any mission in his name, to uphold his honour. As his chosen successor, you inherit my service also, and that of my soldiers. Of all the Jamur armies, in fact. And as soldiers we're not paid to think about our orders, and we serve only your word. Though I can fully appreciate how great that responsibility must seem right now.'
She sat back further into the carriage. 'Thank you, commander. Your skill with words and encouragement are a great help to one so new and unversed as myself.'
She then heard the commander order the escort of Dragoons to move on, and the carriage was in motion.
Next stop: Villjamur.
Lines of troops kept back the refugees by sword and bow, making sure none dared closely approach the roadway. They formed two distinct lines on either side of the route stretching all the way from the city gates, and she could hear the helpless moans, the cries of fear as metal was brandished in their direction, and the cursing of soldiers as they shouted for them to keep back, stay off the road. The stench of their encampment was awful, intense.
She was the Empress, or would very shortly be, so surely she must do something to stop this ill-treatment of her own people? Or perhaps this was the first lesson she would learn: her own powerlessness to achieve everything she might wish.
Brynd was riding to one side, and turned to nod at her briefly before again scanning the troubled scene. She saw the gaunt, muddied faces of her people staring at her carriage between the lines of Dragoons and horses. Shouts of commands. Then the gates of the city were opening, whereupon more soldiers streamed forward in a clatter of armour and weaponry. Garudas circled above her, ever watchful, as screams from the refugees reached a crescendo.
Her eyes widened at the alarming spectacle. All this fuss just for her – she refused to believe it. The carriage rocked its way onto the cobbled streets of the city, and within a few moments she was inside Villjamur, safe, the noise of the refugees muffled as the doors closed behind.
Then they stopped. Was this where she must get out? Again that uncertainty.
The commander leaned into the carriage. 'We'll now progress through the main streets of the city. People may stare in at you. They don't really know you from sight. You may remind some of the older citizens of your mother, perhaps…' He stopped at that sensitive point, and changed tack. 'Many of them probably don't know the current state of rulership despite the announcements that should have been made.'
'Very kind of you to warn me, commander. But I'm sure I'm capable of looking after myself.'
Brynd retreated, ordered the entourage to ride on.
Rika stared up at the city, her city, its landscape furnished with a sense of possession, so nothing would be the same as before.
Everything was as she remembered, and bittersweet memories lapped over her. The dream-like spires that disappeared up into damp mist. The hanging baskets everywhere encaging the beautiful flowers of the tundra. The soaring bridges, the grey-red stone, the ever-busy people. And Balmacara in the centre. Her own history came back in flashes: a childhood spent staring out of windows at these same sights, not being permitted to have much contact outside Balmacara. Days of boredom. The trauma of her father beating her mother, of beating Rika herself. And little Eir brightening random moments with her naivety, a child's voice echoing down the corridors. It was amazing what mere clusters of assembled rock could do to the mind.
Forget about all that. It's the past. Think of the future.
Her sister already stood waiting for her inside, her face erupting in emotions. After the initial formality, Eir and Rika embraced for what, to Brynd, seemed like a season. The fond memories were returning, the gradual remembrance of their idiosyncrasies, all reflected in the softness of their glances and the way they would touch each other's arms.
After a long interlude of whispering, they seemed to remember that other people were gathered around them, listening, waiting.
The young page showed them into a formal chamber where several members of the Council were seated, all immediately rising to their feet.
Brynd and the rest of his Night Guard followed silently.
There he was, Chancellor Urtica, walking over to the new Empress. He took her hand, pressed it to his lips, after he briefly went down on one knee. 'Jamur Rika, a great honour. As your chancellor, may I welcome you to Villjamur, on behalf of the Council. Your presence here in this difficult time is most reassuring.'
'Hey,' Apium muttered to Brynd, 'he's not wasting his time in greasing up to her, is he?'
Brynd grunted a quiet laugh. He looked across to Nelum and Lupus, who stood silently, watching the Empress's every move – as they had been trained to do for her father.
'Who's that swarthy-looking stick of a fellow over there?' Apium whispered.
Brynd followed his gaze to a thin, handsome man standing in one corner of the chamber. With glossy black hair that cascaded down in curls, he wore smart clothes of the kind usually seen on the outer islands, but updated to make a splash in the city. He seemed a bit of a cliched dandy – even to Brynd. The man stood tall, his chin raised, his head angled in calculated postures. Several ladies of the court were huddled close to him, and every now and then he'd flash them a rehearsed grin.
Brynd raised an eyebrow. 'I've never seen him before. Why not ask one of the servants.'
Apium stepped away and returned moments later.
'His name is Randur Estevu, and apparently he's Lady Eir's tutor for sword and dance. I think I remember Johynn talking about getting someone in. I don't know, holding a bloody dancing event because the Archipelago's about to be plunged into an ice age. Ridiculous, if you ask me, these bloody nobles.'
'Aren't we ourselves technically nobles?' Brynd said.
'Aye, but, uh, at least we do something useful, not just prance about to music.'
'Last time you danced you cleared the floor – and not in a good way.'
'I had a bit to drink, I'll admit. Anyway, why should a soldier need rhythm?'
'Good sword skills,' Brynd explained. 'I'll bet that waif of a man can look after himself.'
Brynd regarded the curious-looking newcomer, this Randur. He certainly had good dress sense. The man suddenly looked back at him. They stared at each other for a heartbeat, then Randur glanced away.
Brynd turned his attention to Urtica, who was still fawning upon the new Empress, with forced laughter, fake smiles, overstated gestures – it was enough to make Brynd feel sick.
Later that afternoon, the sisters were allowed time in private, once it had been decided that Emperor Johynn's state funeral would take place in the morning. He was to be buried in the crypt under Balmacara, inside the caves, just like every ruler before him. For all other citizens, their bodies were burned on a pyre, much in line with the ancient tribal religions. It was thought that cremation sped their spirits towards one of the otherworlds, depending on how your life had been lived. Emperors alone were destined to stay in Villjamur forever, their bodies in the caves, decaying till they became part of the city, part of legend itself.
Their bones becoming Villjamur's bones.
Brynd discovered that after he'd gone, news of the Emperor's death had sent a slow shockwave through these corridors. Councillors had flapped around the place, murmuring portentous utterings, but all the time adding to a sense of unease. Brynd himself had noticed this malaise grow in the short time since his return. It manifested in a general lack of confidence, in an escalating mood of fear. But perhaps this mood was exacerbated by the coming of the ice age.
An initial ceremony would take place as the red sun rose. Then as the sun set, Rika would be proclaimed Empress, therefore finishing a day to change history – or at least the history books. Brynd had stationed two soldiers from the Night Guard outside Eir's and Rika's chambers, whilst he himself liaised with Chancellor Urtica, at that politician's request. The two men met in the War Chamber usually reserved for discussions on battle tactics, and perhaps this was the first indication to the commander that something was wrong.
Brynd opened the door to find Urtica standing at the far end of a massive stone table, his back to a spitting fire. No tapestries garlanded this room, only lanterns and examples of ancient weaponry on the walls. As he entered Brynd realized the conversation wouldn't be going his way.
'Commander, do step inside and close the door. Hell of a draught coming in.'
Brynd shut the door and approached, his steps clicking in the awkward silence. 'What's the problem, chancellor?'
'War, commander,' Chancellor Urtica sighed. 'I fear it's war.'
'And why so? I've been away for less than a month, so what can have arisen? Surely we should be looking for peace at all costs in these distressing times?'
'Of course, but our experts have now analysed the arrow that you retrieved from Daluk Point. It was indeed a Varltung shaft.'
'Really?' Brynd said, his eyes narrowing. 'But I still don't see why the Varltungs would make a raid on us.'
'Yes, well, these are strange days. Furthermore I've intelligence from our garudas suggesting that the Varltungs have planned more raids – now that our city is at its weakest. So I was forced to put some defensive plans in motion after you left. Troops are moving across the Empire as we speak.'
'What intelligence exactly?' Brynd said. Were the city's forces already marching to war without his knowledge?
'Not only from garudas, but rumours from various outposts. So I have initiated troop movements for a coastal raid on the Varltung nation. I'll be using cultists from the Order of Dawnir to help, too, as I want to stop any chance of our outlying islands being assaulted after our city closes its doors. It is a purely defensive tactic, and we aim to minimize casualties, and work with them once they submit.'
'And you're absolutely certain of this strategy? Surely, as commander of the armies, I should be allowed some say in this decision. Surely I should have some role in this?' It appeared that Urtica had already made up his mind even before Brynd had left to fetch Jamur Rika. Now it wouldn't surprise Brynd to learn that soldiers were already dying.
'That's certainly true, and I will need your agreement. The Council felt constrained to pass an urgent order of war in your absence. The Empress must be briefed immediately. More Dragoons and Regiments of Foot are currently being readied, but there's now another threat, for which I think your personal attention is more essential.'
Brynd analysed every word that Urtica uttered, scanning for the gaps in what he said to find the real story. Being chief commander of military operations appeared to mean little to these politicians, these articulate men who had no direct experience of combat. They just rolled the dice from a safe distance, not understanding the real costs in terms of resources and emotion.
Urtica said, 'You were aware of your next task, I think, even before you returned here. Those killings on our islands further north – on Tineag'l to be precise.'
'The mining island?'
'We've now had two reports of large-scale massacres there. Towns have been wiped out, and so far hundreds have died – possibly thousands. I sent a garuda to investigate and he hasn't returned yet – that was some time ago now.' Urtica reached across the table for a parchment, passed it to Brynd. 'This, however, came through to us.'
Brynd read the message. To Emperor Johynn, and the Council of Villjamur
I must alert you to a potential crisis as we've had reports of terrible events occurring on Tineag'l. Many have been fleeing atrocities of an unknown nature, that quite frankly leaves me to be astounded. There have been severe numbers of disappearances on the island, and interviews have been held with those who have fled. There is something killing whole communities, cleansing entire cities and towns. I estimate from listening to those escapees, and by studying old maps, that tens of thousands may no longer exist. It is rumoured that a host of many thousand refugees are fleeing from the north on foot, and it will take them some weeks to reach the south tip of Tineag'l. But when they reach it they will sail to Villiren. And, good sirs, we can't cope with such quantities in our city. Already we've local people seeking shelter from the ice, so what is Lutto Fendor to do? I request you send aid, in whatever form possible, to this city and investigate the atrocious incidents on Tineag'l before this evil spreads here to the island of Y'iren. We are but a humble trading city, so we are not equipped to resist, or indeed help the refugees fleeing these killings. We need protection. Send it quick!
Your servant, and in the name of Bohr and Astrid, and of the Jamur Empire and Council.
Lutto Fendor, Portreeve of Villiren, on the island of Y'iren Brynd glanced twice over the parchment, noticing it possessed the mark of Jorsalir, a discreet symbol of the moons in each corner, behind the star of the Empire. That meant it was official all right, blessed by the priest, but Brynd tended to ignore those kinds of blessings. He grunted. So Fat Lutto actually does his job, for once. He handed it back to Urtica. 'Yes, this is bad news all right. You wish me to assemble what exactly?'
'I think at least a few units of Dragoons, plus a cultist from the Order of the Dawnir should suffice. And the rest of your Night Guard, of course. But I'm not sure we can spare much more than that just yet if we're to organize a proper defence against the Varltung nation. Remember, they won their freedom six hundred years back, they've defeated the Empire's forces once. And they've enough population to furnish a few hundred thousand fighting men if they can unite all their tribes. I would like to make them… submit before the Freeze becomes too severe. So I'm leaving this matter in your capable hands.' Urtica was silent for a moment as he contemplated some of the maps lying in front of him.
'You don't think this is a more important issue than the Varltung operation?'
'You know very well what Lutto's like. He can be… inaccurate in what he says. He's fat, he's lazy, he's a gambler, and a criminal.'
'But he's in charge of an entire city and he's panicking,' Brynd said.
'In charge because he rigs the voting. Anyway, I think that given the information so far, the greatest issue lies on the eastern fronts. Should you need more men, you can send for reinforcements. Oh, incidentally, that Dawnir friend of yours has been grumbling about wanting to go with you.'
'Jurro?' Brynd said, puzzled. 'Why does he need to come anyway?'
'Why not take him with you? The activity might finally jog his blasted memory, and then we can get some useful information out of him. I mean what's the use of an Ancient if he doesn't have memory? I don't want him just rotting away reading books for another several generations and only have the benefit of his misery to put up with. Take him with you, let him see a bit more of the world. Before the ice sets in.'
Brynd considered just how exactly he could take one of the Ancient race on a scouting mission, travelling through towns where he'd undoubtedly be mobbed by villagers who would see him as some kind of oracle, some saviour to them in the ice age. That was the exact reason he'd been hidden for so long.
'What of the firegrain?' Brynd said. 'Have the remaining stocks of grain and oil been calculated?'
'Of course,' Urtica said. 'Anyway, there's wood remaining on Jokull, and plenty on the other islands. That's what the military will use for their warmth. That's what other cities are relying on. Emperor Johynn was just mad sending you out there in the first place. Now, shall we thrash out some details about the current crises facing the Empire? I believe our two fine minds should deliver some decent logistical analysis, what d'you say?'
'Yes.' Times were awkward all right. He would prefer to be in control of the raids on Varltung, or else remain here to stand by the new Empress, but this threat, on one of the fringes of the Empire, appeared urgent, and what the hell could be causing it anyway?
'Why all this effort to subdue Varltung now? This Freeze could last thirty-odd years, and much of the Empire will be changed as we know it. Hell, there may be no Empire left when we come out of hibernation.'
As Urtica met his gaze, it seemed a gust of wind came in from somewhere, flickering shadows adopting new postures across the old walls. 'Commander Lathraea, I don't think you fully understand the purpose of the Jamur Empire?'
'I'm not sure I follow.'
'I didn't think so. What does an empire do We extend ourselves, we acquire new territories. We take control there. We grow. We make progress. We seize the world for our people, and we give them additional wealth as a reward. You're a military man, commander. I expect better of you than to doubt our purpose.'
'Bohr, we've not had a skirmish in years – except for that incident on Daluk Point, of course. And the lack of military action has been a positive thing. We've found more diplomatic ways to establish relationships with tribes locally. You think I've risen to the top of my career by rearing to fight everything I come across?'
'Did it never occur to you that you've risen so far so quickly because you were adopted by a wealthy family? That's how things work in Villjamur. I'd hoped for more from you, Commander Lathraea. There's a population of some millions out there that it's our responsibility to feed and nurture. We need to raise them from the squalor of their mud huts, and give them a better quality of existence. Your role isn't that of politician, but as a guardian of the Empire. That now means going to Tineag'l, to prevent a bigger threat than even the Varltungs may prove.'
The chancellor had a valid point, even if Brynd didn't trust him, wondering how much of what slipped off his tongue was sincere. There were far too many bizarre happenings recently to trust the politicians, and perhaps the recent cycles of the moons were affecting more than just the weather. Maybe they were creating some kind of insanity across the Boreal Archipelago, generating a subtle tension you couldn't perceive exactly. And in the years to come, things would only get worse.
Jamur Rika perched on the windowsill staring out across the early morning snowflakes sifting through the air in thick flurries, collecting on the rooftops, on stationary carts, upturned barrels, walls. People were shuffling in and out of bleak streets and alleyways, avoiding the worst of it, miserable faces sheltering from the sky, only children looking up with glee, maybe not understanding what it meant.
She could breathe the tension even from up here.
All a necessary distraction, but she had to turn around and face her bed chamber eventually. It was so unfamiliarly full of luxuries that weren't her own – not that she'd possessed many before anyway. Leading a life studying Astrid had meant little need for such accoutrements. Purple furnishings, numerous gold and silver objects that she had no idea how to use, that perhaps had no real use anyway. Over there was the white silk gown she must wear for her father's burial in the crypts. Its layered silk was so much richer than the simple, black cotton she wore to sleep in.
And why should those refugees have to suffer when she enjoyed all this? She wanted to help them somehow, had already drawn up an idea to present to Chancellor Urtica at the earliest opportunity. To feed them, send aid, a food package from the city, from the new Empress. A positive move that would say she was trying her best. Even after only a brief moment back in Villjamur, it seemed as if the Council made all the decisions. But if she was going to insist on one thing it would be that.
Sleep hadn't come easily. Innumerable criers had stalked the evening until late, announcing her father's funeral to the echoing walls, their clear voices filtering through to her dreams, filling her slumber with visions of death and rebirth.
Rika felt trapped in a place that wasn't home, with such great responsibility. Jorsalir training had at least given her the luxury of accepting her fate. Now she felt such a longing, but for some time she didn't know what for. Perhaps she missed the remoteness of Southfjords, where there was little to occupy her mind except the daily texts, interrupted with a few thoughts of her sister. That those days could never be repeated made them all the more desirable. She must seek out a priestess in this alien city, so that she could have the benefit of Astrid's aspects to guide her through this difficult period.
She couldn't let her past go. She had tried for so long to avoid it, had perhaps even fled the city to escape thinking about it. Always, when abroad, her life came back to her in images:
Shafts of sunlight bleaching stone floors. Eir crying after being covered in flour in the kitchens. Pock-faced tutors issuing grammar instructions whilst it rained. The first time she ever saw a garuda. The day the tapestries caught fire in the dining hall. Two servants kissing with intensity against the wall of one of the studies. On a balcony eating an apple in the fading autumn heat. A city cat licking the sole of her bare foot – its tongue strangely rough.
Rika and Eir had played frequently about Balmacara from a young age. There were so many corridors to explore, so many rooms that meant nothing but the challenge of exploration, tall windows offering vistas of Villjamur's great bridges and spires, and they were curious young minds with endless days ahead. Time was not a concept with which to be concerned.
Many of the city guard were charged with their protection, soldiers humbled by nursery duty. She often wondered what these towering, muscular men, swords at their waists, must have thought of these two tiny girls in ridiculously expensive dresses. Their training left them somehow inadequate for this new duty. She remembered the glances when two new guards were asked to watch them as they played. The men would look at each other, shrug, then merely stand there. By the end of the day they would inevitably be on their hands and knees, Eir and Rika riding their backs, brandishing wooden swords, and their mother would burst into the room laughing. The guards would retreat later, blushing.
Rika laughed. I bet they enjoyed it really.
They would try to lose them, Eir and Rika, try to vanish and cause panic. Once Eir managed to hide for an entire afternoon on top of a bookcase in one of the libraries whilst soldiers trotted along the corridors, checking every room, and their mother would vacillate between annoyance and worry. Knowing where she was, Rika would slip in every hour with some sweets for her.
'Are you coming down yet?'
'How long has it been?' Eir had said, brushing down a cloud of dust with the side of her arm.
'You should come down before they clip you round the ear. Eir. Ha! Ear Eir! You're named after an ear!'
'Shut up or I'm never coming down. Worse, I'll say that you scared me up here, and made me stay here and cry for ages.'
'You wouldn't,' Rika said.
'I would. So how long has it been?'
'Give it at least two more. This book is good. The sweets are good. Anyway, I like the fuss being made. Makes a change.'
Eir had always been the one less likely to follow instructions, the younger sibling, testing the rules that had been first set for Rika. And she had a point: they would often be ignored. They were children, so she should not be so harsh on them. Their father was busy being Emperor. A tough man, he shouted at them and their mother for no noticeable reason. Then there were the beatings, memories she tried to repress. One could see the neglect upon her mother's face, the withered features while in conversation with him, occasional bursts into tears as she sat staring out of the window. She had been beautiful. Sleek black hair, a pretty, oval face, tall and regal. Such dramatic clothing. Girls would help her select outfits, make-up, jewels, perfumes. Every bit the Emperor's wife. To Rika women were worth more than just sporting trinkets, being repressed by a man, trapped by a family. Back then Rika would sit on her bed, dazzled, feeling lucky if her mother tried some of her items on her, smiling. She remembered her breath smelled of mint leaves-
A knock at the door.
For a moment she considered not answering. If she remained seated here by the window with her memories, it was possible that her day wouldn't even begin. As soon as she got up, events would inexorably be set in motion – events that would lead to her being declared sovereign of the Jamur Empire. Instead she could just sit here and stare out at the city, allowing the hypnotic flakes of snow to take her mind away.
Easy to understand why her father had eventually become insane.
'Rika, are you awake? It's Eir.'
'Just a moment.' Rika rose to let her sister enter, pleased it was not another stranger.
Eir marched to the centre of the room, a heady waft of perfume following. She was wearing an outrageously fashionable red gown, high collar, black sleeves, her hair slick with oil, her face made up like nothing Rika had ever seen before. A fake red tundra rose nestled on her breast.
'You're not even dressed,' Eir observed.
'No, I'm not,' Rika sighed. 'I was watching the snow and just thinking.'
'You'll have plenty of time for that,' Eir said. 'We've got decades yet to go blind from the whiteness of it all, they say. The Night Guard and Council are assembling, as are all the major families.'
'I've got a little while yet before I need to get there,' Rika said. 'I'm not sure how I'll cope here, with all the fuss they make. How does one get anything done with so many other people interfering?'
'I simply don't know,' Eir confessed, now sprawling across the windowsill. 'It's kind of fun to have such a bother made of us from time to time.'
Rika smiled. 'You've become such a spoilt little brat.'
'Don't… you're sounding like Randur.'
'Who's Randur?' Rika demanded.
'No one.' Eir clenched her hands in a nervous manner.
'Indeed.' Rika took a step closer. 'He wouldn't be that young braggart strutting about these halls flirting wildly with every woman he meets, would he? I have certainly noticed him. Don't tell me you're predictably falling for his charms too?'
Eir laughed. 'You've hardly been here so how could you even think that. No, I can barely stand having to dance with him.'
'So you're close to him, are you? Is this a frequent occurrence?' Rika folded her arms.
'He's only my instructor.'
'Is he at least any good?' Rika enquired.
'He seems to think so, at least.'
'He's certainly a pretty man,' Rika conceded, inviting her sister to open up to her obvious infatuation.
'Don't let him hear you say that. He'd not let you forget about it in a hurry. Anyway, I don't want to discuss him.' Eir stood up. 'Now how soon can we expect you to bless us with your presence?'
'Just give me a few minutes. I'll be down.'
Eir kissed her sister on the cheek, went to leave.
'One moment,' Rika said.
So many years had passed, and she now considered how her little sister had developed into an attractive young woman. Rika walked over to her, grasped her hands. It felt easy to be open with her. 'Eir, I'm scared, at times, that I don't think I can ever be an Empress. I'm not strong enough to do this. I just don't have the experience-'
'Rika, you're the bravest, most sensible woman I know. You left this city to spend your life on a fringe island with nothing more than a few peasant farms and Jorsalir structures for company – that in itself takes quite some strength of purpose. You have spent time studying religion, so you possess a moral code that frames your thoughts. And, besides, now that father's gone, it may be fun because everyone will want to impress you.'
After a brief silence, Rika said, 'Are you sad? I mean, that he's gone?'
Slowly, Eir put her arms around her shoulders, and Rika enjoyed the warm embrace. To be able to be close to her sister again moved her. They held each other for a minute. Eir whispered, 'I only feel upset because of the relief he's gone, and because now I might have to start growing up and taking responsibility.'
To Rika's surprise, hundreds of people turned to face her as she stood at the top of the stairway leading down from the balcony, and the noise they made was alarming. It wasn't as though this would be quiet, the death of the only person in the city that had been known to everyone.
Those who weren't military wore vivacious dress, like her sister, that strange tradition in Villjamur to wear the brightest colours to see off the dead. There would be no morbid reflection here, guaranteeing a funeral day more colourful than any normal one.
At the foot of the stairs was a wheeled catafalque bearing a wooden casket.
Her father's body.
Although she knew she should, she didn't really feel all that much for him any more, but why was that? Had she spent so long alienating herself from the more basic human emotions that now she didn't know what to think, or was it a relief at the passing of this man who had been so cruel to her mother, a man who had loved no one but himself?
Standing in a row immediately behind the casket was the Night Guard, what was left of it, just eleven members currently. Commander Lathraea stood to attention at the front of them, a vision of darkness in his black uniform, his pale face shining like some ghostly beacon.
Councillors loitered behind him, and then various nobles, in bright robes, further back. Ordinary citizens from the city had been allowed access to this privileged level, so crammed themselves, shoulder to shoulder, into any adjoining street that provided a decent view. All around the city she could see people watching from balconies, standing on walls, leaning from the windows of countless towers. Many of them were waving to her, and there was an element of excitement about the entire city. There would be narrations tonight, as there always were – they would linger on Emperor Johynn's life until the red sun rose. There would be wine, beer, dancing. A few late-night walks where people would be saying how lovely she looked or what a sad time for her to follow in her father's footsteps.
Rika strode down the steps to join her sister by her father's casket. Some part of her wanted to lift the coffin lid, to see what his face looked like one more time, to wonder if her anger would be rekindled, or if she would open up her heart to him only to be met with a cold silence.
Commander Lathraea stepped forwards with a nod and some whispered instructions.
The procession journeyed along the twisted streets of the city, Rika the only one on horseback, elevated so all could see their new ruler. Her mount towing the deceased was somehow vaguely symbolic. Despite the freezing weather, the crowds cheered. Old women threw tundra flowers across the passing carriage. For nearly two hours they progressed, a sad trail of sodden flowers marking their passage towards the underground crypt.
Anyone who was anyone in the Jamur Empire made themselves present there in the darkness of the crypt. Every Emperor of the Jamur lineage was buried here, four thousand years of blood kin. It had begun with Jamur Joll, who had first led his people into the ancient town of Vilhallan, as it was known then, after a legendary battle, there proclaiming himself Emperor and ordering the three encircling walls of Villjamur to be built. Johynn would be buried alongside his father, Emperor Gulion, the one who drowned twenty-six years previously with more than a little rumour surrounding the incident. Rika looked on with a strange realization that this is where she herself would be buried, amongst these hundreds of candles, in an eternal stone prison.
'War?' Rika gasped. She leaned back in her chair, stared into space. The word echoed in her mind, summoned up feelings of guilt, of shame. War meant death, and she would be complicit in causing it. It didn't even seem her decision to make – the Empire would do what it needed to without her say in the matter.
Two lanterns burned in the room, and a candle on the table and a fire. Animal-head trophies hung on the wooden-panelled walls, which bore the carving of ancient runes. The sense of history here was humbling.
'It's an essential, I assure you,' Chancellor Urtica said. With one upturned hand, he gestured at the maps spread out before them, then moved the candle to cast a light over the Empire's islands of the western Boreal Archipelago. 'Our armies have gathered here on Folke, near the garrison town of Ule. It's our largest fortified area in the east. I'll admit that initially my concerns about war were as yours clearly are. But we've reason to believe there will be a serious attack on our territories from these tribes.' Urtica clutched the edge of the table. 'I've taken every step I can to defend our lands, Empress. You need not worry on that count.' He stepped back to warm himself by the fire.
Rika stood up to get a better perspective on the geography. Seven nations, dozens of islands and rocky outcrops that once meant nothing to her, and even now were abstract, a collection of lines and colour on paper. 'Chancellor, what does all this mean, precisely?'
'It means, my lady, we're sending thousands of troops over a period of time, the first of whom are marching or sailing east even as we speak. It is quite necessary to protect our people.'
It seemed rather odd, defending people by launching an assault on another island. 'Can we afford such an enterprise?'
'That should not be of concern. We councillors have made sure that coin has flowed into Villjamur regularly. It is mainly cultists who are expensive when deployed, but we've little choice but to use them from time to time. I have taken measures to ensure that our tax revenues increase by cutting Veteran Pay, and taxing the well-stocked pensions of those already in the military.' He turned to present her with an earnest expression. 'Essential, if this Empire is to protect itself.'
'Well… if you're absolutely certain it is necessary. And the Night Guard?' Rika enquired, thinking of how useful Brynd had been. 'Are they going too?'
'They are…' Urtica hesitated, 'required to tackle separate incidents, Empress.'
He told her of events on Tineag'l, a genocide, a potential refugee crisis on a scale never before seen.
She nodded, didn't want to admit any further lack of knowledge and, being a woman, felt that this was a particularly important position to maintain in a male-dominated arena. No matter how enlightened a civilization was, she felt that war always seemed to bring out some primitive urge in men, a need to demonstrate strength.
'My lady, I know there's a lot to take in.' The chancellor smiled knowingly.
Perhaps he didn't mean to sound patronizing, but he did. And he was right: there was such a lot to take in. 'Then I'll leave this matter under your control, chancellor. Although I would be very grateful to be informed of every military movement undertaken.'
He gave a gentle nod. 'As you wish, Empress.'
'On another matter, I would very much like it if food could be sent out to the refugees.'
'Sorry, my lady?' Urtica replied, his eyes showing something like surprise. Or humour.
'I would like those people to be fed as best as possible. Even if just this one time. Think of it as a welcoming gift from their new Empress. Just because they're outside our gates and homeless does not mean they are not our responsibility.'
Urtica's expression remained calm, yet contained a glint of something she couldn't read. 'An excellent suggestion, Empress. I'll draft up orders to put to the Council, although it may take some time. I can see you have your mother's compassion.'
'Do I?' Rika's reply was full of melancholy.
'You do indeed. It was a great shame that she died in such… suspicious circumstances.'
'There was nothing suspicious about it.' She said the words before she had a chance to consider them.
'You think,' Urtica said, 'that you know who the killer was?'
Again, the ghosts returned.
As a child, one day when her father was looking for her mother, Rika told him that she was with one of the guards in the private gardens. Such an innocent comment. She didn't think he might see something sinister in her contact with this other man.
'It was suggested by many that my mother was having an affair with a soldier from the Dragoons, and somehow my father found out. Very soon her body was found in one of the lower levels of the city, lying flat on the streets. She bled to death, my father told us, tragically whilst on official business – whatever that may have been.'
Urtica gave a brief gasp. 'Surely you don't think your father was responsible for it?'
Rika remained silent. Yes, she did, but she wasn't going to let him know that.
Urtica pressed on. 'A price was offered to find her murderer, wasn't it? Forgive me, but this was quite some time ago. I'm sure the matter was thoroughly investigated.'
'The Inquisition found only more paperwork, chancellor.'
'It must have been a difficult time for everyone.'
'That was probably the year that father began to find it difficult to trust people, preferring his own company for great lengths of time. I remember that servants would take bottle after bottle of wine to him. As the months went by he was less fussy as to the quality, just that it was still coming. I suspect that was the start of his deterioration.'
'Perhaps,' Urtica agreed. 'The mind does suffer greatly under the stresses experienced in office. But I hope you will trust people in Villjamur a little more than he did.' A smile. 'Things are very different these days.'
A quarter of an hour later the chancellor sent a request for a garuda soldier. While he waited, Urtica began writing down a list of orders. Eventually one of the city's bird-soldiers entered the chamber. Urtica examined the creature, its white visage startling, even in the dreary light of the room.
You requested to see one of us? the flight lieutenant signed.
Urtica tried to remember the appropriate words and the symbols, what the hand shapes meant, unused to having to read them himself. He was no mere soldier after all. 'Yes, take this order to the military garrison at Ule, Folke.' The chancellor handed the garuda a document. 'Show it to every captain you see. Should my note be destroyed en route, memorize these words: "At the command of Empress Jamur Rika and the Council of Villjamur, you are commanded to organize a front line facing across the northern and easternmost shores immediately adjacent to Varltung. A total of two thousand troops must be placed in key positions ready to receive long-ships that will set sail from all the military bases on Jokull. Mission summary: ensure total submission of the Varltung race with as few prisoners as possible." '
The garuda made a harsh squawking sound in his throat. Sir, is this correct? You wish all of them to be killed?
'Who are you to question my orders?' Urtica could see the frustration evident on the bird's face. 'You've been bred specifically for military use, so don't let emotions get in the way. Anyway, we cannot afford to look after prisoners during such times as these.'
So be it, the garuda signed, then gripped the scroll in his human-like hands.
Urtica eyed the tiny feathers that grew on the creature's arms, then looked him straight in the eye. 'Did you memorize those instructions?'
The garuda signed, They are not easily forgettable, sir.
'Good.' Urtica sat down on the chair before the maps and regarded the garuda casually. 'I'll send follow-up instructions, but the scroll you possess contains details of troop allocations and movements, and none of this is up for discussion. Every captain will understand and act accordingly. Now, go.' He waved him away with the back of his hand. The flight lieutenant twisted sharply, generating an unnatural breeze somehow with his body shape, then left the room.
Moments later, Urtica stepped over to a tapestry on the wall, peeled it back. A view of the city was unveiled, and he watched the garuda flying off across the spires and bridges, gliding out towards the east.
Urtica brooded on the predicament. He could tell no one of his negligible manipulations, of course – people just did not like to see the bigger picture. Because of the evidence provided by hired tribal thugs at Daluk Point, this Empire had now been offered an excuse to expand. The loss of a few Night Guard soldiers proved only that they weren't as wondrous as they liked to think they were, the posturing idiots. The Empire now had an opportunity to take more resources, more wood and food and ore, in defiance of the Freeze. They could claim another nation in the east, and this ancient Jamur Empire would become even more glorious.
That was the bigger picture.
Starlight was all that was available to guide Brynd around this labyrinth of streets. They turned and twisted at various angles, and Brynd recalled how when he had first explored them years ago, he had been puzzled how they backed around on themselves, always leading him in the opposite direction. A shortcut here, a hidden path there, and you found yourself arriving at unusual junctures, some new territory not only in locational terms but even within your own psychology.
But tonight was different. He knew exactly where he was headed.
There was a permanent ethereal sheen to the stone from which the city was built, and to travellers it would look like some ghost construction, nothing real. He might have been walking in a dream.
He eventually found the right door, knocked, waited. It was answered by Papus herself, the leader of the Order of the Dawnir, clothed totally in grey, with only her face visible beneath her hood, which she held down as she stepped out into the moonlight. Under her chin, her medallion was just visible, though its symbol of an upright palm held no meaning for him.
'I received your message,' she whispered, her words turning to mist in the chilly air.
'Do you think you can help?' A sense of urgency had crept into his voice. Shifting weight from foot to foot in the cold, he rubbed his hands together impatiently.
'Possibly.' She glanced into the darkness behind, closed the door and stepped out into the alleyway.
They continued through the night, stepping over mounds of litter left at the rear of clustered housing, and it took them an hour to make their way to Caveside.
The city docks were used daily by the fishermen who pushed out their kayaks or larger vessels in constant relays, day and night. Each hunted different species of fish from the contiguous seas, sometimes beyond. Their catch fed the city, and despite the closure of the gates, the docks would remain open, now the only free route in and out of the city. Soldiers were stationed everywhere to prevent the smuggling in of refugees on boats. City guards, recognizing their commander, greeted him accordingly. Through a tunnel of houses to his left he could see starlight glistening above the water.
Papus herself had been quiet, preferring silence to conversation, and Brynd was fine with this. He had a lot to be thinking about anyway. They'd worked together before, and Brynd had already told her of his next mission, of his requirements.
Most cultists desired little involvement with Empire business. They were a complete mystery at times, had their own agendas full of hidden intelligence, and the balance of power could shift between their orders overnight, leaving a whole new arrangement to be negotiated. He knew less about their relics, of course, since they used their own methods to keep them secret. They had done so for thousands of years, and some of these orders were as old as Villjamur itself.
He led Papus to one of the large granite buildings at the far end of the harbour, a featureless structure with no windows at the front. He knocked on the door, which was answered by a female soldier from the Second Dragoons. She saluted him.
'Are they here?'
'Aye, commander. Downstairs.'
She stood to one side as the two of them stepped inside. This was one of the military gaols, and they entered a room about fifty paces long lit by four lanterns. Metal bars lined one entire side, behind which waited the figures he had ordered to be brought in.
'Here they are,' Brynd gestured. 'Draugr.'
'Draugr are just myths.' Papus stepped closer.
The imprisoned figures were difficult to see in the dim light, all huddled together against the rear wall.
'We've found them here on Jokull, wandering around aimlessly, though another group attacked my unit earlier – and I noticed one at Daluk Point, though I'd no idea what it was then.' He came and stood next to her, resting one hand on a bar. On the floor was a puddle of black liquid, which he assumed to have seeped from one's wounds. 'One of my men described them as draugr, and he's quite an expert on such things. Anyway, it seems these things were already dead when they attacked us on that occasion, but this lot seem fairly harmless.'
Papus didn't react, merely eyed the group for some time before she said, 'Bring one closer to me. I hardly believe such myths survive on Jokull.'
Brynd called out, and three uniformed women unlocked the gate and, with caution, ushered one of the creatures out. The thing stood motionless as Papus examined it closely, trying to deduce answers. Brynd followed her gaze as she moved the lantern up, down, sideways, skimming light across different parts of the naked torso. This one would once have been a woman, her body now exceptionally anaemic; her skin was stretched taut around bone, so the ribs extruded as if she were a famine victim. Yet beyond minor visual signs of putrefaction, she was still alive.
'Can you tell me anything?' Brynd said.
'Well, this one certainly appears dead.' Papus replaced the lantern on the wall. 'Yes. Quite dead,' she repeated.
The three soldiers returned the draugr to its cell, then returned upstairs out of earshot.
'I don't think it's actually a draugr,' Papus said, 'not in the true sense, at least.'
'No?' Brynd folded his arms expectantly.
'No, I think these have been brought back to life by other means.'
'But how?' Brynd asked. 'And by whom?' He watched Papus, and could see the confusion registering on her face. It struck him then that she was clueless. For someone of such advanced knowledge, that was alarming.
'I don't know how exactly, but I've my suspicions about who is responsible.'
'Dartun Sur, of the Order of the Equinox.'
Brynd was surprised at the answer, a cultist so close to Villjamur. 'He keeps a very low profile normally, doesn't he?'
'He does, yes, but this is very much like something he'd be capable of. I've heard rumours of him being able to preserve life; though that sort of thing isn't common knowledge, not even in our cultist circles.'
Pretentious cow. You're only human, like the rest of us. Brynd said, 'Well, your circles aren't our circles, Papus, so please enlighten me.'
Papus appeared to ignore his sarcasm. She was probably too concerned with feeling as unknowledgeable on the subject as he was. 'Well, this isn't right if these creatures are being used to… kill.'
'And once they start killing, the bastards are difficult to stop,' Brynd muttered. 'The ones who attacked us had to be chopped in pieces, and burned, just to be sure. If it's really your friend Dartun, then he's breeding them to kill.'
'You think we're all friends?' Papus asked. 'You should know better, commander. Anyway, I suspect he's up to something serious at the moment.'
'Something I should know about?'
'No, this is strictly a cultist issue, so it can be solved by us alone, commander.'
Brynd's tone became more menacing. 'I know you sects have had your fights and bickering in the past, but so far you've always kept it to yourselves – that's fine. Now, you're affecting the rest of us, and you're endangering the lives of Empire soldiers. And Bohr knows what you're doing to ordinary citizens out in the country.'
'I'm not doing anything,' Papus snapped. 'There's some other trickery being misused, involving some ancient relic no doubt. But I now thank you for making me aware of it.' She turned away.
'What, you're just going?' Brynd said, surprised at how annoyed she was getting.
'And what did you honestly expect me to do, commander?' she said, frowning. 'I've told you, this is some ritual I have no experience of.'
'Can't you help us at all?' Brynd said. 'I've got to leave the city shortly, and I'll be out of Villjamur for some time. I'd prefer to know that something was being done meanwhile to investigate this matter, because I've no idea if we'll come across any more of these things. This lot may seem pretty docile, but they can transform into savage killers. They're not to be taken lightly.' He grasped one of the bars as he gazed at the draugr again. 'There are too many strange things happening these days. It's as if this ice brings with it a certain madness.'
'I'll do what I can, Commander Lathraea, but not for your sake, or even the city's. This business has much larger implications, if Dartun really has gained access to the elements of life and death. There are things that could change the world as we know it. Think on it, commander. If people can be brought back to life in such quantities, think of the implications.' Papus drew her cloak around her and walked silently up the stairs.
Given all the hysteria of a new Empress arriving in Villjamur, Eir had hoped for a better night of celebrations. It was now days after her father's funeral, but this final evening of celebrations had been talked about and anticipated so highly by everyone from councillors to servants. People in the city had been looking for anything to hang their good mood on given the assault of ice, and Rika's new position had certainly offered them that.
But as the evening's festivities died away, Eir found herself seated at a table being lectured on how the general behaviour of ladies in Villjamur had diminished of late. Lord Dubek was a cousin's stepfather, a gruff old man dressed in the same dreary blue garments he always wore. Though nearing fifty, he was rumoured to have a keen eye for younger women. As his vision drifted across her exposed shoulders, she pulled up her green velvet gown and glowered at him.
'Thing is,' he said, swilling a cup of red wine, 'we live in an age with little war. Your generation is ruined by that. You've all grown up without hardly ever seeing real fear in your parents' eyes…' He brushed down his moustache, and leaned in a little closer.
As she looked across the hall for more interesting company, her vision settled on Randur Estevu, her instructor. He had nestled himself in among a group of ladies of Balmacara, regaling them with some improbable anecdote, no doubt. Amid the ripples of female laughter, he stood, and it was easy to see how familiar he was with them, touching their arms, nodding in earnest at whatever they said to him. A lingering look, kisses on the hand, smiles as choreographed as his dance.
She wasn't quite sure what to make of him.
That man possessed more than an air of mystery, especially since he often went sloping off into the city late at night, Caveside of all places, and what could he possibly want there? Yet he was a good instructor of both swordsmanship and dancing, and Eir realized she had learned a lot from him, even though she would hate to admit it.
The gaggle of ladies dispersed, leaving Randur alone with one other, the Lady Iora, a woman twice his age. Eir frowned at this. Although Lady Iora was an attractive woman, there was no longer any spring in her step. A bad narrative raced just behind those sad eyes. It was well known that Lady Iora was a recent widow, her husband having been found dead beneath a naked, if somewhat mortified, servant girl back in Villiren. It was a matter of heart, they said, or rather its failure, and despite the irony, Lady Iora had then sold her husband's estate, having decided to settle in one of those fine old apartments on one of Villjamur's higher levels before the Freeze took a grip.
Eir watched with growing suspicion as Randur clasped the ageing beauty's hands in his own.
He leaned towards her as if telling her rare and private things. She nodded and they both stood up to make for a discreet exit.
On a sudden instinct Eir decided to follow.
Having grabbed a black cloak, Jamur Eir stood in the shadows outside Randur's room. Only moments ago she had witnessed Lady Iora, in dishevelled clothing, walk off down the corridor.
Eir didn't know why she was still waiting here, as though expecting something else – and why was she not asleep, like everyone else in Balmacara? Why was she, a princess of the blood, hovering outside some island boy's chamber? She didn't even like him that much. Sure, he was good to look at, in some vaguely feminine way, but his arrogance diminished any real attraction: the way he'd strut – not walk, but strut – around the halls like he owned the place, like he deserved to live here.
Maybe she was interested in his life, because, after all, Eir had spent her entire childhood being protected, housed in this place with guards to ensure no one might hurt her. This was all well and good, but it was certainly tedious at times. She remembered when she and Rika used to occupy themselves playing games along these corridors, while their parents would argue. She had seen very little of the far-flung regions her family governed. Dragged around, heavily protected by her teachers, to look at boring old buildings, there was little chance to meet men, and those she did encounter always seemed too petrified to talk to her.
But this Randur was someone who was finally interesting. The fact that she'd heard through servants' gossip that he went to the caves made him more so. What was it he got up to? For some unaccountable reason she wanted to find this out, but it looked like nothing was going to happen tonight.
No sooner had she thought that, when the door opened. Randur stepped out.
She pursued him down the corridor, her careful footsteps whispering over the tiles. Guards queried her route, but she lied to each of them, stating a Night Guard soldier was to meet her shortly. For a place that pretended to be so secure, it seemed remarkably easy to slip away.
It took Randur half an hour to reach the Garuda's Head. The door was open, as it nearly always was, throwing a square of light on the street outside. There was little noise from within, but Denlin sat at a table with a fat man, several cards laid out before them under the glow of lanterns. Denlin noticed Randur's entrance, but remained focused on his game.
A crowd stood around them, whispering amid urgent laughter.
The fat man he played with, dressed in a scruffy brown tunic, held his head in his hands. There were beads of sweat across his forehead as he stared at the cards with his mouth slightly open, as if a knife had been shoved in his stomach.
'What's it to be?' Denlin said to the fat man.
His opponent poked one thick finger at a card in the middle. Denlin flipped it over to a gasp from the crowd. An image of a dragon on the upturned card meant Denlin was the victor.
The fat man simply gazed at the card for some time as those watching gave an almost embarrassed laugh that suggested they'd seen this guy lose a lot of money before, that this might even be his weekly routine before he disappeared penniless into the deep night. He clutched the table, shook his head.
Denlin held out his hands to collect his coins. 'A pleasure.' He gathered up the cards, left the table.
'You're late this evening,' Denlin said to Randur, as they walked to the bar.
'Yes. She fell asleep on me. Twice.'
'Not during, I hope?'
'Well, spare me the tales, lad. Been a long time since I dipped me wick, like. My drought's moved into its second year.' Then, to the landlord, 'Two lagers.'
Randur glanced around, noticed a stranger standing at one end of the bar, a hood pulled over his face.
'So,' Denlin said between sips, 'what you got this time?'
Randur handed over two gold rings, each set with a precious stone. 'Either of these any good?'
Denlin put the items under the light, tilted them this way and that. His face screwed up into wrinkles, highlighting his age. 'Not bad at all, lad. Who's this lot from?'
'A Lady Iora,' Randur replied. 'Recently widowed, and damn wealthy as a result.'
The hooded stranger gasped, then looked down at a tankard.
Denlin glanced quickly over to the figure, then at Randur. 'You gonna tell me who your mate is?'
'I'm sorry?' Randur said.
'Your pal who came in here with you.' Denlin indicated the hooded newcomer.
'I came alone,' Randur said. Then, to the stranger, 'Mate, does our business interest you?'
The figure made to leave, then Denlin grabbed one arm. The stranger gave a high-pitched squeal.
'Den, stop that.' With a shocked realization, Randur walked over, pulled aside the hood. 'Lady Eir, for fuck's sake, what are you doing here? How the hell did you get out of Bal-macara?'
Her eyes widened with uncertainty, then all she could do was stare at the floor. Her hair was dishevelled. No make-up, no jewellery, nothing that might indicate her position, but down here they only knew her as a title, not a face.
Randur drew her hood back up, then took her outside, Denlin following.
'Eir,' he hissed, 'what're you doing here?'
She spun around in the dark street, and suddenly she was as passive-aggressive as usual.
'Actually, Randur Estevu, I think it's you who should be answering that question. I've just witnessed you admit to stealing, and from a lady of the court, what's more. You've stolen within Balmacara, so I should have you executed. You're nothing but a common thief. I should've known better.'
'She's got a point there, lad,' Denlin concurred from the doorway of the tavern.
Randur looked back at the old man. Fortunately there was no one else within earshot in the dirty backstreet. 'Thank you for that, Denlin.'
Randur looked to Eir, sighed. He took some time to think of a suitable answer, then shrugged. 'You're right, I've stolen. Maybe I can explain. Though I reckon I should be getting you back to Balmacara before the sun rises. It's not safe here.'
'I think a common thief is the last person who should be responsible for my safety, don't you think?' She folded her arms, glared at him.
Randur took a deep breath. Be careful what you say, Rand. You've blagged your way into the city, and now your mouth might get you kicked right back out again.
Denlin stepped forward, stood in between them. 'This, uhm, who I think it is? Jamur Eir?'
Eir stared at Randur, unspoken questions in her gaze, waiting for reassurance.
'Go on,' Randur prompted.
'Yes, yes, it is,' Eir said. 'And who are you?'
'Friend of the lad, here, that's all.'
'A thief too?' Eir said.
'Ha! No. Though some might call me that, especially in there.' Denlin gestured vaguely towards the tavern, then scratched his head, ruffling his already messy grey hair. 'No, I'm an odd-job man, like. I do a bit of this, a bit of that. You need something, I'll find it – for a price of course. At your service, my lady.' He took a bow.
Randur couldn't decide if he was being sarcastic or not. 'Den, you think you could leave us alone for a bit?'
'Anything you have to say,' Eir snapped, 'you can say here, in the open.'
Randur looked between them, sighed. 'I don't know about you two, but I want a drink.' He went back into the Garuda's Head.
Denlin scratched his crotch, followed, muttering, 'At last, some sense.'
'What, you're going to just leave me out here alone?' Eir protested.
Randur turned in the doorway. 'You want answers, step into my office.'
'I'm a thief, yes,' Randur admitted, then took a swig of his lager, staring at Eir across the table. She clasped a cup of watered wine from which she took occasional sips, making a face as if she'd sucked at a lump of salt. 'But, I'm stealing with good reason.'
'Doesn't every thief?' Eir said.
'She's got a point, lad,' Denlin said, then belched.
'Thank you, Denlin.' Randur glared at him. Back to Eir, he continued, 'I'm stealing because I need the money to…' He paused for a moment. He might as well tell everything. 'To save my mother from dying.'
Eir's expression softened.
Denlin whistled. 'Nasty.'
'What's tunthux?' Eir enquired.
'The slow death, they call it,' Denlin volunteered. 'Can take a few years for someone to die from it. At the end they say you bleed from every orifice, blood pouring from your arse-hole-'
'Thank you, Denlin!' Randur interrupted. 'We don't need to hear all that.' Then, to Eir, 'My mother is dying and I came to Villjamur to find a cure, from a cultist. I need to raise money, you see, since a cultist won't do it for nothing. And that's why I'm taking things – jewellery, gemstones – from certain women I give… satisfaction to. As you yourself explained, Eir, I can't exactly take stuff from Balmacara, so…'
'So you seduce vulnerable ladies of the court for their wealth,' Eir sneered. 'How honourable of you.'
'I give them plenty in return. I give them excitement and attention, albeit for a short while. They certainly aren't getting it from anyone else, so is that so bad? That I satisfy them? And besides, who would say a thing if it was a young woman accepting the odd trinket from her older male lover.'
'That's different,' Eir protested, rather uncertainly.
'Is it really?' Randur said. He gripped his tankard, took a sip of lager. 'Is it really so different for a man to expect payment?'
'Whoring,' Denlin offered. 'That's what that is. At least common whores is more honest about taking money, like. And I've known some lovely ones in my time…'
'Thank you, Denlin.' Randur wondered if the old man would ever shut up. 'All I'm doing is giving some emotional and physical attention to certain neglected ladies who need it, and taking an unofficial fee in the unspoken market. The jewellery I take is in order to save my mother's life. If you're going to get all moral over this, I still reckon I've got the higher ground – so there you have it. I'm working to get my mother's life back, but I'm still a little short in coin.'
'How much do you need?' Eir said suddenly.
Randur tried to read her expression and said, 'Four hundred Jamuns.'
As he took a sip she said, 'I can get that for you.'
Randur nearly spat the drink on the table. 'Really? You can?' He wanted to be a gentleman, to refuse her kindness, but despite his inherent politeness, despite his pride, he couldn't refuse something like that – because his mother's life depended upon it.
For a normally proud man, he wasn't feeling much pride right now.
'Yes,' Eir said, 'that is, if what you say really is true.'
'You think I'd lie about a thing like that? If that's what you think, you can keep your fucking money.' Randur stood to leave, shuffled along the table. A few customers turned to watch. 'Fuck you looking at?'
Eir rose with him. 'Randur, don't. I'm sorry, I didn't mean that.'
He looked at her for a moment, then sat back down. He wasn't sure he'd really have walked out, but it was one of those gestures, a little drama in a situation that required it. And it was time for him to show a lack of trust – why was she willing to give him so much money, to help him so blatantly? It made him highly suspicious. For someone so solipsistic, he rarely believed in himself.
'I'm sorry. I don't understand though. Why do you blame yourself for her illness?'
'Because I was more busy having fun than being there for her – being there for my own mother. I was too young and selfish to notice.'
'You mustn't blame yourself…' Eir began.
'Well, I do. I have to save her. That's why I'm here, in this miserable city.'
Her brow furrowed. 'So, does that mean you're actually not my genuine sword and dance instructor?'
'No, I'm not the genuine Randur Estevu.' He then explained how he'd been able to enter the city.
'And your real name?' Eir said.
'Can't be much worse than the one you're using,' Denlin suggested.
'I'd rather remain known as Randur Estevu, for the time being anyway.'
'Fine. And you will at least continue teaching me dance until the Snow Ball is over?'
'If I'm not hanged for theft, meanwhile, sure,' he said. 'Although I'll need to leave soon afterwards – once I get whatever the cultist gives me – and then get back to my mother.'
Randur wasn't sure what to feel at this moment. Jamur Eir was sitting here, in a dingy tavern in the roughest area of the city. It was not only bizarre enough that she had followed him all this way, but also was now going to give him all the money he needed to pay Dartun Sur. He had assumed it would take much longer to get the funds, so what did he feel now – gratitude, relief?
'Why're you being so kind to me?' Randur demanded.
'I think what you're doing here is quite brave – especially since you're doing it all for your mother. I in particular can appreciate the importance of a mother in someone's life… And if it means you don't have to service every rich widow in the city, then I'd feel – then that's good.'
Randur tried not to show his sudden confusion at her words. He would never understand the female mind. 'I truly appreciate it, I really do.'
'One condition,' she said.
'What's that, then?'
'That I can come with you back to Folke. I want to see some of the Empire. I've been sheltered too long. My sword instructor would certainly seem an acceptable guardian in the eyes of those in Balmacara.'
A smile on his face. 'You have a deal. Now hadn't we better get back?'
Eir nodded a yes.
Denlin seemed to have fallen asleep. The old man's head had tipped back, his mouth slightly open.
'Den!' Randur banged the table.
'Whassa… Oh, must've drifted off.' He slapped his own face to rouse himself. 'What's happened then? You two all patched up and in love?'
'We're friends again,' Randur said, standing up. 'We're off now. Looks like the sun's nearly up.'
'Aye. So, I guess you won't be coming down these parts again, if the lady's paying your debt.'
Was he really sleeping all that time? 'No, I guess not as much as before.' Randur felt a little awkward. Despite Denlin being crude and obnoxious, they had a bond, had spent a good few nights drinking and laughing together. 'Thanks for everything. We've had some good times down here.'
'Aye, well, don't be a stranger, will you.' Denlin offered his hand. 'Always welcome at my place, too. Enjoyed those card games we had there, without the riff-raff.'
The two men shook, but Randur noticed how the old man had discreetly returned the rings that belonged to Lady Iora into his hand.
Randur shook his head. 'Cheers, Denlin. I'll be back down here sometime soon – only, just for drinks this time.'
'Well, you'll find me here, doing a bit of this, a bit of that.' Denlin glanced to Eir. 'Look after the lad.'
'He'll need more help than I can offer.' Eir stood up quickly, walked out of the tavern.
As Randur reached the door, he looked back and tossed one of the rings back to him. 'Buy yourself something smarter to wear.'
'And waste good lager? You've a lot to learn, Randur.' Denlin peered down into the bottom of his tankard.
A smile was all Randur could offer. Anything else would've been too awkward.
Randur and Eir stepped out into a bright Caveside morning.
People newly woken were venturing out into the streets, where boys were drawing carts of dubious-looking vegetables to the market. The sign outside the blacksmiths said 'No Jobs'. Two officers of the watch were talking to a man sleeping in a doorway, demanding if he had nowhere else to live, and would he mind moving on.
It really is another world down here, Randur thought, turning to Eir. 'Are people going to worry if you're not back in Balmacara soon?'
'Why do you ask?' She regarded him with those big eyes. He thought for a moment that they might trap a man who wasn't in control of himself. There was a vulnerability in her expression, he realized, something that made him want more from her. You have to be savvy to avoid situations like that. Trouble was, he didn't think he was much able to deal with it.
'I want you to see something. I really think you need to see it.'
'Well, this is home. Ain't a palace, mind, but I like to think there are those who'd kill for a spot like this.' Denlin stood back proudly as Eir gazed around his home. He hastily cleared away a couple of cups, as if the gesture would improve the appearance of the place.
The room was tiny, probably just a quarter of the size of her own sleeping chambers. Two lanterns illuminated the room in a dreary shade of brown. Simple wooden furniture, one small table with several chairs and Jorsalir ornaments scattered here and there. Religious paintings on the wall, in frames that had seen better days. The walls were crumbling, and even the incense burning in an adjacent room could not disguise a smell of dampness in the air.
Outside in the streets a banshee began her keening, and everyone turned to face the window instinctively to confirm it wasn't themselves.
'There goes another one,' Denlin complained, 'and there'll be more as these temperatures plummet further – especially down this street, where a lot of oldies like me live.' Denlin quickly moved aside some wooden plates. 'Damn sister of mine, but I suppose she does have her hands full.'
At that moment a bundle of noise came piling down the narrow stairway. 'Uncle Denny!' three young girls shrilled in unison, as they pawed at his cloak. Dressed in identical white night dresses, they paused to stare at Eir with uncertainty, before turning their attention to Randur. 'Randy!'
'Hello, you lot.' Randur picked up the youngest, a blonde angel with dark smudges all over her face. 'So how're Denlin's little golems?'
'Oi, we're not golems,' the child griped. 'Denny, tell him we're not golems.' She began to pull at locks of Randur's long black hair.
'Indeed you are all golems,' Denlin said, his face creasing with delight. 'But, girls, I want you to be on your best behaviour now because we've a very special visitor.' He tilted his head towards Eir.
'Oh no,' Eir objected. 'Don't be wary on my behalf. Pretend I'm not here.'
The girls all stared at Eir with renewed awe.
'Lovely to meet you all,' Eir said, self-consciously. 'Have you all just woken up?'
'Well, yes,' the tallest said. 'Actually we've been up for ages, thanks to Opri's fidgeting. She even woke our mam up with her kickin'.'
Eir looked to Denlin in disbelief. 'They all sleep in the same bed?'
'Aye, lady,' he replied. 'It's a small house, like. Big compared to most down here, and there's only room for one bed. I'm out most of the night, you see, while they sleep, earning some coin. Then when I come back in the morning, the bed's all nice and warm for me. And when they all wake me up again in the evening, the bed's all nice and warm for them.'
Eir said nothing to that. Denlin allowed the girls to go out and play in the streets, but only as long as they fetched some water back from the well.
It was then that Eir turned to Randur, her face showing distress. Coming here, seeing how people actually lived in her city, might do her the world of good, he reckoned. The girl needed some enlightening.
'I'd offer you some tea,' Denlin apologized, 'but I ran out last week. And as for food, well… we haven't got too much in just now, you see. The lad here has been my main employer, so to speak, in recent weeks.'
'Oh, no, I'm quite all right,' Eir said. 'Really. I never realized quite how… well, it's very tough for you, isn't it?' She took a seat at the table, resting her elbows on the grimy wood.
'Aye, miss.' Denlin subsided onto the wooden chair opposite her. 'Times is tough, and not many jobs down this side of the city. I mean, you got your traders and smiths. You got your leather workers, bakers, craftsmen, that sort of thing naturally. You got a lot of gambling going on – dogfights, mainly – and some stranger things happening in the really old caves. You get cultists there – just the rubbish, solitary ones. Ones that's addicted to their relics like it's a drug. They make a fair living by tricking people, like. People'll buy anything with their last coin if they think it might help them. But I ain't sure how long it'll all last when the Freeze sets in. Meanwhile, people find odd jobs, and wealth trickles about. There's usually something that needs doing, like, even if it's not really legal.'
He gazed silently across the table for a moment, his fingers prodding at the wood delicately as if searching blindly for solutions.
Denlin then continued. 'Some people get desperate, head right down through the caves to the old mining systems. Sometimes they disappear for days. Older men, mainly, remembering the old tunnels. They come back covered in blackness, but clutching a bit of precious metal, a gemstone found here and there.' He grinned. 'Bit of a metaphor, that. In times like these you find people quickly forget coin as a currency. They start bartering, trading things for favours. There's a lot of whores in that respect – women and men too. This anarchist group is gaining some big interest in trying to stop that sort of thing, aye, and they've got the support of a lot of women who want proper equality.' He absent-mindedly placed his hand on a copy of the pamphlet Commonweal. 'People's starting to feel like slaves to those what gives us jobs, like. I shouldn't be saying this, lady, but if you want to know what the real world is like then… Well, it's all nice and fancy up there, but you can be blinded by all those sparkling trinkets no doubt.' Again there was silence, and Randur was surprised by its intensity. Denlin continued. 'Anyway, trade used to come in from the docks – so you'd get the odd exotic treasure from Randur's island, and from your Blortath, Tineag'l, Y'iren. Most things pass through Villiren, to be honest. There's still the odd religious trinket from Southfjords and Jorsalir priests come pushing some text. There's a lot that rely only on their faith in those two gods to get 'em through the night. Then there's the gangs, humans fighting against young rumels for no reason other than the right to trade something exclusively. Some nights the banshees don't stop keening. Other nights you hear nothing at all, and have to wonder if that's worse.'
Eir was focusing intently on every word.
'But it's not all bad! Here am I painting you such a nasty picture of your fair city. No, you get the nice things, too. For instance, there's a much better spirit of community this side. You get a lot of communal dances on street corners. Drums beat, fires are lit, and then people make pretty shadows, laughing over a bit of drink and food. There's not much else to do, you see.'
Randur glanced at him suddenly. 'When does that happen next?'
'They pretty much occur when people make them happen. I'll let you know about the next one, soon as I hear word of it.'
'Yeah, us two can come back and join in,' Randur said. 'They've got a fancy dance up in Balmacara soon, you see. We could do with getting some practice amongst others.'
'Oh, it won't be as grand as your fancy ones up there,' Denlin grinned. 'No polished floors or big feasts. No fancy music.'
'Never mind,' Randur said, thinking this sounded better all the time. 'I'm sure the Lady Eir would like to see how dance should be performed properly.'
Glancing up to Randur, she smiled her reply. Then she faced Denlin once again. 'Thank you for your insight.'
'Pleasure, miss,' he said.
She reached beneath her cloak, brought out a gold Sota, placed it on the table.
'My lady…' Denlin muttered.
Randur had never seen the old man so short of words.
'… I can't accept such generosity. I…'
Eir said firmly, 'For the girls.'
Another one of those icy mornings on which no one wise really wanted to venture outside. But Investigator Rumex Jeryd wasn't one of those intending to stay sensibly in the warm. For once he would have given a lot to go out, rather than be slumped here at his desk. It might have been warm, but paperwork was dull. And unfortunately the arch-inquisitor was visiting later in the afternoon to follow up the Council murders, and Jeryd hadn't progressed a great deal on the case. Not only that, but there was need for an investigation into a surge of organized crime against the refugees camped outside the city gates. Groups of men, and some women, stalked the evenings, launching weapons from the higher walls of the city to rain murder on those they feared would threaten their survival. Apparently some of those were beaten up by the supposed anarchist group from Caveside. All official attempts at dissuasion were ignored, because it was the nature of mankind that these anti-refugee groups wouldn't be persuaded by logic alone.
Jeryd was expecting a visit this morning from Investigator Fulcrom, a relatively young, well-groomed, brown-skinned rumel who, Jeryd suspected over the years, was a homosexual. He could never admit it, but Jeryd thought he could hear it in the gaps of his sentences. Jeryd considered him a damn good member of the Inquisition. Fulcrom had solved the North Caveside Rapist case. He had discovered who organized a raid on the Treasury. He had stopped a vicious child molester as he was about to strike again.
Fulcrom and Jeryd had now been chosen to address the refugee crisis in more detail, but because of his existing workload Jeryd had passed on the bulk of the actual planning to Fulcrom.
Besides, Jeryd wanted to have more time to spend with Marysa. Things kept getting better between them, and he was maybe even starting to really enjoy life. He was not uxorious, but who would have thought that simply holding hands and kissing, as the snow fell about them in a garden of glass flowers, could be so enjoyable?
But she still had the occasional feeling that someone was following her through the icy streets after dark. He imagined that whenever she whirled round, her long coat flowing around her, all she would hear would be boots scuffing the cobbles as they departed in haste. Or maybe a sharp inhalation of breath from some dark corner. He had not told anyone else in the Inquisition about this yet; he felt embarrassed to do so.
Jeryd pulled a key from his pocket, slid open a panel on the wall, drew out a small chest, unlocked it. Inside was the Ovinist letter that he had discovered in the broken statue. He knew only that this was the banished cult somehow at work, but the actual contents he could only guess at. Maybe this was something for Fulcrom's acute mind to work on, and as the thought came to mind the young rumel entered Jeryd's chamber.
'Sele of Jamur, Investigator Fulcrom.' Jeryd stood up to shake his colleague's hand. 'Cold morning?'
'I'd say,' Fulcrom replied. A cool confidence about his movements as he shook off his damp cloak, hung it on a hook on the wall.
Jeryd threw a couple more logs on the fire, stoked it to entice some more heat. A cloud of smoke wafted straight back into his face like a cultist trick, and he stumbled back to his desk, coughing.
Fulcrom was one of those rumels that looked almost human in his features: soft skin, prominent cheekbones, a friendly look in his eye that told you he was pleased to see you. He possessed a likeable and trustworthy manner that made people open up to him. Jeryd considered the other rumel undoubtedly handsome, and Fulcrom always wore the smartest grey tunic under his crimson Inquisition cloak. Despite the slush outside, even his boots were much cleaner than Jeryd's.
'Please.' Jeryd indicated a cushioned chair over by the window.
Fulcrom made himself comfortable, gazing out to see what he could observe of the street below.
'Anything interesting happening?' Jeryd asked.
'Just the usual problems – people being smuggled into the city, and a couple of brutal murders Caveside. As for the refugee situation, I've got a list of names that involves some pretty senior people.'
'How senior?' Jeryd glanced back to the fire.
'If I said it went all the way to the top, would you be surprised?' Fulcrom shifted in his seat.
'The Council?' Jeryd said.
'I wouldn't be surprised at all,' Jeryd said, trusting his years of experience. 'What exactly do you know?'
'I think there's someone at work in the Council who wants these refugees completely removed. Someone who thinks they're too much of a stain on Villjamur. Coin's moving between someone close inside to some of the gangs Caveside. Don't know who it is, but… Well, you get the idea.'
Jeryd made a steeple of his hands as he considered his colleague's words.
'Any thoughts?' Fulcrom said.
Jeryd leaned in, and whispered, 'I bet you that Urtica himself is behind all this somehow.'
'It goes that high? What makes you say so?'
Jeryd went to retrieve the scroll he had found in the image of the dead Emperor. As the younger rumel scanned the document, Jeryd explained, 'Found that inside a hollow bust of Johynn in the office of that murdered councillor, Ghuda. I know it's an Ovinist text, but I can't work out what the hell it means.'
Fulcrom raised an eyebrow. 'Looks like an old runic text, if you ask me. Ancient stuff – judging by the forms of the letters I'd say a thousand years old, at least.'
'Can you interpret it, though?' Jeryd said. He walked around the desk to stand before the fire. 'I've been trying on and off for days, but nothing comes to mind.'
'No,' Fulcrom admitted. 'But I think I know someone who can?'
'What, the one living in Balmacara? Do they even allow access? I know his existence isn't common knowledge in the city.'
'Well, you're a member of the Inquisition, so I'm sure they'll allow it.'
Jeryd shrugged. 'These days, who knows.'
Fulcrom handed the scroll back to Jeryd, who placed it safely away once again.
'So,' Fulcrom said. 'You suspect Urtica's behind it? That's a bold claim to be making.'
'I know,' Jeryd said, 'and I've not got any hard evidence. There were rumours a while back that he was involved with the cult. And he reacts evasively to questioning, though I wouldn't think he's behind the murders. He seemed genuinely shocked at the horrors located in Boll's chambers. You want my opinion, he doesn't have the stomach to be a killer, at least not at first hand. He's more your manipulator, behind-the-scenes kind of guy. The only thing I can assume is that he might have been up to something with Boll and Ghuda. Well, after what happened to them, he must be shitting himself now.'
'So, how exactly d'you think he's involved?'
'I've no real idea. The Council murders are the most bizarre I've ever come across. You know what the only clue is, if you can even call it that?'
Fulcrom shook his head.
'Yeah. I found a smear of paint in Boll's chambers, amidst all that blood. Then I remembered I found paint by Ghuda's body, too.'
Fulcrom appeared to be processing this fact carefully. 'So, some sort of artist or craftsman involved? You sure it's not a cultist?'
'Seriously doubt it, because they live by their own rules. Plus why such spectacular, unsubtle deaths? That's not their style at all. They're more stealthy in their methods.'
'Maybe the murderer decided to paint an image of his victims? As a keepsake perhaps… I don't know, I'm just throwing things your way.'
'The paint could mean anything,' Jeryd said gloomily. 'All I can do now is check every jobbing artist in Villjamur.'
Jeryd was suddenly struck by inspiration. 'Damn!'
'What?' Fulcrom said. 'I can tell you've thought of something.'
'Damn,' Jeryd repeated, and sat back in his chair. He laughed, his tail thrashing from side to side. 'How stupid of me. All the time I've been telling myself it wasn't her.'
'Who?' Fulcrom sat straighter.
'The prostitute that Ghuda spent his last night with, she had paintings all over her place. I think I should pay her another visit. Maybe I'll send Tryst along to keep an eye on her. I just thought it was too obvious, and therefore it didn't seem right. Only thing is, if she is involved, why?'
'Who knows why anyone does anything,' Fulcrom said. 'Many of our actions are a lot stranger than they need be. Especially humans, led so easily by their emotions.'
Jeryd felt uncomfortable, recalling how susceptible to emotions he himself was.
'This way, investigator,' the guard gestured.
Jeryd followed his lead, all the time mulling over his thoughts, the red and grey military uniform at the periphery of his vision. Ten minutes later, he found himself descending into a cold stone corridor that seemed to have no end. Eventually they arrived at a large wooden door. The guard knocked, and it opened.
A Dawnir stood looking down at Jeryd, who gazed back in awe.
'An investigator here to see you,' the guard announced, then marched away.
Jeryd stared dumbly up at the creature, at the tusks, at the sheer height of him.
'Ah, a rumel!' the Dawnir said, very slowly as if he had just rediscovered speech. 'I haven't seen one of you for so long! Please, please, step this way.' His voice was thunderous, unexpected.
'Thank you.' Jeryd flashed his medallion with its ancient symbol of a triangular crucible, as proof of office. 'Investigator Rumex Jeryd, and I take it you're Jurro?'
'For what a name is worth, that is correct,' the Dawnir replied.
Jeryd watched the creature with fascination. Twice the size of a human, covered thickly in hair, it was an intimidating sight. 'I fear I didn't think you really existed, they were so keen to keep folk away from you.'
'Really? How intriguing. You know, I was beginning to think I didn't exist either. They keep me locked up here… well, not really locked up, but where am I to go? It isn't safe for me to venture into the city so they say. Apparently it is the priests, mainly, who don't want me around. That's why so few people know I'm actually here. They are worried that my presence might offend their little religion. But some of your people leave me little offerings outside my door, and I trip over them when I go to relieve myself. But there is hope yet, for I am to accompany a few soldiers on a trip north. I might enjoy that, because you know, it's not much of a life here.'
He indicated the rows of books with his massive arm.
'I don't know, though. Maybe sitting around reading all day is better than seeing what I might do.'
Jeryd tried some small talk. He already liked the Dawnir, despite his apparent tendency to perorate. 'Must have a lot of knowledge, all these books.'
'Yes, but they don't offer answers to the real questions of the world. Our world is so old, the sun so red. Philosophers have speculated things should surely end at some point, and I would agree, if only to confirm the air of melancholy that everyone seems to possess. So, rumel, what is it you seek?'
'Your wisdom, Jurro.' Jeryd reached under his robes to bring out the scroll, then handed it to the Dawnir, who stood towering over the rumel, as he examined it held between forefinger and thumb.
Jeryd said, 'This is confidential information, I hardly need to tell you.'
'Why would it be confidential, since you obviously can't read it.'
'Yes, true.' Jeryd grunted a laugh. 'Anyway, it's between us, if you can translate it for me. They say you're an Ancient.'
'Ancient in body only, I fear. I have no memory before my days here in the city.'
'Does that mean you can't read it?' Jeryd said, feeling disappointed.
'I didn't say that,' the creature thundered, possibly frowning under heavy-set brows, Jeryd couldn't be sure. 'No, I have all my books, and I have studied many ancient languages in the hope of tracing my past. I learn new words all the time. Even yesterday I discovered our word for the Jorsalir has deep origins.'
Jurro gazed for some time at the scroll, then brought a candle closer to it. Jeryd flinched, thinking that his only real piece of evidence might be about to go up in flames.
'Yes, I think I can interpret this for you,' the Dawnir said eventually. 'Would you like some ink and paper to take it down?'
The creature searched for several moments under stray piles of books until he found a blank piece of parchment and a quill. 'Here you are.'
Jeryd sat down at a table, ready to write.
'It reads: "We have the facilities and the capabilities. We could probably remove five thousand in a few days, then bury the dead at sea. This can be done secretly and with ease. I can confirm there are enough underground passages to facilitate your plans for cleansing. I refer to the old escape tunnels, so the very age of our beloved city suggests she would permit the removal of such a blot on her surface." Then the rest of the writing seems to be smudged, blurred with damp perhaps.'
Jurro ceased reading, looked up at Jeryd. 'Have I given you news you didn't wish for, investigator?'
Jeryd inhaled deeply, considering what he had just heard. He rolled up the parchment with his notes on and placed it under his robes. 'Jurro, you did just fine. Many thanks for your trouble.'
Five thousand dead? Jeryd thought. What the hell's going on? Is this really something planned to happen in the city? And even so, why would the Council want to kill five thousand?
'Where did you obtain this document?' The creature handed the scroll back to Jeryd.
'Somewhere too high up for my liking,' Jeryd said.
'You rumel, tell me, you live longer than humans, yes?'
'Three or four times as long. Why?'
'And that's why there are so few humans in the Inquisition?' The Dawnir fingered a tusk idly.
'The older an investigator, the better, because we can remember cases from a long time back. We're wise to the ways of the city. That's what we tell ourselves, anyway, but the legend has it that this custom was from the original treaty when we jointly founded the city – to keep the two species happy. There's not many of us rumel in the Council, so it's a nice concession to have us overseeing the law.'
'I thought as much, but it is nice for it to be confirmed. I'm a sponge for facts.'
'Maybe you need to get out a bit more.'
'I plan to.'
'Tryst.' Investigator Jeryd leaned into his subordinate's office – a small, stone room with no windows. A lantern stood on the desk at which the young human sat.
Tryst looked up from the documents he was working on. 'Jeryd, please, come in.' Tryst stood up, motioned for Jeryd to enter the room.
The rumel stepped in, then he looked behind the door before shutting it firmly. He glanced at the plate of fried locusts to one side. Always eating, still as slender as a Salix tree, damn him. 'Working on anything special?'
'Just going over financial accounts from one of the smaller Council treasuries. I'm looking out for any movements of monies that could be of interest.' Upon seeing Jeryd's expression, he then added, 'You look as if you've something on your mind.'
Jeryd keenly wanted to discuss what the Dawnir had revealed, but not just yet. Aide Tryst wasn't quite senior enough to be entrusted with something so… profound. And besides, Jeryd had his reservations about the man's character. 'I wonder if you could do me a favour, as I had some new ideas about the murder of those councillors. I think we were right at the beginning – in suspecting the prostitute – though I haven't got anything solid yet.' Jeryd related his latest thoughts.
Tryst leaned back in his chair, the lantern light casting a savage shadow across his face. 'Sounds worth looking into, but what did you have in mind?'
'I want her shadowed,' Jeryd explained. 'Maybe you could observe her for a few days.'
'Are you too busy yourself then?'
He's shrewd, this one, Jeryd thought, his tail twitching in irritation. 'Yes, I am. I'm seeking out a motive, so I want to spend the next few days examining Council activities.'
'OK,' Tryst said. 'I'll start later today.'
All through the afternoon Jeryd scrutinized his notes, tried to work out how everything added up. Perhaps a little self-indulgently he had seated himself in the corner of a favourite bistro, ordered a sweet pastry and a beaker of hot juniper tea. What he was doing was too sensitive to be pursued within the Inquisition chambers.
He was getting really paranoid.
What did it all mean? Why would one of the esteemed Council be planning the death of so many people? Was that why Ghuda and Boll were killed? Did someone find out what they were up to? And, above all, who was the coded message from? At least, he had Tryst watching the prostitute. Hopefully the young human would find out something useful.
The bistro was fairly quiet. Across the stone-flagged room sat an old couple dressed in matching smart brown tunics, like they used to make down Foulta Gata when the cotton boom was in full swing, a classic Villjamur stitch. They were sitting drinking tea, each reading a book, perfectly comfortable in each other's silent presence, and every time the man finished a chapter he would look up and smile at his partner. A few weeks back, Jeryd would have found the pair simply depressing, but now he warmed to such a display of affection.
This was a time of day when the city would pause. The morning throng had had its moment, the bustle had gone, and in the bistros you mostly found only those who chose to drink alone to ruminate. Even the serving girl looked a little distant, either anxious to go home or taking a moment to relax before it became busy again.
Jeryd contemplated his next move on the Council, how he would spy on them, digging deep in order to find out who was working on what. He would send a message, to each councillor in private, warning how their lives might be at risk unless they opened up. He folded up his notes, threw some coins on the table and turned to leave, eyeing the old couple as the man brought his loved one's hand to his lips.
What a city, Jeryd thought. What a place to live, despite the extremes of existence here. The epic and the everyday, they're just two aspects of city life.
All in Villjamur.
Night-time, and none of the city bridges were visible, let alone the spires they led to. Thick, immovable, a fog had rolled in from the coast, and Aide Tryst walked cautiously along the snowy cobbled streets, one hand shoved deep in his robe pocket, the other clutching half a roll-up of arum weed, his feet tingling with the cold. The snow had been relentless the last few evenings. Where it had been cleared by seawater, you had to pick your route with caution. Each day there were stories of people breaking arms and legs. Despite the threat, children walked along the same streets waiting to meet their snowball destiny.
Lamps offered faint orbs of light at regular intervals, which prevented him from getting completely lost.
And it certainly makes trailing someone fucking difficult, he thought ruefully.
Few people about, though he could hear the keening of a banshee, somewhere in the distance. It sounded as if it originated from somewhere further down in the levels of the city, maybe in one of the many underground passageways or derelict buildings – at least he hoped it was nowhere close by. He swore he heard a sword being drawn from its scabbard, and Tryst cursed that he was having to be out so late. He took a final drag on the arum weed before dropping it into the slush.
So, Jeryd isn't only content with confining me to the lowest ranks of the Inquisition, he also sends me out in the freezing fucking cold, so that I can watch a whore.
At least he now knew more about his superior's vulnerabilities. Tryst was intrigued by something that Chancellor Urtica had said in one of the Ovinist meetings: that no matter how stalwart a man pretended to be, it was usually his heart that let him down – and, more importantly, let him be brought down. Many a great man was destroyed in some way by the affections of a lover. On hearing this, Tryst decided Urtica was one of the wisest men that ever lived.
To rattle his boss, Tryst could simply kill Marysa. But that seemed too brutal and, besides, he didn't really wish something so catastrophic on the rumel. A degree of respect was something that remained between the two of them: their relationship was complex and adversarial, but couldn't be severed entirely. There were no black and whites here, where the textures of their lives crossed, linking positively whenever they shared a joke or discussed a certain case they were working on, and it wasn't a simple matter of hurting him too badly, but just enough, just a little lesson, a firm mental slap. No, he wanted to disturb Jeryd rather than destroy him, and then still have him solve the murder of the councillors. That was something dear to Urtica's heart, and therefore dear to his own.
Tryst stepped into a wide piazza, near where the prostitute lived by Cartanu Gata and the Gata Sentimental. The sound of laughter from a doorway, the clink-clink of glasses, shoes sliding on stone. Where he now stood you could hear a symphony of these subtle sounds of the night, seemingly coming from everywhere. Someone coughed behind him, but there was no one solid there, only a long shadow darting across the stone. There was no wind here, the buildings being high and crammed together, so the smells of incense and fried food reached him invitingly, with little obstruction. Ahead of him through the fog was the bold glow of one of the bistros. He remembered the prostitute saying how she hung around these places a lot. Perhaps she was there now. As good a place to start looking as any. Tryst walked towards the light, heard the soft rhythm of lute and drum.
The bistro was filled, mainly with hooded customers who preferred their own company by the looks of them, and Tryst thought he'd blend in nicely. He took a seat near the edge of the room, far away from the stage at the end of the long stone chamber. Through the heady smoke, serving girls sashayed to and fro between tables, in the dim light of candles and the torchlight that lit up the stage.
Up there, on the stage itself, a cultist was making several golems dance to the music provided by a drummer and a lute player. The cultist, clasping a relic in his hands, commanded the statues, one by one, to make their way to the centre of the stage, where they would gyrate fluidly, while the audience gasped and applauded in between flashes of purple light. To finish the set, he then made one of the statues spread out its wings and fly in a circle over the heads of the crowd, before it once again transformed into stone.
A girl came to Tryst's table to take his order of Black Heart rum and shark's liver paste on coarse bread. When she fetched the bottle he asked her to leave it. If he had to spy on a prostitute during an ice age, he might as well stay warm while he was doing so.
A fat woman came on stage next to read some bad poetry about the dying earth, and though she had no decent cadence to her delivery, no one there seemed to care. The lute player came on again after, and remained for some time, preoccupying himself with minor chords and relaxing sevenths.
Tryst kept an eye on all the customers that came and went from the bistro, deciding eventually that indeed most of the clientele were men. The females were largely staff, and Tryst pitied them for the looks they were getting. Some of these men were old enough to be their grandfathers, but their frail hands grabbed whatever flesh they could reach, as if these youthful bodies would be the last thing they would ever hold. Everywhere in this city now it seemed such desperation was manifest.
His thoughts inevitably drifted from Inquisition business to his commitment to the Ovinists, and to Chancellor Urtica in particular. His mentor was an inspiring man: charming, bright, his dedication to Villjamur unquestionable. It was hard not to want to get involved with anything he was linked to. Like so many young men, Tryst was infused with a burning desire to succeed, to achieve. Life was stretched out ahead of him, a freshly ploughed field waiting only for his potential, and Chancellor Urtica could help him harvest it.
As the lute player paused for a sip of lager, the sound of murmurs and whispers drew Tryst's attention to the door. The prostitute, Tuya, was walking in from the fog, a silky grace to her stride, a look of deep remoteness in her eyes.
Tryst took another sip of rum as he watched her glide between the tables. She was wearing a carmine cloak, not unlike the colour distinguishing the city guard, but carefully tailored to cling to her voluptuous curves. A lock of red hair curled down across her stubbornly beautiful face, whose other half – the half with the scar – was covered by a headscarf. She approached a table near the front of the stage, typical of someone wanting all the attention she could get. As she took off her cloak, revealing a green dress that seemed to contradict most of the city's current fashions, more than a little of the conversation in the room fell silent. Her skin shimmered in the dull lighting, and smoke drifted away from her somehow, as if allowing everyone there to get a better look.
She sat alone at that table for around a quarter of an hour, the serving girls bringing her drinks simultaneously from two different admirers. She accepted them with grace, but didn't acknowledge whoever had bought them for her.
Men passed close by, but she barely gave them a glance. After a while, she rolled herself something to smoke, probably arum weed, lit the end of the roll-up in a candle flame, then leaned back and exhaled the smoke. Her eyes remained fixed on the lute player, still singing moodily on top of his morose chords.
It was going to be a dull night for Tryst if all she did was sit and smoke and drink. He'd just have to wait until she left and then follow her home. One way he could get inside would be if he propositioned her as a customer, but then she would recognize him. Although maybe that wasn't a bad thing, as he could use their brief acquaintance to become intimate with her. If she would only let him into her world. Then he could take a closer look at her paintings, and perhaps they might reveal some clues.
Since his training as an Inquisition torturer, Tryst possessed a secret stash of subtle powder, sannindi, that he could use to his advantage. Essentially a truth powder, supposedly it could only be obtained through official Inquisition channels, but it still found its way into the hands of illicit dealers as 'love potion'. Just a little sprinkle of it into food or drink, and people became remarkably amenable. Jeryd certainly wouldn't approve of him using it, but Tryst didn't care. He reached into an inside pocket, pulled out the paper wrap. The red powder was inside, not enough to make her pass out, but it would alter her mind enough to make her very helpful with his enquiries.
He picked up his glass and the bottle of Black Heart rum, and headed across the smoky room to her table. 'Looks like you've got no company either. Mind if I join you?'
She looked up at him, then stubbed out her roll-up of arum weed. 'Well, well, it's the human Inquisition officer. Your life's obviously as dull as mine in that you find yourself in this low-down joint. And I had you for a worthier sort.'
She indicated the chair next to her. 'So what brings you here? How's your friend, Jeryd?'
'He's fine.' Tryst sat down and began pouring each of them another drink. He offered her some more arum weed, pre-rolled.
She took one, saying, 'Thanks. It's a nasty habit. So has he got back with his wife yet?'
'Yes, they're together again.' Tryst set the bottle on the table. She seemed genuinely happy at the news. Strange, he contemplated, living through other people's happiness.
'That's nice to see true love lasting, not just strangers shacking up with anyone convenient to hide from the ice.' She pulled out another roll-up from her pocket, lit it in the candle flame. 'So, are you here to spy on me?'
Tryst chuckled, glancing up at the stage. 'If only.' He locked eye contact with her, then released it. 'No, I'm just killing an evening on my own. You know how it is.'
'Another night in Villjamur,' she sighed, exhaling smoke. 'I suppose being in this city does that to you. So many people everywhere and none of them cares for you. Not one bit.'
'A little morose.'
'The city, or what I said?'
Tryst liked that. She was certainly entrancing, despite the melancholy, maybe even because of it. 'I'm going to get us another bottle.' He motioned for a serving girl to come over. The girl gave that typical waitress nod-and-smile, then turned to leave. Tryst said, 'What do you think of that one? Pretty or not?'
As Tuya studied the girl as she walked away, he covertly reached out and sprinkled some of the sannindi powder into her drink.
She shrugged. 'All right, I suppose, but you could do a lot better.'
'Well, I'm usually pretty picky, so it must be the Freeze, like you said.' He raised his glass. 'Here's to shacking up with anyone.'
She laughed dryly, joining him in the toast.
Half an hour later they were back in Tuya's room. It had taken them some time to climb the intervening levels as the streets were so icy. She was already drowsy, because of the effects of the sannindi. Her place was dark as they entered, so Tryst lit a lantern, and as soon as it came to life, he could see the copious amounts of ornaments and antiques crammed into every available space. With so little else in her life, she had to fill it with something, he guessed.
She was now getting amorous as a side-effect of the drug, but he didn't take advantage. After all, she was now under suspicion of murdering two of the most senior administrators in the city.
One of the doors to the balcony was fractionally open. Because of the noxious smell of paints in the room, he assumed she left it open to let in some fresh air. He walked over to shut out the eternal winter. The landscape had been reduced to a few lights. Everyone was where they should be, in bed, or somewhere warm. Then faintly, he heard some chatter from the streets, two blades clashing, a cough of laughter. Probably a couple of youths testing each other's ability with a sword.
Tuya slumped onto the bed clutching her head in her hands. She glanced repeatedly up at Tryst, then began to loosen her clothing. While she was occupied, he decided to examine the room to see if he could find anything. Uncertain where to start, he moved over to the covered canvases stacked in one corner of the room. Paint, after all, was the only clue Jeryd had found.
Besides several large canvases there were a couple on easels and a dozen much smaller items of art on the side. All were concealed beneath heavy cloth, so he uncovered the first to reveal a large image of an animal that he couldn't identify. Whatever it was, it had several limbs beyond necessary. Its shape suggested something primitive; it generated a distinct feeling of unease.
'Would… would you like to spend the night?' Tuya asked tremulously.
She had closed her eyes, was lying on her side on the bed, wearing only a corset. Tryst could see the hideous scar on her face clearly now. He ignored her, and scrutinized the paintings further.
'You're a handsome one,' she snickered. 'I'd like it if you did. Come on. You know you want to. You men are all the same.'
'Maybe,' Tryst said. 'Just a moment.'
She sat up suddenly. 'What're you doing? Don't look at those.' She pushed herself off the bed, stumbled forwards into his arms, her bare feet sliding on the tiles. She was surprisingly heavy, as he eased her back on the bed. 'Don't look at them,' she repeated.
'Why not?' Tryst said soothingly. 'I think you're a wonderful artist. I want to see your real talents.'
'Really? You're not just saying that?' She sounded confused again. He knew the drug would affect her for a little while longer.
'No, I'm not just saying it,' he said. 'I want to see more.'
'But…' she trailed off.
He could sense her frustration now as she battled with the effects of the sannindi powder. She wanted to order him away from the paintings – the need so clear in her eyes – but she also seemed to desire to please him, to offer him anything she could.
Either way, he didn't care.
'I want to look at your paintings,' he insisted.
She began to take off her corset.
'No,' he commanded, and grasped her hands softly at the wrist. She looked genuinely confused, then gave him a smile tinged with venom.
It said she hated him, without saying anything at all.
'You're a beautiful woman, Tuya,' he said, to reassure her. The last thing he wanted now was to create a scene. 'But I don't think we should, because you don't really want to.'
He pushed her away slightly so that she fell on the bed. She sighed and closed her eyes and just lay there, with her corset still intact.
Tryst walked back to the canvases, this time unveiling another.
What magic is this?
He lurched back in shock. A blue shape appeared to be emerging from the canvas, pumping up and down as if it were someone's breathing chest. No form to speak of. Tryst stared at it for some time. He wanted to question Tuya about it, but thought better of that.
With caution, he revealed another, this time a sketch of the city as seen from her window. Nothing remarkable there. With his eyes fixed on the pulsating blue form, he pulled back the cloth on a fourth painting.
He took several steps away in disgust, holding his hand to his mouth.
Tuya still lay on the bed, staring up at the ceiling. His face creased in horror, Tryst examined the image before him: a hacked-open carcass that seemed altogether too real. A heart – or something resembling one – beat inside it, and streaks of red paint, possibly even blood, had dried while dripping down the canvas. Whatever was in place of a face stared back at him with one unblinking eye. He looked around the room and picked up an empty candlestick and prodded the thing. It squelched away from where he applied gentle pressure.
What the hell is this? Tryst wondered. Is it alive?
'What you… doing now?' Tuya said suddenly behind him. She was grasping a knife, pointing it at him threateningly. 'Get away from them!' she hissed.
The drug was obviously wearing off, fast.
Tryst stood with hands raised, palming the air gently. Trying to disguise his panic, he said, 'Hey, I'm only looking at what you paint… It's truly… remarkable.'
'Just get over by the bed.' She sliced the air as if to reinforce her words. She looked vaguely ridiculous waving a blade around while wearing only a corset.
He did as she ordered. There was a knife concealed in his boot, but he did not want to use it yet. Manipulating her mind would be a much more powerful weapon, if he could get inside her. It was what torturers were trained to do, seeking to work a little beneath the surface.
'I don't mean any harm, Tuya,' he said, noting the slight drowsiness still in her eyes.
She looked at him uncertainly, and he could perceive that she didn't quite know what to do next. She held the knife too close to her, so she wouldn't strike him with it yet.
From her behaviour, these monstrous paintings suggested something deeply personal.
'Tell me about your art,' he said. He glanced to and from her creations, noticed they were still throbbing dully. She turned towards them, and he acted quickly. With the same candlestick, he leaned forward and struck her across her head, and Tuya stumbled, but remained upright, so he hit her twice more, with sharp and clinical blows.
She fell with a groan to the floor.
That was not what he had wanted, but she had forced it, hadn't she, so it had to be done. He placed the candlestick down, then began to rummage through her bedside drawer. He picked out a couple of belts, then tightly bound her hands and feet. There'd be no more of this delicate tiptoeing around the issue. There was some serious shit going on here, and he was going to find out what the hell she was up to.
He left the room silently, taking one last glimpse at the horrors on the canvases.
An hour later, he was in possession of more sannindi from his contact on Sigr Gata, enough this time for a prolonged session with Tuya.
Those paintings caused him distress and he wanted answers.
When he got back, there she was, sprawled face down on the floor wearing her corset, just as he'd left her. Tryst slung his damp outer cloak on a chair, lifted her back up against the bed, then ran his palm across her scalp to feel the bruises. They weren't too bad, and she groaned in his arms like a lover seeking comfort – ironic, and he knew it. Tilting her head back further, he tipped a larger dose of sannindi down her throat.
While he waited for her to wake up, he stood in front of the paintings, shaking. He couldn't get used to the horror of these depictions, despite his years spent in the Inquisition torture chambers. This was a different horror, however, some artificial life force pulsating impossibly before him. With one finger extended, he poked it several times. His immediate thought was that this must be some cultist evil, manipulating the arts of the Dawnir. Why did she have such monstrosities in her room? How did she sleep at night with these things hidden only by a cloth? Was it her who had painted something that could come alive? Or did she purchase them from a cultist?
There was coughing behind him, obviously some of the powder having caught in her throat. He stepped towards her. 'How're you feeling?' he asked.
She looked up at him through the hair covering her face. 'I feel terrible,' she croaked.
'Good,' Tryst said. 'Now I want you to tell me the truth.'
She brushed a thick tress of hair back behind her ear.
'First of all, your name?'
'I… honestly, I don't know,' she replied.
'OK, Tuya Daluud. I'd like you to explain those paintings to me. Tell me, why do they appear to be alive?'
'They are alive.'
'Ask a stupid question…' Tryst murmured. 'Well then, how've you done it?' He knelt down before her face to face, in an almost threatening manner – their pose a corruption of a lover's kiss.
'Many years ago I formed a relationship with a cultist. To keep things short, he provided me with special materials. A couple of relics. He showed me some techniques that would breathe extra life into my art.'
'Why would a cultist care about that?' he sneered.
She made full eye contact. 'Because he was in love with me.'
'Ah, yes,' Tryst said. 'He paid for your body, and you called it love – is that right?'
'It wasn't like that at all. He only paid me the first time…'
'I'm sure it wasn't really the first,' he said, hoping his sarcasm would provoke her.
'Why are you being like this to me? I've done nothing to hurt you.'
'True,' he said, and slowly untied her. 'Now, let's have a little tour of your gallery, shall we?'
She explained it all, each painting, from conception to creation.
Behind the ones that Tryst saw first lay even greater horrors, and he would never forget them. What he had at first found disgusting he later deemed cruel, since her creations did genuinely appear to be alive, but not in any way he was familiar with. For an hour he was shown the intricacies of her paintings, the body shapes that appeared to step out of them. Most of her creations were now set free, somewhere across the Archipelago, on journeys of their own. One image intrigued him particularly: a clay sculpture of a reclining dog. It moved its head around when she neared it, as if it fed off her presence. The creature was totally black, except for eyes possessing a fragile emotion. How could anything so unreal have a life? It broke all known laws, all religious teachings, every philosophy he'd known.
'I've one more question,' Tryst said, as the clock tower rang out the thirteen chimes of midnight. 'Why do you make these things?'
She turned to a lantern resting on a chest of drawers, stared at it as if it was a beacon of hope. 'I think, deep down, it's because I can. You don't know how rewarding it feels to have your creations come to life. No one does, so I can't begin to explain. That way your art takes on a life of its own. I remember when I was much younger, people criticizing my paintings for being lifeless. Now I can make anything come out of these canvases, and they behave according to my wishes – even if they die shortly after. And I do it because… well, because I'm lonely. This is a big city, but I feel like a stranger in it. My family died years ago. I've spent all my life here, so where else would I go? There's nothing for me in one of the far-off villages of some backwater island, and I wouldn't fancy my chances out there in the Freeze anyway. No, I'm trapped here, a permanent stranger. Perhaps it makes my job easier. When men have finished with me, they go back home to their wives, their families, and I know they wouldn't want me to walk up to them in the street and say hello. So every time I make love to a stranger, it makes me a little more distant, a little more solitary. A little more scarred.'
Tryst brushed her sadness to one side. 'It's possible, then, for you to create a living creature simply to murder someone?'
She was silent for some time before answering, frozen in posture, so he could not tell what she was thinking. 'Yes, of course. And I suppose you'd want to know why I did it.'
Tryst waited for her to go on.
She continued, 'Ghuda talked a lot over the pillow. It's like a confessional, and you'd be surprised to know just how many secrets are whispered to a woman like me. He may have been a little drunk, of course, but he started ranting about the refugees, and how they should be eliminated, that they disturbed the central plans of the Council. He claimed they were parasitic scum who deserved to die before they could leach the Treasury dry. So much disease among them, too, threatened the survival of the city, so he and Councillor Boll were working on certain plans to bring about their removal, and there were others involved, too. It wasn't difficult to work out what he meant and I couldn't let him continue, Tryst. I just couldn't let them destroy the lives of so many.'
Tryst was concerned that she might know Urtica's secrets, of his own involvement in them. 'There were other ways to act, you know. You should have informed the Inquisition.'
'You think I'm stupid? You think you lot would have been able to do anything? Solely on the word of a prostitute?'
That means Urtica is safe. Tryst felt a surge of relief. 'It doesn't mean you can just kill whoever you want, contrary to the ancient laws of this city.'
'You're going to arrest me, I presume?' she said, her gaze focused on the floor tiles.
He considered this point for a moment, but he had another idea. This woman might have some definite use for him. And afterwards, he would turn her in, of course. Meanwhile, he had a way in which he could make Jeryd suffer, nothing too serious, just a little mental fun – a little revenge for blocking his promotion. And then he could feel justice had been done, an eye for an eye.
Tryst regarded her canvases once again. 'You say you can paint anything, and then make it come to life?'
'I can try,' she said nervously. 'What d'you have in mind? Are you not going to arrest me then?'
'I'll tell you what,' Tryst said. 'You seem like a sensible sort of woman, so I'll let you keep your freedom if you can do me a favour.'
'What… what sort of favour?'
'I don't want sex, Tuya, it's your art I'm concerned with.'
'I want you to paint a woman for me. Can you make her stay alive for just a very short period of time?'
'I've not created a human for what seems like… forever.'
'Not a human, more a rumel. If you can't, I will have you placed in the city gaol pending execution.'
'What do you want her for?'
'Firstly, you must control her so that she does only what I say – just for the short time she's alive. And I want you to make her exactly how I describe.'
'I don't have a choice, do I?'
'Not really, no. And you will not say a word of this to anyone, not if you wish to go on living.'
'So, what do you want this woman to look like?'
Tryst proceeded to describe Jeryd's wife.
She could turn stone into lava, seawater into ice sculptures, could make plants grow rapidly to the height of a building. She could create devices to flood the land with fire, and just as quickly quench it.
But she could not find Dartun Sur, Godhi of the Order of the Equinox.
Papus sat in the darkness and silence of her stone-built chambers, her fingers steepled, brooding over the situation whilst staring at the floor.
She hadn't disclosed her full concerns to the red-eyed commander regarding what Dartun had been up to. He was clearly the one responsible for raising the dead. The real questions were how many of these walking dead were there, and what were the consequences?
Papus had known about Dartun for most of her life, because ever since she joined the Order of the Dawnir, rumours had persisted about his lifestyle, his abuse of Dawnir technology. She herself was the most skilled of all at using relics – or that was what she honestly believed, up until Verain's visit. For years she had climbed through the ranks, watched others around her misuse the technology and die in accidents – her own great love, with whom she had hoped to abscond, included. It was all about maintaining image, being a cultist, and her whole family had belonged from time immemorial to the same, ancient order, the oldest of the cultist sects, a line stretching back generations. Most of her remaining kin were now in retirement on Ysla, well isolated from the rest of the Empire. But she was still here in Villjamur, still driven and still working and still competing.
Still Papus loved her work. What made her feel alive was the thrill that she might discover something completely unknown on any day, that she might then understand the universe better than anyone, that she might occasionally assist the advance of civilization in some small way.
And all the time, in the background, Dartun was quietly making a mockery of her.
People whispered about the Equinox. They gave cultists a bad reputation. There were questions regarding their ethics. But, knowing how Dartun liked to perpetuate his own myth, she had ignored the tittle-tattle up to a point.
Now he had gone too far.
He'd tampered with the fabric of life, and it was now a public affair. If he was indeed raising the dead, he had to be stopped soon. If what the girl, Verain, had claimed was true, then he was messing with basic universal configurations. There were codes of behaviour as old as the city, amongst the cultists, insisting that they should consult each other on controversial matters.
If Dartun's order wouldn't respond to her demands that he divulge any activities to do with raising the dead, then it would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
There hadn't been strife between cultists for thousands of years, ever since the original disagreements that had spliced them into their separate orders.
Things were suddenly looking complicated.
She sighed. This was not like in her youth, all those years ago on Ysla. The cultists' isle had been unlike any other island in the Archipelago in geological, botanical, or entomological terms. Its climate was warmer, for a start. But then it had been augmented so much by the various cultists inhabiting it using their relics that it no longer much resembled the island the original Dawnir had created. Lush green meadows, ridges of igneous rocks, crescents of beautiful white beaches, deciduous trees budding and shedding in rhythm with the artificial seasons. And those open blue skies always visible from the hilltops. All the cultist orders were entitled to have use of land there. Their different divisions possessed lodges scattered around, or gathered in village complexes, where their members were able to interpret relics in comparative solitude.
It now seemed a world away.
Her mind drifted back to Dartun, and then she made her decision. His tampering with the forces of life and death was simply wrong, and his reckless opening of doors to new worlds posed a risk to all these islands lying under the light of the red sun. Clearly, it was her responsibility to bring him to justice.
Through the dark alleyways, where the city's snow-scrapers hadn't yet ventured with their shovels, she marched with the letter she had resolutely composed. No lanterns around these parts of the city, but it was a clear evening, and the twin moons illuminated the treacherous snow clearly. Glowing paths stretched in front of her. Although not particularly late, there was no one else visible, few footprints. There were obviously better places to be than out in the cold. One hand was buried in her pocket, wrapped around her ultimatum. She had to present it in person, alone, but several steps behind her were other members of her order, armed with sterkr relics. She was not quixotic about this business. She wanted some protection, but did not want her arrival to seem intimidating. Not yet.
Papus reached the inconspicuous entrance, knocked several times before a hatch slid back aside and a frosty welcome was muttered.
'I want to see Dartun Sur, as a matter of urgency,' she demanded.
'Not gonna happen without an invitation,' came the response.
'If you don't let me see him urgently, it will mean a massive rift between our orders,' she said, and slipped the missive through the bars.
'Hang on,' the voice murmured, then whoever was behind the door was no longer there. Papus waited in the cold, reflecting that Dartun was probably on some far-off island as Verain had suggested.
Eventually, the door opened, and one of the Equinox stood facing her.
'He's not here,' he said, her letter visible in his hands.
'Where is he then?'
In the poor light of the doorway she barely perceived his shrug.
'I want some bloody answers. Maybe you can help me instead.'
'Listen, lady, I don't know what you're after. I told you, I'll give him your message when he returns.'
'You're not following,' Papus snapped, discreetly dropping a relic from her sleeve into her hand. 'I'm not going anywhere until someone senior from your order talks to me.'
'I just told you…' he began menacingly.
Papus thrust the relic towards him, a bolt of purple light crackling around his body, an electrifying net.
His mouth opened wide, displaying a scream, but no sound came out. After a moment he collapsed onto the floor in soundless agony.
The letter of warning drifted down beside him as she leaned over his body and pulled the door behind him. Then she slid the ultimatum underneath it, as bolts of energy continued to skim around the rival cultist. By now, members of her own order exited the deep night and hooked ropes around the fallen man, and dragged him back down the snow-filled alley, all the time sparks of purple light radiating about his writhing form.
'An eye for an eye,' she said with satisfaction as, at the narrow opening of the alleyway, she crouched to deposit another device that fired a single sheet of purple light across the ground. The light disappeared to leave the snow untouched, deleting all marks of their presence there.
Snow continued to fall leisurely as if it had all the time in the world.
'Where's the big freak?' Apium said, before yawning and stretching with the grace of a tramp, astride his black horse.
'I take it you mean Jurro?' Brynd said, after considering for a moment that he himself was the freak, or maybe Kym – men who loved other men, and who'd be killed if discovered. He could never shake off the paranoia.
A unit of troops was assembling between the inner two gates of Villjamur. Brynd had ordered for twenty of the Night Guard, which included some new promotions from the best of the Dragoons, recruited after a little necessary training. There had been a night of induction, as cultists from the Order of the Dawnir used their skills to enhance the new recruits' physical capabilities, their sight, their hearing, their resilience. Brynd had forgotten just what ministrations the Night Guard had to endure in their first evening joining the elite.
Brynd had ordered up a hundred men and women of the Second Dragoons, and a hundred of the First, all of them mounted on horseback and battle-ready within half an hour. Also he was waiting for a Dawnir cultist to join them.
The horses shifted on the muddied ground. The temperature having plummeted even further recently, Brynd wore several layers of clothing, with a fur cloak draped across his shoulders. He guided his horse in front of the assembled Night Guard. Like himself, they were uncertain as to what sort of combat they were expecting. No reliable news had materialized, no first-hand reports from trustworthy sources. All the information they possessed so far were recycled rumours of grotesque beasts tearing down towns and villages, mercilessly slaughtering everything in sight. As his troops chatted idly to relieve themselves of anxiety, the sound of hooves on the cobbled streets beyond informed him that support was now arriving.
The Dragoons were arrayed in full battle splendour, rousing an inevitable sense of military pride in Brynd. They came off the cobbles onto the snow-covered mud. Beneath their furs, metal glistened in the morning light: body armour and chain mail, nothing ornamental, but simply designed for fighting with efficiency. Spears protruded over shields, swords hung at sides. Within moments they had lined up, awaiting Brynd's commands. And through the gates rode a lone cultist, clothed elegantly in black. The magician rode forward with casual arrogance, bringing his horse up alongside Brynd's.
'Sele of Jamur,' Brynd greeted this new arrival, noticing the cultist was female. She had a weathered face and sunken blue eyes as if she was prey to some addiction. Have they given me a magic junkie? he wondered.
The cultist returned the greeting. 'So, when do we leave?' Her voice was weirdly elegant.
'As soon as our friend the Dawnir arrives,' Brynd confirmed. 'Have you brought much of your technology?' Her horse was loaded with considerable baggage.
'Enough,' she replied, eyeing the gathered soldiers. 'Why aren't we sailing from the city docks?'
'Because ice sheets have already formed on Jokull's northern shores, to some extent, and navigating those waters will be difficult. It will be much quicker to sail from the east side of the island. I didn't catch your name by the way?'
'My name is Blavat, commander.'
'Well then, Blavat, it seems we are now ready to leave.' He nodded towards the gate. The Dawnir hovered there nearly having to crouch under it.
Brynd began to walk his horse forward to greet the creature.
'Commander Brynd Lathraea!' Jurro shouted across the intervening distance. Four crows sprung suddenly from the walls, and burst in a ragged flight away from the city as the Dawnir's plangent voice echoed around the confined space between the gates. 'Sele of Jamur! I have brought some clothing and some books to read on the way, but did I need anything else?'
'Sele of Jamur, Jurro. No, you'll do fine as you are.'
The giant approached, casting a great shadow over Brynd. All the assembled troops stared in amazement at the creature's size, its curious goat-like head, its tusks. By now a throng of citizens had also gathered, staring and pointing. You could hear the squeals of children as they set eyes on this curious piece of history. Few people there would've had the intelligence to recognize this apparition as the sole survivor of the Ancient race.
'Are you all set, Jurro?' Brynd enquired.
The creature paused to contemplate the question in a slow exaggerated manner. 'Yes, I am. I'm looking forward to our little adventure.'
'You realize the danger of our mission?' Brynd warned. 'This isn't a holiday. You're not obliged to-'
The Dawnir raised one massive, hairy hand to silence the commander, leaving Brynd vaguely insulted, though he knew Jurro meant no harm. 'I have longed for years to leave this city, having almost been a prisoner at the Empire's invitation for far too long. They kept me sweet with endless studies, but there is no use reading about the world from a book, when one can see it with one's own eyes.' He prodded a chunky digit under his own eye, as if Brynd didn't know what an eye was.
'Looks like we're all set then.' Brynd pulled his horse back, and trotted alongside the ranks of the soldiers. They presented a solid display of the military force that had kept the Empire intact for generations.
Orders were given for the gates to open, and the Imperial troops rode out of Villjamur. Faintly, Brynd could hear the cheers of the populace left behind, as their troops set off to engage in some far-off battle. It seemed one of those patriotic reactions that had echoed through the ages. Or perhaps the people were cheering because for the first time in ages there was a tradition to cheer about.
As soon as the outer gate was opened, the refugees crowded around the emerging battalions. Overflowing faeces from the latrines and smoke from pit fires combined to provide an intense odour, while behind them their tents stretched across the tundra like a city of cloth. Dogs ran in purposeless circles, ducking under hung-up washing that had frozen solid and didn't even move in the wind. The muddied road to the east stretched right alongside this hellish encampment. Grubby men wrapped in innumerable layers of rags pawed at the horsemen pleadingly, while the sight of a mother carrying her dead child in a sling was almost too much to bear. Brynd suspected that his guilt at ignoring them would come back to haunt his dreams. Everywhere there was hopelessness.