Tiaan could hear her foreman's fury from halfway across the manufactory. Doors were kicked open, workers cursed out of the way, stools slapped aside with his sword. 'Where the blazes is Tiaan?' he roared. 'She's really cruelled it this time.'
The urge to hide was overwhelming; also futile. She busied herself at her bench. What had she done wrong? There had never been a problem with her work before.
The door of her cubicle slammed back and Foreman Gryste stood in the opening, his chest heaving. A huge, sweaty man, he reeked of cloves and garlic. Thickets of hair sprouted between the straining buttons of his shirt.
'What's the matter with you, Tiaan?' he bellowed. 'This hedron doesn't work!' He banged a crystal down on the bench. 'And that means the controller is useless, the clanker doesn't go and more of our soldiers die!' He shook a fist the size of a melon in her face.
Letting out a yelp, she sprang out of the way. Tiaan and the foreman did not get on, but she had never seen him in such a rage before. The war must be going worse than ever. She took up the hedron, a piece of crystalline quartz the size of her fist, shaped into twenty-four facets. 'It was working perfectly when I finished with it. Do you have the controller?'
Gryste set that down gently, for it was a psycho-mechanical construction of some delicacy, a piece of precision craft work even the scrutator's watchmaker would have been proud of. The controller resembled a metal octopus, its twenty-four arms radiating from a basket of woven copper and layered glass.
Fitting the hedron into its basket, Tiaan unfurled the segmented arms. She clutched a pendant hanging at her throat and felt a little less overwhelmed. Visualising the required movement, she touched her jewelled probe to one metal arm. The arm flexed, retracted, then kicked like a frog.
'Ah,' sighed Gryste, leaning over. 'That's better.'
Tiaan moved backwards to escape the fumes. The foreman did not understand. This was not a hundredth of what the controller was supposed to do in working a battle armoped, or clanker as everyone called them. And the crystal had hardly any aura. Something was badly wrong. She visualised another movement. Again the spasmodic frog kick. Frowning, Tiaan tried a third. This time there was no reaction at all, nor could she gain any from the other arms. The aura faded to nothing.
'The hedron has gone dead.' She plucked anxiously at her pendant. A single facet sparkled in the lamplight. 'I don't understand. What have they been doing with the clanker? Trying to climb a cliff?'
'It died not fifteen leagues from Tiksi!' snapped Gryste, taking out a rusty sword and slapping it on his thigh. He took pleasure in intimidating. 'And the last two controllers you made also failed. In the battle lines.'
Her skin crawled. No controller from this manufactory had failed in twenty years. 'W-what happened?' Tiaan whispered.
'No one knows, but two precious clankers were lost and twenty soldiers are dead. Because of your sloppy work, artisan.'
Groping for her stool, Tiaan sat down. Twenty dead. She was numb from the horror of it. She never made mistakes in her work. What had gone wrong? 'I'll… have to talk to one of the clanker operators.'
'One was torn apart by a lyrinx, another drowned. Don't know what happened to the third. What the scrutator will do when he hears…'
Tiaan shivered inside. 'Do you have the other controllers?' she asked in a small voice.
'How could I?' he snarled. His tongue was stained yellow from chewing nigah, a drug the army used to combat cold and fatigue. That explained the spicy smell. Perhaps the garlic was an attempt to disguise it. 'The first clanker was taken by the enemy, the second swept down the river. This controller is from the third. We would have lost it too, had it ever reached the battlefront. Gi-Had has gone down to Tiksi to find out what went wrong. The whole manufactory is going to suffer for your incompetence.'
Gi-Had, the overseer of this manufactory, had complete power over the lives of the workers. If she let him down he could send her to labour in the pitch mine until the black dust rotted out her lungs. 'Is he… angry?'
'I've never seen him so furious!' said Gryste coldly. 'He said if the problem isn't fixed this week, you're finished! Which brings me to another matter…'
Tiaan knew what the foreman was going to say. Stolid-faced, she endured the lecture, the appeal to duty, the veiled threat.
'It is the duty of every one of us to mate, artisan. There can be no exceptions. Our country desperately needs more children. The whole world does.'
'So they can be killed in the war,' she said with a flash of bitterness.
'We did not start it, artisan. But without men to fight, without people to work and support them, without women having more children, we will certainly lose. You are clever, Tiaan, despite this failure. You must pass your talents on.'
'I know my duty, foreman,' Tiaan said, though she did not like to be reminded of it. There was a serious shortage of men at the manufactory. None of those available appealed to her and she was not inclined to share. 'I will take a partner, soon…'
How? Tiaan thought despairingly after he had gone. And who? Why had her controllers failed? Tian went through the problem from the beginning. Controllers drew power from the field, a nebulous aura of force about naturally occurring nodes. The field dominated her life. Artisans made controllers and, more importantly, tuned them so they did not resist the field but drew power smoothly from it to power clankers. If a controller went out of tune, or had to be tuned to a different kind of field artisans did that too. Their work was vital to the war.
Clankers were groaning mechanical monsters, covered in armour and propelled by eight iron legs. Hideously uncomfortable to ride in and a nightmare to the artificers who had to keep them going, they were humanity's main defence against the enemy. A clanker could carry ten soldiers and their gear, and defend them with catapult and javelard. But without power it was just dead metal, so a controller had to work perfectly, all the time.
Had she made a terrible blunder? Removing the hedron, Tiaan inspected it carefully. Dark needles of rutile formed a tangled mass inside the crystal. It seemed perfect. There were no visible flaws, nor had it been damaged, yet it had failed. She had no idea why.
There was no one to ask. The old master controller-maker, Crafter Barkus, had died last year. What notes he'd made on a lifetime's work were almost unintelligible, and the rest of his knowledge had died with him. Tiaan had learned everything he'd cared to teach her, and had made small but useful improvements to controllers, some of which had been adopted at other manufactories. However, at twenty she was too young to rise from artisan to crafter. The manufactory was sorely in need of someone with greater experience.
Through the door her fellow workers were talking among themselves, no doubt about her. Tiaan felt oppressed by their knowing looks, their unsubtle judgments and pointed jokes about not having done her duty. A twenty-year-old who had never been with a man – there had to be something wrong with her. It was not said meanly, more in puzzlement, but it hurt just the same.
There's nothing wrong with me! she thought angrily. I just haven't met the right one. And not likely to, among the misfits and halfwits here.
Two of the prentices sniggered, looked up at her cubicle then guiltily bent over their grinding wheels. Flushing, Tiaan hurried out of the workshop. She wove her way through the warren of clerks' benches, past the clusters of tiny offices, the library and the washing troughs, then between infirmary and refectory and out through the wall into the main part of the manufactory.
Out here the racket of metal being worked was deafening and everything stank of smoke and tar. She turned left toward the front gate, crossing a bleak yard paved in dolomite in which a warren of buildings had been thrown up as the need required. There were drifts of ash and dust everywhere; the sweepers could not keep up with it. Every surface was covered in a film of oily soot.
'I'm going down to the mine,' she said to Nod, gate attendant for the past thirty years.
The old fellow had a white beard so long that he could tuck the end into his belt, but not a hair on his head. He raised the iron grille. One tall gate stood open. Nod held out his hand. No one was supposed to go out without a chit from their foreman.
'Sorry, Nod,' she said. 'I forgot again.' Gryste always made a fuss so she was reluctant to ask, even though going to the mine was part of her job.
Nod looked over his shoulder then waved her on. 'I didn't see you. Good luck, Tee!' He patted her on the shoulder.
Tiaan found that rather ominous. He'd not wished her luck before. Shrugging on her overcoat, she went out into the wind. The path down to the mine was slushy, the snow on either side brown with soot from furnaces that burned night and day. At the first bend, just before the forest, she looked back.
The clanker manufactory carved an ugly scar across the hillside. From here it comprised a grimy series of scalloped walls ten spans tall, with slits high up and battlements above them. Guard towers hung over the corners, though they were seldom manned, the manufactory being hundreds of leagues from the enemy lines. From the rear a cluster of chimneys belched smoke of various hues – white, orange and greasy black.
Tiaan did not think of the place as ugly. It was just home, and work, the two concepts like joined twins. It had been home since her mother, the pre-eminent breeder in the breeding factory at Tiksi, had sold Tiaan's indenture to the manufactory at the age of six. She had been here ever since. She occasionally went to Tiksi, three or four hours' walk down a steep and stony path, but the rest of the world might not have existed.
There was no time for it. Life was regimented for war and everyone had their place in it. The work was tedious, the hours long, but crime was unheard of. No one was afraid to walk the streets at night.
To her left, another path tracked the snow under the aqueduct, then across the gash of the faultline before winding up the mountain to the tar mine. On rare hot days up there, tar oozed out of the shattered rocks and could be scraped into buckets. Mostly, though, the miners hacked solid tar from the drives or followed erratic seams of brittle pitch though the mountain. It was the worst job in the world, and few survived to old age, but someone had to do it. The furnaces of the manufactory must be fed. Its clankers were vital to the war. And the war was being lost.
Controllers were just as critical. Tiaan could imagine how the soldiers must have felt, attacked by ravening lyrinx and realising they had no protection because their clankers had stalled. She could not bear to think that it might have been her fault.
She hurried along the path to the lower mine, where the hedron crystals were found. It was twenty minutes' walk down a steep decline and Tiaan had plenty of time to fret, though she was no closer to a solution when she reached the main adit.
'Mornin', Tiaan!' Lex, the day guard, nodded at her from his cavern like a statue in a temple. His ill-fitting false teeth sat on the counter, as usual. Sometimes the miners hid them, sparking a frantic search and emotional outbursts.
'Morning, Lex. Where's Joe today, do you know?'
'Down on fif' level,' Lex mumbled. Without his teeth it was hard to make out what he was saying. 'Take six' tunnel on right an' follow to end.'
'Thanks!' Selecting a lantern from the shelf, she lit it at Lex's illegal blaze, a brazier full of fuming pitch shards, and set off. The sides of the tunnel were strewn with broken wheels off ore carts, cracked lifting buckets, tattered strands of rope and all the other equipment that accumulated in a mine as old as this one.
When Tiaan reached the lifting wheel she found it unattended. She rang the bell but it was not answered so she got into a basket, eased off the brake and wound herself down. Level one, level two, level three. The shafts ran deep and dark and old here. It had been a mine for hundreds of years before the value of the crystals was recognised. As she passed the fourth level a blast of air set the basket rocking, almost blowing out her lantern. At least the ventilation system was working. There had been bad air down here the last time she'd come. One of the miners had nearly died.
Cranking herself down to the fifth level, Tiaan stepped into the tunnel and made sure the brake was off, otherwise no one could use the lift and the attendant would have to come down on a rope to free it.
It was pleasantly warm on this level, a nice contrast to outside and to the manufactory itself. It was always cold there unless you worked near the furnaces, and then it was unpleasantly hot. However, the artisans' workshop was right up the other end of the manufactory, on the frigid south side. Tiaan had been cold for most of her life.
She trudged on. Every chunk of waste rock had to be carried up and out, so the tunnels were no bigger than necessary to gain access to the ore and the veins of crystal. Often she had to go on hands and knees, or slip through a gap sideways with the uneven edges scraping her ribs. The rock here was pink granite, impregnated with veins that writhed like blood vessels in a drunkard's eyeball. The miners came for gold, platinum, copper, tin and silver, though her old friend Joeyn delved for something much more precious – the crystals from which the magical hedrons were made. Some were as big as her fist, and it was these Joeyn especially sought. Only certain crystals could be used for making hedrons. Few other miners could tell which ones to take and which, apparently identical, to leave behind.
Wriggling around a knob of layered granite glinting with mica, Tiaan saw a light ahead. An old man sat in an egg-shaped space, his lantern, pick and hammer beside him.
'Joe!' she yelled. 'I've found you at last.'
'Didn't know I was lost,' grinned the miner, climbing to his feet with many a groan and a clicking of aged joints. Joeyn was a small, wizened, skinny man, at least seventy, with a long sharp face and skin impregnated with mine dust. He was Tiaan's only true friend. He gave her a hug that made her ribs creak.
They sat down together. Joe offered her a swig from his bottle but Tiaan knew better than to accept. Distilled from fermented turnips and parsnips, the spirit was strong enough to knock out a bear.
'Have you eaten today, Tiaan?'
'Only a crust.'
He passed her a cloth-wrapped bundle, inside which she found three baked sweet potatoes, a boiled egg, a stalk of celery and a ball of sticky rice flavoured with wild saffron and pieces of mountain date. Her mouth watered. She was usually too busy to eat.
Tiaan selected the smallest of the sweet potatoes. 'Are you sure it's all right?'
'Stand up, Tiaan. Let me look you over.'
She did so, potato in hand. Tiaan was average in height but slender. She had jet-black hair, raggedly hacked off halfway down her neck, almond-shaped eyes of a deep purple-brown, a broad, thoughtful brow and a small though full-lipped mouth. Her skin was like freshly rubbed amber, her eyes a darker shade. She had long-fingered, elegant hands, which she liked, and large feet, which she did not.
'You're thinner than when I saw you a month ago.'
'I only get paid when my controllers go into service, and…'
'But you're the hardest worker in the entire manufactory, Tiaan, and the cleverest.'
She looked down at her boots, unable to reply to the compliment. 'My last three controllers failed after they left the manufactory, Joe. Two clankers were lost, and their operators. Twenty soldiers are dead.' Her chest was heaving in agitation.
He regarded her steadily. 'Doesn't mean it's your fault.'
'They were my controllers. Of course it's my fault.'
'Then you'd better find out what's gone wrong.'
'I don't even know where to start.'
'Well, you still have to eat.'
'I only take the basic ration,' she muttered. 'I'm saving to buy out my indenture. I'll have enough in two more years.'
'But you'll stay at the manufactory after you do. It's not going to change your life. What's the hurry?'
'I want to be free! I want to choose to be at the manufactory, rather than being forced to work here because my mother signed my life away when I was six!' There was a stubborn set to her jaw, an angry light in her eye.
Tiaan was indentured until the age of twenty-five, and until then was the property of the manufactory. If she failed at her work, or for any other fit and proper reason, the overseer could sell her indenture to whomever he chose, and there was nothing Tiaan could do about it. Gi-Had was neither cruel nor vindictive, but he was a hard man. He had to be.
The only way out was for her to become crafter, effectively the master controller-maker. In that case her indenture would be cancelled and she would be part of the committee of the manufactory, a position of honour and influence. But that was just a dream. The crafter had to do much more than be good at her trade. Artisans were notoriously tricky to manage and she was not good with people.
'What's the matter with your controllers?'
'I've no idea. I've only just found out that they'd failed. They were perfect when I finished them.'
'How long since you've been paid?' he asked sternly.
'Sit down; eat your lunch!'
'It's your lunch,' she said stubbornly, wanting the food but not the charity.
'It's yours and I expect you to eat it all.'
Joeyn patted the bottle. 'This'll do me. I'm going home shortly. I've already met my quota for the day.'
'Quota of what? Illegal drink?' she asked cheekily.
'Do what you're told!' He tilted the bottle up again.
Tiaan consumed the sweet potatoes and began peeling the shell off the egg. She felt better already.
'So why the visit, Tiaan? Not that you aren't welcome any time.'
'Does there have to be a reason?'
'No, but I bet there is. And I'm wondering if it's not about my old stones.' Even if he had just mined the most perfect crystals in the world, Joeyn still referred to them as 'my old stones'.
'It is,' she said. 'The last three you gave me seemed perfect, but failed after a few weeks in their clankers.'
'They were a bit different,' he admitted over another healthy swig. 'But not unusually so.'
'Can I see where you got them from?' she asked, her mouth full of egg. Her belly felt wonderfully full.
'Back this way!' He headed off in the direction she'd come from, lantern swinging.
She followed, nibbling on the sticky rice ball. Tiaan was saving the celery stick till last, to freshen her mouth. Beyond the squeeze, Joeyn went down on hands and knees beneath a bulge of shattered granite held together with tiny white veins, and through into a cavern higher than their heads. In the lamplight Tiaan saw threads of native silver shining in the wall, and across the other side, a vein of massive crystals.
'I love it down here,' Joeyn said, patting the wall. 'The wonders of stone. Ever the same yet always different.'
'You talk as though the rock is your best friend.'
'Is this a new area?'
'The miners dug it out last year. One day they'll be back to follow these seams as far as they go.'
'Why didn't they keep going while they were here?'
'Because they found some interesting old stones and had to call me in to check them. Woe to any miner who smashes up good crystal in search of base silver or gold.'
'The bloody damn war! Is it ever going to end?'
Joe prised at a vein with the point of his pick. 'Been going for a hundred and fifty years, and the lyrinx came well before that, when the Forbidding was broken and wicked Faelamor opened the void into our world. I don't see it stopping anytime soon.'
Tiaan knew that story by heart. The twenty-seventh Great Tale, written by the chronicler Garthas, was the most important of the recent Histories, and taught to every child in the civilised world. It was based on the final part of the twenty-third Great Tale, The Tale of the Mirror, but that tale was no longer allowed to be told.
Many creatures had invaded Santhenar at the time of the Forbidding, two hundred and six years ago, though only one had thrived: the winged lyrinx. Intelligent predators with a taste for human flesh and a burning desire for their own world, they had been at war with humanity ever since.
'We're never going to defeat the lyrinx, are we, Joe?'
'I'd say not. They're too big, too smart and too damn tough. I hear that Thurkad has finally fallen.'
She had heard that too, and that there were a million refugees on the road. Thurkad was the fabulous, ancient city that had dominated the island of Meldorin, and indeed half the known world, for thousands of years. Tiksi was about as far as one could get from Thurkad and lyrinx-infested Meldorin, but the Histories had told Tiaan all about it. If such a powerful place had been overcome, what hope did they have?
Joeyn withdrew a chisel from a loop of his belt, placed it carefully in the vein and gave a gentle tap, then another. Tiaan watched him work, nibbling her celery. She felt more at home here than anywhere, but only because of him. 'How do you tell which are the right crystals?'
'Don't know! When I touch one I get a warm, flowering feeling above my eyes, like a waterlily opening in a pond.'
She wondered where he got that image from. It was too cold here for waterlilies, or even down the mountain at Tiksi. 'Were you always like that?'
'Nope! Happened about ten years ago. I'd just turned sixty-six. Got sick one night after dinner; nearly died. Turned out it was the pork. Been eating it all my life, but since then, even if I just touch a bit of bacon rind, throat swells up and I can hardly breathe. Next time I was down here, mining the silver, I touched a crystal and a flower opened inside my head. Happened every time I touched that crystal, so I took it home and kept it beside my bed.'
'I liked the feeling it gave me; sort of warm and comforting. Both my boys were killed in the war, and my wife died of grief…'
'I'm sorry. I didn't know.'
'Why would you? She's been dead thirty-one years, and the boys more than that. Such a long time ago. Life was so lonely.'
'Why didn't you take another wife? I would have thought… Well, I'm in trouble because I haven't mated…'
'Never met a woman I liked enough.'
Tiaan considered the old man thoughtfully. They had been friends from the day they'd met. 'I don't suppose you'd consider -'
'Don't be silly, Tiaan,' he said gruffly. 'Anyway, as I was saying, my crystal came along and I wasn't so lonely after all. Felt I was a bit special. One day I happened to mention it to old Crafter Barkus. He was a widower too; we used to share a jar or two some evenings. He came and looked at it. Next I knew, I wasn't a silver miner any more – I was paid twice as much to sense out crystal and send the good ones to him. Been doing it ever since.'
'I wish I knew how,' she said.
'I wish I could teach you.'
He had been tapping away with hammer and chisel while he was talking. Now he laid them aside, inserted the point of his pick into the cavity and levered carefully. A crystal wobbled. 'Want to catch that for me?'
It fell into her hands. 'You can take it, if you like,' said the miner.
'Thanks. But what if it turns out like the others? Have you found a new vein?'
'No, though there are some promising ones down on the sixth level.'
'Are you going down there next?' She looked hopeful.
'Not if I can help it.'
'Rock's rotten there. Roof used to cave in all the time, before we sealed it off. A shear zone cuts right through the best area.'
'Oh well, I dare say you'll find your old stones somewhere else.'
'Dare say I will.' Joeyn stretched and yawned. 'Time to go. Air's not as good as it should be, down this end.'
Tiaan felt drowsy, now that he'd mentioned it, and saw that the lantern flame had burned low. She followed him to the lift, stepped into the basket and allowed him to wind them to the surface.
Out in the cold and the blustery wind that blew her drowsiness away, she said goodbye.
'Bye.' Joe turned down the track to the miners' village and his lonely hut. 'Now, you call me if that crystal don't work,' he said over his shoulder. 'I'm sure I can find a better one, with a bit more time.'
'Thanks! I will.' Pulling her thin coat around her shoulders, she set off up the slushy path. Tiaan shaped the crystal and, taking great care, began to wake it into a hedron. This was done with the pendant at her throat, her personal pliance, which enabled her to see the field. Without it she would be psychically blind. The pliance was the badge, almost the soul, of every artisan; making it had proved her worthy of being one. A small hedron of yellow tiger's-eye quartz, set in swirls of laminated glass and silver metal, it hung from a white-gold chain. Tiaan had used her pliance every day for the past three years and knew its every idiosyncrasy.
A crystal had to be woken before it could draw power from the field, and not even Tiaan could describe how that was done. It was a psychic tuning of mind and matter, a talent you either had instinctively or not at all. It could be trained but not taught. And it was hazardous; it could bring on the hallucinations, and eventually the madness, of crystal fever. Prentice artisans had years of practice with the master, using the merest chips of a crystal, before they were ready to do it themselves. Yet accidents still happened, and the reckless attempted what was forbidden, often with unpleasant results.
Every crystal was different and waking this one proved unusually hard work; it seemed to resist her. She could barely sense its structure through swirling fog. Tiaan concentrated until her head hurt, and slowly something began to resolve. It was a tiny pyramid, vibrating in a blur. Others, identical, lay all around, linked into hexagons that extended to infinity. She lost herself in the pattern, drifting on a sea of regularity. Drifting…
The current was whipping her along now. A long time must have passed. Tiaan had no idea how long she had been lost inside, but she did know that some artisans never came out. However, she had learned how to wake this crystal.
Tearing herself free of its spell, she took a mental step backwards, focussing not on the regularity of the crystal but on the tendrils chaotically drifting through it. Selecting just one, she forced it to take the straight path. It resisted but she pressed harder, using the strength of her pliance, and it moved. The first was always the most difficult. First one, then dozens, then thousands of tendrils aligned and began to stream the same way. Suddenly they vanished, she was looking at the crystal from outside and its aura floated around it like the southern aurora in the night sky. It was awake and meshing beautifully with the field.
Though exhausted, she kept working. There was so much to do. By ten o'clock that night Tiaan knew that the new crystal had the same properties as the last three. Would it fail the same way? Her body felt all hot and cold, her arms twitchy. Such were the effects of working with hedrons, and they were not always benign. Artisans had been known to die at their benches, burnt black inside or their brains boiled in their heads. It was called anthracism and everyone lived in terror of it. Tiaan's head was throbbing. Time to stop.
Depressed and hungry, she blew out her lantern and trudged off through the labyrinth of the manufactory, with its hundreds of compartmentalised work spaces. Each was crammed with workers, mostly women, making the individual pieces of the clankers that were so vital to the war. Such colossal labour it was that in a year the manufactory, with its thousand workers, its tar-fired furnaces going non-stop, could turn out only twelve clankers. The enemy could destroy a clanker in a few minutes.
Tiaan's room was tiny, but at least she had one. Most of the workers slept in dormitories where privacy was unknown. She climbed into bed but could not stop thinking. The war was delicately poised; it could go either way. Or so they were told. The failure of a few clankers could lose an entire army, and that could lose the war. And everything depended on controllers and the hedrons that were the core of them, the only way a human mind could shape and focus the power of the field to control such a massive object as a clanker.
The lyrinx were more than the equal of humans, in every respect. Only clankers could make the difference. Without them, humanity was doomed… Tiaan slept badly and not for long. Her head was full of brilliant, chopped-up images – crystal dreams. She always had them after work. These ones were about dead soldiers all lying in a row, covered in sheets to conceal their horrible mutilation. Long before a weak autumnal sun skidded over the mountains to blink at the fog and furnace fume, she was back at her bench.
Hunger nipped at her belly. She kept it at bay with sips of tar-flavoured water. The manufactory grew crowded. The artisans worked in their own little building on the cold, southern side, walled away with all the other clean occupations. The workshop had double doors to keep out ash and fumes, but they could not keep out the noise. She closed her door, unable to think with the racket of metal being shaped on a hundred anvils, the shouted conversations, the roars of a score of foremen, and always in the background, the hissing of the bellows and the blast of the furnaces.
The failed hedron was still dead, not a spark left of its potential when shaped by her hands. It was as if it had been drained dry, all that psychic promise withdrawn. Now it was no more than a blank piece of quartz.
Tiaan took her mug to refill it at the barrel outside. On opening the door she was confronted by a dark, wiry man with an eagle beak of a nose. He threw out one arm as if to block her way. His hands were enormous, sinewy, though the rest of him was compact.
'Overseer Gi-Had!' She stepped back involuntarily. Though she had been expecting him, his sudden appearance came as a shock.
'Artisan Tiaan, what progress have you to report?' Gi-Had's brows squirmed over those sunken eyes like a pair of hairy grubs. He had a wooden case in his other hand.
'I -' she turned back to her bench, where the hedron lay with its spread-out controller apparatus like a disassembled birthday toy. 'I haven't found the problem yet. They worked perfectly when I delivered them.'
'Well, they don't work now and soldiers are dying.'
'I know that,' she said softly, 'but I can't tell why. I've got to talk to one of the clanker operators.'
'Ky-Ara is the only one still alive. He should be here tomorrow. He's been putting a new controller into his clanker. He's not happy!'
He wouldn't be, Tiaan thought. The bond between operator and machine was intimate. To have a controller fail on him would be like losing a brother. To then train himself to the idiosyncrasies of a different controller would be gruelling, physically, mentally and emotionally.
'What have you come up with?' Gi-Had persisted.
'There are… t-two possibilities. Either the crystals have invisible flaws or the field has somehow burnt them out…' She broke off as a third, more alarming possibility occurred to her.
'Or?' grated Gi-Had. His heavy-lidded eyes narrowed to slits. 'Or what, artisan?'
'Or the enemy has found a way to disable the hedrons,' she whispered.
'Better hope they haven't, or we'll all end up in the belly of a lyrinx.'
'I'm working as hard as I can.'
'But are you working as smart as you can?'
'I've got my orders. Now I'm passing them on to you. If you can't do the job I'll have to find someone who can, even if I have to bring them a hundred leagues. You've got a week to fix this problem, artisan.'
Opening the wooden case, he placed two controllers on her bench, next to the one she'd been working on. 'Twenty soldiers died because these failed. Another three died recovering them. A week, Tiaan.'
'And if I fail?' she said slowly.
'Have you given any thought to your other responsibility?'
She stared at him, white-faced. Tiaan could not think what he meant.
'Your responsibility to mate!' he said testily. 'Your foreman spoke to you about it yesterday.'
Was every single person going to remind her of it? 'N-not yet!' she stammered. Just the thought of it made her heart race. 'But I will soon, I promise.'
'You've been saying that for three years, artisan. I'm sorry, but the scrutator is giving me hell and I can't defend you any longer. If you can't do your job, and you won't do your duty -'
'What?' she cried.
'I might have to send you to the breeding factory.'
It reminded Tiaan that she had not seen her mother for nearly a month. She did not look forward to it, but it was another sacred obligation. Besides, after Gi-Had's threat she could hardly think straight so she might as well visit Marnie, who did not think at all.
'I'm going down to Tiksi,' she said to Nod at the gate. 'To see my mother.'
This time he did not ask for her permission chit. 'I hope you're coming back, Tee?' Nod tucked his beard into his belt anxiously, then took it out again.
Nod still held to the old view that men and women were equal, but not everyone did these days. In olden times a woman could do whatever she was capable of, the same as a man. However, the war had taken a heavy toll of humanity. The population was falling and, before anything else, fertile women were expected to breed. Tiaan's mother was a champion. In twenty-one years she had produced fifteen healthy and surprisingly talented children.
Tiaan did not want to think about that. 'I'll be back, don't worry.' She buckled her coat, pulled a cloak around her and set off on the long walk down the mountain to Tiksi, thinking about Gi-Had's words.
The scrutator of Einunar, the great province that included this land, was a shadowy figure, spymaster, head of the provincial secret marshals, adviser to and, word had it, power behind the governor. He was one of a dozen on the Council of Scrutators, which was said to run the affairs of the eastern world. No one knew how the council had come into being, or if it answered to a higher power. Certainly it knew too much ever to be disbanded. That was all she knew, and more than she cared to. No one wanted to come to the notice of the scrutator. Tiaan shivered and walked harder.
The manufactory lay in rugged Glynninar, a minor state of Einunar at the end of an eastern spur of the Great Mountains. That chain of unclimbable peaks ran from beyond Ha-Drow in the icy south, encircling Mirrilladell and Faralladell and disgorging glaciers to the points of the compass, then on to the tip of the fiord-bound peninsula of Einunar, a length of eight hundred leagues. Northward, a mountain chain almost as large ran up the eastern side of the continent of Lauralin to fabled, wealthy and gloriously subtropical Crandor.
With a sigh at the thought of warmth, she trudged on. This was poor, granitic country, no good for anything but growing trees. From spring to autumn it drizzled, when it was not pouring. Cold mists sprang up from nowhere overnight, while the rare warm days ended in clinging fogs that blew up the range from the sea. From autumn to spring it froze – gales, snow and sleet for week after week.
She passed quite a few people on the track, for Tiksi supplied most of the manufactory's needs. Though Tiaan knew many of the travellers she did not stop to chat. No one had time these days. The best anyone got was a friendly hello, the worst a curt nod. The land bred dour folk hereabouts; the war had made them even more taciturn.
Tiaan was shy and uncomfortable with people. She found it hard to make friends, for she never knew what to say and felt that people judged her, not for what she was, but because she had no father and had been born in the breeding factory. Not all the propaganda of the war could erase that stain, least of all from her own mind. She felt alone in the world.
It began to drizzle. After an hour or two Tiaan sat down, just for a minute. Any longer and the cold would creep into flesh and bones. She contemplated the sombre pines, wreathed in moss and trailing lichens that stood out like banners in the wind. They had a certain stark beauty. Taking up a piece of decaying granite, she crumbled it in her fingers, allowing the grains to spill onto the slush of last night's snow. Better go. No point putting it off.
Another hour and more passed before Tiksi began to emerge from the grey, a collection of tall but narrow buildings capped by yellow tiled roofs. The doors and window frames were faded blue. Everyone thought alike in Tiksi. With twenty thousand inhabitants, it was the largest city for a hundred leagues.
Even from here she could pick out the breeding factory. The official name was The Mothers' Palace, but 'the breeding factory' was what everyone called it, and the others like it that had sprung up along the coast over the past thirty years. Its yellow stone walls contrasted sharply with the dingy grey of the surrounding buildings. In a hard world it was supposed to symbolise reward for a job well done, the most important work of all. For Tiaan, who had lived there until she was six, the place had a rather different meaning. It epitomised a world that was trying to take away her rights.
Beyond and below Tiksi she caught occasional glimpses of the steel-coloured ocean. Out to sea an iceberg squatted in the water like a snowy plateau. More dotted the surface all the way to the horizon. This year there were more than usual.
There was a fuss at the gates because she had forgotten to bring her manufactory pass. The guard allowed her through, after much debate, though Tiaan knew it would go on her record, again. Inside the city gates, she checked passers-by, as always, looking for one particular face, her father's. Without knowing what he looked like, or even his name, Tiaan was sure that she would recognise him instantly.
As she wove through the markets an elderly matron hissed at her, 'Go home and do your duty!' Others cast accusing glances at her slender waist, her ringless fingers. Flushing, Tiaan tried to ignore them. She was prepared to do her duty, but not just yet. Turning in at the gates of the breeding factory, she passed through the front door, nodding to the guard. Inside, the place was luxurious, even decadent. Ornately corniced ceilings were painted in a dozen colours. The walls were beautifully papered, while costly paintings and fabrics, and gleaming furniture, were everywhere. A tray of pastries sat neglected on a table. It would probably be thrown out, uneaten. She salivated.
The breeding factory was the most visible propaganda of all, a sign of a future when women might be valued only because they produced the next generation of fodder for the battlefields and maternity wards.
With a heavy sigh she pushed open the door of her mother's rooms and went in. As one of the best breeders in the history of the place, Marnie had the largest suite with the most luxurious furnishings.
Her bed was larger than Tiaan's living cubicle in the manufactory. The silk sheets were crimson, the cushions velvet. Marnie lay asprawl on the tangled sheets, a sleeping baby on her belly. A satin nightgown, which to Tiaan's prudish mind looked positively indecent, was hitched up to the top of her plump thighs. One enormous breast, milky from the baby's attentions, was fully exposed.
Marnie opened her eyes. 'Tiaan, my darling!' she beamed. 'Where have you been? I haven't seen you in ages.'
Tiaan bent down to kiss her mother's cheek. She looked like a pig in a wallow, and neither covered her breast nor drew down her gown. Tiaan could smell her lover on her and was disgusted. Pulling the chair away from the bed, she sat down.
'I'm sorry, mother. We've all been working seven days a week.'
'Don't call me mother, call me Marnie! What are you doing way over there? Come closer. I can't see you.'
'Sorry, Marnie. I just don't get any time to myself.'
Marnie's eyes raked over her. 'You look awful, Tiaan. Positively thin! Why won't you listen to me? It's no life for you, working day and night in that horrible manufactory. Come home. Any daughter of mine can have a position here tomorrow. We'll fatten you up nicely. You can lie in bed all day if you like. You'll need never work again.'
'I like to work! I'm good at it and I feel that I'm doing something worthwhile.' As always, Tiaan could feel her temper going. She tried to rein it in.
'Any fool can do what you do, fiddling about with dirty bits of machinery!' One chubby hand found a box of sweetmeats on the bedside cupboard. Tipping the contents onto her ample belly, Marnie sorted through them irritably. One disappeared into her navel. 'Damn it! All the best ones are gone. Would you like one, darling?'
'No thanks!' Tiaan said, though she was starving. Her temper began to flood. Marnie, despite her image as the wonderful earth mother, was as selfish a person as ever lived. She loved her children only while they were infants. Once off the breast she sent them to the creche, and at six indentured them to whoever offered the most for their labour. Marnie was one of the wealthiest women in Tiksi, but her children saw none of it.
Tiaan changed the subject. 'Marnie, there's something I've always wondered…'
Marnie bristled. 'If it's about your wretched father…'
'It's not!' Tiaan said hastily. 'It's about me, and you.'
'What about me, darling?' Marnie picked fluff off a chocolate-coloured delicacy and tasted it with the point of her tongue. She settled back on her cushions. No subject was dearer to her than herself.
'It's about where I got my special talent from – of thinking in pictures. When I think about something I see it in my mind as clearly as if I was looking at it through a window.'
'You got it from me, of course! And I got it from my mother. The fights we had when I wanted to come here.'
Tiaan could well imagine them. Marnie's mother had been a court philosopher, a proud and feisty woman. Her mother had been scribe to the governor, her sister an illusionist of national repute. How Marnie had let the family down!
Marnie, of course, did not think so. She closed her eyes, smiling at some particular memory. 'Ah, Thom,' she whispered, 'I remember every one of our times together, as if you lay beside me now…'
Tiaan rose hastily. In this mood Marnie was prone to go into raptures about past lovers, describing intimacies Tiaan had never experienced and certainly did not want to hear from her mother's lips. Whoever Thom was, he definitely wasn't her father.
'I have to go, Marnie.'
'You only just got here,' Marnie said petulantly. 'You care more about your stupid work than about me.'
Tiaan had had enough. 'Any fool can do what you do, mother,' she cried in a passion. 'You're like a sow at the trough!'
Marnie rolled over abruptly, scattering sweetmeats across the carpet. The baby began to cry. She put it to the breast in reflex. 'I'm doing my duty the best way I know!' she screeched. 'I've produced fifteen children, all living, all healthy, all clever and hardworking.'
Tiaan's anger faded. 'I never see them,' she said wistfully. She longed for a proper family, like other people had.
'That's because they're out doing their duty, and not whingeing about it either. I've done all I could for you. You have the best craft I could find, and don't think that was easy.'
'Ha!' Tiaan muttered. Her mother twisted everything. Not only had she not gotten Tiaan her prenticeship, Marnie had fought against it.
'Maybe you do love your work, Tiaan, but it doesn't feed you.'
'Better hungry freedom than pampered slavery!'
'You're free, are you?' Marnie shouted. 'I can leave this place today and be honoured wherever I go. You can't even scratch yourself without getting permission from the overseer. I hear your work isn't going so well, either. Don't come whining to me when they cast you out! I won't let you in the door.'
That was too close to the bone. 'I'd sooner die than live the way you do!' Tiaan yelled.
'You wouldn't have the choice! No man would want to lie with such an ugly, scrawny creature as you.'
Tiaan rushed out and slammed the door. Every visit ended in tears or tantrums, though it had never been as bad as this before. The people hurrying by gave her knowing looks or, occasionally, friendly smiles. Everyone knew how it was between her and her mother. Had something else upset Marnie?
Tiaan sat on the front step, trembling. She was not ugly or scrawny, just hungry and afraid. The rest of the insult passed over her head. Repelled by Marnie's greedy sensuality, Tiaan could not imagine lying with a man, even to aid the war. Never! she thought with a shudder. I'd rather die a virgin.
Unfortunately, she was hungry for love. Brought up on a diet of her grandmother's romantic bedtime stories, she dreamed of little else. The women in the manufactory all had husbands or lovers, mostly gone to the war, and talked of them constantly. Tiaan did so yearn for someone to love her. She had no friend but old Joeyn.
Realising that she was shaking with hunger, Tiaan felt a copper coin out of her purse and trudged down to a barrow boy. There she bought a long spicy sausage baked in pastry and set off for home, nibbling as she walked. The sausage was delicious, hot and with a strong peppery flavour. Just half of it filled her stomach and made her feel better. It was a slow, slippery climb back up the mountain in the rain. Darkness, which at this time of the year came before five o'clock, was already falling before she saw the lights of the manufactory high above. Tiaan toiled up the last distance, went inside and sat down in her cubicle. The hedron lay there accusingly on the bench. Since she was no closer to a solution than before, Tiaan went looking for Overseer Gi-Had.
'He's gone up the mountain,' said Nod the gateman. 'Trouble in the tar mine. Poisoned air, I think.'
'Then he won't be back today,' said Tiaan. It was four hours' walk to the tar mine, each way. 'Have you seen Gryste?'
'He's unblocking the waste drains.'
Going left out the gate, Tiaan followed the earth track around the outside of the manufactory wall. She turned the corner, taking a shortcut between huge stone cisterns excavated into the rock to prevent them freezing solid in the four-month winter. In the space between them she glimpsed a couple locked in passionate embrace. There were so many people in the manufactory, and so little privacy, that even the most inhospitable places were in demand.
The discharge flume from the aqueduct had a curtain of icicles hanging from the lip. In the distance a creche-mother was instructing twenty or thirty of her young charges in the use of a sling. They were firing pebbles at the outline of a winged lyrinx, painted on one of the pillars of the aqueduct.
The path wound past stockyards, barns, slaughterhouses and a butchery. The smell was frightful. Tiaan hurried by a cluster of outbuildings where the weavers and other non-essential tradespeople worked. Around the back, piles of furnace ash were eroding into a gully. A series of stonework pipes dripped noxious fluid over the edge.
She found the foreman by a stand of blazing torches, shouting at a group of blackened navvies hacking tar from one of the pipes. They could only work for a few minutes before the fumes drove them out. Their hands and arms were blistered, their red noses dripping.
'Excuse me?' she said hesitantly.
'Yes?' snapped Gryste, smacking his sword on his thigh.
'I need to talk to you. About the cont -'
'Not here!' He hauled Tiaan away.
Pulling free, she rubbed her throbbing wrist.
'You can't talk in front of the navvies, artisan!'
'Morale is bad enough as it is. They'll get it wrong, and gossip. Where were you this morning?'
'I had to go to Tiksi to see my mother.'
'You did not seek my permission.'
'I – I'm sorry.' He would not have given it so Tiaan had not asked, though she was due the time off.
'I've had it with your slacking and your refusal to obey the rules. I'm adding a month to your indenture. If it happens again, six months,' he growled. 'What do you want?'
Tiaan could not speak. The punishment was all out of proportion to the crime. It did not occur to her to challenge him; to ask if he had that power.
'Well, artisan? Don't waste my time.'
'I need to know how the controllers failed,' she said in a rush. 'Did they go suddenly? What other signs were there? Did anything unusual happen at the same time?'
'I've had a report from the battlefield but it doesn't say much. The controllers started acting erratically. The field came and went. Some of the clankers' legs had power, the others not. Then the field failed completely.'
'Has it happened with clankers built by other manufactories?'
'No idea. They're scattered across half a thousand leagues and we don't have enough skeets to send messages back and forth. The armies have priority.' With a curt nod, he went back to the drains.
Feeling obstructed at every turn, Tiaan went inside and unlocked the old crafter's rooms. Everything was exactly as it had been the day Barkus died. The new crafter, when appointed, would take over his offices, but though Tiaan was the senior artisan she had no right to use these rooms. The hierarchy must be maintained. She still laboured in the cubicle she'd had as a prentice.
Tiaan spent hours going through the crafter's journals, trying to find out if controllers had ever failed this way. Barkus turned out to be the least methodical of men, which was surprising since he'd checked her workbooks and journals every day of her eight-year prenticeship. Nothing was organised, much less indexed or catalogued. The only way to find out if he'd worked on a particular problem was to read everything he'd ever written. That was frustrating too, for he often broke off in the middle of an investigation and never resumed it, or continued in the blank spaces of whatever journal he'd happened to lay his hands on at the time.
She went through the bookshelves, cupboards and pigeonholes crammed with scrolls, but found not a mention of her problem. The desk contained nothing of interest – everything secret had been locked away after Barkus's death. However, as she pulled out the lowest drawer, it stuck.
It took some time to free it, after which Tiaan removed the drawer to see what was the matter. She was used to fixing things. Probably the runners needed waxing. As she was rubbing them with the stub of a candle, she noticed that the drawer was shallower than its external dimensions indicated. That could only mean one thing.
It did not take her long to find the secret compartment. Inside lay a slim book made of rice paper, with soft leather covers. She picked it up. The title page simply said: Runcible Nunar – The Mancer's Art.
No wonder Barkus had hidden it. The penalty for having an illegal copy of any book on mancing would be horrific. Nunar's treatise was justly famous and many copies had been made, though such books were guarded jealously. Why had Barkus, a humble crafter in an obscure manufactory, obtained an illegal copy?
At a footfall outside the door, Tiaan thrust the book into her coat and pushed the drawer in. A cold voice broke into her thoughts.
'Just what do you think you're doing?'
'I beg your pardon?' Tiaan said. The intruder was Irisis Stirm, a fellow artisan slightly Tiaan's junior, although Irisis did not think so.
She stood in the doorway, tapping an elegant foot. Irisis knew her worth. Tall and lavishly endowed, with corn-yellow hair and brilliant blue eyes, she stood out in the manufactory like a beacon. Tiaan had never met anyone with hair that colour, and no one around here had blue eyes, though the old crafter's may have been when he was young.
'You have no right to come in here. These are the crafter's rooms. He was my uncle!' Irisis pointed that out at every opportunity.
'I answer to Gi-Had, not you! Look to the quality of your own work!'
That was a mistake. Irisis was much better at managing the other artisans than Tiaan was. Moreover, she made controllers of rare perfection and extraordinary beauty – works of art. Her use of crystals, though, was timid, and she was peculiarly sensitive to criticism about it.
'At least my controllers work!' Irisis sneered.
'Only because we all help you tune them.'
'How dare you!' Irisis cried. 'If Uncle Barkus was still alive he'd put you in your place.'
'He did! He put me above you. Now he's dead and I am responsible for your work.'
'Unless,' Irisis said reflectingly, 'you're sent to the breeding factory to do your duty.'
Tiaan had no comeback. Irisis did her duty enthusiastically and often, though so far with no sign of success. Perhaps she used a preventative. That was a serious crime, though not an uncommon one. Heading for the door, Tiaan laughed nervously. 'I think I'm more valuable here than there!'
Irisis's blue eyes flashed. 'You couldn't manage a dung fight in a pigsty! I'll be crafter here one day, over you! Then you'll know it.' She stood by the door as Tiaan went out. There was no chance to put the book back.
Returning to her bench, Tiaan watched Irisis across the room as she donned goggles and mask and sat down at her grinding wheel. It began to whine and the artisan took up a crystal. Soon the air was full of drifting specks.
Tiaan worked fruitlessly for hours, until her head drooped. She laid it on the bench, then realised that the manufactory was silent. It must be midnight. Plodding to her room, she washed in a basin of cold water and fell onto her straw-stuffed pallet.
As soon as her head hit the pillow, Tiaan's worries returned and, though exhausted, she found herself wide awake. She went over her problems again and again, quite uselessly. Finally, knowing she was never going to get to sleep, she lit a candle, locked her door and took out the forbidden book.
She did not open it immediately. Tiaan was not sure she should look at it at all, but if she took it back to the crafter's workshop, Irisis's spies would tell her at once. If she handed it in to the overseer after this delay there would be suspicion that she'd read it first. The scrutator had watchers in the manufactory and little escaped their attention. She would be marked for life.
She considered hurling it into one of the furnaces when no one was looking. However, if the book was protected by a spell, as such things often were, anything might happen. Besides, books were precious, sacred things and Tiaan could not imagine burning one. She could hide it, but what if someone unsuitable found it? What if it fell into the hands of the enemy?
Tiaan opened the book. The paper had a lovely silky feel. The text was written in a number of different hands, no doubt a copy. The language was the common speech spoken throughout the south-east, so she could read the words, though they made little sense. That was not surprising. Her day book, which contained details of her work on controllers, would be equally incomprehensible to most people. Then, as she was flipping through, a heading caught her eye. Application of the Special Theory to the Powering of Mechanical Contrivances My Special Theory of Power describes the diffuse force, or field, that surrounds and permeates the fabric of nodes. It is this force that mancers have drawn upon since the Secret Art was first used, at least seven millennia ago. However, mancing has always been restricted by our inability to understand the field: where it comes from, how it changes over time and how it can safely be used.
Furthermore, all drawn power must pass through the mancer first, which causes aftersickness, and the greater the power the worse the effects. Too great a drain of power will be, and has proven many times, horribly fatal.
The traditional solution has been to enchant an artefact, such as a mirror, ring or jewel, and simply trigger the device when needed. This also has problems: artefacts are notoriously difficult to control, may become corrupted over time (witness the Mirror of Aachan) and once discharged are useless until they can be recharged.
Yet we know the ancients used devices with the capacity to replenish themselves. We do not know how that was done, but how else can we explain such long-lived devices as the Mirror, Yalkara's protected fortress of Havissard, or contrivances that used such prodigious quantities of power as Rulke's legendary construct?
The field, the weakest of the five elemental forces, is the only one we mancers have ever been able to tap. Nonetheless, much can be done with it. My Special Theory enables us to understand the diffuse force, and perhaps create a controller apparatus to tap it safely. Instead of all power being drawn through the mancer, with its limitations of frail flesh, the mancer simply senses the field and draws just enough power to channel the flow, via the ultradimensional ethyr, directly into the controller. The controller can then transmit it to power the contrivance, whether this be a mechanical cart, a pump or any other mechanism required.
Being a humble theoretician, I will leave the design of such devices to those with the aptitude and interest in such things. Suffice it to say that any such device should comprise the following components…
Tiaan knew all about such devices; that was her work. She skipped forward a few paragraphs.
The process may generate a shifting aura about the crystal powering the controller, perhaps mimicking the aurora-like field about the node from which the power was drawn. A nearby sensitive might be able to detect this aura, though in normal use it is expected to be insignificant…
Tiaan put the book down. This was the very document wherein Nunar first set down the principles of controllers, nearly a hundred years ago. Her theory had enabled the construction of clankers and certain other secret devices, without which the war would have been lost long ago.
She ploughed on. Nunar went on to speculate about a General Theory of Power, which would deal with nodes themselves, the several different strong forces they were expected to be made of, how they related to each other and, finally, how such prodigious forces might be tapped. Nunar noted, however, that nodal forces might never be tapped safely. She also mentioned the holy grail of theoretical mancers, the Unified Power Theory, which would reconcile all the forces mancers knew of, weak and strong, in terms of a single field. Nunar closed the section by stating that such a theory seemed as far off as ever.
Tiaan hid the book behind a loose brick in the wall, under her bed. It seemed no use at all. She dozed briefly, her head crackling with fractured crystal dreams, to wake with the answer in her mind. She must design a device to test the faulty hedrons and read what had happened to them. Only then could she find a way to solve the problem. Sitting up in bed, Tiaan reached for slate and chalk and began sketching.
She had just completed a rough sketch, and blown out her candle, when Tiaan heard the rattle and groan of a clanker coming up the road. It had to be Ky-Ara returning. Since it was practically dawn, she dressed and went out.
A sleepy attendant with a lantern was opening the side gate as she arrived. Gi-Had was there too. He must have returned in the night. Tiaan watched the monster emerge from the dark. The clanker had covered lanterns on the front, a broad, segmented body made of overlapping plates of armour, and four pairs of mechanical legs driven by ingenious gearing. It was large enough to carry ten people and all their gear, though in bone-shaking discomfort. The shooter's platform on top, with its mechanical catapult and javelard, was empty.
The clanker clumped into the shed and stopped. The mechanism creaked and groaned, then there was silence save for the whine of the twin iron flywheels that stored power in case the field was interrupted momentarily. The flywheels would still be going at dinnertime, slowly running down.
The back hatch opened. A slim young man climbed out, pack in one hand, a satchel in the other. He stretched, gave the machine an anxious pat on the flank and turned around.
Ky-Ara was not overly tall. His lean, handsome face was marred by a weak jaw. A shock of wiry hair stood out in all directions. His dark eyes were red-rimmed. There was a smudge of black grease across one cheek. Despite all that, Tiaan rather liked the look of him.
'It's good to have her whole again,' Ky-Ara said to Gi-Had, avoiding Tiaan's eye. 'After the controller died… I thought I'd never drive her again.'
His face crumbled. The bond between clanker and operator was intense, almost like that between lovers, and a threat to it had been known to cause mental breakdown. Ky-Ara looked close to one now. Tiaan felt for him.
'It's been hard work getting used to the new controller,' he continued. 'I've got a shocking headache. Despatch for you, surr!' He handed the satchel to Gi-Had.
'Thank you.' The overseer turned away to open it. He began to read a document, frowning as he did.
'What happened when it failed?' Tiaan asked Ky-Ara.
The operator's top lip quivered but he mastered himself. 'We were heading up the coast from Tiksi. Everything had gone perfectly. We were passing out of the aura of the Lippi node towards the Xanpt node. That's a really strong one…'
'So I believe,' said Tiaan. She liked the shape of Ky-Ara's mouth. A wonder she hadn't noticed him before.
'I had the controller helm on, sensing out the Xanpt field in advance. Sometimes it can be tricky shifting from one to another, and I didn't want to get stuck between fields. The flywheels won't drive her weight for that long.'
He looked sideways at Tiaan. She nodded.
'The Lippi field began shifting wildly: sometimes strong, at other times hardly there at all. The fields grew harder and harder to visualise; I couldn't tune either of them in.' His voice cracked as he relived the awful scene. 'I began to think that the Lippi field was going, though the two clankers ahead of me seemed to be having no trouble.' Ky-Ara went pale and had to sit down.
'What happened then?' Gi-Had prompted after a long silence.
'I lost it. Both fields were gone! The hedron was dead and there was nothing I could do about it. If it had happened in battle…' He shivered. 'I took the controller out, got a lift back to Tiksi on a cart and sent the controller up the mountain.'
'I have it in my workshop,' said Tiaan. 'I can't work out what's happened. The crystal is completely dead.'
Ky-Ara looked distressed, like a lost boy. 'If that's all,' he said, cradling the controller in his arms, 'I'll go to my quarters. I haven't slept for two nights.'
'Yes, thank you, Ky-Ara,' said Gi-Had. 'I know you've done your best. It must have been difficult for you.'
The young man went out. Tiaan's dark eyes followed him thoughtfully.
'You're wondering if he might be the one?' Gi-Had's rumble broke into her thoughts, startling her.
Tiaan flushed. She had been thinking exactly that. Also thinking that, if she must mate, why not with a clanker operator? There were many similarities in their lives and work, and if they did not get on, he would be away most of the time. If nothing came of it, no one could say that she had not done her duty.
'Yes,' she said softly.
'Strange folk, clanker operators. Their machines always come first – you know that.'
It didn't require an answer. He shook out the rolled despatch, scowling ferociously. 'Bad news?' she asked.
'Another problem. A worse one.'
'Oh?' said Tiaan warily.
'More clankers wiped out, on the coast well north of Xanpt. Each time, the enemy knew just where to find them.'
'Clankers are pretty noisy,' said Tiaan.
'Not these ones.' Gi-Had looked over his shoulder. The attendant was a long way away but the overseer lowered his voice anyway. 'They were using a new development, a Sound Cloaker! You can't hear them move. And no one knew where they were going.'
'But that means,' said Tiaan, 'the enemy has a way of finding them. Using the Secret Art -'
Gi-Had spun around. 'Oy, you, clear out, now!'
A large bald man touched his brow then slouched off. It was Eiryn Muss, a halfwit who had a lowly place at the manufactory. He was always shambling about, peering over people's shoulders.
Gi-Had turned back to Tiaan. 'And if they can do that, they will destroy them all. And us! Find out how they do it, Tiaan.'
'Is this more important than finding out why the hedrons failed? Or making replacement controllers?'
'They're all important,' he growled.
'I can't do everything. I'm always exhausted as it is.'
'Leave controller-making to the others for the time being. The best artisans from every manufactory have been ordered to work on these two problems.'
Her head jerked up. 'So it's not just my controllers that have failed?'
'Not according to this. But that doesn't mean you're in the clear.'
'Are you happy with my work, overseer?'
'Let's just say that I'm keeping an eye on you. Better get on with it.' Nodding distractedly, Gi-Had hurried off.
Cryl-Nish Hlar looked up from his bench as Tiaan went by. He desired her, and had ever since arriving at the manufactory three years ago. Unfortunately, Tiaan was oblivious to him. That hurt Nish, as he was mockingly known. In the local dialect the word meant pipsqueak.
Nish was short and it was the bane of his life. He came from a long line of short people and despised every one of them for it. He was not unhandsome, in a brooding sort of way, with his cap of dark hair that showed the contours of his skull, and bright eyes that could be as green as the ocean, or as grey. Unfortunately his sallow skin was spotty, which was a torment, and his downy chin incited sneers of 'bum fluff'.
He had a strong body though – broad, square shoulders, a stomach as hard and flat as a paving stone, jutting buttocks which excited ribald comments from the women he worked with, and heavy thighs. He was also, he liked to think, sturdily equipped for breeding.
Not that, Nish thought gloomily, he got any chance for that. Despite the severe shortage of males the women of the manufactory, like those of the mining village nearby, were not enamoured of him. He felt sure it was because he was short and spotty, and had no beard. How he hated his body.
That had nothing to do with it, of course. In these times even hideous men had their choice of partners. Moreover, he had other appealing characteristics – he was clever and of good family. Unfortunately he had one handicap fatal to intimacy. With women younger than his mother, Nish was so anxious that he became mortifyingly inarticulate.
Though not particularly skilled with his hands, Nish had a lively, restless intelligence and learned quickly. He also had a brilliant memory – for names, faces, things seen and conversations overheard. That was of great benefit to him in his other, unmentioned occupation.
Both his father, Jal-Nish Hlar, and his mother, Ranii Mhel, had been examiners. All the more incomprehensible that they could have made such a mistake with him. Every child in the east, and possibly the entire world, was taken before the examiners at age six, where every talent, creative or intellectual, manual, mechanical or psychic, was identified. On that basis children were assigned their occupations for life – labourer, miner, scribe, artisan, merchant, soldier, breeder! There was no room for childhood; the war with the lyrinx was a hundred and fifty years old. The soldiers, and the other dead, had to be made up. Children must work. The entire world was regimented for one thing – survival.
The examiners came again at the age of eleven, and for the third and final time at sixteen, to make sure. Some promising talents withered early, while others blossomed late.
Nish had been happy in his prenticeship as a scribe for one of the great merchants of Fassafarn, a trading city on the south coast of Einunar. Fassafarn was an ice-free port through which much of the wealth of the south was shipped to markets as far away as Crandor, and even Thurkad before its fall. He had been learning the principal languages and scripts of the known world, and was ideally suited for such work. Nish liked meeting powerful people and being trusted to translate their documents. He'd planned to become a merchant himself, one day, and make so much money that he could buy anything he wanted.
Then, aged sixteen, came the catastrophe. After his examination there had been hurried conferences and, with no more than an hour's notice, his parents had shipped him across the mountains to become a prentice artificer at this godforsaken manufactory. Nish was devastated. It did not occur to him that the move might have saved him from the army. Their only instruction had been to 'Keep your eyes and ears open, and write about what you see and hear, every day'. Nish was a dutiful son. He still wrote every day, and once a month his bulky letter would go out with the other mail.
His first year at the manufactory had been a nightmare. All the other prentices, male and female, had been taller. His skin erupted into hideous spots. Worse, he knew less about being an artificer – the design, constructing, operating and repairing of machines of warfare – than even the six-year-old factory kids. But worst of all, rumour spread that he had failed disastrously as a scribe and had been sent here as a last resort. If he failed again he would become a pit labourer, as good as a slave.
Nish could not bear that. It was the most powerful motivation of all. He was determined to succeed at being an artificer, no matter what it took. Though he had little aptitude for the craft, he would master it.
What he lacked in ability and experience, Nish made up with hard work and sheer, directed intelligence. He worked night and day until he was so exhausted that he could have slept standing. He drove his supervisors mad with questions, had them show him the workings of the war engines over and again, and invented ways of teaching his reluctant fingers what the other prentices learned easily.
At the end of his first year he was ranked among the lowest of the prentices, along with the stupid and the chronically lazy. But he was not the lowest, and to Nish that was a major achievement. If his parents were impressed, they did not say so in their infrequent letters. Nish was hurt, but planned to try even harder next year.
After two years, he was around the middle of the group. That earned grudging praise from his mother and a call to come home to celebrate his eighteenth birthday. He worried in case they had another change of profession for him, perhaps sending him to the army. His imagination and his wide reading told him exactly what war was like. He did not want to experience it – at least, not on the battlefield.
When he got home Nish discovered that his father was the one who'd changed profession. Jal-Nish was now a perquisitor, charged with rooting out troublemakers, subversives and traitors wherever he might find them. It was an important, lavishly paid position, answering only to the scrutator for Einunar. One day he might even be scrutator.
At the end of his third year Nish had moved above the middle of the prentices, but there, to his intense chagrin, he stayed. Sheer intelligence and hard work, no matter how well directed, could raise him no further, for he simply lacked the aptitude for artificing. It galled him, but Nish was nothing if not self-aware and wrote to his father telling him so, and expressing the wish that he might go back to being a merchant's scribe.
His father showed neither surprise nor disappointment. Jal-Nish merely wrote, 'You're doing well. Don't forget to write, every day.' Nish bent his head to the clanker parts he had been wrestling with all morning. They formed the lower half of a mechanical-leg assembly, and putting it together was a job he particularly hated. The parts had been made in a dozen different sections of the manufactory and if any one was infinitesimally out of tolerance the assembly became a nightmare. Sometimes he spent days on the most tedious work only to find that one part had to be machined again, and all his labour undone.
He banged the housing with a dirty fist. He was covered in grease, as always. Nish hated that – he liked to look his best. The women of the manufactory tended to sneer at artificers, mere 'fitters' as they called them, because it was such a filthy job. Many of the fitters were women, and they were friendly enough, but Nish disdained them. Artificers were beneath him, though he was one himself. He looked to the top of the heap, where he belonged.
At that moment Tiaan walked by. Most respected in this manufactory were the artisans. They worked with their hands, but only with precious things: gold and silver, platinum and quicksilver, copper, amber and crystal. They never got dirty doing it and the best were brilliant, lateral-thinking designers. More importantly, artisans worked with their senses. They had special talents, akin to the Secret Art that was the province of mages and mancers.
Nish could never hope to be an artisan; he lacked the vital talent. But prestige was everything to him and he wanted one of them for his woman. There were four artisans here, though only two were available. Of those, Irisis went by the fitters with her nose in the air, for she was of the House of Stirm, a crafter's daughter and a crafter's niece, made for better things than a lowly artificer. Nish hated her for it, but he understood her too. She was much like him.
Tiaan was a different matter. He felt that he might be in love with her. Now he looked up to see Tiaan on her way back. Putting down his wrench, he stared at her. She was above him, and yet beneath, for she came from the breeding factory and did not know her father. To lose a father was commonplace, in these times. Not to know his identity was a major failing in a world obsessed with family and Histories.
Tiaan carried her head high, though not aloof as Irisis did. Tiaan seemed oblivious to her surroundings, as if the only world that mattered was inside her head. The Ice Virgin, some called her, but Nish knew better. He felt he understood her too. She had the reputation as the hardest worker in the manufactory, and the cleverest. She was trying to make up for something. Was it her unfortunate birth? Her lack of a father?
She wore loose trousers and a blouse of grey flax, with old but well-cared-for grey boots. More was not tolerable here, just across from the furnaces. Her breasts bobbed with her light step, a sight that liquefied his middle. Desire made him forget everything.
Do it now! She's a quiet little thing. She will listen and be flattered. He hesitated too long. Without a glance, without even knowing he was there, Tiaan went by. She wore a faint, internal smile. Her glossy black hair bounced against the back of her neck.
Soon she would turn the corner and be gone, down to her own workroom in the cold part of the manufactory. Go on, you fool! Today you have something to offer. Not even the Ice Virgin will refuse you now. She has the breeding factory in her blood and her belly. She's just holding out for the best offer, and no one can best you.
Dropping his tools on the bench, Nish wiped his greasy hands on a rag and ran after her, up the aisle and round the corner to the section where the artisans and all the other clean crafts worked. Inside, the artisans' workshop was sealed off by double doors designed to exclude all dust and dross.
Tiaan was already out of sight. He burst through the doors without putting on a clean overall or taking off his filthy boots. Everyone stared. He did not notice.
'Tiaan!' he cried. 'Artisan Tiaan!'
She was going through the door into her own cubicle, but turned at his wild cry. 'Yes?'
He ran up to her, froze, then forced the words out.
'Tiaan, I admire your work tremendously. I… I think you are the most brilliant woman I've ever met.'
For an instant he saw panic in her eyes. Anger covered it up. 'If you admire it so much,' she said frostily, 'why are you dropping your filth and grease everywhere?'
Recalling the state of his clothes, he flushed. Sheer desperation propelled him on. 'I'm sorry, I'll clean it up.'
'Don't bother. What do you want, artificer?'
'Just to talk to you. You're brilliant, Tiaan.'
'You already said that.'
'Would you… Would…?' He faltered under her astonished stare. Her lips were the reddish-purple colour of pulped blackberries. He wanted to crush his mouth against them.
'What?' she snapped.
'I thought… perhaps dinner… or a walk along the path to the lookout… and then…' He couldn't get it out, with the prentices sniggering and rolling their eyes at each other. Artisan Fistila Tyr, who was heavily pregnant, set to with her grinding wheel to cover it up.
Tiaan turned those unusual eyes on him, scanning Nish from smoky cheeks to grease-stained hands and filthy boots. He felt sure he knew what she was thinking. Not only is he dirty and spotty and inarticulate, but he's a runt!
'Yes?' she said in a low voice that had the prentices bending over their work. Nish recognised the danger, but if he did not speak now he would never be able to.
'We both have our duty to perform. I thought we might share your bed!' he burst out. 'Or mine, if you prefer. I have…'
Her honey skin flushed red-brown. For a full minute she could not meet his eye; then Tiaan drew herself up. 'How dare you!' she hissed. 'How can you imagine that I would give myself to a dirty little artificer, and not a very good one either? The thought makes me sick. Get out!'
Nish flushed beneath the dirt. Across the room, Irisis was watching the show with open mouth. This afternoon he would be the laughing-stock of the manufactory. There was only one way to recover.
'I don't think you realise who my father is, Artisan Tiaan,' he said coldly. 'He is Perquisitor Jal-Nish Hlar, one of the most important people in the land. He is a high inquisitor! He can make you, Tiaan, or he can break you. And my mother is a chief examiner, nearly as important.' Looking over his shoulder, he softened his voice. 'I know you and Irisis are rivals, Tiaan. Think what you can achieve with a perquisitor's patronage. You need never fear her again.'
He gave an uncertain smile, for Nish was new to this game. He'd not tried to use influence before and wasn't quite sure how to go about it, despite having often seen it done in his scribing days. He lacked the authority, and the easy arrogance that told him he deserved whatever he desired.
'What do you say, Tiaan? We can take pleasure from each other and your career will blossom. Do you want to work in this dungheap of a manufactory forever? Come -'
'I would sooner mate with a lyrinx!' she shouted. 'I don't care who your father is. I will never lie with you. Now get your squalid self out of my workroom!'
'Why won't you do your duty, artisan? What are you afraid of?'
Tiaan paled. 'Go away, little man.'
Nish's fury was barely controllable, but he made one last effort. 'If you knew who I really am,' he hissed, 'you would not be so -'
'Get out!' she roared and, seizing a pair of red-hot tongs resting in a brazier, Tiaan brandished them before his face.
Nish broke. Bursting through the double doors, he raced past the infirmary, out through the wall and down towards the furnaces. He could not go back to his own bench, for everyone would see the tears of rage streaming down his face. Creeping around the back of the furnaces, he hauled a recalcitrant sweeper boy out of a warm niche, clipped the lad over the ear for neglecting his work and crept in to lick his wounds. He would ruin Tiaan, somehow. Then he would bed her and cast her off.
Shortly he heard soft footsteps and to his astonishment Irisis appeared. She squatted down before him, offering a snowy handkerchief.
'Artificer Cryl-Nish,' she said softly, winning his undying gratitude for using his name and not the detested nickname. 'Would you like to learn how to pleasure a real woman?'
Nish could have fainted with astonishment. Irisis was not known for her kindness. Surely she was playing a cruel joke. He did not know what to say.
Bending forward, she gave him a savage kiss on the mouth. His body responded instantly. She laughed and took his hand, though she wrapped the handkerchief around it first. 'Come to my room.' Then she wrinkled her pretty nose. 'No, to the bathhouse first, I think. We'll neither of us be missed for an hour or two. Time for a couple of lessons.' Her eyes met his. 'And after that, we'll find plenty to talk about on our pillows.'
'Talk about?' he said dazedly.
'About who our friends are. And our enemies!'
Irisis propped herself up on an elbow, inspecting the youth who lay dozing in post-coital bliss beside her. She was not attracted to Nish at all, though she had to admit he had been vigorous, not insensitive, and displayed an admirable willingness to learn what pleased her. That was more than could be said for her previous lover. Her interest had been stirred by what he'd said to Tiaan, her rival here since childhood.
Irisis ran a hand down his chest. Nish was the least hairy man she had ever seen. She liked that, and the way their bodies touched. He smiled in his sleep. She slid her hand lower, tangling her fingers in the downy hair and tugging. He snapped awake.
'Cryl-Nish, lover,' she whispered, her breath tickling his ear. She wanted him capable of thinking just one thing.
He rolled over, pressing himself against her. Irisis kept him away with her hip. He froze. There was a message in the movement, though clearly he had no idea what it was. Good.
Irisis inspected him, the sheet up around her throat. As if by accident she let it fall, revealing one heavy breast swaying above his face. His eye followed it and she knew she had him.
'We know what you want, Cryl-Nish.' He reached for her. She moved back, saying thoughtfully, 'I hear your father is no longer an examiner.'
'He is chief perquisitor for the entire Einunar region,' he said importantly.
'Oh?' Irisis was impressed but did not want to show it. She allowed him to bask in reflected glory for just a moment. 'But what about the scrutator?'
His chest deflated. She had caught him trying to make his father seem more important than he was. He looked down at the rumpled bed, perhaps thinking that she was trying to make a fool of him.
'Anyway,' Irisis waved a hand, knowing it made other parts of her oscillate delightfully, 'who cares about all that stuff? I'm much more interested in you.'
'Me? Why?' Nish was staring at her dark, puckered nipple. He would do anything to have more of her.
'I've always had my eye on you, Cryl-Nish.' That was a lie, of course. 'Tell me about yourself.'
He began on the story of his life, suitably edited to impress. He had not gone far when she interrupted. 'I know all that. But there's one thing I don't understand…'
'Why you're here at all. You're not an artificer, Cryl-Nish.'
'I am!' He sat up angrily. 'And I've worked damned hard to become one.'
She pushed him down. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean to offend you. Of course you're an artificer, and a good one too…'
'Don't patronise me!' Rolling out of bed, he reached for his trousers.
The sheet slid away, exposing the other breast and her artisan's pliance hanging between them. He swallowed. Putting out her arms, she pulled his face against her bosom. Nish resisted, but not for very long.
'What I meant to say was… Your father sent you here for another reason, surely? A more important one than becoming an artificer. You would be much more valuable as a scribe, an assistant to a merchant, or even, one day, secretary to the scrutator.'
'Yes,' he said thickly, intoxicated by her. He lacked the experience to put her body out of mind.
'What is it?' Irisis stroked his chest with two fingertips.
'I'm also a prober,' he said rashly. That meant a prentice inquisitor, lowest on the rank that ran prober, querist, perquisitor and, unthinkably powerful, scrutator.
'A spy!' she exclaimed, tucking the sheet across her front.
He reached for it, more confidently now. She allowed him to caress her through the fabric before drawing away again. He hastened to reassure her.
'Not a spy. A watcher, helping to maintain order. This is a vital manufactory…'
'Is it?' she said. 'But there are hundreds. Why is ours so important?' Irisis leaned forward.
'We build the best clankers, because we make the finest controllers of all.'
'Why is that?' she whispered, taking his hand and sliding it inside the sheet.
Nish's eyes bulged. Sweat broke out on his forehead. 'Because,' he said hoarsely, 'we have the most perfect hedrons and the best artisans anywhere. The scrutator wants to know why, to protect us from harm and make sure no one steals our secrets.'
'Someone has to be the best. And if we have the best crystals, it stands to reason we would make the best controllers…'
She looked at him sideways. He hesitated, knowing he'd said more than he should. She slipped her hand lower. He groaned.
'It's something about this place!' Nish burst out. 'Our artisans are much better than others, even when they use inferior, imported crystals. It must be the node here.'
She resumed her caresses. 'A lowly prober isn't sent to solve those kinds of problems. That's mancer's work.'
Nish looked chagrined, as if he'd revealed too much already.
'How long have you been a prober, Nish?'
He flushed. 'Just since my father's letter came, a week ago.'
'And perhaps if he knew what you've told me, you'd be a prober no longer.'
He went still. She considered him, head tilted so that the glossy hair stroked his shoulder. Her eyes ran up and down before settling about his middle. 'I know something else you may like.' She bent over him.
Now he moaned when she stopped prematurely. 'What are you really probing for, my little spy?'
'I can't tell you,' he gasped. 'A prober who talks is no prober at all, and likely to end up a slave. Or dead!'
'Or in the front rank of the army, which amounts to the same thing. Let's see if I can guess. This place is full of rumours but who can tell truth from falsehood? What does a prober do? He stays alert for people who aren't doing their job, those who have unfortunate ideas, and those who think someone else could run the world better than our leaders. None of that here, though. This is a well-run, happy manufactory.
'But there's one other thing that probers do.' She paused, gave him a long look, then bent her head again. He choked. She looked him fair in the eye. 'They hunt spies!'
The expression on his face almost made her laugh. He could not think straight. How she loved this power she had over men. Few women did these days.
'Please,' he whimpered.
She just stared at him. He put his hands around the back of her head, trying to pull her down. She went with him a little way then stopped, and when he tried to use his strength she bared her teeth. They were alarmingly sharp.
There was only one way to get what he wanted. Nish licked dry lips. 'There is a spy, father is sure of it. Twice now, secrets of clankers made here, and only here, have been discovered far away.'
'Who is the spy?'
'We don't know. Whoever he is, he's too clever.'
'Or she,' he repeated.
'I'll help you. People will be wary of you, since your father is known to be perquisitor. But why would they suspect me?'
He looked uncertain.
'You're worried that I'll take the credit,' she said with a lazy smile. 'You need not – spycatcher is the last thing I want put to my name.'
'What do you want, Irisis?'
'What you offered Tiaan. What is mine by right. I want to be crafter, in charge of the entire controller works, and, one day, chanic of the province.'
'But you're only an artisan, and it's not long since you were prentice.'
'Crafter!' she said coldly. 'Then chanic.'
'Most artisans never become crafter, and few – very few crafters will rise to be chanic.'
'I have the talent for it; and the heritage. My father, my uncle, my grandfather, my great-grandmother and her mother before that, all were crafters or better. For four generations my family has held the position here. I'm going to be the fifth.'
'You're not old enough.'
'That rule can be broken, in an emergency.'
'Not by me.'
'A chief examiner can. You promised it to Tiaan. I heard you.'
'You didn't want me at all!' Nish cried. 'All you wanted was what you could get out of me.'
'Are you unhappy with what I've given you?'
'Good, because I can't stand whiners. Were you lying to Tiaan? I hate liars more than anything, Nish. I hope you never lie to me.'
The fury of his thoughts showed on his face. 'I… I might be able to do something for you. I have… some influence with my father, and more with my mother. I think I can sway them, as long as there is something in it for them.'
Irisis did not believe him, though she had not expected much. 'There will be. Now, how shall we seal the deal?'
She looked down and he up. He put his hands around her head, drawing her down, and this time she went willingly. Irisis rolled over and shook Nish awake. He struggled out of deep slumber into listless lethargy.
She leaned on one elbow, gazing at him. 'While you were snoring, I've been thinking.'
'Oh?' he said dully.
'I have an idea who the spy might be.'
He sat up abruptly. 'Really?' He clutched at her arm, staring into her eyes. 'Who?'
She smiled, showing those teeth again. 'I think it's Tiaan.'
He burst out laughing. 'Tiaan? You'd never make a prober, Irisis.'
She hurled herself off the bed, flinging the sheet around her with a gesture simple yet elegant. She looked like a marble statue carved by one of the masters of old, though her face spoiled the pose. 'No? What was she up to yesterday?'
'Visiting her mother. She goes down every month.'
'Tiaan was a long time away.'
'Maybe she had shopping to do.'
'And maybe she was meeting an accomplice to hand over our secrets.'
'Probers require proof,' he said loftily. 'Not idle speculation born out of malice.'
'I'll prove it to you!' she hissed. 'And now, Nish dear, get out!' Nish left Irisis's rooms physically sated but more anxious than before. If she betrayed his confidence, he would suffer. No prober's position then. No future at all, just the front-line until a lyrinx tore him apart.
Irisis was wrong. He'd had his eye on Tiaan for months. There had been nothing suspicious about her behaviour. Tiaan worked night and day, talked to her solitary friend, the old miner, and occasionally visited her mother in Tiksi. That was her entire life.
If there was a spy or a saboteur, and it seemed there must be, it had to be someone else. Possibly Irisis, unlikely as that seemed. With a thousand workers in the manufactory it would not be easy to find out.
Better patch things up with her. He could not afford to make enemies, especially of someone so well connected. And as he returned to his bench the image of her long, lush body grew in his mind. Nish knew he'd struck gold with Irisis. He might never find a better lover and he wanted more of her lessons. Better humour her, take her suspicions seriously, offer to help with her career and, if necessary, hint at a subtle prober's threat behind it.
But if he found the least scrap of evidence against Irisis, he would destroy her. Not without regret, but without hesitation.
Gi-Had's news came as a great relief to Tiaan. She had begun to doubt her own competence, but if hedrons from other manufactories were also failing there must be more to it than bad workmanship. Did the enemy have a way of disabling them from afar, or were they being sabotaged here? How could a crystal be sabotaged yet look unmarked? She had never heard of such a thing, nor had the other artisans. She was not out of trouble yet.
While everyone was at lunch, Tiaan scoured the crafter's rooms for anything he might have written on the topic. She found nothing, but did not return The Mancer's Art to its hiding place. She was not ready to give it up.
As she locked the door, Irisis appeared. 'What are you doing?' she said furiously.
'I'm trying to find out how a hedron could be sabotaged and leave no trace,' Tiaan replied, and passed by.
Something woke in the artisan's eyes. Irisis stared after Tiaan for a very long time. Tiaan could think of only one approach – to probe deeper into the faulty hedrons, even if she destroyed them in the process. Slipping her pliance over her head, she reached for the first crystal, but stopped. What if the damage spread back? Her throat went tight at the thought of losing her pliance. She dared not risk it. Instead she got out the rough design she had done in the night and set to work.
After three days of dawn-to-midnight toil Tiaan had put together a hedron probe, in two parts. The first was a globe constructed of copper wires following longitudes, latitudes and diagonals, on which were set a number of movable beads, like a model of the moons and planets in their orbits. The beads, each different, were made of carefully layered strips of metal, ceramic and glass. The other part was a helm of enamelled silver and copper lacework in delicate filigrees, designed to fit over her head. A series of springy wires went down through her hair, their flattened ends pressing against the sides and back of her head, unnervingly like a wire spider. At the front, a setting the size of a grape was designed to hold a shaped piece of crystal.
Tiaan opened the two halves of the globe and placed one of the failed hedrons inside. Inserting a piece of crystal into the setting on the helm, she put it on her head. The wires were chilly. Closing her eyes, she slid her hands around the globe and pressed her fingers in through the wires until her fingertips touched the faces of the hedron.
At once she sensed something in its heart – a tiny, shifting aura, all fuzzy and smeared out, like a comet's tail. Her fingers moved the beads one way and then another. The aura was stronger in some positions, almost non-existent in others. Once or twice it disappeared. She tried rotating various wires, then flipping them north to south. That did not help either. Her apparatus was not powerful enough to read the aura, though while viewing it she had the uncomfortable feeling that someone was looking for her. She opened her door but found the workshop empty.
Tiaan examined the small crystal in the helm. It was not a particularly strong one, just the first she'd picked up. She searched through her offcuts but found nothing better, and the basket of waste crystals was empty.
'Gol?' She looked around for the sweeper boy. He did not answer. Tiaan found him sleeping in one of the nooks behind the furnaces, his head pillowed on a burlap sack. These hidey-holes had been the favourite haunt of factory kids since the manufactory had been built. She had used this nook herself once or twice, when she was little.
Tiaan looked down at the sleeping boy. He was an angelic-looking lad – olive skin, a cheerful oval face, red lips and a noble brow capped by black curls.
'Gol!' She shook him by the shoulders.
He woke slowly, smiling before he opened his eyes, as if from a pleasant dream. When he saw her standing there, his eyes went wide.
'Artisan Tiaan!' He fell out of the niche in a comical attempt to look alert and hardworking. 'What can I do for you?'
With an effort she kept a straight face. Gol was always willing, but his work never came up to expectation. Slapdash as well as lazy, he did not know the difference between a job well done and an entirely inadequate one. A harder master would have beaten that out of him but Tiaan could not bring herself to do it.
'Where did you put the waste crystals from my workbench?'
'Around the back of the manufactory,' he said brightly. 'On the ash pile. Would you like me to show you?'
'I told you to put them in the basket in my storeroom!' she said sharply. 'If this happens again, Gol, I'll send you back to your mother.' As if she could. The poor woman was a halfwit with seven children, none good for anything but lyrinx fodder.
'I'm sorry!' He assumed an expression of profound mortification.
Gol's emotions tended to the extreme. Tiaan wondered if there was a brain in his head at all. 'Come on! I'm in a hurry!'
They went past the smithies, where a bevy of half-naked lads wielded long-handled hammers. Eiryn Muss leaned against an anvil, ogling the youths and grinning loutishly. A pair of prentices mocked the halfwit behind his back, slouching about with their tongues out, drooling. Tiaan wondered if men like Muss were required to mate.
As she went past the artificers' workshops, Nish gave her a smouldering stare. He had been watching her ever since the incident in her workshop. She hurried by, looking straight ahead, and opened the back gate.
The rear of the manufactory was a dismal place. The open drains steamed and reeked, a mixture of foetid human waste, tarry effluent and brimstone that had killed every plant in sight. Furnace ash and slag were piled all around the ravine, the most recent deposits steaming gently in the drizzle. A thousand times as much had clotted in the valley below. The river ran acid for two and a half leagues, a series of poisoned pools, stained iron-red or tarry black, in which nothing lived.
Gol led her through the reeking piles then stopped abruptly. 'It's not there!' He began to bawl.
Tiaan went to the brink of the ravine. Ammonia fumes brought tears to her eyes. Most of the ash mountain, saturated after weeks of rain and sleet, had slumped over the edge. Running down in a thick blurt to the water's edge, it looked exactly like a cowdung mudslide. There was no chance of recovering the precious offcuts.
Tiaan wiped her dripping nose. 'Oh, stop whining, Gol! Why can't you ever do what you're told.' The lad wailed loudly. 'Go! Get on with your work! And if this happens again I will have you whipped!'
He ran sobbing up the path. Tiaan leaned against a fragment of wall, all that remained of the monastery that had stood here for a thousand years. Before that, for another thousand, pilgrims had come to worship at the holy well, now buried under piles of slag. Had that been related to the node here?
Returning to the workshop, she checked the benches of the artisans. They had been cleared of their crystal waste as well. There were fresh crystals in the storeroom but she did not want to cut one down. She needed one that was the right size to start with. First thing in the morning she would have to go back down the mine. 'Morning, Lex, I'm looking for old Joe. Is he still working on the fifth level?'
Lex came out of his cavity. A little globe of a man, he looked like one of those smiling dolls that, after being knocked over, always came upright again.
'I haven't seen him, Tiaan,' he said clearly, evidently having his teeth in today. 'I don't think he's here.'
'Oh! I hope he's not sick.'
'Old Joe? He's as tough as miner's underpants. Naw, probably gone down to Tiksi.'
'I'll try his cottage, just in case. Thanks, Lex!'
She headed for the village, a third of a league down the mountain. A cluster of fifty or sixty stone cottages had been built in terraces on either side of the path, though Joeyn's place stood uphill among the trees. An oblong granite structure of two rooms, it had a mossy thatched roof and was surrounded by a fence of woven wattles.
The sun was just coming up as Tiaan pushed open the gate. A path of crushed granite led to a north-facing porch, unfurnished except for a rude chair. A scatter of white daisies grew beside the porch. Clumps of autumn crocuses were in flower here and there. On the other side of the path a vegetable garden contained onions, garlic, leeks and a few red cabbages.
The door was closed. A wisp of smoke came from the chimney. She knocked at the door. No answer. She knocked again and thought she heard a faint reply. Tiaan pushed open the door, afraid something had happened to him.
It was dark inside, the windowless hut lit only by the glow from an open fire. At first her eyes could make out nothing.
'If it isn't Tiaan!' came a hoarse voice from beside the fire. 'Come in, my dear.'
Tiaan made out a seated figure at a bench beside the fire. Joeyn started to get up but broke into a coughing fit.
'Are you all right, Joe?' She ran to him.
He wiped his eyes on his sleeve. 'Miner's lungs!' he gasped, clearing his throat and spitting into the fire. 'It's always like this in the morning.'
'I was worried. I thought something must have happened to you.'
'I've made my quota. I didn't feel like going to work today.'
'I'm seventy-six, Tiaan. I only keep going because there would be nothing to do if I stopped. But some days I just don't feel like working.'
'Can I get you anything?'
'I'm not an invalid,' he said with a smile. 'But I wouldn't mind a cup of ghill, if you feel like waiting on me. It's in the jar on the mantel.'
Taking down the jar, she picked out several curling strips of ghi wood and moved the pot over the coals. 'Strong or weak?'
'Like tar. Put in about five strips and leave it a good while. Let's sit on the porch.'
He carried his chair out. Tiaan settled into the other. They watched the mist drifting between the pines. The wind sighed through the wattle fence. Finally Joeyn spoke. 'It's always nice to see you, Tiaan, though I'm sure you didn't come to pass the time of day.'
'What am I going to do about a partner, Joe?'
Looking her over, he smiled to himself. 'I don't see any problem.'
'It's not such an onerous duty, Tiaan.'
'I didn't mean that. I'll get the ghill.' She rose abruptly, coming back with two wooden mugs. The steam smelt like peppery cinnamon.
While they sipped their ghill, she went over her problem with the crystal.
Joeyn sat ruminating. 'So, you need me to find you another.'
'The most powerful one you can. The last wasn't strong enough.'
'And I suppose it's urgent?'
'Gi-Had threatened to send me to the breeding factory if I didn't solve the problem by the end of the week.'
'As if he would! You're too valuable to him, Tiaan.'
'Why would he say that if he didn't mean it?' Tiaan was not good at reading people and could not separate idle words from serious ones. 'He's in trouble because of the failed clankers, and Foreman Gryste is whispering in his ear about me. He doesn't like me.'
'Gryste doesn't like anyone, Tiaan. Especially since…'
Joeyn sniffed his drink. 'He was passed over for overseer when Gi-Had came back from the war a hero. Then Gryste did his own service, was blamed for a defeat that wasn't his fault and broken to a common soldier. He's been at odds with the world ever since. And his habit doesn't help.'
'The nigah leaf?'
'Yes. Makes a man angry. And it's expensive.'
'I'm afraid of him. The war is going really badly, Joe. Desperate people do stupid things.'
'It's been going badly since I was a boy. You stop believing everything you're told after a while. I'm so old that I've seen the Histories rewritten.'
'The Histories are truth!' she cried. More than that, they were the foundation of the world. To challenge them bordered on blasphemy.
'No doubt of it,' he replied, 'but whose?'
'I don't know what you're talking about.'
'Not many people do. Hardly anyone lives to my age any more. Have you ever heard of the Tale of the Mirror?'
'Only as a monstrous lie.'
'It wasn't when I was a little boy. It was one of the Great Tales, and Llian of Chanthed one of the greatest chroniclers. Now he's Llian the Liar, the man who debased the Histories. Why?'
'I supposed someone proved -'
'The greatest people of the age were there when he told the Great Tale – Nadiril the Librarian, Yggur, Shand, Malien the Aachim. No one said a word against the tale for a hundred and thirty years, then suddenly the Council of Scrutators had it rewritten. Why, Tiaan?'
'I don't know.'
'This war has destroyed everything we once held sacred.'
She squirmed on her chair. 'I don't like that kind of talk, Joe.'
He went back to the previous topic. 'I don't imagine the breeding factory would suit you very well.' He gave her a sly grin. 'Though it is a life of luxury and pleasure…'
'Don't joke about it, Joe! I'm not going to be treated like a brood sow.' Her face had gone brick-red. 'I love my work, and I can do it better than anyone else. I just want to do my job and live my life.'
'That's all any of us want. Unfortunately the war…'
'The cursed war!'
'Still, I don't suppose Gi-Had would send you down, Tiaan. You're his best artisan.'
'I do seem to have an unusual talent,' she said thoughtfully.
'So I've heard. Do you know where it came from?'
'From my mother, according to her, though she tried to cover my talent up.'
'Is that so?'
'I first realised I was special at the examination, when I was six. In one of the tests they held up a picture, just for a second, then asked me questions about it. I knew all the answers. They were astounded, but it wasn't hard at all – in my mind's eye I could see the picture perfectly. I can still see it now, a family playing games on a green lawn. A mother, a father, a girl, two boys and a dog!' She sighed heavily.
'After that they showed me all sorts of images. There were maps of places I'd never heard of, the workings of a clock, a tapestry of the Histories. My answers were perfect, because every image stayed in my mind.'
'What else did they ask you?' Joeyn looked fascinated. 'I never had the examination. It hadn't started when I was a kid.'
'Hadn't it?' Tiaan said, surprised. 'Oh, all sorts of things. Reading, spelling, remembering, aiming and throwing, number puzzles.' She smiled at a memory. 'One didn't seem like a test at all. The examiners put a little piece of honeycomb in front of me and said that if I didn't touch it until they came back, I could have a really big piece.'
'Did you eat it?' Joeyn asked.
'No, though I wanted to. Other tests involved making things out of gears and wheels and metal parts. I did badly on those.'
'That's odd, for a controller-maker.'
'I never had those kinds of toys when I was a kid. Mother sneered at people who worked with their hands. Her daughter was certainly not going to.
'The examiners seemed disappointed, as if that lack had cancelled out my other talent. I remember them talking in the corner, looking back at me and shaking their heads.'
'So how did you end up at the manufactory?' Taking another sip from his mug, Joeyn settled back in the chair.
'The last test involved a collection of crystals; kinds of hedrons, I suppose. At least, some were. The others must have been dummies. They put the first in my hand. It was dark-green. A mask went over my face and they asked me to describe what I saw.' She paused for a pull at her mug.
'What did you see?'
'I didn't see anything. I felt as if I'd failed another important test. Someone took the crystal away and gave me another. I concentrated hard, but had no idea what I was supposed to see.'
Joeyn was leaning against the wall with his eyes closed. Tiaan continued.
'They gave me the third crystal. It was really cold. I started to say, "I can't see anything with this one either…" when a pink wave moved through my inner eye. It disappeared and I must have cried out. I tried really hard to get it back. Someone called, "What did you see, child?"
'The crystal warmed in my hand and suddenly it was like looking down on a pond with oil on it. I watched the patterns and time stood still. There were layers of colours, all going up and down, back and forth and passing in and out of each other. In places they twisted into swirls like water going down a plughole, then came out the other side of nowhere and joined up again. It was so beautiful! Then it vanished. The examiners had taken the crystal. I'd been using it for an hour!
'I looked for it, frantically. I had to have it back. I kicked and screamed, something I'd never done in my life. It was withdrawal, the first time I'd ever felt it. Nothing mattered but that I got the crystal back.
'I told them what I'd seen and I could see the excitement in their eyes. I wanted to try the other crystals but they put them away and sent me back to my mother. A few weeks later, after an indenture was drawn up, I was sent to the manufactory. Marnie was furious. She'd planned a different prenticeship for me, one worth a lot more to her, but the examiners had made their decision.'
'For you to become a prentice controller-maker?' asked Joeyn.
'Well, yes, though for two years all I did was sweep, clean and empty out the waste. I wasn't clever little Tiaan any more, I was the brat from the breeding factory. In a way I'm still that kid. I've never been able to make friends here.'
'The cat that walked by herself,' Joeyn murmured. 'You're too different, Tiaan.'
'You give the impression that you don't need anyone else. It must be rather off-putting to the people you work with.'
'I suppose I want… different things. Anyway, old Crafter Barkus started me on my prenticeship when I was eight. I felt really useless then. Everyone else was good with their hands and I had a hand full of thumbs. It took ages before I could do the simplest things.'
'So what did you do?' he asked with a bit of a grin, as if he already knew. Perhaps he did: it had created quite a stir at the time.
'I couldn't stop thinking about the crystal and what I'd seen with it. I wanted it desperately. There were plenty of hedrons in the artisans' workshops but I wasn't allowed near them. Prentices don't get to touch hedrons until they're twelve. I emptied the waste but those offcuts were from crystals before they'd been woken into hedrons. I tried them all but saw nothing.
'Then one day, a few months after I began my prenticeship, a hedron offcut was thrown out by mistake. I'd given up looking by then so I just scooped the contents of the basket onto the slag heap. As I did, I felt a flash of light and colour.
'It took hours to find the one chip of hedron in that mass of crystal and slag, but as soon as my fingers touched it I saw. I saw things no one else could see, beautiful colours and patterns, forever in motion. I couldn't make sense of them so I began sneaking into Crafter Barkus's lectures. I'm sure he knew. He never said anything, but every so often would break off from some abstruse theory to deliver a piece of instruction so basic that the prentices scratched their heads and wondered if he was going senile. I learned enough that way.'
'What did you learn?' Joeyn asked idly.
'What hedrons were for. I became obsessed. My crystal was like the friend I'd never had. I spent the whole day holding it. The nights too. I learned how to read the shifting field around the node here, better than anyone in the manufactory. When I was nine I made a series of paintings showing how it changed every day for a month. The field wasn't random, as everyone thought. There was a pattern to it, though no one had seen the field clearly enough to realise the pattern was there.
'I went running into the crafter's rooms with my paintings…' She broke off, giving a little shiver. 'I burst in on a meeting with the old overseer and a perquisitor!'
'There was a deathly silence, then the perquisitor turned my paintings to the wall. The room was sealed, a guard put on the door and I was questioned by the sternest old man I'd ever met. Where had I got the pictures from? I was terrified that he would flog me. He did, too, but it wasn't the worst he could have done. He took my hedron away. I had not been separated from it for months and had the most terrifying withdrawal. I thought I was going to die. I was in a fever for four days.
'The perquisitor could not believe that I'd mapped the field myself, not until every artisan and operator in the manufactory had been interrogated. I'd made a better map than the army had. It was priceless information, especially to the enemy.
'Then, when I told him that I could actually change the pattern of the field, the perquisitor went silent. That's how adepts draw power, you see, and it's a vital secret. He was afraid I'd let something slip in my childish chatter. He also worried that I would draw power without realising it and end up killing people, or myself. There was only one thing he could do.
'My true prenticeship began that day, three years early, although it did not end any sooner. Barkus started me with hedrons straight away but my talent did not make it easier. Well, using the hedron was easy but nothing else was. Learning to make the tiny parts of controllers was a nightmare. I was the worst of all the prentices at any kind of craft work. I tried really hard but it didn't seem to make any difference.'
'But you mastered the craft in the end.'
'Yes. My controllers aren't beautiful, like Irisis's, but they work better.' She bent down to sniff the autumn crocuses. 'The other part was nearly as much trouble.'
He waited for her to go on.
'Seeing things with a hedron is easy. Tuning the wretched controller to its hedron, and then to the field, was the hardest thing I've ever tried to do.'
He took another sip and made a face. 'Brew tastes a bit mouldy.'
'Sorry,' she said at once. 'I -'
'It's the ghi, Tiaan, not the making. Go on.'
'As students we did not have our own hedrons. We had to use ones made for the prentices years ago. They never fitted, and I used to see strange after-echoes from all the different wills that had used and abused them, the way students do. Anyway, they were flawed to begin with.'
'You wouldn't give a good one to a bunch of prentices,' said Joeyn. 'They'd ruin it.'
'No doubt.' Walking to the wicket gate, she stared into the woods.
'You were talking about tuning the controller,' he prompted after a while.
She came back. 'Oh yes. Nearly all hedrons have flaws and a hundred parts of the controller have to be adjusted to take account of them. Sometimes you don't know how. Move one part too far and it throws everything else out. It might take a day just to get back to where you started from, even if you knew what you'd done wrong. But when you're a prentice you never do know, and the beatings just make it worse.'
'I never thought old Barkus was a beater,' Joeyn frowned.
'He was a gentle old man. It was the older prentices. They resented me. Anyway, that's a long time ago. It took ages to learn, but once I did it was easy. I didn't even have to think about tuning a controller, especially after I made my own pliance. Suddenly I could see the field perfectly. It was…'
'Like having your own eyeglasses,' said Joeyn, 'instead of using someone else's.'
'Exactly. I don't know what I'd do if I ever lost my pliance.' Tiaan clutched at her throat where it normally hung, before realising that she'd left it back on her bench. She felt anxious about that; not that anyone would dare touch it.
'I suppose we should be going.' Joeyn drained his mug.
She stayed where she was. 'I'm worried, Joe. Irisis tries to take the credit for my good work and blames me for everything that goes wrong. She hates me because I'm better than she is. She's afraid I'll be made crafter. Just because her uncle had the position…'
'And her father and grandfather before that. Birth is right, to a lot of people.'
'And I'm not one of them. Especially since I have no father.'
'Well, what you lack in heritage you must make up for in sweat and cleverness. Let's go up to the mine and see what we can find.' Inside, in the lift basket, Joeyn kept winding down after they reached the fifth opening.
'I thought this part was closed off,' Tiaan said as the basket shuddered to a stop at the sixth level.
'Isn't it dangerous?'
'Parts are very dangerous. Fortunately I know which parts.'
She looked down. The shaft continued. 'What's below this?'
'Levels seven, eight and nine. Don't ever go down there.'
'Is the rock all rotten?'
'Yes, and some parts are flooded. Pity, because there's more ore down there, and richer, than ever was taken from the higher levels.'
'What about crystal?'
'Don't know. That's before my time. No one was interested in crystal in them days. Leastways, not here. It would have all been tossed on the mullock heaps, unless a pretty bit caught someone's fancy.'
'Maybe I should try there,' Tiaan said.
'Too late. I had a look after Barkus first asked me for crystal. I couldn't sense anything at all. They must need to be freshly mined.'
'I wonder if that could be the problem?' she said thoughtfully. 'Maybe the operators had the controllers out in the sun, and the last crystals were really sensitive to it.'
'Perhaps. Could also be heat, or frost, or wet. Coming?'
The tunnel snaked this way and that, following the seams. There were many dead ends where seams pinched out or were truncated by faults or shear zones full of crumbled rock and greasy clay. After some hard walking they reached a low mound of rubble. Joeyn surveyed it carefully, holding his lantern up to check the roof.
'See the cracks up there? An old fracture zone runs right through. Rocks are all shattered to bits; just a few seams of quartz holding it together.'
Her eye followed his battered finger. A web of cracks ran across the roof. Another, larger crack snaked down the side of the tunnel as far as she could see. 'What if…?'
'If we're under it when it comes down, we're dead! If beyond, we can probably move enough rubble to get out. Depending how much falls. Still want to go?'
'Can we find the crystal I need anywhere else?'
'Not quickly.' He raised an eyebrow, which already had rock dust clinging to it.
'I'll do whatever you say.'
'There's a lot of dead miners who thought the roof would stay up. Still, I think this one is good for a while. We'll go carefully. No loud noises. Follow ten paces behind, so if I set something off…'
Tiaan shivered, feeling the roof twitch above her. He patted her shoulder. 'I started in the mines when I was eight. You develop a nose for danger, if you survive.'
She stayed well back, anxious as she walked under the fractures. Grit trickled down her neck. The place turned out to be a long way in. They went under several more unstable areas before Joeyn stopped where the tunnel terminated in triple dead ends like the stumps of amputated fingers.
'Up there!' He pointed with a chisel.
Tiaan lifted up her lantern. A massive vein, hollow in the centre, slashed across the middle end of the tunnel. It was bristling with crystals fist-sized or bigger, more perfect than any she had seen. She could feel something too – the field. She wished she had her pliance so she could sense it properly. If she closed her eyes she could almost see it as coloured curls and billows, like tendrils of chromatic fog moving in and out of the three dimensions. All her senses seemed more acute, as if the field was amplifying them. She wanted those crystals. Tiaan darted forward.
Joeyn caught her by the collar as she went past. 'Stop!'
The shock jerked her off her feet. Tiaan rubbed her throat, which was bruised from the collar. He steadied her.
'Sorry. Didn't mean to hurt you. It isn't safe there.'
The roof above the vein contained a series of concentric fractures as well as cracks radiating from the centre. The pattern was rather like a spider's web.
Her skin crept. 'I don't know why I ran, Joe. I just felt drawn to it.'
'I can feel it too. I often have, down here, though I was never tempted. I don't see how we can get to the vein, Tiaan. The roof is much worse than I remember. It's going to fall. Soon!'
'Is there no way we could hold it up?'
He eyed the rock. 'Wouldn't be easy. Could take days to get enough plates and props in here, and it'd probably come down on us while we were putting them up.'
'What about making it fall?'
He stroked his jaw. 'You don't know what else will come with it. The entire roof could collapse.'
'Oh!' She felt her last hope disappearing.
He paced back and forth, examining the roof from various vantage points. 'Don't give up yet.'
Sitting on the floor, Joeyn withdrew a roll of cord from his pack and tied a slipknot in one end. Laying the knot over the end of his pick handle, he ran the cord down the handle and crept around the wall until he was as close as he could get to the vein without going under the cracked roof.
He reached up with the pick, as high as he could, but not high enough. He edged forward a bit, just under the shattered zone. Still he could not reach. Going right under, and lifting the pick high, Joeyn eased the handle up to a single crystal, trying to slip the knot over the end. The cord fell down.
Creeping back to the safe area, Joeyn replaced the knot and tried again with the same result. He tried a third time. The cord slipped over the crystal. Putting down the pick he pulled the cord tight and gave it a jerk. The crystal did not move. A harder jerk and the cord broke.
Joeyn cursed, which brought on a fit of coughing. He bent double, gasping and choking.
'Don't stand there, please. Get out of the way!' She imagined the roof thundering down on him. No crystal was worth that risk.
The fit ended. He wiped his mouth, gave her a weak kind of a grin and looked up. 'It's not my day yet, Tiaan.'
'How many dead miners have said that?' she murmured.
'Thousands.' A better grin.
Tossing the cord aside, he slipped along the wall, reached up with the handle of the pick and with a single blow snapped off the small crystal. Unfortunately it fell back among the others. Dust filtered down from the roof. Tiaan caught her breath. Joeyn flipped the pick end for end, caught the handle, stood on tiptoe and flicked the crystal out. He caught it in his other hand, creaked backwards and landed in the safe area. Chips of stone fell from the roof.
As he came across, there was a spring in his step she had never seen before. 'My lady!' Holding out the crystal, he bowed.
'Thank you.' She embraced him, the hand holding the crystal touched her ear and she went rigid against him.
'Something the matter?' he asked, stepping back.
She rubbed her ear. 'It felt as if something stung me.' Tiaan took the crystal. It was smaller than the ones she normally worked with, not much thicker than her thumb. It might not do for a hedron but it looked perfect for her sensor helm. Unlike the other crystals it was perfectly clear, save for a hexagon of tiny bubbles midway along its length.
It did not sting her hand but Tiaan could feel the potential in it – stronger than any crystal she'd ever had.
'Nish!' Irisis wailed, right in his ear. 'Get up, quick!' Rolling over, he blinked at the bright lantern and tried to pull the pillow over his head. 'Later,' he moaned. 'I'm too tired.'
She poured icy water onto the back of his neck.
Nish shrieked and leapt out of bed. 'What the hell do you think you're doing?'
'Look what Tiaan's done now!' she said savagely.
He rubbed sleep from his eyes. She was holding out a controller, the most beautiful piece of work he'd ever seen. At least it had been. Several arms were broken off and the others twisted as if someone had jumped on them.
'What happened to it?'
'Tiaan smashed it, the vicious little cow.'
'Why would she do that?' Nish could not believe anyone would wantonly destroy such a precious thing, least of all Tiaan.
Irisis sat on the bed, holding the controller against her breast. Its broken arms dangled uselessly. 'I only finished it yesterday!' Her lip trembled and she turned away, as if ashamed at that loss of control. 'It's taken me a month to make and it's the best one I've ever done. I came in early to fit the hedron but the controller was gone. It was behind the door of Tiaan's cubicle, like this.'
'There's a guard down at the offices, night and day.' Nish rubbed the back of his neck, still throbbing from the ice water. 'Better speak to him.'
'I have! The only artisan who's been in the workshop since I left was Tiaan. She's in the pay of the enemy. You've got to stop her, Nish.' She moved up close behind him.
Her warm breath aroused distracting thoughts. He turned away. 'It could be just an accident.'
'Don't be stupid! It was in her cubicle, Nish. It didn't float there. She destroyed my controller, just as she sabotaged the others.'
'That's hard to believe.'
'What does it take to convince you?' she raged. 'Will you let her destroy the manufactory?'
'It takes evidence!' he said vehemently. He longed to get back at Tiaan but probers must follow the rules. His father would never trust him again if he accused someone who subsequently turned out to be innocent. Especially the best artisan in the manufactory.
'Go and talk to the guards,' she said icily.
'Bah!' she snorted. 'You're secretly in love with her. You don't want to find her out.'
Nish went looking for the guards who had been on duty outside the offices overnight. Their post was close to the artisans' workshop. He found the midnight guard in the refectory and explained what had happened.
'No one went near the workshop on my shift,' she said, pointedly turning her shoulder to him. He was a lowly artificer, after all.
Nish had to take her word, though the damage could have been done in a few minutes while she was at the privy, or gossiping to another guard, or warming herself by the furnaces. After all, there had been no one watching the guard.
The day guard, who was talking to Foreman Gryste, had seen no one go into the workshop except Tiaan and, sometime after that, Irisis.
'My door was open,' said Gryste. 'If anyone else came past I would have seen them.'
'Where's Tiaan now?' Nish asked Irisis, who was coming out of the workshop.
'She's gone out again. Come on!'
Nish followed her towards the front gate. 'Where did she go?'
'How would I know?'
They asked old Nod at the gate. 'She went down to the mine,' Nod said.
'She goes there all the time,' said Irisis as they walked out into the wind.
'She has to select the best crystals.'
'You're a fool, Nish! She's selling our secrets to someone there. She's going to meet him.'
'Don't call me a fool,' he said coldly. 'And don't ever call me Nish again. My name is Cryl-Nish.'
His anger made her step backwards. Bowing her head, she took his hand. 'I'm sorry,' she said breathlessly. 'I didn't mean to offend you, Cryl-Nish. Please come and see for yourself.'
As they emerged from the forest Tiaan came out of the adit and took the path to the village. Irisis and Nish followed, keeping at a safe distance.
'Where's she going?' Nish asked.
'To old Joeyn's place, I'd say.'
They tracked her to a hut above the village. Tiaan went inside, then she and the miner came out and sat on the porch.
'What are they doing?' Irisis whispered.
After some time, Tiaan and Joeyn headed back up the path to the mine.
'Come on!' said Irisis.
Nish went with her to the hut. She slipped inside. 'Quickly!' she said as he lingered on the path.
Nish thought it unlikely that there was anything to be found, but humoured her. Shortly, however, feeling under the old man's blankets, his hand touched a folded piece of paper. He carried it to the doorway.
Both sides of the page were covered in writing in a tiny hand. It was a description of the preparation of a hedron. 'That's Tiaan's writing,' Irisis said, coming up behind him. 'The traitorous slut!'
Nish examined the paper, which was rough-cut on three sides, razor smooth on the fourth. 'Looks as if it's been taken from a book.'
'It must be from her day journal.'
They found nothing else. Without saying a word Nish went back to the manufactory, searching Tiaan's room and then her work cubicle. Her room revealed nothing. Her day journal had a leaf missing, neatly razored out.
He locked the cubicle, put the key in his pocket and went to see Overseer Gi-Had. There he explained that he was a prober, working secretly on his father's behalf, showed his letter of appointment and told Gi-Had about the ruined controller and the missing leaf.
'I don't believe it!' said the overseer, though he looked worried.
'Anyone can be corrupted by the enemy.'
'Not Tiaan. She has no vices, no secrets, no life apart from her work.'
'Perhaps one of her brothers or sisters is in trouble and she needs money desperately.'
Gi-Had consulted a ledger. 'She has forty-nine silver drams to her account, more than almost anyone in the manufactory. Twenty-six more and she could pay off her indenture. Unheard of!'
Nish whistled. It was a small fortune. 'There you are – it's her wages as a spy.'
'It's her pay over the past fourteen years! She's spent virtually nothing in that time. You can check the entries, prober. Every copper nyd is accounted for.'
Nish did, and found all to be exactly as Gi-Had had said. It shook him. 'Perhaps you'd better come and see the journal.'
'I will,' said Gi-Had, and his face grew even blacker as he matched the leaf to the cut. 'Anyone could have done this! Why would she cut a leaf from her own journal, incriminating herself, when she could simply copy it?'
Nish was forced to consider the unpalatable alternative, that Irisis had smashed her own controller and planted the evidence to discredit her rival.
'Do you have anyone in mind?' Gi-Had rasped. It was clear that he did.
'Me?' Nish said hoarsely.
'You are supposed to be the prober.'
'I'm thinking on it.'
'Then think fast! I want a report today. Tiaan is working on a special project for me and suddenly this happens. It's damned suspicious! If someone is trying to bring down my best artisan, I'll hang their head over the front gate and their guts from the flagpole. Whoever their family is!' His eyes flashed. 'I'm putting a guard on the workshop, night and day! No, two guards.' He stamped out.
Nish sat down on Tiaan's stool, shaken. What was he supposed to do now? He was almost sure Irisis had cut the page from the ledger. If she was behind the sabotage too, she must be denounced. She was a liability he could not afford.
The door opened and Irisis came in, smiling. The smile vanished when she saw the expression on his face.
'It was you!' he said through gritted teeth. He jumped up, knocking over the stool. 'Gi-Had knows Tiaan was set up and he suspects you. I should call him back right now.'
'Go ahead. He's my cousin.'
'I can't believe you would smash your own controller!' he said coldly.
Irisis stared at him in incredulity, then spun on her heel and stalked out. He ran after her, grabbing her by the arm.
She whirled. 'You do believe it, Nish! You think more of her than you do of me.'
'You manipulating bitch! How dare you use me?'
'You love her,' she sneered. 'Your brain is addled by the little cow.'
'I despise her, but not as much as I despise you. Don't ever lie to me, Irisis. Do you deny that you did it?'
She said nothing at all. He held her gaze but she did not look away. 'You can't deny it, can you, Irisis?'
'I don't have to justify myself to you, Nish.'
'You did do it!'
'I have nothing to say.'
'In that case I must do my prober's duty and take my evidence to Gi-Had.'
She pulled her arm free. 'If you do,' she said coldly, 'don't think I'll go without a fuss. Your father the perquisitor will be told that you talk on your lover's pillow, and that I bribed you to bring Tiaan down and make me crafter. It'll be the end of your career too, Ex-Prober Cryl-Nish.'
He knew she would. He might lie his way out of it but his prospects would be badly damaged. His liaison with her was already the talk of the manufactory and she could turn his collaboration into treason. It would be a disaster for them both.
Nish had everything to lose if she went down, much to gain if she did not. Her family was nearly the equal of his own. It would be a good alliance, to say nothing of the pleasures of her glorious body. But if she was behind the sabotage he must denounce her.
He faced up to his duty. 'I don't care! I hate Tiaan, but I'll go to my doom before I help the enemy…' He tried to look implacable.
'Very well,' she said. 'I admit that I cut the page from her book and hid it, but only because of what she'd done to me.'
Nish took a deep breath. It did not make things any easier. 'And the sabotage of your controller?'
'Don't be absurd!' She met his eye, unflinching.
Irisis looked convincing, though Nish knew what a gifted liar she was. 'Swear it!'
'I swear,' she said evenly, 'on my sacred family Histories, that I had nothing to do with the sabotages. Any of them!'
He was still not absolutely convinced, though he had no option but to take her word. 'In that case, who did?'
'Tiaan did!' she grated. 'Why won't you look at the evidence? Nothing I've said changes the facts. You heard the guards -there's no one else it could be.'
'I still have to tell Gi-Had that you cut out the page.'
Irisis looked as if she'd been slapped across the face. Her big eyes were on him, a single tear quivering on one lash. She took a tentative step toward him, a gliding movement, then up on her toes at the end. Her bosom heaved. The buttons seemed to have come undone. It was the oldest trick of all and he wasn't going to be taken in by it.
'Please, Cryl-Nish!' She held out her arms.
He folded his across his chest, desperately trying to control his body. With an insignificant movement at her waist, her trousers fell to her ankles. She stepped out of them. Ah, but her body was magnificent!
'Would you let them kill me so cruelly? They would disembowel me, hang up my entrails for the world to see and cut my body into quarters to feed the scavengers.' With another movement she stood naked before him. 'Would you do that, to this!' She held out her breasts, one in each hand.
Nish flung himself on her and they copulated on the floor of Tiaan's cubicle like beasts. After it was over and they lay panting, slicked with sweat, Irisis opened her eyes. They were so very blue. 'I think I see a solution to both our problems.'
'Oh?' he said.
'Do you believe Tiaan is innocent or guilty?'
'I don't know,' he said heavily.
'What do you think?'
'I think, on the balance of the evidence, that she probably is guilty.'
'Then help me stop her. If something were to happen to Tiaan…'
He pushed her away roughly. 'What are you talking about? It had better not be what I'm thinking.' Though for more of what he'd just had, there was little he would not do, if he could get away with it.
Irisis pulled him back, and he relented. 'She has betrayed her country, and you, and me! Soldiers have died; clankers have been lost. I know my duty too, Nish. We've got to be rid of her for the good of the war.'
She was moving too fast for him. 'But… the manufactory can't do without her.'
'Do you know how many artisans there are, just in this province?'
'I have no idea.'
'More than a thousand! If something happened to her, or to me for that matter, either of us could be replaced tomorrow.'
'I hadn't thought there could be so many,' Nish said.
'Well, there are.'
'Do you deny she is a good artisan?' Nish expected her to.
'Tiaan is very talented. Since I'm being honest with you, she's better than I am. But she's using those talents against us, Nish. She's helping the enemy.'
'I don't like it.'
'That's because you're in love with her.'
'I'm not! But…'
'After what she said to you the other day? No real man would put up with that kind of abuse.'
Still he hesitated.
Irisis stood up. 'Make up your mind, Nish. Support her and you'll get no more of me, ever! Which is it?'
'I hate Tiaan for what she did to me,' he said. 'If proof against her can be found – proper proof – I'll help you destroy her.'
'And you won't tell Gi-Had that I cut out the page?' Those big blue eyes were all over him again.
'No,' he said softly.
Nish spent the rest of the day agonising about what he had got himself into. Concealing evidence was a serious crime, and if he was wrong about Irisis, it would mean his doom.
Tiaan returned from the mine, still puzzling over Joeyn's observation that crystals exposed on the mullock heaps were useless. Oblivious to the furore, she collected a handful of hedron chips and put them at various locations inside and outside the manufactory, to test the effects of exposure. She did not need to hide them since they looked like any other fragments of quartz.
On the way back to her cubicle Tiaan ducked into the library and went to the section where the Great Tales were kept. These books, of which there were twenty-nine, were the highest achievement of the Histories and every child was taught them. The manufactory's copies were bound in red leather reinforced with brass, and fixed to the shelves with brass chains. She lifted them down, one by one. All of the Great Tales were there save one, the twenty-third. The Tale of the Mirror.
She went to the librarian, an old, old man as bald as a marble, with thin blotched hands and perpetually moist eyes.
'Hello, Gurleys,' she said. 'I'm looking for one of the Great Tales.'
'They're all on the shelf.' He did not take his eyes from his catalogue.
'No, one is missing. The Tale of the Mirror.'
He looked up sharply, opened his mouth and closed it again. He seemed to be in pain. Moisture leaked from his eyes.
'There is no Tale of the Mirror!'
'But… it's the twenty-third tale. There must -'
'There is not!' he hissed, 'and if you keep on about it I will have to enter your name in the scrutator's log.'
'I beg your pardon.' Tiaan thanked him and went out. So Joeyn had been right. But why had the tale been withdrawn?
Just outside the door, Tiaan was called to Gi-Had's office. The overseer was sitting behind his table. He said nothing as she came in and shut the door, though he held himself as straight as a poker. He indicated a chair. She sat down.
'What did you want to see me about, overseer?'
He pinned her with those deeply sunken eyes. 'This!' Gi-Had threw a controller onto the table.
Tiaan started. It was the one Irisis had been working on for the past month, though so battered that it could not be repaired. She picked it up. 'How did this happen?'
'Irisis accuses you,' Gi-Had said without expression.
'Me?' Tiaan swallowed. 'Why would I do such a wicked thing?'
'Because you and Irisis are feuding? Because you hate her? Perhaps because you are in the pay of the enemy?' He held his hands out as if offering her a choice rather than accusing her, but all at once she felt desperately afraid. The breeding factory could be the least of her worries. Gi-Had looked every bit as ferocious as that perquisitor of her childhood. And after all, Irisis was his second cousin. Blood was thick in these parts.
It was hard to control her voice. 'I – I don't like Irisis, but I don't hate her. I'm just trying to do my job and my best for the war.'
'The guards say you're the only one who went in there this morning.'
'The night guard spends most of her shift gossiping by the furnaces. She's never around when I finish work.'
'The day guard says the same thing. And Irisis's controller has been smashed in your cubicle.'
'Maybe someone is trying to get rid of me,' she said simply.
'Are you accusing Irisis?'
'I don't believe she would wreck her controller, even to be rid of me. She loves her work too much.'
'Then who?' Gi-Had cried.
'I don't know, overseer.'
'I suggest you try very hard to find out!' Once Perquisitor Jal-Nish hears of this outrage he may decide to pay us a visit. He's not as trusting as I am, Tiaan, and he's quick to jump to conclusions. If he decides against you, nothing I say will change his mind. That's all!'
She went out, a black chill settling over her. She had heard all about the new perquisitor. Before she reached her cubicle Tiaan found another reason to be afraid. The perquisitor was Nish's father. She had spurned the little artificer and now he was Irisis's lover. There was no doubt whose word Jal-Nish would take.
Her only refuge was work, though it could not stop her cycling thoughts. The new crystal needed no shaping; it was perfect as it was. After waking it with her pliance, Tiaan merely cleaned up a few sharp edges, then reconstructed the mounting on the front of her helm to fit. At dinnertime she slipped the crystal into place. It fitted perfectly. Pushing the clasps down, she sat back. It was a fine piece of work, as good as she could do, but it gave her no pleasure. And again, as she put her devices down, Tiaan had the feeling that someone, in some distant place, was trying to find her.
Uncomfortable with that thought, she closed her eyes and lay her head on the bench. The door opened. Irisis stood there, the last person she wanted to see. 'I heard about your controller -' Tiaan began.
Such fury passed across Irisis's face that Tiaan froze. 'Don't say another word!' Irisis snarled.
Tiaan looked down at her helm, wondering what it was that Irisis wanted.
'Have you found the answer yet?' Irisis picked up one of the failed hedrons.
'No, but I'm making progress. What about you?'
'It's not my controllers that failed.'
'I thought you'd want to help, for the sake of the war,' Tiaan said acidly. A tiny victory but it made her feel better.
Irisis's eyes darted to the globe and helm. 'What's that? Another toy for your bastard brothers and sisters?'
As little as twenty years ago that would not have been an insult, in the days when women could choose to take a partner, or not. Tiaan clenched her fists. Irisis laughed openly. 'You came from the breeding factory and that's where you'll end up. It's all you're good for anyway, lying on your back with your legs over your shoulders.'
Tiaan gritted her teeth and said nothing, since that would annoy Irisis more than any reply she could think of.
'Well, what is it?' Irisis burst out.
'I should have thought someone with your great crafter heritage would know at a glance.'
'Just tell me!'
'It's a probe,' Tiaan said, 'to read the history of the faulty controllers and find out why they failed.'
A spark lit in Irisis's eyes. 'It'll never work.' Picking up the helm, she weighed it in her hands and then put it on her head, where it sat like a pancake. 'Doesn't even fit.'
'My head is smaller than yours.'
Irisis rotated the helm, pushing its spidery legs down hard. She reached for the globe that still held the faulty hedron, but as she touched it the crystal in the helm flared white. There came a snapping sound, accompanied by a sizzle. Irisis screamed, tore the helm off and hurled it at the bench.
'Are you all right?' Tiaan could not comprehend what had happened.
Irisis staggered drunkenly about, her eyes crossed. Her fingers rubbed furiously at her temple. Tiaan got her into a chair. The skin beneath where the crystal had sat was blistered and several strands of yellow hair had frizzled up.
Irisis's eyes uncrossed and she slapped Tiaan across the face with the full weight of arm and shoulder. It knocked Tiaan sideways. 'You rotten little cow, you did that deliberately. Stay away from me, do you hear?'
Tiaan backed away, rubbing her cheek.
Irisis rose out of her chair as if propelled by a spring. She looked frightened, not a common expression on her face. What had the device done to her?
'That thing's corrupt, like you, Tiaan. You'll never get anything out of it.'
'You just don't understand it,' said Tiaan as Irisis made for the door. She could not resist a taunt, for she seldom got the last word with Irisis. 'Maybe it's you who'll be going to the breeding factory.'
'People like me don't go to the breeding factory!' she spat. She was peculiarly sensitive to slights against her ability as an artisan. 'We marry well and live in luxury. Enjoy it while it lasts, Tiaan. You won't be here much longer.'
Tiaan, who before her mother's decline had come from a long line of proud, independent women, wanted to fling herself on Irisis, clawing and screaming. But restraining herself, she slammed the door in her rival's face. In a few days she had made two mortal enemies. And despite the shortage of men, she had no doubt that Irisis would make a good match. Her kind usually did.
These controllers would decide Tiaan's fate. If she found out why they had failed, and could solve the problem, she should be secure. If not, she was surely doomed.
Tiaan could never submit to the breeding factory. It was a propaganda weapon, but also a way of using women who had failed in other areas of life, and those who could never find a mate because so many men had been killed in the war. Whole generations of youths had gone away and not come back.
It was impossible to work now. As she was locking her door, Tiaan saw Nish across the way, leaning against the wall of the offices. No doubt he was gathering evidence for the perquisitor. Her life was collapsing around her.
In her room, too shaken to eat or wash, Tiaan tossed her clothes into the basket, crawled in between the freezing sheets and curled up into a ball. Using a hedron always gave her fantastic dreams, as if it left her mind close to the ethyr that was the carrier of power. She hoped her dreams would be romantic ones tonight. Dreams were a refuge and an escape. She had never needed one more desperately. Tiaan dreamed about an unknown world, a gloomy land lit by a brooding orange moon, nothing like the moon. Black grass bent under a hissing wind. Oily, suppurating bogs were scattered across the landscape, around which grew blue and black and purple flowers, luminous in the darkness.
She was standing on a balcony, staring toward broken-glass mountains in the west. Tiaan could feel her heart thudding against her ribs, the prickly rush of fear in the backs of her hands. Her fingers gripped the rail so hard that it hurt. Her jaw was clenched. She could feel her teeth grinding together. Why was she so afraid?
A low rumbling began in the distance, like thunder but more earthy, as if transmitted through the ground. The breeze was whipping mist past her face, but it had the pungent reek of sulphur. Her eyes watered.
She wiped the tears away. Staring at the jagged range, Tiaan realised that she was holding her breath, waiting for something to happen. She counted her heartbeats: one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Then backwards. She was still counting when there came a colossal explosion from the middle of the distant range, a flash that lit up the sky. Yellow glowing objects described parabolic trajectories through the air, slowly changing to orange and red as they fell.
More explosions illuminated belching clouds that rose higher and higher, forming shapes like clenched fists, like anvils, like black mushrooms. Lightning rent the clouds. There was no thunder, no sound at all but the wind hissing over the grass.
The explosions spread along the range from one horizon to the other until it looked as if the whole world was splitting apart, blowing its molten insides out. The clouds grew so thick that the wheeling fireballs could scarcely be seen. As Tiaan stared, a glowing paste made its way down the side of the mountain where the first explosion had occurred, like a red slug down the side of a pot. More streams followed until the dark mass of the mountain was woven with them. Tiaan felt another trickle of fear.
The lava was flooding everywhere, issuing from every peak of that horizon-spanning chain, oozing toward her as if, in its inexorable progress, it would overwhelm the whole world.
Her viewpoint shifted. Tiaan stared at the figure on the balcony, realising that it was not her at all, but a young, handsome man, tall and broad-shouldered, with glossy dark-brown hair, a trim beard, a full, sensuous mouth. He resembled the bold prince of her grandmother's romantic tales.
He seemed just as afraid as she had been, and she knew his doom was written in those red glyphs running down the mountains. He threw out his arms, looking around frantically as if seeking someone in the darkness. Help! She saw him mouth the words. Please help me!
Before the sound reached her, there came a boom and roar like all the thunder in the world going off together. A solid wall of wind bent the grass, the scanty trees, the young man on the balcony. He looked directly at her and froze. His tentative, almost pleading smile cracked her soft heart. She smiled back, he cried out Help! then man and balcony were blown away. The earth moved, tossing her off her feet. Tiaan lost the dream.
But later that night she dreamed that the young man lay beside her. Disturbing dreams they were – sensual, almost erotic. They made her hideously uncomfortable, yet she did not want them to stop. Tiaan woke with a headache and a faint memory of the first dream – the explosions, the stench of sulphur, the wild wind. She remembered that glorious face and the young man crying out. How strange! It was almost as if he had been begging her for help. But after all, it was just another hedron-induced fancy. She threw herself out of bed and hurried off to work.
The first experiments with the device had gone well. She was beginning to read the history of the crystal, as if the letters that made up its story were stored in layers of light trapped within it. It had a strange, hot sense, which was odd. Hedrons usually seemed cool. So far, though, she had not learned what had gone wrong.
At mid-morning her head began to ache and it grew rapidly worse. It seemed to be burning, like the image of the crystal. Don't push too hard; anthracism is a horrible way to die…
Tiaan went outside, collected her little chips of crystal and laid them in a line across the back of the bench. She put the helm on but a piercing pain made her whip it off again. She was hunched over, head in hands, when Gi-Had appeared with Gryste, the foreman, who reeked of spice.
'You won't make any progress that way, Artisan Tiaan!' said Gryste.
She squinted up at him. 'I'm working eighteen hours a day.'
'We're all working hard,' said the overseer.
'I'm working harder than anyone!' she snapped. Then, more softly, 'My head feels as if it's on fire, Gi-Had. I'm afraid…'
He blanched. 'Then stop. I'll have no boiled brains in my manufactory.'
'But I am making progress. I made this device to read the hedrons.' She held it out.
Gi-Had took up the helm, turning it in his fingers, and touched the crystal with a fingertip. Tiaan held her breath in case it stung him too, but nothing happened. That was not surprising. Psychically speaking, his mind was no more active than a piece of mutton.
She put a hedron inside the globe and demonstrated how it was meant to work. The overseer and foreman listened carefully but probably did not understand much. That did not matter. Neither knew how controllers worked either, but they understood their value to the war.
'What have you discovered?' Gryste barked, like a general to a raw recruit.
'All three hedrons show the same pattern. They worked perfectly when first installed. I have our log books here if you'd care to check them…'
Gi-Had waved them away. 'We trust your word.'
'I don't trust anyone who doesn't obey my rules,' said Gryste, 'and she's always going out without permission.'
The overseer gestured him to silence. Tiaan described Joeyn's observation about the effects of exposure on crystals, and her own experiments. She went through the series of numbered pieces on the bench, one by one. 'I left these eight outside: two in sun, two in shade, two in wet, two in dry. And these eight inside: two right next to the furnace, two a little further away though still hot, these two where it was only warm, and these two against the cold south wall.'
Gi-Had looked impressed. 'What have you discovered?'
'Nothing yet. I only just brought them in.'
'Bah!' said Gryste. 'I told you she was a waste of time.'
'Be quiet, junior foreman!' Gi-Had snapped.
Gryste's face froze and Tiaan knew she had made another enemy.
'Read them now, artisan,' Gi-Had said.
Tiaan prayed she was not going to disappoint the overseer. Donning the helm, she gritted her teeth against the pain and put the first chip in the globe. 'There's hardly any aura left.' She took it out and began on the others, one by one.
The overseer tossed the first chip in his big hands. 'Number one,' he read. 'This one was left in sunlight?'
They watched in silence as she read the crystals. 'The two in sunlight have some aura left, though not much. The four heated by the furnace are completely dead. All the others are unchanged.'
Gi-Had looked confused.
Tiaan explained. 'Their ability to draw power from the field can be destroyed by putting them out in the sun, though that must take quite a while. Days or weeks for a big hedron, I'd think.'
'That can't be why yours failed,' said Gryste. 'They're well looked after.'
'No, but… I have an idea!' Taking another handful of chips from her basket, she checked that they all had a strong aura. 'Come with me to the furnaces.'
They followed her, Gryste not trying to hide his irritation. 'I've got work to do, even if no one else has,' he grumbled.
Tiaan put two chips against the wall of the furnace where it was practically red-hot, and two more where it was just hot enough to burn a fingertip. She left them there for five minutes then retrieved them with a pair of tongs.
Back in her cubicle she read their auras. 'The first two are completely dead. The others have a faint aura, though it's fading. You see!' she said triumphantly. 'Make them really hot and they won't work at all. Less hot, they work for a while, then fail.'
'You're saying that your hedrons were sabotaged,' Gi-Had exclaimed. He exchanged glances with the foreman, whose face had gone stubbornly blank.
'I don't see how it could be anything else,' Tiaan said. 'The crystals never see sunlight from when they're mined to when they reach our workshops, and once the operators receive the controllers no one could guard them more jealously. But put them against the wall of the furnace for five minutes and they're useless. Anyone could have done that.'
'Can you tell who?'
'I've picked up strange traces in the little bit of aura that was left, but I can't read them. I would need a really strong crystal to do that. Or perhaps with my pliance…'
'Haahhh!' Gi-Had let his breath out in a hissing sigh. Going to the door, he looked out and closed it. 'Then we do have a spy among us.'
'So it would seem.'
'You'd better find out before the perquisitor does.' He looked irritable again.
'I'm trying, but…'
'No excuses now!' Gi-Had snapped. 'Our soldiers are dying every minute for want of clankers to protect them. If I can't produce our quota, I'm likely to end up in the front-lines. At my age!'
'I can only work for ten minutes before I get the headaches.'
'Then get someone to help you. Irisis doesn't look too busy today.'
'She tried it yesterday,' Tiaan said. 'It hurt her badly.'
'She accuses you of trying to kill her,' said the overseer.
'I did not ask her to touch my helm.'
'Well, find someone else.'
'No one else has the experience, or the control.'
'There must be someone. There's a thousand people in this manufactory, dammit!'
'Would you ask a blacksmith to make your wife a necklace? Or a librarian to work the foundry? No one else here can do it, Overseer Gi-Had.'
'Then go see the apothek, have him mix a potion for the headaches, and get to work! Everything is resting on you, Tiaan.'
'And the spy?' she said quietly.
'Gryste will make that his first priority.'
'I'll begin on it right away,' said the foreman sourly. 'As if I don't already have enough on my plate.'
Gi-Had scribbled Tiaan an authorisation for the apothek. 'Come on, foreman, we've work to do.' They hurried off. The overseer was at home with ores and furnaces and metal, all things mechanical, but the work done here was well beyond his comprehension. He did not like that. Tiaan came back from the dispensary without the balm, which would require some time to prepare. Taking several glasses of tarry water, she rubbed her temples and went to see what the prentices were doing. Darya was head-down at her grinding wheel. Vyns and Ru-Dan were adjusting a set of clamps over another crystal, careful not to damage it. The other prentices were busy at their benches.
'Where's Gol?' Tiaan asked.
Ru-Dan looked up and said something to Vyns, who steadied the crystal while she strolled over, taking off goggles and dust mask. Ru-Dan was short and plump, with a cheerful round face marked (though not marred) by a round pox scar just above the corner of her mouth.
'I beg your pardon?' Ru-Dan smoothed back chestnut hair with a hand glittering with powdered crystal.
'I was looking for Gol.'
'Haven't seen him for an hour or two.'
'What was he doing then?'
The prentice hesitated, not wanting to get Gol into trouble.
'Nothing, I'll bet!' said Tiaan. 'When you see him, tell him I want to see him immediately.'
Ru-Dan nodded. 'Did you want anything else? Vyns and I are mounting a crystal right now.'
'That was all.' Then, as Ru-Dan walked back, 'Have you seen Irisis?'
'She was in your workroom a while ago.'
Tiaan felt a twinge of unease. 'Oh, thanks!' Some hours later, Irisis appeared at Tiaan's cubicle with a small jar in her hand. 'I was going past the apothek and he asked me to give you this,' she said frostily.
'Thank you.' The label said to rub a small amount on her temples every four hours, or more frequently if the headache did not go away.
Pulling off the lid, Tiaan took a smear of balm on her fingertip and began to massage it into her forehead. The skin grew warm. Her headache, which had been a dull throb for the past hour, faded slightly. Putting the jar to one side, she drew the wire globe toward her and looked around for the helm.
She could not see it anywhere. Tiaan rifled through the clutter on the bench. Surely Irisis wouldn't have taken it? Could she be the saboteur? It hardly seemed possible. But she had nothing to lose by undermining Tiaan, and everything to gain.
Tiaan dismissed that as a fancy brought on by overwork and not enough in her belly. Heading out the door to the refectory, she saw something bright lying hard up against the wall. Her helm! It was bent out of shape, though nothing she couldn't fix. How had it got there? She'd left it up the other end of the bench.
It would not have been so deformed from falling off the bench. It must have been thrown, or struck! With a growing feeling of alarm she checked the crystal and immediately saw the crack, which went right across the hexagon of bubbles. Small curving cracks radiated away from one point, as if it had been struck with a hammer.
Tiaan put the helm on her head, already knowing what she was going to find. It was completely dead. The crystal was ruined.
After reporting the damage to Gi-Had, who had roared 'Gryste, get in here!' Tiaan returned to the workshop. There was only one solution, reluctant though she was. She would have to ask old Joe to find her another crystal.
She did not want to. Tiaan even toyed with the idea of going to the sixth level by herself to avoid troubling him, but that would be irresponsible. Joe would be furious, and what if she had an accident? No, what he could do in safety would be foolhardy for her to attempt.
Joeyn was back on the fifth level in the place he had been working earlier in the week. He looked pleased to see her, even when, with some reluctance, she explained why she had come. She showed him the damaged crystal.
'I thought we might need to go down again.' He pressed his lunch on her.
Tiaan took one of the spicy meal cakes. It was delicious, though hot; sweat broke out on her forehead. 'I didn't want to ask you.'
'I hate asking people for favours. And you've done so much already.'
'I hope you weren't thinking of going to the sixth level by yourself,' he said with a steely glint.
Tiaan looked down at her boots. One lace had come undone. She tied it.
'This is my work, Tiaan. My life. If I had to go to the sixth level a hundred times I'd do it cheerfully. Especially for you.'
She could think of no answer to that.
'Besides, I carried a bit of formwork in yesterday,' he went on. 'Not much, just a beam and a couple of props, but it'll be safer than before.'
He sketched the arrangement on the floor with his knife. 'Want to go?'
'Might as well.'
This time, the trip did not seem quite so doom-laden. In the cavern she stood well back while Joeyn gauged the height with a folding ruler.
He measured the props, sawing a handspan off one, the thickness of a finger off the other. 'Now we come to the dangerous part. If you're a believer, say your prayers now.'
Tiaan was not but she uttered a sincere prayer anyhow.
'This is what we're going to do,' the old miner said. 'We'll each hold our props at an angle to the vertical, like this.' He demonstrated. 'Then, we lift the timber plate on top, like a lintel over a doorway. Finally we move under the cracked area, just in front of the vein, and bring our props upright, forcing the plate hard against the roof. Hard enough to hold it, but not hard enough to bring it down on us, of course.' He grinned.
She bent down to lift the prop, which was a span and a half long and half as big round as her waist. It proved to be incredibly heavy. Heaving and gasping, Tiaan managed to get one end as high as her shoulder. The prop was not made from the light local pine but from a dense, wavy-grained hardwood with a rank odour, like wet socks.
'Lean it against the wall,' said Joeyn. 'They're buggers to lift.' He rested his own a couple of spans from hers. 'Have a breather.'
They lifted the beam, which was even heavier, and laid it on top of the props, lying flat. 'Ready?' said Joeyn. 'It's going to be bloody hard work.'
Moving the prop away from the wall was the easy part. Keeping the plate on it was murder. The split edge cut into her shoulder; splinters needled her fingers. But that was nothing compared to the sheer agony of lifting prop and beam and walking with them. One step and she was exhausted; two, bone weary; three, and every muscle in her body was shrieking.
'Rest it!' said Joeyn, who seemed to be bearing his load easily enough. No doubt he was used to it. 'I'd have brought a couple of pit labourers in, but they've got families, and this level is forbidden…'
'I think I can manage,' she said stoutly. 'It's just, well, I'm used to working with my fingers, not carrying heavy loads.'
'We'll take it one step at a time. As soon as it starts to hurt, ground your pole.'
She gave a weak smile. It hurt before she'd even got it off the floor. After two steps her prop began to shake. Tiaan grounded it hastily.
Another step. Now they were going under the cracked area. The pole wobbled; she let it down, expecting the beam to fall on her head. Joeyn's hand flew up, steadying it.
Parts of the roof rock, segments bounded by fractures, looked ready to fall. She closed her eyes and instantly saw that final image from last night's dream – the handsome young man on the balcony, begging for help as volcanoes erupted fire and ash all around.
Tiaan snapped her eyes open. The scene vanished. 'Are you all right?' Joeyn asked.
'Yes,' she said dazedly. She lifted her prop. They moved another two steps, rested, then one more.
'Just a half step to your left now, Tiaan.'
Finally they were ready. 'This is the difficult part,' he said. 'We slowly raise our poles to the vertical, pushing the plate up against the roof. When it's in position I'll wedge the props so they're tight and we'll be done. Carefully now. You go first; I'll match it.'
Tiaan began to push her prop up. Slowly, ever so slowly. The tip wobbled. She steadied it with her shoulder.
'Easy does it,' said Joeyn. 'Take all the time you need.'
Up again, and again. 'Just one more lift.'
Up they went. Half the prop was above her shoulder now, and harder to steady. The tip wobbled. She threw her weight against it but the base skidded on a pebble and the pole tilted. The plate began to slide off.
'Up hard!' Joeyn cried, but it was too late.
Tiaan dropped the prop and crouched with her arms over her head. The plate struck the floor with a tremendous clatter. Her prop hit the wall. Joeyn remained where he was, still holding his pole, staring up at the roof.
Grit rained down on Tiaan's back. A chip of granite bounced off the plate. She stood up, gasping. 'I'm sorry, Joeyn.'
'No – my fault. It wasn't such a good idea after all.'
'Let's try again. One last effort.'
'Are you sure?'
'I think so.'
The second time was harder than the first, if that was possible. Tiaan's back was throbbing, low down, and her arms had lost the best of their strength. But she knew how to balance the plate now, and the tiny movements needed to keep it there. This time they got it almost to the roof with no fatal wobbles.
'The last bit is always the hardest to control,' he said.
'I'm ready.' She had to succeed this time. Tiaan could not make another attempt. She eased the pole until it was nearly upright. It wobbled and she could barely hold it.
Joeyn thrust his prop up hard, jamming the plate against the roof. That steadied it enough for Tiaan to raise her end the last distance. They'd done it!
'Keep it steady.' He nudged a wedge under the prop with the toe of his boot and tapped it in. After wedging the other side, he shook the pole. It did not budge. He did the same with hers. 'You can let go, Tiaan.'
Now that the strain was off, Tiaan could not stand up. She crawled across to the far wall, laid her burning cheek on the cold floor and watched while Joeyn tightened the wedges, one by one, with his hammer.
He sat beside her. Tiaan began picking splinters out of her palms. 'That'll hold against a minor fall,' he said.
'But not a major one?'
Joeyn eyed the erection. 'No, but it'll only take a few minutes to get the crystal.' He offered her his flask of turnip brandy.
This time she took a sip. The liquor tasted revolting, but it warmed her all the way down. Tiaan felt better, though she was not tempted to take a second.
Joeyn was back at the vein, staring up. 'Come here. Pick the one you want.'
He linked his hands, making a step. She put her foot in it and was boosted up to shoulder height.
'Oh, Joe, they're the most perfect ones I've ever seen. They feel strong, too – even better than the crystal you got the other day.' She exclaimed over one, then another. It was impossible to decide. Had she brought her pliance she might have tested them, to see which was most suited to her. Tiaan felt a pang of withdrawal. 'But which are the good ones, Joeyn? No point me picking one out if it's just ordinary crystal.'
'I think they're all good. I had a bit of a look at them when I brought the timbers in.'
'Yes. This vein is worth as much as the rest of the mine put together.'
Unimaginable wealth. If she owned one of these crystals, she could buy out her indenture ten times over. Tiaan edged a bit higher, searching for a crystal just a bit more perfect than the others. 'Joe, look!'
'What is it?'
'The hollow goes in for ages, and it's all lined with crystals. There must be hundreds of them.' She gazed in wonderment. 'Maybe thousands.'
'I hate to disturb you,' said he. 'I know you're only a slip of a woman, after all, but I can't hold you up forever.'
'Sorry.' She had quite forgotten. 'Do you need a rest?'
'Not if you've found what you're looking for.'
She selected a perfect hexagonal prism terminated by a pyramid. It was a delicate ruby-pink colour, almost transparent. 'I've got one.'
'Put your feet on my shoulders and I'll pass up the hammer and chisel.'
Taking the tools, with a single, well-placed tap she knocked the quartz crystal off at the base. It fell back into the cavity. She reached in to recover the crystal. 'Aah!'
'What's the matter?'
'It felt like a hundred hot needles touching my skin at once. It's all right; it's gone now. Hello?' She stood up on tiptoe. 'What's that?'
'Way up at the end, a crystal seems to be glowing by itself.'
'How far in?'
'A long way. Seven or eight arm lengths, I'd say. It's the most perfect one I've ever seen. A bipyramid.'
'Well, you can't have it. There's no way of getting it out.'
'I don't suppose…' she looked down at him, 'from the other side?'
'That'd be weeks of tunnelling, even supposing the roof stayed up. Sorry, Tiaan.'
'Oh, well,' she said regretfully. 'A pity. It looks so perfect.' She jumped down.
'They all look perfect from that distance.' He began to tap one of the wedges out from under his prop.
'Maybe you should leave that there for a while. In case something happens to this crystal too.'
'Or the saboteur, if they are different.'
'Maybe I will.' He kicked the wedge back in. The new crystal proved much more difficult to wake, and even more draining. She had now woken three in a few days, which would have exhausted the greatest crafter in the east. After it was done, Tiaan did not don the helm at once. The way forward was no longer clear. Because of the headaches, she felt anxious about using her device. But then, everything about her life made her anxious.
Tiaan kept thinking about the strange crystal. She had never heard of one that glowed. She also wondered about her vision in the mine, that fragment of dream about the young man. Crystal dreams usually vanished when she woke up but she could remember his face perfectly. He had been so desperate. She recalled the sensual dreams that had followed. They made her hot in the face.
Don't be stupid. They were just dreams! Cramming the helm on her head, Tiaan set to work, trying to trace the residues of use and purpose, the history of the failed hedron since she had made its controller weeks ago. She found nothing, but then had a brilliant idea. What if she forced the hedron to wake, then read its induced aura? It required her to use her pliance in a dangerous way but Tiaan could not see any other choice.
Taking it from around her neck, she unhooked the pliance from the chain and put it in the globe so it touched the failed hedron. She felt a moment's anxiety. Anything might happen.
With gentle touches of her fingertips, Tiaan began sensing out the field. The familiar aurora flowed into her mind. It was particularly strong today, the billows and eddies tinged deep purple. Locating a suitable vortex, she drew power into her pliance just as she had done a thousand times before.
Pressing pliance and hedron together, she directed a flow of power into the failed crystal. It created no aura at all. The power vanished as if it had passed straight back into the field.
That was odd. Even a dead hedron should produce some aura after such a flow. She drew more power, with the same result. The hedron felt warm now. More than odd, it was downright peculiar.
Taking deep, slow breaths, she relaxed until her arms hung limp, her head lolled. Tiaan did not consciously try to visualise the field, but just allowed it to wash over and through her.
Her view drifted. She was looking for something greater than she had used before, a vortex so potent that it was tinged blue-white. Finding one, she traced the sub-ethyric path from it into the pliance and steadied herself. This could be quite dangerous. It might contain more power than she could safely handle. She allowed the vortex to drift towards the pathway. Now!
The vortex coloured down through purple, blues, reds, yellows and finally turned black. Pain stabbed through her head, the pliance flared and for an instant an aura appeared inside the crystal. Tiaan locked the image in her memory, then something crackled and both field and aura disappeared.
'I've done it!' she exulted, feeling the special thrill of having tried something new and, against all the odds, succeeded. She examined the image frozen in her mind. There was something at its core. Rotating the image, Tiaan picked up an echo of power like none she'd ever come across. It felt intelligent: organic yet alien.
Her head began to throb. Tiaan pushed up the helm, rubbed balm onto her temples, and let it fall again. Another image flashed into her mind. An armoured, crested head; enormous yellow eyes; a mouth big enough to take in her own head; hundreds of teeth. The folded wings made it certain. A lyrinx! It seemed to be talking to someone human, probably a man. There was something familiar about the shape of the head, the set of the shoulders. The image began to fade and she could not hang on to it. Could it be the spy?
Tiaan rubbed her eyes. Feeling unaccountably tired and weak, she went on unsteady legs to the door.
'Have you seen Gol?' she asked Irisis, who was walking by with a coil of silver wire in one hand.
'No!' she snapped. 'Why?'
'I wanted him to fetch Gi-Had.' Tiaan's legs folded up under her and she slid down against the wall.
'What's the matter with you?'
'Just working too hard,' Tiaan croaked, wishing Irisis would go away.
'On what?' Her blue eyes scanned the room. Irisis picked up the globe, gave it a gentle shake and laid it down. 'I'll tell Gi-Had.' Irisis looked back at the globe. 'I was going that way anyway.'
Tiaan was too exhausted to wonder why she was being cooperative. 'Thank you,' she whispered, putting her head between her knees. A rough hand shook her by the shoulder. 'What the blazes is going on, Artisan Tiaan?'
'O-Overseer Gi-Had,' she said dazedly. 'I wanted to see you.'
The man looked as if every drop of blood had been drained from his veins. What was the matter now?
Irisis came in behind him, to stand beside the door.
'What are you doing down there?' He lifted her to her feet.
'I don't know what happened.' Tiaan was having trouble thinking straight. It was as if she was drunk.
'Artisan Irisis has made a serious allegation about you,' said the overseer.
Tiaan had no idea what he was talking about. 'I've been sensing out what happened to the hedrons.'
'She's lying,' Irisis said coldly. 'The apparatus nearly killed me when I tried it last night. Maybe that was her intention. That's why she broke her crystal and implied that I'd done it. And now she's broken her pliance, too.'
Tiaan caught her breath. Irisis would say anything to get rid of her. 'No artisan would ever break her own pliance!' she said scornfully. 'It would be like cutting off her arm.'
'No sane artisan would,' said Irisis. 'But you're suffering from delusions, Tiaan. Either you're the spy or… you've got crystal fever.'
'What are you talking about?' cried Tiaan. 'Overseer, she's making up stories. She hates me.'
'Am I?' Irisis thrust one elegantly manicured finger in the direction of the globe. 'Take a look at that!'
Tiaan threw herself on the globe, fumbling with the catch. It came open and the failed hedron rolled out. Its insides had gone milky.
'Now she's destroyed it as well,' Irisis said. 'You must be rid of her, overseer, for the good of the manufactory.'
Gi-Had fretted a scrap of paper to pieces. 'There had better be a good explanation for this, artisan.'
'I was reading the hedron,' Tiaan said lamely. She snatched her pliance and its crystal fell to pieces in her hand. Tiaan stared at the fragments, uncomprehending. Her pliance was ruined. It would take weeks to make another. She wanted to scream.
'Well,' cried Gi-Had. 'What do I tell the perquisitor?'
Tiaan fell to her knees and wept.
'It's crystal fever!' Irisis repeated. 'She doesn't know what she's doing. She can't do her job, overseer.'
'Shut up!' Squatting before Tiaan, Gi-Had offered her a cloth. 'You must help me, artisan.'
Tiaan mopped her face. 'I was reading one of the failed hedrons,' she sniffled. 'I woke it anew and forced it to reveal its aura. I saw something there.'
'She's a liar!' said Irisis. 'She hasn't been here all day.'
Gi-Had looked from one to the other, not knowing whom to believe.
'I've been down the mine with Joeyn,' said Tiaan, 'risking my life on the sixth level to find a suitable crystal.'
'You've done what?' Gi-Had said.
'It's the only place I can find crystals of sufficient power. The others are no good at all.'
'That level is forbidden! How dare you risk your life down there? What would the manufactory do if you were killed?'
'Would it matter? You'd still have Artisan Irisis,' Tiaan said with heavy sarcasm.
His lack of response gave Tiaan heart. He must have reservations about Irisis too. 'My discovery might save hundreds of soldiers. And if these new crystals turn out as I suspect…'
'What?' he cried.
'They're much stronger, and there's a lot of them. They might drive a clanker twice as fast as the other hedrons. And that might win the war.'
He softened. 'Indeed, it was a brave and noble thing you did today. Do not do it again! If lives must be put at risk, let it be those that we can do without. What did you see in the hedron, Tiaan?'
Tiaan placed the helm over Gi-Had's square head, put his fingers on the wire globe and, holding the milky crystal, recalled the image seen in its aura. He looked annoyed, then mulishly stubborn, then frustrated, as if what he was looking for lay forever beyond his reach. Suddenly he went rigid. Gi-Had stood up like a mechanical man unfolding, and his eyes were staring. 'I saw!' he said, turning to Tiaan. 'I saw the face of a beast.'
'Yes!' He gave a great shudder of horror. 'It was crouched over a round thing on a stalk, like a luminous mushroom, as if it was spying on us. Then it looked up and it was talking to a man. The spy! The enemy knows our every plan. They'll cut off our clankers one by one.'
Irisis could not contain herself. 'She lies! She put the image in your mind. She knows nothing; she's only worth the breeding -'
Gi-Had struck her across the face with his open hand. 'Shut up, second cousin! We're fighting for our lives. How dare you bring your petty jealousies into my manufactory!'
Irisis touched her cheek. 'But I – Look at the evidence against her.'
'I have,' he said grimly. 'And I see your hand in most of it.'
'But… Uncle promised that I would follow him as crafter. She doesn't even have a father. She comes from -'
'And that's where you'll be going, artisan, if you cause any more trouble. Tiaan has just proved what a brilliant artisan she is. I can't do without her.'
The fingermarks stood out red and purple on Irisis's blanched face. 'You wouldn't!'
'Desperate times, artisan. Someone's been sabotaging the hedrons, the enemy can see our clankers, and now…' Gi-Had went white, began to shake and had to be helped onto a stool.
'What is it, cousin?' cried Irisis. It was the first time Tiaan had seen her show concern for anyone. But then, he was family.
Tiaan offered the overseer a mug of water. 'You said there was a disaster?'
He took a small sip, then looked to them both. 'You might as well know,' he said hoarsely. 'It concerns us all, but especially artisans.'
'What?' Irisis took his hand.
'Word came in a despatch this morning. It happened way up the coast, two hundred leagues north of here. A vital node has gone dead.'
'Dead?' Irisis echoed.
'Well, of course the node is still there but its field faded to nothing, stalling fifty clankers on the plain of Minnien. The enemy destroyed the lot, then advanced fifteen leagues in a week. If the lyrinx can keep it up they'll be at the gates of Tiksi by mid-winter.'
No one spoke. They were going to lose the war, and against the lyrinx, losers were eaten.
'Does anyone know why it happened?' Tiaan asked, forcing calm on herself. 'Is it like what's happened to the controllers, only larger?'
'We don't know. There seem to be two possibilities, one nearly as bad as the other,' said Gi-Had. 'The first is that the enemy has found a way to block the field, or destroy it.'
Tiaan digested that. 'And the other?'
'That clankers take too much power from the field. With so many of them drawing on it at once, they've drained it dry, like pumping too much water from a well.'
No one said anything. Gi-Had got up. 'A state of emergency has been declared. I have authority to do whatever is necessary to produce clankers. Survival takes precedence over everything. And everybody!' He waved a dismissing hand. 'Though what is the use if we cannot power them…?'
'If the enemy can detect our controllers by the aura,' Tiaan said thoughtfully, 'what we need is some kind of shield to render it invisible to their senses.'
'A shield?' He looked doubtful. 'Is such a thing possible?'
'It might be. I have an idea I'd like to try, surr.'
'Very well. Leave your other work. Spend two days on this task, no more, then report to me. What ideas do you have, cousin?'
'I was thinking the same thing,' said Irisis.
'Good,' said Gi-Had. 'When can I see your work?'
Irisis looked shocked but recovered quickly. 'It'll take a day. Or two.' Giving Tiaan a look of purest malice, she went out.
With his hand on the latch, Gi-Had turned back. 'The failed hedron, and your pliance, contain evidence of the traitor. Is there any way of telling who it is?'
'Not without a new pliance.'
'Do you mind if I take them? In case we find someone who can tell?'
'They're no use to me.'
Gi-Had wrapped the evidence in a piece of cloth. Tiaan choked as he carried the ruined pliance away. Incapable of thinking coherently, she went to bed. This time she locked the door and took the globe, helm and crystal with her.
She was still agonising two hours later. How were the enemy sensing the hedrons? Maybe lyrinx had senses that humans did not have. She had no idea, and with her pliance gone, how could she find out?
The loss hurt, physically and emotionally. Withdrawal was going to be worse, and for that nothing could be done except to replace the device as soon as possible. Weeks of misery lay ahead of her.
As she drifted off to sleep Tiaan found herself thinking about that glowing crystal in the mine again. She coveted it more than ever. Help! Please help me! It was a scream inside her head, a cry of absolute terror.
Tiaan could see nothing but smoke and yellow sulphur fumes that stung her nose. The manufactory must be on fire. She groped in the darkness for her clothes but could feel only coarse vegetation, like bracken or heath. Her toe caught on a root and she went sprawling among the shrubbery.
Something bright and hot curved across the sky, an irregular glowing object that rotated, whoosh-thump, as it went. It slammed into the ground not far away, the shockwave knocking her off her feet. The heath exploded into flame that flared high on a mist of leaf oils. A breeze drove it toward her.
She ran, sharp leaves tearing at her naked thighs, branches twisting themselves around her ankles. Over and again she fell. The last time, too exhausted to get up, she simply lay there as the flames rushed up and over. She screamed but once.
Tiaan woke gasping in her bed, scarce able to comprehend that she had not been burned alive. She fumbled for the lantern, clicking the flint striker over and over, even after the wick had lit. The room looked normal.
Feeling a growing pressure in her temples, she dug a finger into the jar of balm and slathered it across her forehead.
Someone started hammering on the door. 'What's going on in there?'
Wrapping a blanket around herself, Tiaan went to the door. Half a dozen of her fellow workers stood outside. 'Sorry!' she said. 'A nightmare. Must have been working too hard. I'm all right now.'
Muttering to themselves, they went back to their beds. Tiaan locked her door and was just tucking the blanket in when she was flung back into that crystal dream, wide awake. This time she was standing on an island in the middle of a broad river. Behind was a pavilion with seven columns surmounted by a dome of beaten copper.
She was reaching into a basket of fruit when there came an explosion of steam and a wavefront of boiling water thundered down the river. She smelt cooked fish. The water divided on either side of the island before roaring past.
The level sank. Tiaan sighed, but a heart-stopping grinding noise came from upstream, followed by a blast of superheated air. Inexorably, around the bend rumbled a wall of lava – the red viscous ooze continually breaking through the blackened crust. On it came, and on, and nothing was going to stop it.
Tiaan ran back and forth across the island. Boiling water surrounded her. There was nowhere to go. She stood back, watching the lava crackle toward her. 'Help!' she cried uselessly.
Help! echoed that handsome face on the balcony, the young man from her dreams. He looked her way, started, and gave a sweet, sad smile that brought tears to her eyes. He put out his arms. He cares for me, she thought, amazed. She began to run, then a wave of lava swept him away.
Again she screamed, again woke; again she reassured the increasingly angry crowd at the door.
Tiaan tried to sleep but was plunged back into the nightmare, running down the corridors of a palace as volcanic bombs fell everywhere, crashing through the ceilings, exploding and setting fire to the magnificent building. 'Help!'
There was no answer.
By the time a drizzling morning broke against Tiaan's solitary window, the dormitory was in uproar and she could no longer distinguish between being awake and dreaming. A nurse checked her symptoms and called the healer, who shouted for the apothek. Between them they decided that Tiaan had gone mad and were about to put her in a straitjacket when Overseer Gi-Had came running.
'What the blazes are you doing?' He hurled them out of the way.
'It's crystal fever,' pronounced Healer Tul-Kin gloomily. He reeked of parsnip brandy. 'Her mind's broken and will never recover. Might as well send her to the breeding factory.'
'In a straitjacket?'
The healer shrugged. 'It only goes to her waist. The business can still be done.'
'My arse! We can't do without her. Find out what's wrong and fix it!'
They took Tiaan to the infirmary, where a nurse bathed her face and forehead, and fed her tea and barley broth. The waking nightmares continued until noon, when she suddenly sat up, saying, 'What am I doing here?'
She remembered the mad episodes, but only as dreams that were rapidly fading. In an hour or so the details were gone. All that remained was the young man on the balcony and a world exploding. He really cared about her. She knew he did. It was more than a dream. He had been searching for her all this time. She had to find out who he was.
They let her go back to her workroom in the mid-afternoon. The prentices gathered round, delighted that she had recovered. They liked Tiaan, even if they weren't her friends.
Irisis stood in the background, her face unreadable. Tiaan vaguely remembered the artisan's face at the door, the pleasure her rival could not entirely conceal. She wondered about that. The whole episode was so strange, and becoming more unreal every second, that she could find no sense in it. Had it been crystal fever? She could not bring herself to believe it. It did not fit the pattern she'd been taught. But then, those with the fever could never be convinced that they had it.
Tiaan sent Gol to fetch the globe, crystal and helm from her room and got back to work. While she was waiting for him to return, old Joeyn came in, covered in dust from the mine. On seeing her, he beamed from ear to ear.
'I was afraid,' he said when the prentices had gone back to their benches. 'Such rumours I heard! I was preparing to break down the doors and carry you away.'
Tiaan was so touched that tears sprang to her eyes. 'You would condemn yourself to save me?' She embraced him.
'Life has already condemned me. What do I care how I die? But you have so much to live for, Tiaan. So much to give; and receive!'
She felt quite overcome. Gol came running with her globe and helm. 'Did you bring the headache balm?' she asked the boy.
'You didn't ask me to. Shall I get it?'
'Never mind. Thank you, Gol. I'd like you to empty the baskets around the prentices' benches.'
The lad raced out. Joeyn hefted the wire globe in his scarred fingers. 'I'd better go. Take care, Tiaan. I'm afraid for you.'
'I'll be all right. I've just been working too hard.'
'There's more to it than that. There's malice behind this, Tiaan, and we both know where it's coming from.' He looked over his shoulder. Irisis, at her bench, gave him a glare of cold ferocity. 'If you're ever in trouble, no matter what it is, come to me.'
He was gone. Overwhelmed by all the work she had to do, Tiaan bent to her globe again. She felt awful, hot and cold at once, as if she had a bad dose of the flu. It was withdrawal from her ruined pliance and there was only one thing to be done about it – work herself so hard that there was no room for anything else. But what if it was crystal fever? Overwork was just the way to bring it back, permanently. Tiaan tried to put that out of mind. She had to prove herself to Gi-Had. Tomorrow might be too late. She needed a breakthrough.
As Tiaan was puzzling over the problem, a few lines from Nunar's book, The Mancer's Art, came to her mind. The process may generate a shifting aura about the crystal powering the controller… A nearby sensitive might be able to detect this aura, though in normal use it is expected to be insignificant.
What had Nunar meant by normal use? Surely she'd had in mind small devices that used small amounts of power. At the time, more than ninety years ago, no one had conceived of such mechanical monsters as clankers, or the immense amount of power they would use. To completely empty the field around the node at Minnien the power drain must have been immense, and such power would create an enormous aura. That must be what that shadowy lyrinx had been doing, using some kind of device to pick up the aura of a controller from far away. Yes, that was why clankers could no longer move in secret! It was all connected.
Somehow the hedrons had to be shielded. What did Nunar have to say about that? Going back to her room, Tiaan went through the book, but learned nothing. Nunar had not foreseen the rapid development of controllers, much less that such things would be used by ordinary people instead of mancers, who had their own ways of protecting their work from the prying mind. Controllers had a fatal flaw: their aura – obvious in hindsight. Putting the book back in its hiding place, she returned to the workshop.
The problem was to prevent the hedron leaking an aura that could be sensed, while at the same time allowing it to trickle power to the controller. She tried various coatings – tar, wax, clay, paper, leather – but none had any effect.
Perhaps metal was the answer. Having a sheet of beaten copper to hand, Tiaan wrapped the hedron in it, wondering if it would work at all. If the metal blocked the aura it might stop the hedron drawing on the field as well. However, the hedron worked perfectly, and of course it would. Power was not drawn from the field through the material world, but via a sub-ethyric pathway. That was the very basis of mancing as set out in Nunar's Special Theory.
She encountered another problem. The copper sheet stopped the aura but it also prevented power flowing from hedron to controller. Tiaan folded the copper back so that it was not touching the metal connectors. Now the signal came through, but the aura leaked as well.
She tried silver foil instead of copper. That was better, because the silver was softer, but she still could not stop the aura leaking. Tiaan fixed the controller-arm stubs onto the hedron facets with dabs of hot pitch. The arms worked as well as before; maybe better. What about gold leaf? Gold was more malleable than silver. Perhaps she could beat the layers together to a tight seal.
Going to the old crafter's workshop she unlocked the door of the storeroom and took a small bead of gold from a bottle. Tiaan beat it out until it would have covered a bound book. Holding it up to the light, she checked for holes. None.
She carefully wrapped the hedron, with its pitch-covered connectors, in gold leaf. After tapping it down until there was not the least sign of join or crinkle, she tested it again. Just a trace of aura leaked from around one connector. After fixing that, the hedron was undetectable.
Covering the entire object in warmed pitch, being careful that it was not too warm, she smoothed it down with a spatula and made sure she got rid of all the air bubbles. Finally she pressed her personal seal all over the soft pitch. No one could tamper with the coating now without it being obvious. Nor could anyone expose the hedron to heat or sunlight without it being detected. She had solved both problems at once.
When the pitch had set she tested the controller, which worked perfectly. There was not a trace of aura. The problem was solved. She wrote up her journal, then a report to Gi-Had, describing exactly what she had done, and why.
Putting the report in her pocket, she yawned. Her head felt awful. Time to catch up on the sleep she'd missed last night. Time to dream about the young man. That brought a smile to her face. Tiaan set the controller to keep working overnight, to make sure it did not run down as the others had, locked the door and went to bed. As Tiaan lay on her bed, waiting for sleep that would not come, the headache grew worse. She was thirsty but too tired to trot down the hall and fill her jug. Instead she rubbed a double dose of balm on her forehead and worked it in with her fingertips. It did not seem to help. The pain throbbed away, beating time to her heartbeat.
Slathering more on for good measure she sat up, listening to the wind blowing rain against her window. It was a cold night – much colder than any this autumn. The winter blizzards could not be far away.
She fell back on the pillow, sliding instantly into sleep. The dreams began at once: more intense, more prolonged, more terrible. A whole world was exploding, twenty thousand volcanoes erupting at once. The air was thick with ash, dust and fumes that made the lungs ooze yellow foam, like a snail crawling across a bed of lime. Burning clouds of ash, so hot that it was almost molten, rolled down the mountainsides, obliterating fields, forests and villages, entombing them in smoking mounds.
The young man stood on the balcony, screaming for someone to come to the aid of his world. No one came, and finally he bent his head and wept. The heat dried the tears before they touched his cheeks. He watched the flow grinding toward him.
In the darkest part of the night Tiaan's door opened. A figure entered, closed the door and lit the candle by the bed. The room was frigid but Tiaan lay naked on top of the covers, bathed in sweat.
Putting on a rubber glove, the figure scooped out the contents of the jar of balm and rubbed it all over Tiaan – face, hands, breasts, belly, thighs, buttocks, back. Tiaan kicked once or twice then went still. When every speck of skin was gleaming with unguent, the intruder left the room as silently as he or she had come.
Not long afterwards the dreams resumed. Nothing remained of Tiaan's logical mind to keep them at bay. Plunging off a precipice into a pool of lava, she began to scream aloud. Four hours later she was still screaming. And eight hours after that she was trying to, though she had no voice left. Her throat was a raw, red wound. When she opened her mouth, blood dribbled out. At midnight she finally ceased. Her cries rang inside her skull for hours more until reason fled. Her mouth was wide open, and her eyes, but nothing registered. Irisis had been watching Tiaan for days and, after spying on her latest experiment, went to bed thoughtfully. Woken in the night by the artisan's screams, she went down to see what the matter was. She stood in the background as the healers talked. Clearly Tiaan was mad with crystal fever. Irisis knew that her chance had come.
Using a master key, Irisis entered Tiaan's cubicle. The journal told Irisis all she needed to know. She cut out the last page, destroyed it and took the completed controller, as well as another two as yet unfinished. In the workshop she found all the materials she needed. Locking the door, Irisis prepared to work for as long as it took. Gi-Had had been to see Tiaan five times. He was not satisfied that she had gone mad. Crystal fever was not uncommon among artisans, but no one from this manufactory had had it in twenty years. He sat with the healer, the nurses, and even brought back the old healer, Ruzia, who had retired a decade ago.
'She's quite insane,' Healer Tul-Kin said. His words were slurred, for he had been drinking all day. 'If she does recover, she'll never be an artisan again. Not one you can rely on.'
Gi-Had turned to the old healer. She was nearly blind and her head rolled from side to side, but her mind was still keen. 'I'm afraid he's right,' she said in a reedy voice. 'I don't see any hope. Once their minds go in this way, they seldom recover.'
'Curse you all to hell!' Gi-Had cried. 'I can't do without her.'
'You'll have to,' said Ruzia.
They debated the matter for another hour, and finally Gi-Had was swayed. If Tiaan was no use here, she must go where she could still contribute in some way.
At that moment Irisis reappeared and showed him how she had brilliantly solved the problem of the faulty controllers. He examined them carefully, and at last he smiled. One small ray of light in a disastrous day.
'Thank you, cousin. I'm sorry I doubted you.'
Despite her youth, he offered Irisis the position she so coveted, that of acting crafter at the manufactory. Then Gi-Had signed Tiaan's indenture over to the breeding factory.
A week and a half went by, during which Tiaan experienced only fleeting moments of lucidity. She saw her mother's face several times, a mixture of concern and irritation. She vaguely recognised several other women, as well as Tobey, a boy of five, one of her half-brothers. And Joeyn. Twice she woke to find him sitting by her bed, but Tiaan lacked the strength to keep her eyes open. She woke again and found the chair was empty. A woman and a man were talking but she could not turn her head to see who they were.
'I don't like it,' said the man. 'She's not supposed to be here.'
'Crystal fever happens! The papers are in order,' said the woman. 'Besides, she's a virgin. There's good money to be made and it all goes into our pockets.'
'But what if…?'
'Oh, stop whining! She won't be on the books anyway.'
The voices faded away and Tiaan slept. Sometime later she woke and Joeyn was there.
'Joeyn?' she whispered. Her throat burned terribly. 'What happened?' She did not recognise the room at all. 'Did I have another fit?'
'They say you screamed for twelve hours, as if you were being burned alive.'
'I don't remember anything.' It was all gone, including the dreams. The last she recalled was solving the riddle of the controller and going to bed. Her voice sounded hoarse. 'I've got to get up. There's work to do.' Tiaan sat up, realised that she had nothing on, and hastily slid under the covers again.
'You have to rest and get better.'
'But I've two controllers to fix. No one else can do it. The war…'
'They've been fixed and sent to the front a long time ago.'
'What?' She stared at him, uncomprehending. The world seemed to have gone mad.
'Irisis fixed the controllers while you were… sick,' Joeyn said as gently as he could.
She clutched at his hand. 'It can't be so!'
'It is so, Tiaan.'
'Joe, I fixed the first controller before I went to bed last night. If Irisis has done the others, she's just copied me.'
'Are you sure?' He gave her a look that said he doubted her sanity.
'Of course I'm sure!' She told him exactly how she had shielded the controller. 'Irisis hates me. She's always trying to take the credit. She'd love to see me sent down.'
A spasm crossed his face, one that alarmed her.
'Where am I?' She looked around at the unfamiliar room. 'This isn't the infirmary.'
'It's the sickroom in the breeding factory.'
'I hadn't realised that I was that sick…' She broke off, staring at his craggy face. His eyes shifted as if he could not face her. 'No!' she gasped. The very air was choking her. She opened her mouth wide, to scream.
Joeyn slapped her face, just hard enough to bring her to her senses. She broke off.
'Don't!' he said. 'Or I'll think you're mad too.'
'That's why I've been sold to the breeding factory? I'm not mad. Yesterday I solved…'
'Tiaan,' he said gently, 'you've been here for more than a week, delirious the whole time. Before that, you screamed for half a day without stopping. Little wonder the healers thought your mind had gone. Gi-Had had no choice. The manufactory must have reliable artisans.'
'Irisis has replaced me?' Her voice rose dangerously.
'Hush! She's done better than that. By special decree she has been made acting crafter, though she is only twenty-one.'
How Irisis must be gloating. Tiaan wanted to die.
'I won't stay here! I'll never submit to this place. If I can only get to Gi-Had, I'm sure I can convince him…'
'The deed is done, Tiaan. It can't be undone. Twice you have had mad fits and two healers have diagnosed you with incurable crystal fever. Gi-Had could not keep you on, even if he wanted to. A mad artisan is worse than none.'
'But I'm not mad.'
'People with crystal fever always say that. It's no use. You are indentured to the breeding factory.'
'But Gi-Had is a fair man…'
'He has a manufactory to run and clankers to produce. There's been a disaster up north, a whole cluster of clankers destroyed in a day.'
'I heard that…' Tiaan broke off. She had been going to say 'yesterday'.
'You're a breeding-factory woman now, Tiaan. Artisan Tiaan is gone forever. I'm so sorry.' There were tears in his eyes.
The door opened. A big woman who could only have been the matron hurried in. 'Visiting time is over. Say your goodbyes. Tiaan needs her rest. Her first day is coming up!' She hurried out again.
Only then did the horror fully strike Tiaan. Her work, her life, her very existence had been taken away. All that was left was the profession she despised most in the world. The urge to scream was almost irresistible. She opened her mouth, saw the look on Joeyn's face and quickly closed it again. 'I won't be a woman of the breeding factory, ever!' she hissed. Only her rage stopped her from collapsing.
'I don't see…' he said doubtfully.
'I'm not mad. I'll run away.'
'In time of war, refusing to do your appointed job is treason.'
'Men don't get sent to breeding factories!'
'And women aren't sent to the front-lines to be slaughtered, like my sons,' he said softly. 'I did not say it was fair, Tiaan, just that there's nothing can be done about it.'
'I won't stay here. This place disgusts me.'
'A runaway on the road has no place, no rights. Anyone can enslave you or strike you down without penalty.'
'I don't care!' she raged. 'I will give myself to no man save of my own choosing.'
'Times change. The war…'
'Curse the damned war! It's just an excuse to take our rights away. Joeyn, you said you would help me if ever I needed it. I've never needed it more.'
He looked anxious. For her, she knew, not himself. 'Of course I'll help you, if you have truly made up your mind. What do you want me to do?'
'Go to my room in the manufactory and, if it has not been cleared, bring away my clothes, journal and tool bag, and my wire globe and helm. And there's a book!' She explained where she had hidden the copy of Nunar's treatise. 'Keep it hidden. I'm not supposed to have it.'
'Tiaan, the crystal was the source of your madness. If you ever touch one again…'
'I'm not mad!' she said vehemently.
The door opened, the matron again. 'Time for visitors to go. Now!'
'Please, Joeyn,' Tiaan said.
He nodded and went out.
'Disgusting old man!' said Matron. 'We'd certainly not use him here. Out of bed!' She hauled Tiaan out by the arm. 'Stand there. Let me look at you.'
Matron inspected Tiaan like a carcass in a butcher's shop, prodding and poking her mercilessly.
'Hmn! Beautiful hair, though a terrible cut. Looks like it was done with an axe. Nice eyes – unusual colour. Good skin, apart from a few minor blemishes, though we'll soon fix them. Nose, not as broad as they like, but it'll do. Ears…'
She brushed back Tiaan's hair. 'Oh yes, very neat.'
'Such dark lips – they'll go for that. Open your mouth. Teeth's where they mostly fall down. Hmn, not too bad, at least they're all there. Those two could be a bit straighter but nobody's perfect.' She checked Tiaan's gums, her tongue, her throat, muttering to herself all the while.
'Good, good! No disease, no sores.' She moved Tiaan's head from side to side and made some marks on a slate. 'Head, eight out of ten. Or should that be seven and a half? Smile for me, please?'
Tiaan felt like biting Matron's hand off, but at the same time, inexplicably, she wanted to do well on the test. She smiled.
'Oh, very good. Dimples, too. Definitely an eight!'
Matron continued. 'Shoulders a bit narrow. Still, many like them that way. No accounting for folk!' Her own shoulders were almost an axe-handle across and heavily larded. 'Hmn! You're scrawny, girl. Not much demand for that look around here. We'll soon fatten you up, though.' She rattled a knuckle down Tiaan's ribs, weighed her breasts in big, damp hands. 'Not bad; not bad at all. Could be bigger, especially the left one, but I can't see too many complaints.' She flicked a nipple with her fingertip until it stood up, then moved on.
Her belly was not full enough, her pubic hair too coarse and curly, her thighs too slender, her feet definitely too big. And last was the worst. 'Oh dear, just look at these hands! What have you been doing, girl? Your hands are as rough as a navvy's, and there's a festering splinter in your finger.'
Her figure only rated six and a half, though Matron supposed she could bring that up a point with some proper feeding and grooming. 'Overall, better than I expected. Especially after – well, let's not go into that. I think we've made a good buy after all. Come along now, there's a lot of work to do.'
'Work?' said Tiaan, feeling dazed.
'Bath, manicure, haircut, skin-polishing – we'll be lucky to be finished by dinnertime.'
Two attendants bathed Tiaan in a tub so large that a horse could have comfortably stood in the middle, and it was full of hot water. Tiaan was staggered at the extravagance. At the manufactory, being too shy to use the communal bathhouse, she washed with cold water in a dish and yellow, caustic soap that stung her eyes. Tiaan could not remember ever having a hot bath.
They kept her in until she felt dizzy and her fingers and toes were wrinkled. The attendants fed her in the bath – spicy pastries, sweetmeats soaked in honey and cream, bowls of preserved fruit covered in sweet yoghurt – and kept urging more on her long after she was full. To lie in the hot water was one of the strangest feelings she'd ever had. It felt sinfully lazy and wicked. The attendants got in too, scrubbing her until her skin throbbed.
After that she was helped to a low table covered with a cloth, where they rubbed perfumed creams into her skin, massaging her until her muscles felt as loose as jelly. They plucked out every body-hair, sanded her hands with pumice, trimmed her nails, brushed her teeth and gently shaped her hair. At the end they made up her face with the lightest of touches.
One attendant held a mirror out. Tiaan was stunned. She looked transformed; almost beautiful. She wondered if, just possibly, she could endure the breeding factory after all.
Matron reappeared. 'Not bad!' she said, head cocked to one side. 'Better than I expected. We'll do well out of you, my girl. Show me your hands.'
Tiaan held them out. Matron frowned. 'Better, but still a long way to go. We'll have dim lights for your first time, and a bold tapestry at the head of the bed. And a low-cut gown. How long ago was she fed?'
'Two hours,' said the little, sandy-haired attendant.
'Feed her again.' Matron turned to go. 'No, first we must see to the formalities. Come with me.'
'Where are we going?' Tiaan asked anxiously.
'To my office. There's nothing to worry about.'
Tiaan was worried. Matron's grip on her wrist was unshakeable. They went along the corridor, up a flight of stairs, around a corner and through a heavy door. The small room contained a desk piled with papers, documents, a large tray of biscuits and several mugs, partly full of some dark, oily brew.
'Sit down!' Matron slumped into a chair on the other side of the table. Taking a biscuit, she pushed the tray towards Tiaan. 'Have a handful. They'll do you good.' She turned to a cupboard which she unlocked with a small key. There were a number of books and ledgers inside, though evidently not the one she was looking for. 'Where is the damn thing?' she muttered, sorting distractedly through the piles on the table.
Her excavations uncovered another ledger which she picked up, frowned at, then put down as someone rapped on the door. An aged attendant put his head around. 'Yes?' she snapped.
'It's… one of the clients is making rather a fuss, matron. Too much to drink. And little Zizza is quite hysterical. You'd better come quickly.'
Matron looked furious, but heaved her bulk out of the chair, glancing at Tiaan. 'I'll just take her back…'
A scream came echoing down the corridor, followed by drunken roars and the sound of breaking glass being smashed. Matron was through the door in an instant. 'Wait here, Tiaan. Don't touch anything.' She disappeared.
Tiaan sat for a while, then bored, began to flip through the papers on the table. They were all tedious administrative or financial documents. She put them back as she had found them, uncovering the ledger. On the front it said Bloodline Register 4102, Tiksi.
Inside she found a list of women's names with numbers after them. Page numbers, presumably. Tiaan turned the first page. The name at the top was Numini Tisde, a woman she had met here once. The page was ruled into columns, with dates, notes on her monthly cycle, health, male names with descriptions as well as lists of abilities, talents and ancestral details, baldly intimate details about sexual congress, and a variety of symbols and abbreviations that meant nothing to Tiaan. Occasional rows contained details related to pregnancy – weight changes, complications, miscarriages and births: six in eleven years, though only four were still living.
She turned the page. A different name was at the top, though the same kinds of entries were present. Tiaan closed the cover, appalled. It was a stud book!
It had just occurred to her to look up her mother's entry when she heard Matron's voice outside. Tiaan sat back in the chair and tried to assume a bored air.
Matron thrust the door open, red-faced and breathing heavily. Stamping across the room, she fell into her chair. 'Some people just aren't worth feeding!' Her eyes raked Tiaan. 'I hope you're not one of them.'
Tiaan lowered her eyes in what she hoped was modest incomprehension.
Matron went through the litter again. 'What the blazes was I doing?' She pulled out a stamped and sealed parchment, stared at it for a moment then tossed it aside. 'Ah, I remember.' With an air of triumph she withdrew a set of documents pinned together at one corner. 'Your indenture.' Turning to the back page, she said, 'Sign here!'
Tiaan took the sheets and began to read.
'Just sign!' Matron snarled.
'I'm not signing anything I haven't read,' Tiaan said. 'I know my rights.'
'Give me back the indenture.' Matron looked ferocious.
Tiaan passed it to her, quaking.
Matron placed it carefully on the cabinet behind her and stood up. Tiaan did too, wondering what was going to happen. Matron came around the desk and lashed out with her left fist. Tiaan ducked out of the way only to be clouted over the side of the head by the other hand. It knocked her sideways onto hands and knees.
Matron loomed over her. 'Will you sign?' she panted, her cheeks like slices of bloody liver.
'No!' Tiaan scrabbled out of the way, expecting more blows.
Matron's anger disappeared just as quickly. 'No matter!' She now seemed grimly indifferent.
'You can't keep me here without my signature. I'm not a child.'
Matron looked irritated. 'You have been certified insane by your own healers. I have the record here. It's properly drawn up and witnessed by the manufactory legalist, Chicanist Runne, and our own, Shyster Dusin. I don't need your signature.'
'I'm not insane!' Tiaan said vehemently.
'Do you have a certificate to prove your sanity?'
'No one does,' said Tiaan.
'Then you're still insane. It says so right here.' Matron was growing bored with the business. She rang a bell on her desk. The attendant appeared. 'Take Virgin Tiaan to her room. And keep a firm hold on her, just in case.'
Tiaan went scarlet. The title was mortifying.
'Please,' she said plaintively. 'I'd like to see my mother.' She felt lost. She needed the familiarity of Marnie.
'Good idea! She's an absolute corker is Marnie. Almost past it, but she still pulls in her regulars, and punches out a child every year. Nothing like old Marnie for convincing reluctant virgins. Take her dinner down there.' Marnie was on her bed, as always, leafing through an illuminated book. As soon as Tiaan was ushered in, her mother tossed it aside with a bored frown. She always looked bored, unless she was eating or preening.
'Tiaan!' she exclaimed. 'What trouble you've caused me. I had no end of work to get you in here.'
Tiaan doubted if her mother had anything to do with it, but let that pass. 'You're looking well, mother.'
'I'm not! The effort it takes to maintain my position is incredible. But somehow I manage it. There's a dozen begging for my favours tonight. Not many women can say that, at my age.'
Vain cow, Tiaan thought. Her mother had probably not been outside the breeding factory in twenty years. Her skin was so pale that she looked like a fat slug crawling across the bedcovers.
'Marnie, dear. Call me Marnie, I do so loathe the word mother.'
That was odd, since mother was the very description of her life. 'Marnie, I need to ask you a few questions about this place.'
Marnie waved a plump hand. 'Ask me anything, daughter. Oh, I'm so happy you've come. We'll have such times together.'
'It's just that – what do I do?'
'You mate, and you have babies.'
'And the rest of the time?'
'Bathe, eat, be pampered. Talk to the baby. Read. You can do anything you want.'
'What else?' Tiaan felt rather alarmed.
'You don't have to do anything. That's what's so wonderful.'
'What about work? I can't do nothing, Marnie. I'll turn into a mindless idiot…' She broke off, not quickly enough.
'How dare you!' Marnie flung a vase of flowers at her.
Tiaan ducked and the vase shattered against the wall. She began mopping up the water with a hand towel.
'Leave it!' Marnie screeched. 'That's not work fit for one of us.'
Tiaan did it anyway. 'I'm sorry, Marnie, I didn't mean to sound rude.'
Marnie sniffed and turned her vast back. Tiaan went round the other side, got down on her knees and stroked her mother's hand. She knew how to placate her.
'I'm sorry. I do appreciate how hard you've worked for me,' she said untruthfully. 'I – I'm afraid, mother. About what happens… with a client.'
'You don't know?' Marnie's eyebrows danced in astonishment.
'Of course I know. It's just that I've never done anything with a man.'
'But you're…' Marnie calculated, using her fingers, 'you're twenty!' She said it accusingly.
Nice of you to remember your firstborn! 'There's always more work than I can get done.'
'And to think I was worried about your virtue up at that horrible place. No wonder you had a breakdown.' Marnie sniffed. 'You have to live, child. You can't just work. Women can't do without it any more than men can. Of course you went mad, holding it in like that. Now, this is what's going to happen for your first time. You lie on the bed, open your legs, then the man…'
'I know how it's done, mother!' Tiaan snapped. 'I'm not a complete idiot. I want to know what's expected of me. How often do we mate? Once a year? Once a month? How long does it take to get a baby?'
Marnie burst out laughing, which sent ripples along her belly and flanks. 'Dear me, child, you have no idea, do you?'
Tiaan gritted her teeth. 'That's why I'm asking, Marnie.'
'You have only one client for the month, and you do it every day, except during your courses. That's how The Mothers' Palace survives and prospers.'
The light suddenly dawned. 'You mean this place is a… brothel? And we're just common harlots?' Harlotry was not a dishonourable profession, well above seamstress or washerwoman or nurse in status, but it was a long way below artisan.
'Certainly not!' Marnie rose off the bed in her wrath. 'What do you take me for? We're doing a vital job here, setting an example to the women of the world. No work can compare to that of breeding. Without what we do, humanity would disappear.'
'We don't need a breeding factory for that.'
'Yes we do! Too many women have become selfish, like you. They prefer to work rather than doing what's required. We're showing them how wrong they are.'
'Ordinary men and women…'
'Half the men are dead; there aren't enough to go around. Besides, the men we mate with are carefully chosen.'
That reminded Tiaan of the stud book upstairs, and her own longing. 'Who was my father, Marnie?'
'Don't start that again!' Marnie said coldly.
'I've got to know my father's family Histories; surely you can see that? Not knowing them is like only having half a life.'
'You'll not get them from me!' Marnie snapped. 'The Histories are a waste of time. Your father's aren't worth having.'
'Mother!' Tiaan cried out, aghast. 'How can you say such a wicked thing?' The Histories were everything. People often tried to censor their past, but never to ignore it or wipe it away completely. To have no past was worse than having an evil one.
'Well, it's true. We should be thinking about the future. I wish I'd never met your father. If I hadn't been so young and stupid I'd have refused him.'
'What was he like? At least tell me that,' Tiaan pleaded. 'Can't you see how hard it is not to know my own Histories? I hardly know who I am.'
'He was selfish, dominating and cruel. He thought he knew better than I did. He wanted to carry me away from here – the only place I've ever been happy. And the fuss he made when you were born.'
'What fuss?' Tiaan asked eagerly.
'He seemed to think he had rights over you. He wanted to take you home. Stupid man. They're all stupid! They lie with you a few times and then think they have rights. They're just tools to get children.'
'Matron put guards at the door. He fought to get in. I had to speak to one of my other clients, an influential man. Your father was sent to the front-lines.'
'Was he a soldier?'
'Of course not!' Marnie sneered. 'What do you take me for?'
Tiaan gritted her teeth. She felt like telling her mother exactly what she took her for. 'What happened to him?'
'He never came back,' said Marnie. 'I suppose the enemy ate him.'
It was like a blow in the belly. 'You killed him,' cried Tiaan. 'You killed my father!'
'The enemy killed him. Why should he live when so many others were dying?'
'Why should you live?' Tiaan snapped.
'Because I create the future!'
'Only as long as you can have children,' Tiaan said frigidly.
Marnie stiffened, drawing in a deep, gasping breath. So that's what the matter was, thought Tiaan. Her life here was practically over and Marnie was terrified.
'I'm sorry, mother. Please.'
Marnie turned her face to the wall and Tiaan knew she would get no more from her on that topic.
There was a long silence. 'Our partners are selected carefully, you said?'
'They're prime specimens,' her mother enunciated, 'chosen for the qualities they bring to our children.'
'But they pay?' Tiaan persisted.
'Of course they pay! Where do you think all this comes from?' She swept an arm around the room.
'Thank you, mother. You've told me all I need to know.' Tiaan went to the door, which opened and an attendant came through, bearing a loaded tray – her dinner. 'I'll take that in my room,' she said grandly, and sailed out. Tiaan hugged her thoughts all the way back to her room. Her father had cared for her. He'd tried to take her away from this ghastly place. It made her feel warm inside.
Logic told her that the poor man must be dead, though she clung to the hope that he had survived, perhaps trapped in a foreign land. All the more important that she find out who he had been and learn his Histories. When she had children they must know. It was practically a crime to bring up a child without its family Histories. She wondered what qualities her father had given to her. Well, she was unlike her mother in practically every respect, so she must be a lot like her father. If Marnie would not tell her, there was only one way to find out. She would have to take another look in the bloodline register.
Tiaan sampled the pastries on her tray. They were delicious, though they left a fatty taste in her mouth and she was still overfull from her previous meal. She had to get away. She would go mad here. That thought made her smile wryly. Or end up like my mother.
She went out again, walking the halls, acutely conscious that she was naked under her gown. No one gave it a second glance – the other women wore more or less flamboyant versions of the same article.
Tiaan came down a staircase into the colonnaded marble foyer, whereupon she was stopped by an elderly man in maroon and grey livery.
'Tiaan Liise-Mar,' he said. 'Where are you going?'
'To the markets. I have some shopping to do.'
'You may not go out unescorted. Your indenture has not been cleared.'
She whirled and stormed up the stairs, back to her mother's room. 'They won't let me go out!' she cried.
Marnie looked up irritably. 'Of course you can't go out. You might run away.'
'You mean I have to stay trapped in this hideous place until I die?'
Her mother pursed her lips. 'You are permitted to go shopping once a month with an attendant. You will, of course, wear a discreet wrist manacle.'
'Until your indenture is paid off.'
'But that's two years away, even with what I've got saved.'
'The old indenture was paid out when you came here, and a new one written. All this has to be paid for,' Marnie said. 'Your gowns, food, attendants…'
'Not forgetting the manacle. I suppose I have to pay for that too?'
'Well, of course you do. Money doesn't float in the air like butterflies.'
'I didn't ask for any of this.'
'It comes with the position.'
'How long?' Tiaan cried hoarsely.
'Depends on how many clients you service, how many children you bear, and how many of them survive. Some women have done it in five years, some ten or twelve, and some…'
'Twelve years!' Tiaan sank down on the bed in despair.
'Tiaan, daughter. It's a wonderful life here. You'll soon come to love it.'
'If it's so wonderful, how come we have to be chained to a guard when we go out?'
Tiaan had two more days of eating, sleeping and being waited upon. Her attendants appeared three times a day, doing more work on hands, skin and nails. She hardly noticed. Tiaan had not stopped thinking about her father. It sounded as if he'd been a young man of good family. Clearly he'd loved his daughter, and Marnie had repaid him by sending him off to be killed. Every time she thought about it, tears streamed down Tiaan's cheeks. How could she find out? There was no one to ask. Her grandmother had died nine years ago and Tiaan had no other relatives. She was never alone, even for the few minutes it would take to sneak into Matron's office and check the register.
On her third lucid evening, Tiaan sat in silence until the attendants finished working on her hands, trying and failing to work out a plan. Tomorrow was to be her first time with a client, so she had to escape tonight. No way was she going to give herself to a man for money. There were too many of her grandmother's romantic stories in her head. Too many dreams. As she had that thought, her first dream came back – the young man on the balcony, crying out for help. The later dreams she had had of him followed.
But were they dreams? They were different from crystal-induced ones, which were like chopped-up nightmares that vanished on waking. The young man had been much more vivid. She could remember every incident perfectly, as if they had actually happened. He must be real. And he had cried out to her for help. Her soft heart was touched. She had to find out who he was. But how could she, except through her dreams?
Maybe her artisan's life was over, but never would she work in this disgusting place. They had no right over her, no matter what the law said. She would break out and make a new life for herself, far away. At that thought, Tiaan felt the terror of the unknown. Her whole existence had been organised for her. In the manufactory everything was taken care of and all she had to do was work. Here it would be the same. But if she fled, how would she survive? A runaway would not be welcome anywhere. Did she have the courage? She was no longer sure.
The moon was rising through her barred window. There had been gales and snow all day but they had passed, leaving clear skies. It was late, past ten o'clock. Tiaan was not tired – she'd slept for a week. How to escape? She'd gained the impression, from the chatter of the attendants, that the work of the breeding factory went on until the early hours of the morning.
Sitting by the window, she ran various schemes through her mind. The window bars were set solidly into the mortar and it would take days to dig them out. She must have money and warm clothes, for winter was coming and even down on the coast the nights would be bitter. But first she had to recover her artisan's toolkit, her most precious possession. If only she still had her pliance. Just the thought of it set off a flood of withdrawal. Deprived artisans had committed the most degrading acts to get their pliances back.
The door opened. It was Matron. 'Your first contract begins at one tomorrow afternoon. The attendants will wake you at nine with breakfast. They will take you to your bath at eleven, then make you ready. Go to sleep now.'
Matron pulled the door closed. A key turned in the lock.
Tiaan was left with her despair. Would the fits start again, the next time she used a hedron? What if she had an attack out in the snow where there was no one to look after her? Tiaan knew little about the world and how to survive in it. She'd never had to and was not sure she could. Maybe she was more like her mother than she'd thought. The moon, shining on her face, roused Tiaan. It was bright for a crescent – the bright face of the moon, not the dark. It must be well after midnight. She lit the lamp and tiptoed to the door to examine the lock. It was an old-fashioned one, enough to keep in any ordinary prisoner, but not an artisan with her skills.
Bending one of the tines of her dinner fork over, Tiaan picked the lock in a minute. The corridor was dark but for a night lamp down the far end. She went back, grabbed the knife and headed up the hall. She had to find clothes and shoes; but first, the register.
Tiaan opened Matron's office easily enough – the lock was similar to the first. She felt around until she found a lamp and got it going. The bloodline register was no longer among the mess on the table. The cupboard was locked and her probe would not fit through the tiny keyhole.
She looked around for something to break in with. Her eye lighted on a climbing vine in a pot in the corner, which spiralled up around a length of wrought metal. Pulling it free, she jammed the point between the doors and wrenched. The timber split from top to bottom with a loud squeal. She whipped out the register and frantically turned the pages.
Someone called out, down the hall. Better hurry. The book was arranged in date order. Unfortunately Tiaan did not know what year Marnie had come here. Matron's writing was hard to read in the dim light and it was not until Tiaan noticed a familiar name, Jaski, that she realised she was on her mother's page. Jaski was one of her half-sisters, only four years old. Tiaan looked to the top of the page. No name. Marnie had been here so long that she had several pages. She flipped back to the first, scanning the entries until she found her own name, details of her birth and her first years. A cryptic note was scrawled in the Comments column, 'Does she have it?' and below that, in another hand, 'Not possible to tell. Put her into a suitable job and see.'
Have what? Footsteps roused her. Someone was coming. The name, quick! She checked the entry but could not make it out. The ink was faded, the handwriting abominable. Was the first name Omarti, or Amante, or even Arranti? The second name was a scrawl she could not decipher at all. It might have been Ullerdye, or Menodyn, or something quite different. She ran through the sounds in her mind. They did not seem to fit. Below the name, in different ink, it said simply 'Deceased'.
Tiaan let out an involuntary cry. He was gone. She would never know him.
She blew out the lantern, tucked the register under her arm, and slipped out. At the corner she edged around, then ducked back. A bulky shadow was moving about further down. It looked like the matron.
Darting to the night lamp, Tiaan blew it out. She flattened herself against the wall and edged down the corridor. Before she was halfway to the stairs she heard Matron slip-slopping along, muttering to herself.
'More trouble than she's worth, fat old cow! Time to put her out the door. She's got enough gold stacked away to pay for the wretched war, and then demands half of this new indenture. Skinny little thing won't survive a year. Hell, she'll probably go mad again in a month and then where'll I be? Clients won't pay a nyd for that.'
Tiaan went very still. Had Marnie, who was as rich as the legendary magister of Thurkad, extracted more coin after Tiaan was indentured here? She felt betrayed.
She held her breath as the old woman came shuffling past, wheezing. 'Useless maid! I told her to check the lamps.' She stopped just past Tiaan. 'That's funny. Is anyone there?'
Tiaan's heart was crashing around. Surely Matron must hear it. But she moved off again. Tiaan scuttled the other way, round the corner, heading for the stairs. Had she remembered to close her door? She did not think so. Too late now.
The top of the stair was dimly illuminated by a lamp in the foyer. Peering over the rail, she saw the door guard at the foot of the steps. There was no way to get past him.
Hurrying into the darkness she ran straight into a huge potted jesmyn on a stand. It fell and the pot smashed with a noise that must have been heard throughout the building. The register went flying. She groped for it in the dark.
'What was that?' cried the guard, thumping up the steps.
Tiaan could not find the book. As he came to the top step she pulled the gown up around her hips and ran, her breasts bouncing painfully. At the end of the corridor a hall went in either direction. She turned left, only to bang into a wall in the darkness. She scampered back the other way, rubbing her nose. If only she had not dropped the book.
This corridor was not lit and once past the junction Tiaan had to slow down. The corridor narrowed. She crept forward, her foot went down a step, she stumbled and just caught the rail as she fell.
Tiaan lay on the step, getting her breath back, until she heard shouts and the guard pounding up the corridor. At the bottom of a narrow service stair was a warren of rooms which she identified by feel – laundries, linen presses, pantries, storerooms, then a vast kitchen lit by the glow of a pair of iron ranges that were never allowed to go out.
Dough was rising in covered bowls – Tiaan could smell it. The bakers would appear shortly to produce the fresh breads, cakes and pastries for the day. The door to the outside had a complicated lock she might not be able to pick. The pantries and storerooms offered no refuge – as soon as the cooks appeared they'd be in use. Tiaan felt panicky, like a criminal on the run.
Matron's voice bellowed orders, not far away. Tiaan ducked into the laundry, lit by moonlight through a high, barred window. It contained a row of coppers for boiling the washing and a vast rectangular bin full of dirty clothes, mostly scanty nightwear and bed linen. This door was also locked. Tiaan was probing it with her pick when someone ran into the kitchen. Cupboards were pulled open and slammed again. The laundry would be next. She dived into the clothes bin and burrowed down to the bottom.
It reeked of perfume, massage oil, sweat and other more offensive odours. One sheet was drenched in sickly sweet sherry. At the bottom, at least a span down, she encountered the tiled floor. Tiaan wormed into the corner furthest from the opening and waited.
It was hot; the bin backed onto the kitchen ranges. Sweat trickled down her back.
'Not yet!' a man's voice said sharply. 'Mathys, do the laundry. Hysso, check the pantries and cupboards. I'll go through the kitchen. Lock every door as you come out. Matron, put someone in every corridor. As soon as she moves, we'll find her. Mathys?'
'I'm working!' said a petulant young woman's voice.
The room search was a series of long silences punctuated by rattles and bangs. Tiaan wondered if the servant had gone or was waiting silently for her to emerge from some hiding place.
After one long interval there came a thud and the laundry pressed down on her. Mathys must have climbed into the bin. Was she pulling all the washing out? If she did, there was no chance of avoiding discovery. Tiaan would have to knock her out. She would do anything short of murder to get away.
The weight eased. Tiaan was not game to move – even under all these clothes the servant girl must feel it. It became brighter, as if she was inspecting the bin with a lantern. A sudden, heart-stopping panic. What if she dropped it? The filmy nightwear would catch fire instantly.
Tiaan felt her moving away, walking up the other end of the bin. The movements went on for ages, then a little thump as she jumped back out.
'Mathys!' came Matron's angry shout.
'In the laundry, Matron.'
'Haven't you finished yet? Lazy slut of a girl!' A slap, a cry broken off. 'Did you check the laundry bin?'
'Yes,' said the girl sullenly.
'You took all the washing out?'
'Yes,' Mathys lied. 'I was just putting it back in.'
'Leave it – there's still a hundred rooms to search. Come on, and lock that door behind you!'
The door slammed. The lock clicked. Tiaan waited in case it was a ruse. After five minutes, when there had been no further sound, she judged it safe to come out. Emerging as slowly as a butterfly from a cocoon, she found the room empty. Creeping to the back door, she attacked the lock. It proved more difficult than the other. The mechanism must not have been oiled in ages. She forced too hard and the prong of her fork broke off.
Easing it out with the other, Tiaan tried again. It was tense work; if she broke this prong she'd be finished. However, after some minutes, the lock clicked. She eased open the door, letting in a blast of frigid air. She had to have warm clothes, and food if she could possibly find any. She was cut off from both by the locked door. Was she game to pick it and go back in?
A distant angry shout convinced her not to try. She would have to go hungry. Tiaan hacked a woollen blanket in two, folded it over half a dozen times and bound it around her feet with strips torn from a sheet. She put on eight nightgowns, one over the top of another, hoping that enough layers would compensate for their individual flimsiness.
Tiaan hunted for another blanket but could not find one. She made do with three sheets wrapped around her, tying them at the waist with another strip of linen. A flint striker, on the shelf above the coppers, caught her eye. She tied it into her sash. It could well save her life. She took a handful of tinder too. Tiaan pulled the door closed and, mindful of her previous failure, bent to lock it.
That proved even harder, but finally the door clicked. She scurried away, gravel crunching underfoot. It was freezing outside – puddles from the earlier rain had iced over. Layers of filmy cloud hid the setting moon. It must be around four in the morning.
Daylight was around seven-thirty so she did not have long to get out of Tiksi. She crept up the side of the building, walking on the paved edges of the gardens, and out the carriage entrance. The front door was open, the doorman standing in the light talking to Matron. A carriage waited nearby. The horse's breath steamed, as did a pile of manure behind it. Slinking into the shadows, Tiaan made her way up the street.
There was no one about – even the rare drifters who spent summer nights sleeping in doorways and under bridges would be in shelter on a night like this. Tiaan headed toward the western gate, avoiding the smoggy haloes surrounding occasional street lamps.
Not long after, a closed carriage clopped past. It looked like the one she'd seen outside the front door. Pressed back under a leafless bush, Tiaan doubted that she had been seen. The driver, swathed in greatcoat and fur hat, stared fixedly ahead, no doubt desperately wanting to get home.
It was strange being out alone at this hour. Everything had a misty, unreal air. Fog crept up the street, assuming shapes reminiscent of dream or nightmare. Shadows waxed and waned as the moon drifted in and out of hurrying clouds. The staid buildings of Tiksi joined together to form fairy castles or hellish dungeons.
Tiaan was not frightened. There was little crime in Tiksi, since everyone above the age of six worked at least twelve hours a day. The mist and shadows were her friends.
Approaching an intersection, she heard the clump of hobnailed boots. She ducked under a hedge, holding her breath as a watchman paced by. He walked like a man who had been on the beat too long, looking neither left nor right.
A sudden gust lifted her robes, replacing the layer of warmth with freezing air. Her exposed arms were aching. Tiaan hurried on. She had to get on the mountain road well before dawn. As soon as it was light, the carriers would move out with their daily loads. No doubt there'd be a reward for her and it would be difficult to escape a hunt up there. There were few paths and, at this time of year, little chance of survival off them. Dressed like this, no chance.
She made it to the western gate unnoticed. A sudden flurry of sleet caught her out in the open. It wetted only the outer layer of her clothing, and her hair, but ice water began to penetrate her blanket boots.
The gate, when she reached it, posed a greater challenge. The guard was pacing up and down. She could see no way to get past him.
Tiaan waited near a small well, across the way from the open guardhouse. Though a brazier glowed inside, it must have been freezing in there. No doubt that was why the guard was marching so vigorously. It gave her an idea.
The pattern of his movements did not vary. He walked fifty paces up the road inside the wall, striding furiously, turned, paced back, looked across to the gate and continued for another fifty paces. Each time, his back was turned for less than a minute, not enough to climb the gate.
Tiaan needed a diversion. Taking the bucket off its hook, she hid it in the shadows across the street. As soon as the watchman turned away she scampered to the guardhouse, her blanketed feet making no sound on the cobbles. Inside was no more than a cupboard, a row of hooks on which hung two oilskin coats, and a pair of boots below them. She spilled hot coals from the brazier into the pocket of one oilskin. It began to smoke. She knocked the other coat down, tipped the brazier onto it and was about to dash out when she heard the guard tramping back. Thud-click, thud-click as a metal heel-piece struck the cobbles.
It had taken too long. Tiaan crouched down, praying that he did not see the smoke rising from the oilskin, or come in to warm himself. If he did she was undone.
The footsteps stopped opposite the gate. Tiaan prepared to defend herself, hopeless as that was. She held her breath. Silence.
The footsteps resumed, thud-clicking away. Tiaan blew on the spilled coals; the oilskin burst into flame. She dashed out, hid across the road in the shadows, then made a noise vaguely like a cat screaming.
The watchman checked, looked around, and continued his pacing. By the time he came opposite the gatehouse the oilskins were blazing as high as the ceiling. He ran inside, cried 'Bloody cat!' and raced for the well.
His curses when he could not find the bucket would have disturbed the corpses in the cemetery outside the wall. Pelting down the street, the guard hammered on the front door of the first house. 'Fire! Fire! I need a bucket, quick!'
Tiaan scuttled across to the gate, lifted the bar, rested it on its bracket and closed it behind her. She gave it a hard shake. The bar fell into place.
Outside, free at last, she ran up the track in the direction of the manufactory and did not stop until she had turned the corner, out of sight. Sitting on an ice-glazed rock she wept for joy. The moon glowed through the mist like a distant lamp through frosted glass. The trees were mere outlines, black as ink. A shooting star carved a fiery path across the sky before bursting into fragments that swiftly faded. It seemed to be pointing west. Was that an omen?
Knowing that her troubles were only beginning, she continued on. The moon had fallen behind the mountains. Dawn was some way off. The stars, when visible through the racing mist, gave off just enough light for it not to be called pitch dark. Tiaan trudged up the path, following little more than instinct. She was freezing cold, dampness having seeped through the layers of clothing long ago. The wind stuck to her skin as if she wore a single layer of gauze. One blanket boot was already wearing through.
She kept on until the black sky was touched with the faintest blush in the north-east. The blankets were soaked, her feet in danger of freezing. Turning off the path, Tiaan went up the hill, avoiding places where she would leave tracks. The crest was bare save for a broken watch-tower of crumbling green slate and the moss-covered skeleton of a mountain pony. Down the other side she found shelter among up-jutting rocks and twisted trees. There was little risk of a fire being seen here.
The sun came up as she was gathering firewood, casting long conifer shadows that, low down, blurred into the mist. It was eerily beautiful. Tiaan warmed herself by the blaze until her foot coverings were dry. She was thinking about her father, wondering about his Histories, how he had lived and died and how he came to meet her mother. Had it just been a transaction in the breeding factory? She could not think so.
That set her puzzling about the bloodline register. Why did they need such a detailed record, if the idea was simply to produce as many children as possible? The mating details were clear – never more than one man in the same month. It did not seem to agree with what she knew about the place. But what if, she thought idly, the breeding factory was a place where children were bred with particular talents? Had her father been chosen on that basis? What a horrible thought!
It was lovely putting her hot boots back on. After heaping snow on the fire, she returned to the path. Another hour went by. It was nearly midday. The blankets were wearing thin again. Brushing wet ice off a log, she sat to remake her boots. Tiaan had just finished the first when she heard raised voices. A search party? She rolled off the other side of the log, hoping that the shadows would be enough to hide her.
Something cracked. She had broken the ice on a puddle and freezing water seared her side. She crouched behind the log, cursing her ill-luck.
Shortly a group of people ran past, as if fleeing for their lives. Since they were going downhill they could not be searching for her. They must have come from the manufactory or the mine. In the fog she did not recognise any of them, though one wore a carrier's cap and another an escort guard's uniform.
Tiaan ducked her head as they passed, though she need not have. They looked neither right nor left. What could the matter be?
After a few minutes she judged it safe to come out. Her wet sheets had frozen. She cracked off the ice, re-bound her other foot and headed carefully up the track.
It wound around a buttress of crumbling granite, turned sharply into a chisel-shaped gully, crept across a shear zone where the rock had weathered to greasy clay speckled with quartz gravel, then carved out the other side again. In the gully the path was shaded by tall pines. She edged through the gloom. Whatever they had been running from, it could not be far away.
There were Hurn bears in these mountains, vast creatures ten times the weight of a man. Also wildcats of various types ranging from the panther-like carchous to the stubby-nosed and bewhiskered ghool. Wild dogs were a threat to solitary travellers, particularly the tigerish rahse and the pack-hunting mickle. However, attacks by any of those creatures were rare, especially in the autumn of a good year, when there was easier hunting than armed and vengeful humans.
On rare occasions there had been bandit raids near the coast, though never this high. On the other hand, the metal mine had been producing well lately, particularly the precious white gold, platinum, which was easily carried and easily hidden.
Tiaan had just come out of the forest into sunlight when she caught the tang of blood on the wind. It could be no further than the hairpin bend up ahead or she would not have smelt it. That area was exposed, for a recent landslip had carved most of the trees off the point. Ducking into the forest, she climbed the side of the ridge. At the crest, a good hundred spans above the path, she went right, following the ridgeline until she reached the top of the landslide.
Tiaan made sure that she was upwind. The point was concealed behind a large boulder. Tiaan crept down. On this barren rockslide even a dislodged pebble would give her away. Reaching the boulder in safety, she edged around the left-hand side until she had a clear view of the road.
None of her suppositions had been correct. It was neither bears, beasts nor bandits. Far worse! A brand-new clanker, just completed by the manufactory, lay on its back with its metal legs in the air. The back half of the machine had been crushed under a boulder that had been rolled down the hill. No doubt the people inside were dead. She hoped Ky-Ara had not been the operator. Tiaan tried to recall his face but got the young man from her dreams instead. She put both firmly out of mind.
There were at least six bodies on the road. Pawing at one of them was what could only be a lyrinx. Her heart began to pound. Tiaan was shocked at the size and brutal power of the beast. It stood well over the height of a tall man, a massively muscular creature that seemed to be all claw, tooth and long, armoured body. Its wings were folded. It had a huge crested head, the crest jade-green, indicating a mature female. It could have taken on a Hurn bear and won. And, she reminded herself, they ate people.
At the same time, something seemed not quite right about the lyrinx – there was a slight awkwardness about it, as if it was not quite at home in its powerful body.
A pair of lyrinx were methodically tearing the armoured side out of the clanker, opening it up like a lobster at a dinner party. Armed with no more than metal bars they created an opening big enough to squeeze inside. Bags and boxes were tossed out, ripped open then abandoned.
Clankers were often used to deliver precious metal to Tiksi. Clearly that wasn't what the lyrinx were looking for, since Tiaan could see a scatter of golden rods on the ground from a broken bullion box. So what were they after?
A lyrinx pulled its head out of the opening, calling in a piping whistle to the third. Leaving off her gruesome business with the corpses, she joined the other two. With much heaving they rolled the boulder off the rear of the clanker, toppling it over the edge.
Tiaan took advantage of the racket to creep closer. The lyrinx tore the ruined clanker open from end to end. Splintered boxes and crushed bags were tossed to one side, and three sadly mangled bodies. With a shrill cry, the female held aloft an object that Tiaan recognised all too clearly.
It was one of the new controller apparatuses, with its pitch-coated hedron. Was that what they had come for? It must be, for they gathered around, their chatter emphasised by violent changes of skin colour.
Abruptly the discussion ended. The female with the green crest put the controller in a small chest pack, then the lyrinx touched crests and separated. The female went over the side; Tiaan heard her skidding down in the path of the boulder. The second lyrinx set off down the Tiksi path at a lope, perhaps going after those that had fled. The third tore a haunch from one of the corpses and, gnawing at the grisly article, scrambled up the hill toward Tiaan.
There was nothing she could do to avoid discovery. Tiaan simply crouched behind her rock and prayed. The lyrinx rattled its way across the scree, diverted round a boulder and headed up past her, not thirty paces away. She could smell the sweat on it, and the blood. What if it smelt her?
As it moved up, she edged back. About a hundred paces away the lyrinx checked and looked around, sniffing the air while Tiaan held her breath. It continued on. Soon it disappeared in the forest.
Tiaan did not move. Her legs had no more strength than the corpses down on the road. What were lyrinx doing here? The war must have taken a desperate turn for the worse, for she'd never heard of them coming so close to Tiksi. Unless the true state of the war was being kept from everyone. Clearly the creatures had come for the shielded controller. So there was a spy in the manufactory.
The sun came out. Tiaan was glad of it, weak and wintry though it was. She felt frozen to the core. She'd have to take the dreadful news to the manufactory. How was she to do that without being seized as a runaway and sent back to the breeding factory?
She climbed down to the track in case there were any survivors. There weren't – the bodies were torn apart. Perhaps others had escaped up the road. She could not tell; the rocky path held no tracks. None of the bodies belonged to Ky-Ara, thankfully.
Tiaan continued, creeping through a forest so silent that it was eerie. An hour later, when her much-repaired foot blankets were practically falling to pieces, Tiaan heard tramping. She ducked into the pines, watching a group of porters go by. Well, they could read the evidence as readily as she; no need to risk her freedom.
It was only a few minutes from there to the shortcut to the miners' village. Below the village she went off the path and up through the forest, circling around to come to Joeyn's front door without being seen, for she stood out like a ghost in her pale shrouds.
Pushing open the wattle gate, she ran down the path and hammered at the front door. Tiaan did not expect him to be there – he usually went to the mine at dawn. However, the door opened and Joeyn stood in the opening, blinking.
'Yes?' he said.
She smiled uncertainly. He did not seem pleased to see her. Then she realised that his old eyes were slow to adjust to the light.
'It's me, Tiaan.'
'What are you doing here? Get inside, quick!' Jerking her in by the wrist, he banged the door closed.
'I escaped,' she said softly. 'I was afraid you wouldn't be here.'
'I haven't been out for days. Didn't have the heart for it.'
Now he smiled, hugged her and stirred up the fire. 'What on earth are you wearing?'
'Half the dirty laundry. It was all I could find.'
'I suppose you're hungry.'
'Starving. And freezing.'
He pulled up a stool by the fire. 'Sit here. Take those rags off and put your feet on the hob.' He busied himself, carving slices of corned goat leg onto a wooden platter, adding a wrinkled apple and a large sweet rice ball. While she began on that he put the pot on the coals. 'You can't stay here. They'll come looking for you.'
'I don't think they'll be here for a while.' She told him about the lyrinx attack. 'No one will be walking the road now without a small army.'
'Lyrinx, here?' He paced across the hut and back.
'Perhaps something has drawn them to the manufactory; or the mine.'
'Who knows? What are you going to do now, Tiaan?'
She didn't answer at once. Tiaan was wondering if the manufactory might take her back, after this dreadful news. 'Do you think there's a chance for me?' she said wistfully. 'To work as an artisan again?'
'I suppose it might be possible… I've known Gi-Had since he was a little boy. His father was my younger sister's second husband. Would you like me to speak to him? In a roundabout sort of a way?'
She hesitated. The memories of her treatment, and the horror of the breeding factory, were strong. 'I'm afraid. I'll die before I go back down there.' She shivered.
He went to the fire, made mint tea with a sprig of dried herb from a hanging bunch, sweetened it with honey, and handed it to her.
'Thank you! Did you manage to get back my… things?'
'I picked them up on the way back from Tiksi. All except your journal. The new crafter has it.'
'Thank you. If you could see what I'm wearing under this.' She held up the muddy sheets at the back, allowing heat from the fire onto her bare skin.
He laughed. 'I'm too old for that sort of thing.'
Tiaan yawned. 'I'm so tired. I think I'll just curl up right here.'
Tiaan slept and did not dream, to be woken after dark by Joeyn carrying wood inside. She yawned, stretched and sat up.
'Going to be a cold night.' He stacked the fire. 'Lucky you're not sleeping out in those rags.'
'Where did you put my clothes?' she asked, warming herself at the blaze.
'They're in the pack under the bed.'
She fell on it, pulling out woollen trousers, shirts, undergarments, socks and boots, a heavy coat of waxed cloth with a fur lining, brushes for teeth and hair, a few other personal items, the copy of Nunar's book, and at the bottom, most precious of all, her artisan's toolkit. She unfolded the canvas with its dozens of pockets, each containing a special tool. Tiaan remembered the day she'd finished making them. It had been the day she graduated from prentice to artisan. Her fingers lingered on the tools of her trade. She might never use them again but there was no way she could leave them behind. All her self-worth was represented by that small roll of canvas.
'Was there anything else?' she asked.
'Oh, yes!' He took a leather bag from behind the door.
She loosened the drawstring and opened the mouth of the bag. Feeling inside, her fingers encountered the helm and she had an instantaneous flash of the young man on the balcony, crying, 'Help me!'
She went still, looked up at Joeyn, began to say something then decided not to. Tiaan laid the helm on her lap, the globe beside it.
'Beautiful work,' said Joeyn. 'What are they for?'
'To sense out what was wrong with the controllers. The crystal we found the other day went in this bracket.' Just the thought of it set off her withdrawal cravings. She had to make another pliance. She was shaking with desire for it.
'There was no crystal in your room,' Joeyn said.
'Irisis would have taken it down to the workshop.'
'I wonder she didn't take these too.'
'They're made for me. She wouldn't want them.'
'There's something else.' Joeyn held a piece of cloth under her nose.
The smell made her step backwards. 'It's my headache balm.'
'Where did you get it?'
'From the apothek. The crystals gave me terrible headaches.'
'Are you sure that's where the headaches came from?'
'My grandmother used herbs and warned me against this one – calluna root. I could never forget the smell. It causes visions, fits, madness, and if you take enough of it, you can choke to death.'
'But why would the apothek put calluna in my ointment?'
'I don't know. He wasn't a lover of yours?' said Joeyn with a cheeky grin.
'I have never had a lover,' she reminded him primly. 'Anyway, I hardly know the man.'
'Perhaps he loves you secretly.'
'I doubt it. People say that he's… incapable.'
'Could anyone else have interfered with the balm?'
She wrinkled her brow. 'I was too busy to wait while he made it up. Hang on! Irisis brought it down. She wanted to be rid of me.'
'And now she has, and there's no way to prove she had anything to do with it. No way to unseat her either.'
'She's your enemy, Tiaan. She'll never allow you to come back.'
Tears formed in her eyes. 'I don't know why I keep hoping. I'll go tomorrow, though I don't know where to go.'
'We can talk about that later. It's dinnertime.' He lifted the lid of the cauldron on the hob. A delicious spicy smell wafted out. Tiaan licked her lips.
Joeyn dug caked rice from another pot, shaped it into a raised doughnut on a wooden platter then ladled a good helping of stew into the centre. He handed it to her.
'I can't eat that much!'
'Of course you can. The only way to set out is with a full belly.'
'That's not till tomorrow.'
'It might be a long time until you get another meal as good as this one.'
True enough. She dipped her fork. It was a thick stew of meat and vegetables: rich, spicy and hot. Tiaan ate slowly, thinking about tomorrow. She was lost; just as lost as the young man of her crystal dreams.
Had they just been hallucinations brought on by calluna? Was the young man no more than the fantasy of a drug-addled brain? She could not believe that. The dreams were the only good things left in her life. Anyway, she had first dreamed of him the night before she got the balm.
Joeyn was gazing wistfully at her.
'What is it?' she asked.
'Oh, nothing really. It's good to have someone to eat with. I haven't, since my wife died.'
It was pleasant in his hut. Companionable. She felt at home here. 'I usually eat alone, too. I… don't know what to say to people, as a rule. They find me strange.'
'People are strange. Here we are, you just starting out in life, and me at the end of mine.'
'No!' she cried. 'You're my only friend, Joe.'
'Then you'd better make some more. Not many miners get to seventy-six. I won't see eighty, nor want to. What are your plans, Tiaan? I know you've something in mind, for you keep going all dreamy and vague, and smiling to yourself as if thinking of a distant lover.'
'I'm going to go after my dream.' She left it at that. There was no way to explain the young man, even to Joeyn. 'There's only one problem…'
He scraped up the last of the stew with a rice ball and popped it in his mouth. 'What's that?'
'I need another crystal, Joe.'
'Why?' He stopped in mid-chew.
'The helm and the globe are useless without one. It's… I suppose it's like not being able to find your reading glasses. You can see the words on the page but you can't make out what they say.'
He gave Tiaan a keen glance. 'Well, my roof props are still there. It wouldn't be too dangerous to get another, I suppose.'
'Any old crystal would do.' Tiaan was already feeling guilty. 'It wouldn't have to be a specially good one…' The craving was back again – crystal, crystal, crystal! She had to have another, whatever it cost.
'I don't suppose so. But on the road you'll be travelling, you'll need the best you can get.' He broke off abruptly. 'I'm going for a walk. I like to settle my dinner before bed. You'll want to change, and wash, I suppose.'
After the door closed she washed the platters and leaned them against the fireplace to dry. Taking off her layers of rag and gown, she bathed as thoroughly as she could with a bucket of water and put on knickers and singlet. Lying beside the fire, she pulled the rags over her and was soon asleep.
In the night she dreamed of the young man on the balcony and the catastrophe that had befallen his world, but this time the images were fleeting, hopeless, as if he had given up hope. The dream shifted into one of her grandmother's tales, of a young woman going to the rescue of her lover, only the young woman was Tiaan. She shifted under her covers, sighed and slipped back into the wonderful dream.
Tiaan stirred when Joeyn came in around midnight. She sat up, gave him one of those faraway smiles, and went straight back to sleep.
Shaking his head, Joeyn took off his boots and turned to his own cold bed. When she awoke just after dawn, his bed was empty. Tiaan dressed, glorying in her own clothes again rather than those hideous, confining gowns, and breakfasted on stew, rice and mint tea. Only then did she notice the chalk scrawl on a broken piece of slate near the door:
Gone down mine. Back by lunch. Keep a careful lookout, just in case. I left you a few old things. They were my wife's.
On the bed lay a jacket and overpants lined with fur and filled with down, and a sleeping pouch of the same material. They were better quality than anything she had. Tiaan thanked him silently.
The Tiksi watch could be looking for her right now. She packed, including one of the sheets. You never knew when a rag might come in handy. Knowing Joeyn would not have her set out on the road with nothing to eat, Tiaan wrapped a stale loaf, the partly used leg of corned goat, a handful of rice balls and a lump of cheese, and shoved them in as well.
Rubbing off his note she wrote her own, a simple Thank you, Joe. Her preparations completed, Tiaan checked outside and slipped into the forest. She climbed a tree that had a view of the path and the village, and waited.
It was a clear, windy morning and the wind intensified as the day wore on, shaking the walls of the hut. It was exposed in her tree; Tiaan was glad of her new clothing. Nothing happened, except for occasional people passing up and down the path. Noon came and went. Joeyn did not appear. Anxious now, she went back to the hut for bread, cheese and water, then resumed her watch.
A long time afterwards, when Tiaan was beginning to think she should go looking for Joeyn, a short man appeared, striding down the path as if he owned it. He wore the uniform of an artificer. It was the detestable Nish.
Could he be looking for her? News of her escape would have reached the manufactory by now. Her discarded garments were under Joeyn's bed but there was nothing she could do about them.
Joe had not appeared. She set off for the mine at a trot, trying to leave as few tracks as possible. There was no one in sight as she darted across the open ground and inside the adit. Lex was in his cavern, tallying quotas of ore on a slate. Crouching low, she made it past unseen, took a full lantern from the rack, lit it and hurried to the lift. She got into the basket and wound herself down to the sixth level.
Tiaan stepped out of the basket and took off the brake. If someone came after her, and thought to look, they might tell which level she'd gone to by the markings on the lift rope. Nothing she could do about that either.
Holding her lantern high, Tiaan made her way down the tunnel, praying that Joeyn was here. There was always the chance that she'd missed him, or he'd gone up to the manufactory first. Thus preoccupied, she did not give a thought to the unstable areas as she passed under them. What a change from her first time.
Not far now. She negotiated a tight squeeze, a gentle curve, and ahead were the triple dead ends. In her withdrawal Tiaan could sense the field strongly. She would tear crystal out of the rock with her teeth if there was no other way to get one. She ran forward, then stopped. The middle end was piled with rubble that had half-buried the props. Part of the roof had collapsed.
She moved forward slowly, hoping against hope. It could have fallen any time in the last two weeks. Then, as she swung the lantern, Tiaan saw a battered boot sticking out from under the rocks. She clutched at her heart.
'Joe?' she whispered. 'Joeyn?'
She ran around the pile. He lay on his face with one of the roof props across his back, weighed down with rubble the size of small boulders. Tiaan fell to her knees beside him. 'Joe?' She stroked the thin hair off his cheek. It was warm. Her heart leapt. A trickle of blood ran out of his nose. 'Joe?'
He gave the tiniest of groans, deep in his chest, and his eyes came open. 'Tiaan?'
'It's me!' She clutched his hand. 'What happened?'
'Want to send you off… best you could possibly have.'
She thought of that glowing crystal up the back of the cavity; the one she'd so coveted. He had dug out the vein at the front and dozens of crystals were piled against the wall. The craving urged her to throw herself on them, even with Joeyn dying here. She felt disgusted by her weakness.
'You shouldn't have, Joe. Any one of those would have done. How did you hope to get to it anyway?'
His eyes indicated a long pole with a wooden jaw on the end, closed by pulling on a string.
'Oh, Joe!' She stroked his brow. 'Let's get you out.' She began to toss the rocks to one side. Grit sifted down from the roof.
'Stop!' he gasped. 'There's more to come down, Tiaan. Maybe all of it.'
'I don't care! I'm not leaving you here.'
'Tiaan,' he gasped, breath bubbling in his chest. 'I can't feel anything from the waist down. My back is broken and I've burst something inside. I'm dying.'
'No!' she screamed. 'I won't let you.'
'This is the way it's meant to be. I'm a lonely old man. I've spent my whole life down here. Do you think I want to become a cripple who can't even wipe his bottom?'
'I want you to live,' she muttered.
'That's cruel. But I'd like you to do something for me.'
'Take my belt off. I want you to have it.'
'I don't want your wretched belt.'
'Do as I ask, Tiaan.'
It was not easy, weighed down as he was, but at last she managed it. It was thick and rather heavy.
'It's a money belt,' he whispered. 'There's enough gold and silver in it to carry you a tidy stretch of your journey.'
'I'm not taking your gold,' she said stubbornly.
'I can't spend the gold where I'm going. I have no relatives left. Put the damn thing on, Tiaan!'
Shocked by his vehemence, she pulled it round her, found that it needed another hole to buckle at her small waist, and began to make one with the point of his knife.
'Take the knife too. It's a good one.'
Putting the belt on, she hung the knife from its loop. This was unbearable. Tiaan paced across the tunnel and back. Across again. Her eye lit on the pile of crystals he'd worked so hard to get. Picking out the best of them, she held it up. It did nothing for her craving, of course. It had to be woken first, and that would be a mighty job without her pliance. She squatted beside him. 'How are you feeling, Joe?'
'Not so good! I wouldn't mind a drink though.'
'I've got a bottle of water…'
'I don't want your bloody water. I'll die before I ever touch water again.'
Smiling sadly, she looked for his pack, which was propped against the far wall. She found the flask, lifted his head as best she could and held it to his mouth. He took in a small amount of the dreadful brandy.
'More!' He attempted a grin. 'It won't kill me, you know.'
'How can you joke about it?' She brushed tears out of her eyes.
'How can you not?'
She gave him a good-sized slug.
He gasped. 'That's better. This is the way I've always wanted to go, Tiaan. Would you bring my pick and hammer and chisel? I'd like them to hand.'
She laid them on the floor beside him.
'We've been together a long time, old friends,' he said. 'Let's go the last little step together, shall we?' His left hand extended to stroke the handle of his pick. 'You've served me well.' His eyes closed. He murmured a snatch of an old song, one that had been popular in his distant youth. 'Are you still there, Tiaan?'
'Yes,' she whispered, quite overcome. 'I'm not going anywhere.'
'Could I have another drop of brandy?'
She tilted the flask, although this time he seemed to have trouble swallowing. 'Joe?' She clutched his hand.
'Is there any other way out of this mine?'
'They're looking for me. Nish the artificer went down to the village just as I was leaving.'
He said nothing for so long that Tiaan thought he must have slipped away. His hand was a rigid claw, clutching hers. She squeezed it and he spoke.
'There used to be a way out from the ninth level. A long, long adit that ran south to the Bhu-Gil mine. Its entrance was blocked up a long time ago, though it could have been unblocked since. We miners are a greedy lot; the things we get up to in our spare time, no one knows.'
'Any other way?'
'Not that… I know of. Not good, too many entrances to a mine. Gold just turns to air.' He gave a quiet chuckle. 'Probably flooded. Long swim, my girl.'
'Oh!' She remembered him saying that the other day. 'No other way out?'
'Who knows? Some miners are thieves, and the thieves don't tell the honest ones.'
That was not much help. 'More brandy, Joe?'
'Just a taste, to wet my tongue.'
She dribbled a little more into his mouth. It ran out again. His fingers stroked the pick handle, then lay still.
'Joe!' she cried. There was no answer. 'Joe?'
'Something for you,' he said in a whisper no louder than a sigh. 'Help you on your way.'
'I've already got the money belt.'
'Something else…' He tried to smile but the breath whistled out of him; Joe gave a little shudder and lay still.
He was dead. Tears swelled under her eyelids. Poor Joe, such a gentle, kindly old man. She kissed him on the forehead, closed his eyes and put his hand on the pick. As she did, something slipped out of his other hand, something that glowed faintly in iridescent swirls, like oil on luminous water.
It was the crystal she'd lusted after when she saw it up the far end of the cavity the other day. It was a bipyramid of quartz, blushing the faintest rose, but inside each end was a radiating ball of needle crystals finer than human hair. The two balls were almost joined down the length of the prism by longer needles, but there was a gap in the middle, a tiny bubble of air partly filled with liquid.
She picked up the crystal and light exploded in her mind, rainbow streamers that went in all directions, coiling, looping and whorling back on themselves endlessly. It was as if she was inside the field, but one unlike any she had ever seen before. Rather, there was more to it than before. Curves and circles and spheres appeared out of nowhere to drift across her view, constantly changing shape and size, disappearing then re-forming differently, as if she was seeing fragments of structures that had the wrong dimensions for this world.
The crystal was already awake – it had to be! It was ecstasy, not least because the withdrawal was gone instantly. It was disturbing too. Her head spun with the effort of trying to make sense of it all.
She had often seen rutilated quartz. It was common in this mine and many of the best hedrons were made from such crystals. But she had never come across anything as perfect or symmetrical as this one. It made her hair stand on end to think what, as an artisan, she might have done with it.
Tiaan wrapped the hedron in a scrap of leather and put it safely in her pack. Kissing Joe's brow, she took the flask. There was some bread and cheese in his pack. She ate that, sharing one last meal with her old friend, and saluted him with a tot of the turnip brandy. Laying his pack beside him, she took her lantern, leaving his to burn down in its own time, and departed without a backward glance.
Nish wrote a long letter to his father on the day Tiaan's indenture was sold to the breeding factory. He told Jal-Nish everything, except for his dealings with Irisis. The perquisitor would expect a full report and he dared leave nothing out that could be heard from anyone else. Inquisitors were also watched. Probers, being no more than prentices in the spying art, were especially subject to surveillance.
Tiaan's madness and banishment gave Nish rather less pleasure than he had expected. Revenge was less sweet than he had been led to believe and he could not help worrying about Irisis's part in it. Had she done something to the artisan to bring on crystal fever? There was no way to find out. Irisis now avoided him, and on the rare occasions they did meet she refused to talk, much less lie with him. He'd risked everything and gained nothing. Moreover, he found that he missed Tiaan about the place, especially her trim figure and light step going past the artificers' workshops.
A couple of days later, on his monthly day off, Nish walked down to Tiksi, giving his letter and the news to Fyn-Mah, the querist there, chief of the city's intelligence bureau. Fyn-Mah reported directly to his father. A slight, small woman of no more than thirty years, she was young to have such responsibility. Judging by her black hair and dark eyes, her delicate features, not to mention her cool manner, she was Tiksi-born. The querist was an attractive woman, and wore no ring, but Nish did not consider her for an instant. Everything about her shrieked 'keep your distance'.
Fyn-Mah laid the letter aside. Her eyes met his and he had to look away. 'I already know about Tiaan,' she said without expression. 'A bad business.'
Nish looked down at the table, wondering what she knew.
The querist ran her fingers over the letter, then placed it in a grey satchel. 'I will send it with the courier this afternoon.' She nodded. He was dismissed.
Nish turned away from her door with a great sigh. The deed was done and it would take a couple of weeks for the courier to get to Fassafarn, where his father lived. Even if Jal-Nish was angry, as seemed probable, there could be no response in under a month.
On the way back Nish happened to pass the breeding factory. On impulse he went to the grand entrance, to enquire about the new woman, Tiaan. Several silver drams jingled in his pocket, his first wages as a prober, and he had the delicious thought of buying what he'd previously been refused.
'We don't do business with boys,' sneered the man at the door.
'I'm a man! I'm twenty. I have my rights.' As it happened he was only nineteen, but the lie could not hurt.
'The breeding factory is not a right, it's a privilege. We choose the seed carefully here, as well as the man. And the first thing we do is make sure it's ripe!'
'No, you're not!' said the guard. 'And if you were, the fee would be fifty drams. In any case, the woman you mention is ill. Be on your way now, before I call the watch.'
Nish hurried back to the manufactory, smouldering. A week and a half later he was called to the overseer's office to receive an urgent package from his father. So urgent, in fact, that it had come by skeet. Nish knew how expensive that was, for the big carrier birds were vicious, difficult to train and in great demand by the army. What could it be?
He unfastened the oilskin wrapper, anxious now. There were two letters inside, one addressed to him, the other to 'Probationary Overseer Gi-Had'. Nish handed that one to the overseer, wondering what it meant. Gi-Had had been overseer for ten years.
Gi-Had was staring at the envelope in uneasy bafflement. He slit the envelope and turned away. Nish went to the window and sat down. He did not open his own immediately. Something was badly wrong.
He was staring out the cobwebbed window when the overseer cried out. Nish tore open his own letter, which was not dated.
Perquisitor for Einunar
Artificer Cryl-Nish, I am most displeased. Your report so alarmed Fyn-Mah that she sent it to me by skeet. I cannot believe your incompetence. Artisan Tiaan has brilliantly solved two problems that have plagued our clankers in recent months, and we have great plans for her.
Nish put down the letter, thinking out aloud. 'But Irisis solved those problems.'
Gi-Had swung around, balling up a hairy fist. 'Irisis made one mistake,' he grated. 'Tiaan wrote a report on what she had done before she went mad. It was found in her pocket by your father's other prober. The one who isn't an incompetent fool. Thinking I was in on the conspiracy, he sent it straight down to the querist. Now Jal-Nish questions my loyalty. My loyalty!' he choked. Gi-Had tore a page off the back of his letter and thrust it in Nish's face.
Nish read Tiaan's report and blanched. There was no doubt that it was genuine. Irisis must have been behind it all – the sabotages, the faked evidence, and Tiaan's crystal fever too. Nish knew he was undone. Doomed! Why had he been taken in by her? Why hadn't he listened to that inner voice? He went back to his own letter.
Tiaan's day journal reveals the development of an artisan of rare talent, unlike any in the sixty-seven manufactories in the south-east. Fortunately I have competent people reporting directly to me from your manufactory, though it took them a while to find out what had happened. This was no fit of crystal madness, idiot son of mine! It was brought on by tincture of calluna, a herb that causes hallucinations. Her bedclothes stank of it. Some traitor gave it to her, you thrice-cursed fool! Someone who cares only to see the enemy ruin us.
Clearly there is a conspiracy in this manufactory and I am coming personally to root it out. Everyone is under suspicion, particularly you and your friend Irisis. I have been told of threats you made against the artisan. Why, Cryl-Nish, why? As of this instant you are relieved of your position as prober and your whole future is at stake. I have instructed Gi-Had to punish you.
Immediately afterwards you will go to Tiksi, as assistant to Probationary Overseer Gi-Had. You will bring Tiaan back and ensure she is restored to health and to her position. I have ordered Querist Fyn-Mah to the manufactory. She will take charge of the investigation until I arrive. Make sure no evidence is tampered with or your head will swiftly leave your shoulders.
Do a good job and, if Tiaan recovers fully, you may in time be restored as prober. Fail, and you will be in the front-line as fast as you can be carried there. The scrutator has been informed and he is as displeased as I am.
Nish's shaking hand dropped the letter. As he bent to pick it up he caught Gi-Had's eye. The overseer's dark face had gone as pale as paper. Casting Nish a look of purest fury, he screamed, 'Why did you do this, artificer? Guard!' He threw himself out the door, bellowing so loudly that it shook the flimsy wall of his office.
A brace of guards came running, and more behind them. 'Take this man to the whipping posts and strip him naked, ready for the lash. Bring everyone outside. The entire manufactory will watch!'
The guards dragged Nish away. The bellowing continued behind him. Gi-Had was a most frightened man. What had been in his letter?
Outside Nish was stripped and tied to the middle whipping post. Shortly he heard screams, scuffles, and a naked Irisis was bound to the post next to his. He cast her a furious glare. She stared him down. Her pale skin was covered in purple blotches, for it was well below freezing.
'I curse the day I met you!' he hissed.
She looked him up and down. 'I can't say that you were worth it either, little Nish!'
They stood there for an hour while the thousand people in the manufactory were assembled. Nish felt sure he had frostbite in his toes, which had lost all feeling. How could he have been such a fool? Irisis had been behind it the whole time. But why would she betray everything her life had stood for? It made no sense.
Finally Gi-Had appeared. 'When my father hears of this…' Nish blustered.
'He ordered it!' Gi-Had said savagely. Standing before the assembled workers, he read from the letter: I, Perquisitor Jal-Nish Hlar, order Probationary Overseer Gi-Had to personally give twenty lashes to my incompetent son, Cryl-Nish, and to Artisan Irisis, for suspected complicity in the drugging of Artisan Tiaan and her banishment to the breeding factory, and for other crimes that I do not specify.
Tiaan will be restored to her position immediately. Once the investigation is completed, if their guilt is established, Cryl-Nish will go to the front-lines, Irisis to the breeding factory and… He choked on the words. Gi-Had will clean out the drainage pipes for what remains of his miserable life.
While waiting for the lash, Nish looked across at Irisis, who was still staring straight ahead. 'My father is coming,' he said out of the corner of his mouth. 'What evidence is there against us?'
'The word of one man,' she said grimly.
Her lovely lips set in a hard line. 'Even if I knew I wouldn't tell you.'
'Can he be blamed?'
'Only if he's dead!' She bared those carnivore's teeth.
The first lash fell on her creamy back. Irisis writhed, tossed back her head and opened her mouth, but let forth no scream. After that, as the knotted leather tore into his own back, Nish was in too much agony to notice. And agony it was, the humiliation even worse than the pain.
Gi-Had wielded the whip as if he was trying to flay them alive. Nish broke on stroke sixteen. He screamed, and again for each of the remainder, not to mention afterwards when a tar-boy painted the wounds with a bristle brush.
Only then did he realise what a strong woman Irisis was. She had bitten through her lip, her back was a bloody ruin that would be scarred for life, but she had not let out a whimper.
Nish watched, with a thrill of horror, the mixture of tar and blood dribbling down her backside. His own must be the same.
'I can't do anything!' he gritted. 'I'm bidden to Tiksi with Gi-Had.'
'Just as well!' she hissed back. Irisis stood up straight, thrusting out her chest, and at that moment he desired her more than he ever had. Nish and Gi-Had left for Tiksi immediately, but after an hour were forced back by a blizzard so strong they were in danger of being blown off the path. By the time they struggled through the gates, four hours later, it was growing dark.
The manufactory was abuzz. Apothek Mul-Lym was dead, having committed suicide with an extract of tar. It had been a horrible death that left his lips and mouth blistered, and his corpse with a pungent phenolic reek. There were no witnesses. It was assumed that he was Tiaan's poisoner, though many wondered why he had taken his life in such a painful way. His drug ledger was open at the next but last page. It showed a tiny vial of calluna to have been used, though no patient's name had been entered.
A rumour spread that he'd been spurned by Tiaan, had poisoned her in revenge, and then, knowing the deed would be traced to him, had taken his own life. Gi-Had questioned Irisis and Nish closely but of course Nish knew nothing about it. If Irisis did, she gave not a hint of it under a six-hour interrogation, and no witness could place her anywhere near the scene of the crime. Finally Gi-Had dismissed her. The apothek's death was the best solution for them all.
Nish ran into Irisis in the corridor in the middle of the night and asked her what had happened. 'I know nothing about it,' she said, and walked away.
Nish was more worried than ever. She must have murdered the man. Nish was in way over his head and sinking fast. Querist Fyn-Mah had still not appeared when Gi-Had and Nish set out at dawn. Presumably she had also been delayed by the weather. The snow had stopped but the wind was scouring snow off the path as they hurried down the mountain.
They arrived in Tiksi with red, wind-blasted faces, reaching the breeding factory at midday. The door guard sneered when he caught sight of Nish, who trembled lest the man reveal the details of his previous visit. In Matron's office they received a most unpleasant surprise. Tiaan had escaped in the night.
Gi-Had let out a monumental groan and gripped his head in gnarled hands, as if trying to squeeze the pain out of it. 'Where has she gone?'
'How in the blazes should I know?' Matron replied. 'I wish I'd never set eyes on the wretch. The damage she's done to our reputation won't be undone in a hurry. I've a good mind to ask for the indenture money back, after the damaged goods you've sold me.'
'You knew what you were buying!' he cried, unwilling to let her get the better of him.
'You said she was incurably mad!'
'That was the advice my healers gave me,' Gi-Had said stiffly.
'She was sane and cunning when she woke up.'
'In which case you should have paid more for her, not less.' Nonetheless Gi-Had was delighted to hear that Tiaan had recovered. 'Where is she now?'
'No one knows. She led the entire household a dance for hours, then escaped.'
'The factory will buy her indenture back,' Gi-Had said, 'as soon as she's found.'
'Now just wait a minute…' she began.
'There'll be a bonus in it. And, I should warn you…'
'Yes,' she said, alerted by his smouldering temper.
'This comes at the orders of Jal-Nish Hlar, the perquisitor.'
'Of course we'll do everything in our power to cooperate,' she said quickly.
'Did she have any visitors?'
'Only a decrepit old miner. Should never have let him in the place.'
They questioned Tiaan's mother too, but all Marnie could do was complain – about the discomfort, the ingratitude of her daughter, but most of all that her client would not be coming. Next they went to the querist's house but Fyn-Mah had left Tiksi some days back. By the time they reached the fire-scarred city gate they were no better informed as to where Tiaan might have fled.
'She could not have gone far,' said Nish, 'with no money, clothes or friends.'
'Perhaps to the coast,' Gi-Had mused. 'She has half-brothers and sisters down there.'
At the gate they had their first piece of useful news, for among the guards was the fellow Tiaan had escaped from.
'Damn near burned the guardhouse down.' He indicated the charred timbers. 'And then she fixed the bar so it'd fall closed behind her. I'd never have known, had I not seen it fall.'
Nish was about to make a sarcastic remark about the intelligence of guards. He'd had an awful day and his back was in agony. But he caught Gi-Had's eye on him and, mindful of the trouble he was in, held his tongue.
'Do you have any idea which way she went?' he asked.
'Straight up the road.' The guard pointed.
'She might have doubled back,' Gi-Had said.
'I followed her tracks as soon as it became light,' said the guard. 'She was going up the path to the manufactory. It's a wonder you didn't run into her this morning.'
'She must have heard us coming.' Gi-Had gave the man a coin for his trouble.
About an hour later, rounding a hairpin bend in light snow, they came upon two porters and a guard, plodding along, heads down, in a state of exhaustion.
'Hoy!' Gi-Had roared.
Their heads jerked up. The guard broke and ran but the others called him back. Gi-Had jogged up to them, stepping high through the snow. Nish hurried after him, which hurt his back cruelly.
The woman cried out, 'It's Overseer Gi-Had. Gods be praised. Surr, surr, we've been attacked by lyrinx!'
She staggered and nearly fell. Gi-Had held her up. 'Porter Ell-Lin, is it not?'
'That's right, surr! Kind of you to remember.' Ell-Lin touched one shoulder and then the other, a sign of respect. She was a large, stocky woman with big shoulders and a thick neck. Jet-black hair had been cropped short around a broad, weatherbeaten but not unhandsome face. Her slanted black eyes were narrowed to slits.
'Tell us about the attack, Ell-Lin. You know Artificer Cryl-Nish, of course!'
'I saw him at the whipping.' She averted her gaze. Nish flushed nonetheless. 'We were coming down Ghyllies Pinch, ten of us and the new clanker. We'd left late because of a cracked front strut. It was the last hour of the morning. As we rounded the corner a boulder rolled down the hill and smashed the clanker in. The beasts came out of the rocks; three, there were. Everyone else is dead. Were we not ahead they'd have got us too.' She shuddered at the memory. 'Lyrinx were eating Wal, and poor ole Yiddie…' She put her head in her hands. 'It ain't right, is it! Eating folk!'
'What about the clanker?' said Gi-Had. 'Could it not…?'
'It was destroyed, surr.'
'The back was crushed, and the people inside. Beasts got the other soldiers too. They fought bravely but it was useless. We dropped our loads and ran.'
'Cowards!' sneered Nish, forgetting himself.
'Shut up, boy!' Gi-Had roared. 'Or you'll join them. You did well, Ell-Lin. The goods we can replace, if they took them, but porters are vital to the war. Which way did they come?'
'Down the mountain,' muttered the man who had tried to run away.
'And you didn't see which way they went?'
'They were still there, trying to open up the clanker, when we turned the corner.'
'And you saw no one else? No sign of Artisan Tiaan?'
'No,' said Ell-Lin, and the men shook their heads.
'We'll go carefully.' Gi-Had eased the knife in his belt. The others were not armed. There had never been a need for it up here. 'I don't like this,' he muttered to Nish. 'Lyrinx in these mountains, attacking our caravans – there's something we're not being told. And what's become of Tiaan? We need her more desperately than ever.'
'Perhaps she came upon the caravan. The lyrinx may have eaten her too.'
'Better pray they haven't, Nish!' said Gi-Had.
It was late afternoon by the time they reached the scene; shadows slanted right across the road. A breeze carried the stench of blood and ordure. A snow eagle, its beak and breast feathers tinged red, flapped slowly off as they trudged up to the wreck. The bird went as far as the out-jutting branch of an ancient pine, where it perched, watching them with jealous eyes as if they wanted to share in its feast.
Gi-Had inspected the ruin gloomily. 'No chance of repairing it, artificer?'
Nish shook his head. 'Even if we could, you'd never get anyone to operate it. Death Clanker, they'd call it, and you'd have to force them at swordpoint. The hedron would probably pick up the taint of the lyrinx…'
'Maybe we could salvage some of the parts.'
'Perhaps.' Nish put his head in through the opening, but one look at the shambles inside and he hurriedly withdrew. Running to the edge of the road, he vomited up his breakfast. Then, thinking how far he had to go to rehabilitate himself, he hurried back. 'Sorry! I've not seen…'
'Just get it done,' Gi-Had said sharply. He seemed to be having trouble with his own stomach.
Nish held his breath this time. The operator and passengers must have died instantly, though the bodies had been further despoiled by the lyrinx. The inside looked like the floor of an abattoir. He finished his inspection and pulled away. The smell lingered in his nostrils.
'The controller's gone!' said Nish.
'I'm starting to see a story here. First they sabotage the crystals, then my best artisan, and now they're stealing the controllers. What's next? And why steal them? Are they planning to use them against us?'
'I don't know, surr,' said Nish.
'I don't like this at all. It's too big for me. For the first time since the letter, I'm wishing your father would hurry up.'
I'm not, thought Nish.
'Anything else missing?' said Gi-Had.
'I don't think so.'
'The porters' boxes have been torn open, but nothing else taken, as far as I can recall from the shipping manifests. Not even the white gold.'
'Maybe the beasts have no use for it,' Nish said.
'I wouldn't advise you to think of them as beasts. They're as smart as you or I. We'll take back what we can and send a salvage party for the rest. Any sign of Tiaan?' he said to Ell-Lin, who was standing up on the bank, well away from the gruesome scene.
'None here, surr.'
'Very well. Come down. Take what you can.'
They loaded up and began the trek, arriving at the manufactory without incident after dark. News of the attack had already reached them. Tiaan had not been seen.
'She was poorly dressed,' said Nish, consulting the inventory of clothing the matron had given him. 'Her feet were wrapped in rags. She's probably dead by now.'
'Neither you nor I can afford to think so,' said Gi-Had. 'I'll make up a search party and you'll be on it.'
Nish knew better than to complain, though his back was crucifying him. 'In that case I'll need -' he began.
'You won't be leading it,' Gi-Had said coldly. 'Don't imagine I'll be giving you responsibility anytime soon. Gryste!' he bellowed.
The foreman came running. Within minutes a salvage party and a search party had been formed and sent out. They searched the road all night with blazing torches, and on into the following morning, but found nothing.
Returning bone weary and in great pain around noon, Nish looked up to see Querist Fyn-Mah standing by the great front doors, scowling fiercely at him.
Nish gaped at her. 'How… how did you get here?' As far as he knew there was only one road from Tiksi to here, and he'd been on it.
'I was already in the mountains. Hunting!' The word tolled like an execution bell. 'Did you find her?'
'Not a trace!'
Fyn-Mah caught him by the arm. He resisted momentarily, though only long enough to think better of it. She could be the means of his rehabilitation, or destruction. He went with her to the wall where it was sheltered from the driving snow, and from being overheard.
'Bloody damn fool!' she said in a low voice. 'What were you thinking, to do such a thing?'
'I was… Irisis said… I didn't…' Nish could think of nothing to say.
'Do you realise what you've done?' she hissed. 'Tiaan had just made a desperately needed breakthrough. We were eagerly awaiting her thoughts on the bigger problem…'
'What bigger problem?'
'You don't even know?' she exclaimed. 'The failure of the field at Minnien. Fifty clankers were destroyed in a few hours.'
'I had no idea.' The implications were horrifyingly clear.
'We've always thought Tiaan had potential, though only recently has she begun to show it. In a few days she solved two controller problems. Two, artificer! She may have helped us with the third had she not been conspired against. Was that malice, or treachery of the highest order? Is that why the lyrinx are all around?'
'All around?' he gasped.
'The mountains are full of them. We're losing the war, Cryl-Nish. If more fields fail, we're finished.'
'I didn't know.' He was stricken with horror at his folly. 'I just didn't know. What is my father going to say?'
'I'd be more worried about what he will do. And all this for the sake of your -' She broke off, jerking her knee up towards his groin.
He flinched. She let her knee fall again.
'I don't know what you're alluding to,' Nish lied.
The knee came up again, so fast that he had no chance of avoiding it, crushing his testicles. Pain shrieked through him as the blow toppled him backwards onto the frozen ground.
She stood over him, looking down. 'You dare lie to a querist? Clearly the whipping has taught you nothing, boy!
'Now you listen! Are you stupid as well as a liar? I had not thought it. We have special ways of finding out the truth. I've been here since yesterday morning and in that time I've questioned two hundred people. I know everything! Surely you realise that? I know you boasted about your family connections as you crudely tried to seduce Tiaan, and then threatened her. I know how Irisis seduced you, and every jerk and thrust of your little fornications.' Her voice rose higher. 'I know all about her lies, how you conspired to cover them up, and your betrayal of your prober's position. I suspect Irisis of being behind the sabotages and the poisoning of Tiaan. I suspect you connived at the death of Apothek Mul-Lym, Cryl-Nish, even if you did not actually hold the flask to his lips. If that turns out to be true nothing can save either of you.'
'No,' he cried. 'I don't know anything about that.'
She fixed him with her dark eyes, saying nothing. It was worse than her interrogation.
'I've been a fool,' he whispered. It was the only thing he could think of to say. 'An utter fool. I deserve the front-lines.' He hoped the admission would gain him some credit.
'You'll probably get them. Your father will be bitterly hurt by this stupidity, Cryl-Nish. If it is stupidity, and not collaborating with the enemy.'
'I would never do that, I swear it!'
'I'll leave that to your father. He can tell a liar just by looking at him.' She sighed. 'He had such hopes for you.'
'Then why did he send me to this awful place?'
'A test. Not such a hard one, for someone expected to rise high. But you failed, and for the crudest of reasons.'
'What can I do?' he whispered. Nish was not a coward; nor was he excessively brave. The thought of the front-lines was a nightmare.
'There's only one thing can save you, if anything can. Find Tiaan and bring her back unharmed.'
'She's probably dead,' he said despairingly.
'Then so are you!'
'How will I find her?' he said to himself.
'A true prober would not ask. And you won't solve it on your back!'
He got up, holding his bruised organs. After wandering through the manufactory he ended up near the artisans' workshops. Irisis was glowering at her bench. He ducked away. If she had murdered Mul-Lym the apothek, as seemed probable, he wanted no further contact with her.
Trudging through the dormitories, lost in his miserable thoughts, Nish noticed that he was passing the door of Tiaan's room. He'd never seen inside. He lifted the latch. The room was tiny, considerably smaller than Irisis's. Tiaan probably had not cared.
All it contained was a narrow bed, a chair, table and lamp. A rod set in the wall at both ends would have served for hanging clothes, while a small chest sat at the end of the bed, though it was empty. All trace of Tiaan was gone. Not surprising; she had been taken to the breeding factory more than two weeks ago. What had happened to her possessions?
He found nothing in her work cubicle and her fellow workers did not know either. Nish went to the ratifier's office, where the manufactory account books were kept. She was out, but her assistant, a slender, beautiful young clerk with red lips and a roving eye, smiled at him. Nish gave him the thinnest smile in return. He did not want to antagonise the fellow, nor encourage him.
'Hello, I'm Wickie. How may I help you?' Wickie stood up, holding out his hand.
Nish shook it – a rather firm hand for a clerk – but had trouble disengaging himself afterwards. Wickie stood too close and it made him uncomfortable.
'I'm on business for the querist,' he said sharply.
Wickie stepped smartly backwards. 'Oh!'
'What happened to Artisan Tiaan's possessions?'
'I don't know, but it'll be in the book.' Wickie turned the pages of a ledger as long as his arm. 'Here we are. Old Joeyn the miner came for them a few days back.' He frowned. 'Must have been when I was at lunch. It's all written up and he's signed for them. See here – and the ratifier herself has initialled it.'
Nish spun the ledger around and checked the entry. 'Thank you very much.' He turned to go.
'Cryl-Nish?' said Wickie softly.
'Your poor back must be troubling you. If you should need someone to rub salve into it…'
'Thank you! It's healing well, but if it did need attention, I'd go to the healer.'
'Ah!' said Wickie.
Nish knew Joeyn, though not well. The old man had visited Tiaan twice down in Tiksi. She might be at his cottage now, waiting for the weather to improve.
He ran for the village. The day remained windy and cold, but by the time he reached the lookout perspiration was stinging his back. The last part of the steep path was icy. Nish crept towards Joeyn's hut and hid behind a tree, watching the door. He could not see anything; the fence blocked his view. He eased through the gate and onto the veranda but heard nothing.
Pulling up the latch, he thrust the door open. The cottage was empty. The bed had been made, the table cleared. There were two plates on the hearth, two mugs, two spoons. A note on a slate by the door said Thank you, Joe. The writing could have been anyone's.
Nish scouted around the house for prints. There were none – the wind had scoured the loose snow away, exposing a crust from the last thaw. If Tiaan had been here, where could she have gone? He continued in a widening spiral that took him into the forest. There he found tracks leading to a tree, back toward the hut, and uphill in the direction of the mine and manufactory.
The tracks were the size of his own, but shallower and with a short stride. Someone light, and limping – one print seemed to favour the heel. Tiaan surely. Was she going to the mine or the manufactory? Nish followed her through the forest, several times losing the prints but always finding them again in the direction of the mine. As it was getting dark he emerged in the cleared area. There were no tracks on the crusted surface but she seemed to be heading toward the main adit.
At the entrance he stopped. Nish had never been down the mine. Moreover, he'd had, from birth, a tremendous fear of confined spaces. As a child, his sister and brothers had tormented him by bundling him up in the bedclothes. As soon as they closed over his head, panic had made him lash out.
Edging forward, he came to the recess occupied by Lex, the rotund day guard, who was shrugging into his coat.
'Hello,' Nish said tentatively, 'I'm Cryl-Nish Hlar…'
'I know!' Lex growled. 'Were it up to me, would have been a hundred lashes, not twenty! What do you want?'
Evidently more people liked Tiaan than he'd thought. 'I'm looking for Artisan Tiaan.'
Lex raised a gnarled fist. 'She's down in the… town, thanks to you.'
'She's escaped from the breeding factory.'
'Has she now?' Lex grinned from ear to ear. 'Glad I am to hear of it.'
'She came this way. In the last few hours, I think.'
'Haven't seen her,' said Lex. 'And if I had, I wouldn't tell you, you poxy little prick! Now get out of my way. I'm going home.'
Nish stood his ground, though it took an effort. 'I'm here in the service of the querist,' he said in a mild voice. No one would dare make that claim without authorisation. 'And if you won't cooperate…' There was no need to complete the threat.
'That's different,' Lex said hastily. 'I'll help Fyn-Mah in whatever way I can. I haven't seen Tiaan, though.'
'What about Joeyn?'
Lex looked up at the large sheet of slate at the back of his recess, on which were noted the miners' names, their hours, where they were working and the tally of ore each had produced. 'He came in at dawn.'
'And he's working on the fifth level.' Nish read it off the slate.
'Been there for months. Likes it by himself.'
Nish considered. 'If you were inside, working, could she have crept by without you noticing?'
'Could have, though I doubt it.'
'Where would she have gone?'
'Along to the bucket lifts. It's the only way down to the levels from here.'
Nish followed him to the great wheels, and every step into the darkness was a further descent into his nightmare. He had to force himself to go on. The roof seemed to be quivering above him, alive and malicious, aching to bury him.
Examining the lifts, Nish said, 'These would make rather a racket. Did you hear anything earlier on?'
'They go all the time. There's ninety miners in here. Usually it's someone going from one level to another. Or the ore buckets coming up.'
'But they're much heavier. And you'd hear the ore falling onto the pile.'
'True,' said Lex. 'Come to think of it, I did hear the miners' lift going an hour ago. It went all the way but no one came out.'
'It must have been her going down!' Nish exclaimed.
'Could have been,' Lex said grudgingly. 'Or someone else.'
'You've got to take me down. At once!'
'Not allowed,' said Lex. 'Got no miner's ticket.'
'I'm ordering you in the querist's name.'
Lex was unmoved. 'Can't do it, even on her authority.'
'Then find someone who can!' Nish snapped.
'Should've been two hundred lashes,' Lex said to his face. 'Obnoxious little turd!' Nonetheless, he ambled over to a board beside the lift and pulled a rope twice, then twice more. A bell rang faintly in the depths. Before too long the upper bell replied and the rope began to move. A basket appeared, and in it a small wizened figure, lethargically winding the handle.
He stopped below the floor with a jerk that made the basket wobble on the cable. 'Wassamatta?'
'Flyn, Artificer Nish-Nash needs to be taken down to the fifth level. He's looking for Joe and Tiaan.'
Nish ground his teeth. He hated that nickname more than anything.
'Is he now?' Flyn made a hawking sound in his throat and spat, the gob landing next to Nish's boot. 'Ain't seen 'em. Take him down to the ninth level, if you like.'
'What's on the ninth level?' Nish asked nervously.
'Water, mostly,' said Lex. 'He's on the querist's business, Flyn.'
The man's face closed, the hostility submerged. 'What about my quota?' he said in a nasal whine.
'I'm sure you'll get a credit from Gi-Had,' Nish said. He did not know if that was true, and did not care either. 'Shall we go?'
'Shall we go?' Flyn mimicked in a sing-song voice. 'Jump in then.'
Nish blanched. The basket was nearly a span below him, and the opening looked tiny compared to the yawning hole of the shaft. If he missed… Not even to save face could he do it.
'Bring it up,' he said, and the quaver in his voice made Flyn snigger. The miner exchanged glances with Lex, who was also grinning. Damn them both, if he ever had power over them. 'Come on. All the way!'
Lex fiddled with a lever as Flyn wound the bucket to the surface. Nish climbed in, hanging grimly onto the rope. 'Hurry up!' he snarled to conceal his unease. 'The querist's business can't wait.'
Flyn winked at Lex, very obviously, then lifted one hand, which held a miner's hammer. He swung it hard and low. Nish flinched, thinking the man was trying to cripple him, but the head whizzed by, knocking the brake right off. The bucket dropped, leaving Nish's stomach halfway up his throat.
He choked, drew a deep breath, and screamed his heart out. In the darkness he could hear Flyn's roars of laughter.
They flashed past lighted openings, one after another, going faster and faster. Nish was steeling himself for the shattering finale when the basket slowed. The fourth level went by, they slowed rapidly and drifted to a stop directly opposite the fifth level. Lex had put the brake on, up top. Nish had been taken in by a trick to terrorise apprentices and unwanted visitors.
A lighted lantern stood in the entrance. Nish gave Flyn a look of purest hatred, which was returned with bland indifference. Miners were a rebellious lot, contemptuous of any authority but their own. If I'm ever perquisitor, he thought, I'll put the curb on them.
Small chance of that. There was a long way to go to avoid the army, much less be reinstated as a lowly prober. Putting his dreams of power and revenge aside, Nish tried to conquer his claustrophobia and failed miserably. 'Where can we find Joeyn?'
Taking up the lantern, Flyn stumped off down the tunnel. He was even shorter than Nish. Most of the miners were small, wiry and old. Nish followed, shuddering at the weight of rock above.
Joeyn was not at the place he usually worked, nor in any of the other tunnels Flyn knew about. Nish studied the crystals in their veins and cavities, wondering how the old miner knew which ones to collect. They all looked the same to him. They ended up searching the entire fifth level, which took many hours and several refillings of Flyn's lantern. There was no trace of Joeyn or Tiaan. Nish could tell that his guide was worried by the time they got back in the basket. Flyn rang the bell and wound them up to the main level.
Even after all this time, Nish was nowhere near conquering his claustrophobia, and it was with the greatest relief that he saw the wheel come into view, and the lighted entrance to the mine. It was morning. They'd searched all night.
A crowd near the entrance headed toward him as the basket stopped.
'No sign of him,' Flyn called.
'Nor in the higher levels,' a young miner said quietly. 'We'd better go down to six.'
Nish climbed onto the edge of the basket, caught his foot, and almost went head first down the shaft. A big man dragged him to safety. Nish's knees would no longer hold him up.
A dozen pairs of boots came toward him, then stopped. He looked up. The querist was there, Overseer Gi-Had, and many others he recognised. They parted and a short, round man came through. Nish's heart almost stopped. How could he have gotten here so quickly? He must have travelled night and day for two weeks.
'Get up!' said Perquisitor Jal-Nish, his father. His voice sounded like the ore-grinding mill in the manufactory.
Nish levered himself to his feet and stood before his father. Jal-Nish was no more than forty, a good-looking man, for all that he had short legs like hams and a belly as round as a ball. He was taller than Nish, the one thing his son could never forgive him for. The perquisitor had a proud, arching nose; a neatly trimmed beard thrust perkily forward from his chin. His dark hair was thick and his eyes had a twinkle for everyone except those he interrogated. He could be a charming man when things were going well, though he had a ruthless streak.
There was no twinkle as he examined his son. No allowances would be made, Nish knew. His father was not that kind of man.
'Well?' said Jal-Nish.
'We've searched the entire fifth level. There's not a trace of her.'
'What about her friend?'
'No sign of Joeyn either.'
Jal-Nish's wide mouth curved down in a bloodless slash. 'You moron, Nish! I'm going to be scrutator one day, and not even your stupidity will stand in my way. It's the front-line for you, son!'
Nish was interrogated by Jal-Nish and Fyn-Mah. It was like being whipped all over again, only worse. His father was coldly angry, Fyn-Mah reserved and efficient. Once, though, Nish noticed her staring out the window, clearly thinking about something else. She looked sad. What was it about her?
Later he was questioned together with Irisis, which he found even less comfortable. Twice she lied to his father with a completely straight face, then glared at Nish as if daring him to betray her. Irisis did not seem to care. It was as if she had a death wish.
She had admitted to harassing Tiaan, including planting the page from her journal and stealing her method of blocking the aura of controllers. Irisis flatly denied any of the other crimes with which she had been charged. Was she innocent, or would she, as before, only admit to a crime once it was proven against her? Nish rather suspected that she was guilty, and under interrogation he was forced to reveal that he doubted her. Irisis did not react to that either.
As the interrogation went on, Jal-Nish grew more and more frustrated. 'She must be the spy,' Nish overheard him whisper to Fyn-Mah during a break in the proceedings. 'I've a good mind to put her in the Irons, to be sure.'
He meant a form of torture so hideous that it was rarely used even on the most recalcitrant of prisoners. Nish was shocked. If it came to that, he could not stand by.
'I wouldn't advise it, unless you're certain she's guilty,' said Fyn-Mah. 'Her mother is an old friend of the scrutator.'
'No, no,' Jal-Nish said hurriedly. 'We won't go down that path.'
He kept Nish and Irisis up all night, then sent them to the mine to help with the search. Nish, staggering along behind Fyn in a lather of pain and claustrophobia, did not even think of escaping. One fate worse than the front-line, in this world where everyone had their place, was to become an outlaw with no hope of rehabilitation.
They went through the mine down to the eighth level, until Nish, who had not slept for days, was like the walking dead. Joeyn's body was found but not recovered, for the attempt brought down the rest of the roof, burying him, two miners and the fabulous vein of crystals under twenty wagonloads of rock.
Finding no trace of Tiaan, they began to question whether she had ever been in the mine. Two afternoons after Nish began it, the search was called off. The mine had to get back into production and every spare hand was needed to bolster the defences of the manufactory.
Nish humped stone until dark, when he had another blistering interview with his father.
'You've blackened me in the scrutator's eyes, boy!' Jal-Nish growled. 'I can't forgive that.'
'What are you going to tell my mother?' It was Nish's only trump.
The perquisitor, who had been pacing vigorously, stopped dead. The one thing he feared more than the scrutator's wrath was the fury of his spouse.
'Please give me another chance, father.'
'You've disgraced the family,' Jal-Nish said coldly. 'In ordinary times I might have been lenient but this time I can't, not even for your mother. You've turned Tiaan's triumph into a disaster. If I let you off, the scrutator will think I'm as big a knave as you are, and where will we be then? I know Ranii will agree with me on this.' He resumed his pacing, more anxiously than before.
Nish tried again but his father proved immovable. As soon as the weather cleared up enough to travel, Nish was to take ship to the front-lines, two hundred leagues north. There, in the unlikely event that he was not killed and eaten straight away, he would have an opportunity to rehabilitate himself.
Fortunately the weather showed no sign of abating its autumnal fury. Storms alternately lashed them with sleet, freezing rain, wet snow and frigid mist. For once Nish was grateful for it. He was lying awake on his pallet the following morning, listening to the wind rattle the roof slates as he waited for the gong to get up, when the whole wall shook. A second later there came a dull boom.
Earth tremblers were not uncommon here, and sometimes dangerous. Nish flew out of bed, scrambled into his boots and tore open the door. 'What was that?' he yelled to the guard standing outside.
'I don't -'
Another great smashing thud shook the manufactory. 'That's not an earth trembler,' Nish shouted. 'Something's attacking the front gate. Quickly, man, to your post!'
The guard, well drilled as was everyone in the manufactory, ran for the gate. Nish, whose station was up on the wall, took a shortcut through the women's dormitory, where scantily clad women (and occasional lovers) were falling over each other in their urgency to get dressed. The scene was much the same in the men's sleeping hall.
'Sleepers, wake!' he roared. 'The enemy is at the gates. Quick, quick!'
He continued up the other end, banging a stick on the doors of the workers important enough to have their own rooms. It amused him to see the condition of those who stumbled out, including his father.
Naked, still dazed from sleep, Jal-Nish was in no way the commanding figure he cut in his clothes. His belly quivered, and his lip. He kicked the door closed, though not before Nish saw Wickie, the young clerk from the bursar's office, standing mouth agape.
Nish was shocked, to say nothing of disgusted. His own father! But there was no time for that now. Throwing the door open again he shouted, 'The gates are attacked, perquisitor!' deliberately using the title rather than his father's name. A spasm warped Jal-Nish's face, then Nish ran on.
Fyn-Mah hurried by, shepherding a gaggle of little children to safety. For the first time, her reserve had broken – she looked to be in pain.
A fascinating character study, had Nish the time to dwell on it, the way people dealt with the shock. Overseer Gi-Had looked as if he'd had to force courage on himself, yet he came running. There was no sign of Foreman Gryste at all, and two artificers, big men well known for their pride and their boasting, had to be shamed from their rooms.
Not so Irisis. Her door flew open as he reached it. She had a long knife in her hand, almost the length of a short sword, but wore only a pair of knee-length trousers. 'The enemy, you say?'
'At the gates.'
'Where's my blasted shirt?' She looked around for it, then spat, 'Ah, damn it,' and ran out, her magnificent breasts bare.
Nish followed, suspecting she had done it deliberately. With her hair streaming out, and her scarred back, she looked just like the paintings of Myssu, a great revolutionary hero of old.
They ran up the steps onto the wall. Hastily lit torches guttered in the wind. It was still dark outside. The light showed only mist and shadows.
The wall shook again, then a missile smashed one side of the great gate. Nish looked down to see a boulder, hurled by some mighty catapult, crack the steps before rolling onto the road.
'What is it?' he shouted to the nearest guard. Before the fellow could answer a smaller missile struck him in the chest, carrying him backwards over the edge to his death.
Irisis came sprinting along the wall, hair flying. 'It's lyrinx!' she screamed, ducked past him and raced to the watch-tower above the left gate, snatching a torch on the way. Several rocks followed her path though none went near. Flying up the steps, she hurled the torch high and straight, through the opening of the watchlight.
Tar-soaked straw, placed there for the purpose, burst into flames, illuminating the area between the gate and the forest, though leaving the defenders on the wall in shadow. Nish knocked down the other torch and ran up to the watch-tower, where Irisis was sighting a crossbow toward the forest. She fired. There came a single, truncated cry.
Another boulder hurtled out of the darkness, tearing the broken gate off its hinges. Instantly it was charged by three lyrinx and a violent skirmish took place on the steps.
Irisis stood barefoot in a drift of snow, calmly reloading the crossbow. She seemed oblivious to the cold, though her skin was purple. 'Damn you!' she screamed. The crossbow had jammed.
Nish quickly freed it, his artificer's skills proving some use after all, and handed it back.
Irisis leaned over the wall, sighted straight down, held the position and fired. A pulpy thud made her grunt with satisfaction. 'Got you!' She ducked out of the line of fire, looking around for more bolts.
Nish was struck by the change in her. He had never seen Irisis look so alive. He glanced over the side. Her target lay still, a bloody smear on the top of its crested skull. How could she be a traitor? It made no sense.
The other two lyrinx were at the gate. Nish ran to a rock pile, grabbed one as big as he could lift, sighted and dropped it. It missed, shattering on the steps. He hurled another, which struck an attacker on its plated shoulder. The lyrinx lurched around, shaking an arm which looked to be dislocated, then crashed through the gate into the manufactory. Screams and roars marked its passage.
Nish aimed another missile, but as he let it fall the second lyrinx hurled something up at him with a whip-like underarm flick. There came a blinding pain in the throat; the blow punched him onto his back. He cracked his head on the rock pile and sank into a daze where all he could feel was the agony in his neck, a creeping cold and the blood running out of him.
Shortly he was picked up and carried down. Irisis was one of the bearers, her breasts swaying above his face. Whoever had his feet was lost in fog that rose with every step. He came to on a table in the refectory with a dozen people staring at him. One was his father, and his face bore a look of terror such as Nish had not seen before. Maybe Jal-Nish cared about him after all.
Beside him loomed the healer Tul-Kin, and Nish was not pleased to see him. Up close, the man's nose and cheeks were a mass of broken veins, while his breath reeked of the homemade rhubarb brandy that the miners distilled in the village. The manufactory was dry – only weak beer allowed – but the healer was permitted brandy for use in his surgery. An unfortunate exception.
'Come on, man!' cried Jal-Nish. 'Get the dart out and sew him up before he bleeds to death.'
Tul-Kin wrung his plump hands. 'I dursn't. It's lying between the arteries and bladed on three edges. One slip and he's dead.'
'Drunken fool,' roared Jal-Nish. 'Where the devil is Gi-Had?'
'Gone after the enemy, surr,' Nish heard someone say. 'One of the beasts has got into the offices.' Nish felt dizzy, though his mind was clear. He was going to die because the healer lacked the courage to try to save him.
'Is this wretch the only healer you have?' the perquisitor persisted.
'There's old Ruzia, surr,' said the unknown voice, 'but she's blind and has the shakes something severe. We also had Mul-Lym the apothek. He was a good hand with the bone saw, in emergencies, but…'
'But the damn fool is dead,' Jal-Nish grated. 'Killed himself, if someone else didn't do it for him.' He scowled down at his son. 'Could be a poetic kind of justice, I suppose.'
Nish could see the irony too, but he did not appreciate it.
A slap, a curse and Irisis's voice raged, 'Keep your hands to yourself or I'll spill your brains on the floor. Get out of my way.' The crowd parted before her. She had put on an undershirt, a clinging article that distracted the eye.
'What do you think you're doing?' screamed Jal-Nish.
'Saving your worthless son's life,' she replied softly. 'Or if not, putting him out of his suffering.' She had a piece of copper tubing in one hand, a small artisan's hammer in the other.
'Be damned! Tul-Kin, get back here!'
Tul-Kin was retrieved from the corner, gulping from a flask. When they took it away his arm twitched so hard he could not hold the knife they pressed upon him.
'Well?' said Irisis with magnificent arrogance.
Jal-Nish closed his eyes, opened them and wiped away a tear. 'He's going to die, isn't he?'
'At the rate he's losing blood,' said one of the nurses, 'I'd give him an hour.'
The perquisitor waved a hand. 'I don't suppose you can do any worse.'
Irisis pushed through, leaned over Nish and gauged the wound. 'The shard is a length of metal about as long as a small knife blade. It's triangular in cross-section and each edge is razor sharp. It's gone through the muscle of his neck. The point has come out the back, next to the spine. To pull it out, or push it through, risks cutting the vein, in which case he will die in a minute.'
She took the piece of copper tube, checked that the diameter was large enough, then wiggled it into the slit in Nish's neck. He screamed and fainted. 'Just as well,' Irisis muttered, and eased the tubing over the end of the shard. As she pushed, there came a gentle sucking sound. Blood began to drip from the tube.
Sweat was pouring down her face. There were a dozen people around the table but no one said a word. The entire room seemed to be holding its breath.
Irisis gently worked the tube back and forth, as if trying to get it over a snag in the metal. The least pressure and one of the blades would go through a vein. She eased the tube out, wiped the blood on her shirt, cleaned her fingers the same way, tilted the tube and slid it back in. This time it kept going.
'Lift his head!' she said harshly.
Jal-Nish did so. He looked stricken.
She moved his hand down to support Nish's neck. 'Hold him firmly.'
Taking a small cap from her pocket, she screwed it on the end of the tube. Irisis took up her hammer and, with a single sharp blow that drew a gasp from the watchers, drove the tube all the way in. Nish woke, screamed and convulsed.
'Hold him!' she roared, 'or we'll lose him.'
The watchers scurried to take hold of Nish. Irisis took a pair of pincers from her pocket, gripped the end of the tube protruding from the back of his neck and drew out tube and shard in a single clean movement. Nish shrieked.
Pent-up blood poured out, front and back. They waited for the telltale spurt from a severed artery.
'What's happening?' wailed Nish. 'I'm going to die, aren't I?'
Irisis stood back, panting. Her shirt and arms were coated with blood. Blood dribbled from the end of the tube. She was staring at his throat.
'What…?' said Nish.
'Shut up, Nish! You're not going to die, more's the damn pity.' Irisis looked around at the crowd. 'Can anyone sew?' The faces looked blank. 'Of course you can't, morons! Get me the healer's bag and bottle.'
Someone scurried off, returning with the items. Irisis found a needle and thread and calmly sewed up Nish's neck, then doused the wounds with brandy.
Finally she tossed needle, thread and flask onto the table, took up her tools and, without another glance, went back to her room. Nish's mouth was dry, his head throbbed and his neck was so unbearably painful that he could not move his head. He had vague memories of someone sitting by the bed, stroking his brow, but only Irisis was there now.
'You saved my life,' he said, reaching for her hand.
'Don't think for a minute it's because I care for you, Little Nish-Nash,' she said in a gritty voice.
'For your father's favour, of course! It was that or the breeding factory.'
'Oh!' He missed the strange look in her eye, being unable to turn his head. 'But if you'd killed me…'
'It was worth the gamble. I like gambling, especially when things can't get any worse.'
'Then hadn't you better go for your reward?' He put as much sarcasm into it as his awful neck would let him. 'That's exactly what I expected of you, after all.'
She shrugged it off. 'I've some broth. Wouldn't want you to die and spoil everything.'
'Of course not!'
She dipped the spoon, put it to his lips. 'Open up!'
He did so and found the broth delicious, nothing like the dishwater he'd expected from the cookhouse. Smacking his lips he said, 'That's good!'
'Of course it is. I made it myself. Specially.'
She fed him the rest, then went out without further word. Nish lay back, feeling the blood pounding in his ears. The small exertion had exhausted him. Irisis was at her bench fitting together a controller when the door banged open and Jal-Nish came hurrying in. He hurried everywhere, though with his portly figure it made him look faintly ridiculous.
'Yes?' she said imperiously, afraid of what he could do to her. She had spent most of her life afraid, and concealing it. A word from the perquisitor and she could be any kind of drudge or slave he cared to name. Her pride would not allow that.
'I've come to thank you for saving my worthless son.'
'Worthless? I suppose so. He has certain talents.' She gave a mocking, pointed leer.
'I don't want to know,' he said hastily.
'I bet you do. I know all about your nocturnal activities.' She tossed back her yellow hair. 'Tell me my fate. Whatever it is, I would know it right away.'
He walked up and down, casting her sideways glances as if he did not know what to make of her.
'There's more to you than reports indicate.'
'What does Fyn-Mah say about me? Am I guilty of treachery, even murder, as my one-time lover believes?'
'There is now… room for doubt,' he said.
'It's hard to imagine a traitor killing one of the enemy so brilliantly.'
'What did the lyrinx come for?'
'Just a wandering band.' Jal-Nish was a little too offhand. 'Who knows why they go where they do?'
'I heard that one beast fought its way into Gi-Had's office before it was killed. Sounds like they came with a purpose.'
He hesitated. 'It took a piece of evidence…'
'Are you saying Gi-Had is the traitor?'
'Don't be absurd. The lyrinx had Artisan Tiaan's broken pliance. We think it contains evidence of the traitor's identity, which seems to clear you of that particular charge.'
'But not the others?'
'You have admitted to serious crimes, and Fyn-Mah tells me -'
'Yes?' She clenched her fingers under the bench, out of sight.
'That you're vain, proud and have an overly high opinion of yourself. But it's a front you've been putting on all your life, to protect yourself from an abusive mother, an incompetent father and a family desperately trying to relive its past glory through you. That you're quite lacking in morals and would do anything to advance yourself and bring your rivals down. That you're bold, even foolhardy, yet dogged in pursuit of your ultimate goal. That you have a desperate craving for recognition…'
She could never argue, for that would lose face in her own eyes. 'All true!' She feigned boredom. 'I am what I am. Rather, what circumstances and my own wit have made me.'
'Indeed, and that is why I am here. I have a little job for you, one by which you may, just possibly, redeem yourself.'
'Of a sort.' He hesitated, then with swift strides went to the door, checked outside and closed it tight. Jal-Nish drew up a stool and sat down before her. 'Back in my own realm, certain, er… experimental procedures have been done in… how shall I call it in this tongue? Farsensing, or perhaps tracking.'
'Indirectly. Really, it's tracking the use of power – the Secret Art.'
'I have no talent for the Secret Art.'
'I've brought with me a natural adept who can sense when power is used; and where! I hope she can help with a particular problem.'
'The failure of the field at Minnien,' Irisis guessed.
'Indeed. We don't know why it happened, or how. Is the field gone forever or will it suddenly come back?'
'Did we drain it dry,' said Irisis, 'or did the enemy learn to cut it off?'
'Precisely. You have a quick wit, artisan.'
She yawned, deliberately.
'We've had scores of crafters and mancers working on the problem but thus far they have failed,' said Jal-Nish.
'We need to see inside the node,' said Irisis.
He looked startled but recovered quickly. 'My thoughts exactly. And that's what I hope to do with my adept – the seeker.'
'Why are you telling me this?'
'The seeker's talent is not enough, for it is bound up with fatal weaknesses.'
'I have no idea what you're talking about.'
'I've not put it clearly. Come with me.'
She followed him through the manufactory, which was full of idling workers. So soon after the attack, no one could concentrate on their work. They passed by the overseer's door, which had been smashed to pieces, walked around the corner and down a long corridor where Jal-Nish stopped at a closed door. He took up a lantern, lit it, shuttered it nearly all the way and went in. She followed him. He pulled the door closed. The light fell on a small figure hunched up in the corner. It put its hands over its face, making a mewling noise.
'Ullii,' Jal-Nish said softly, 'this is Artisan Irisis. Please say hello.'
The figure writhed and then slowly unfolded. At first Irisis thought the seeker was a child, but when Ullii stood up, she turned out to be a young woman, well formed but small, with little hands and tiny, slender feet. She was naked, her clothes scattered across the floor as if she'd hurled them away. Everything about her was pale to the point of colourlessness. Her hair was so transparent that it could have been drawn from strands of water. Her eyelashes and brows were the same. Her skin had no colour at all, so that, even in this light, every blood vessel showed, and between them the pinkness of her flesh.
Ullii turned away from the light, dim though it was. Irisis wondered if she had some terrible deformity, but Jal-Nish faced the lantern into the corner and Ullii looked back. She appeared perfectly normal except for enormous eyes with no colour or visible structure. Was she a moron-savant?
'It hurts,' said Ullii in a voice as colourless as her hair. The light had hurt her though, for tears were dripping from her lower lashes.
'Say hello, Ullii,' said Jal-Nish.
'Hello, Irisis,' Ullii said in a voice that now reflected Jal-Nish's accent. She stared straight through Irisis as if she was not there at all. Or as if she herself was blind.
'What do you see, Ullii?' Jal-Nish spoke more sharply than he had intended.
She jerked as though his voice had hurt her, then began to curl up. 'Sorry,' he whispered soothingly. 'Don't be afraid, Ullii. No one's going to hurt you ever again. Tell Irisis what you see.'
It was no use. The young woman curled into a ball with her head tucked right under. Jal-Nish shrugged, indicated the door and took up the lantern.
'What's the matter with her?' Irisis said.
Closing the door, Jal-Nish led Irisis down the corridor. 'She's a strange little thing. All her senses are so acute that she can't exist in our world. She's practically blind in light, though she can see well enough in the dark. Noise is like physical pain to her – a shout or a cry, everyday sounds to us, are to her like being trapped inside a tank with a banshee. Touch is just as bad – she cannot bear to wear clothes. Even silk she finds irritating. She is frightened of everything and everyone.'
'I wonder she was not put out of her misery long ago,' said Irisis. 'I would have, were she mine. She doesn't seem all there.'
'What a cold woman you are!' said Jal-Nish. 'She's not an idiot; just overwhelmed.'
Irisis suppressed her impatience, waiting for him to get to the point.
'Ullii sees things. In her mind,' he said at last.
'So do I.'
'You don't see the kinds of things she does. Let's try again. And keep your voice down.'
It was you who upset her last time, Irisis thought.
They went back in. 'Ullii, this is Artisan Irisis. Please say hello.'
She had unfolded. Turning toward Irisis, Ullii said, 'Hello, Irisis,' again mimicking the perquisitor's voice. 'I remember you from before.'
'Hello, Ullii,' Irisis said as quietly as she could. 'Tell me what you see.'
She stood up, staring at the air above Irisis's head. 'I see shapes not far away. They're all dark but they have crystals at their heart. Very weak crystals!' she said dismissively, now imitating Irisis's rather strident tones. Irisis wondered at the mimicry. Was it an attempt to deflect the words away from herself?
'Your controllers!' Jal-Nish said.
'I'd already worked that out!' Irisis hissed, though she had not.
Ullii started, began to curl up, then slowly unfolded again, like a ballet dancer imitating a flower. There was grace in her movements such as Irisis had never seen before. Her curiosity was aroused.
'I see other shapes, further away,' said Ullii. 'Some strong. No one is using them.'
The crystals in the mine? Irisis wondered.
'Go on,' said Jal-Nish 'Do you see anything else?'
She turned around, stiffened, and her owl eyes went wide. 'I see clawers, many of them. Hunting, hunting! Searching. Aaah!' She began to whimper. 'They're coming to eat me up! They're coming! They're coming!'
Irisis, uncharacteristically moved, would have thrown her arms about the young woman. Jal-Nish caught her sleeve, shook his head, and indicated the door. 'Leave her! She can't bear to be touched.'
Ullii was already curling up. They withdrew, this time for longer than before, and when they went back she took much coaxing before they could communicate with her at all.
The 'clawers', lyrinx presumably, were not far away. Ullii would say no more about them. She did not see them clearly, not in the way that she seemed to see the crystals.
'I don't like this,' said Jal-Nish under his breath. 'We can't withstand a major attack. What are so many doing, so near?'
Ullii's hearing must have been incredibly acute for she said, 'Hunting her!' now mimicking his voice.
'Hunting whom, Ullii?'
'The girl with the bright crystal.'
'Who is she?' breathed Jal-Nish.
'Her crystal is as bright as the moon,' said Ullii.
'Tiaan!' Irisis cried, then quickly lowered her voice. 'Is that who they're hunting? Can she still be alive?'
'I don't know her name,' replied Ullii, staring through the ceiling. 'I can't see her clearly, only the crystal. But when she touches it, it blazes like a shooting star.'
'Where is she?' hissed Jal-Nish. 'Quick, girl. Which way?'
'This way.' Ullii pointed towards the door. 'Or maybe that way.' Down through the floor. 'All ways are the same.' Her eyes closed; she began to rock back and forth. 'Same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same, same…'
Jal-Nish led Irisis out and closed the door. 'Once she goes into that state it can be hours before she's any good. We'll come back later. I'll send out more search parties, in case it is Tiaan.'
'There's another possibility,' said Irisis.
'That Ullii did not see her at all. She may just be parroting what she thinks we want to hear.'
'I was careful not to talk about it in front of her.'
'The whole manufactory has been talking about Tiaan. With Ullii's hearing she might have picked up what was said at the other end of the corridor.'
'Perhaps, but she's all we have.'
'I still don't see why you showed me,' Irisis remarked as they headed back to her workshop.
'Don't you? She can see forms of power, whether they be natural ones like nodes and crystals, or people who are working the Secret Art. No one has ever been able to do what she does. Think how she might help us on the battlefield, where the enemy uses the Art. To fly on our heavy world, lyrinx must use power to stay aloft. With her there, they won't be able to surprise us any more. But we need an artisan, like yourself, to give sight to her seeings. I didn't select you because you're so brilliant, if that's what you're thinking. I chose you because you're the best here, and because you've twice shown courage and initiative today. You will design and build a controller, specially to work with Ullii, so we can track down anyone using the Secret Art; either lyrinx or human! And when you've done that, you will find Tiaan.'
'Why is she so important?' asked Irisis. 'There are thousands of artisans…'
'Because the scrutator says so!' Jal-Nish snapped. 'It was your stupidity that drew her to his attention and now I'm ordered to get her back. As far as I'm concerned, what the scrutator wants, he gets! Succeed and this will be your reprieve! Fail and you're dead! So get to work.'
It was hard to judge the passing of time in the unrelenting blackness. When her hunger pangs became severe, Tiaan judged ten hours had passed. She took a small slice of corned goat meat, some bread and a rice ball, and slept. There was nothing else to do.
On waking, she ate an equally meagre portion of breakfast and walked up and down the tunnel until she was bored witless. Her lantern had run out long ago. Tiaan did not miss it; she was used to walking in the dark and if she did want light, the crystal provided enough to see by.
She sat by the entrance with her legs dangling down the shaft, watching and listening. The silence was broken every so often by the rumbling of the great wheels carrying up filled ore buckets, or taking the miners up and down the shaft. There was a lot of activity the day after Joeyn died, while the search went on.
The day after that the normal routine of the mine resumed. The passenger wheel was busy twice a day, at around five in the morning and at the same time in the evening, as the miners came and went. Once, she heard the thunder of a roof fall, which created little avalanches of grit along her tunnel.
Occasional shouts or greetings echoed down the shaft. Conversations could be heard from top to bottom. They talked a lot of old Joe, and sometimes about the war. There had been lyrinx raids all along the coast, some not far north of Tiksi. Mostly, though, they yarned about mining, of this seam where the rock was brittle and difficult to work, or that place where the lode was unusually rich but hard to follow through the rock, or about the risk of the roof falling. It was tiresome and repetitive.
Tiaan often thought about that page from the bloodline register. She recalled the image perfectly but could not decipher her father's name. She would have to find someone who had known him. If she ever got out of here.
Her thoughts kept going back to the glowing crystal and the strange field it had shown her. Just touching the crystal had been exhilarating, though the patterns of the field had stretched her brain to bursting point. Dare she make her new pliance from it? She missed it terribly, but if she used that crystal, would she be strong enough to handle it? It might bring on crystal fever. Maybe she should use the ordinary crystal instead, but what a pallid thing it now seemed. It had a dozen imperfections that would have needed attention, had she been in the workshop.
A crystal usually required careful cutting, then hours or even days of delicately attuning one's mind, in a state almost trancelike, before it was ready to be woken into a hedron. The glowing crystal had not a single flaw; she might have used it in a controller as it was.
It felt as if it had already been woken. She desired it all the more, but feared it too. Surely the crystal was destined for a great mancer who had the strength to control it and the vision to see its true potential, not a humble artisan. Uneasy now, Tiaan put both crystals away. On the third morning Tiaan heard nothing, which bothered her. The mine worked every day, apart from rare holidays, but there were none this month. Fashioning a hook from her toolkit, she tossed it up on a length of cord and pulled the nearest basket down. Carefully winding herself to the top, she peered over. There was daylight at the end of the tunnel and a crosswork pattern told her that the grid was down.
She edged to the entrance. It was a gloomy morning outside, blowing sleet. There was no one in sight. Something was wrong. It took her little time to pick the lock, ease up the grid and wriggle underneath. She headed through the forest up the steep slope to the manufactory.
It was hard walking in fresh snow. The path was unmarked, which was worrying. When she reached the edge of the shrubbery and saw the ugly walls of the manufactory ahead, Tiaan checked. The front wall was peppered with pale scars. Boulders clotted the road, while one of the great gates had been smashed off its hinges. Smoke curled up from inside the entrance.
The body of a lyrinx lay against the wall, one wing extended. Another made a dark blot to the left of the entrance. People milled about, keeping well away from the alien dead.
A lyrinx attack was the logical next step, she mused. Why wait until the clankers were complete? Controllers were easily concealed and conveyed elsewhere. Far easier to put the source out of action. No doubt the mine would be attacked next.
As she wondered whether she should declare herself, a tall, yellow-haired figure appeared. Irisis! Tiaan ducked into the bushes, but a branch snapped underfoot.
'What's that?' came a nervous cry from the gate.
'Lyrinx!' cried another. 'Kill it!'
Tiaan fled. Arrows whistled through the leaves. There were cries, crashes, then something shrieked through the branches above her. It was a 'screamer', a crossbow bolt with edges shaped so as to make an unearthly noise as it flew. The sound raised the hackles on her neck. This mob would shoot anything that moved and worry about what it was later; not that the death of a runaway breeder would worry anyone.
Her only chance was to outdistance them. Racing through the trees, she gained the track, skidded on a patch of ice, and raced on. Banners of fog wreathed across her path. It was getting gloomier by the minute. She hurtled around a bend and the cleared area appeared in front of her. Her pack was in the adit and she could not survive without it. The grid was barely visible through the mist. She ploughed through the snow, desperate to get to the entrance before they appeared. If she managed it, they might think the 'lyrinx' had gone to the miners' village. Tiaan jerked up the grid and rolled under.
As she slid it down, the mob burst out of the forest. Was she in time?
'There it goes!' It was Gi-Had's great bawling voice. 'It's got into the mine. Shoot it!'
Tiaan flattened herself against the wall. Arrows, bolts and screamers came through the grid, one striking sparks above her head. She grabbed the pack and, taking what shelter she could from the wall, ran back to the lift, leapt into the basket and wound herself down as far as it would go.
The basket slapped into water just below the ninth level. She threw her bag into the dark entrance. There came cries from above. A bolt plopped into the pool, followed by a rock that drenched her in stagnant water. If they pursued her down she was finished. Maybe they would not be so bold but she dared not take the chance.
Tiaan scrambled into the tunnel. Just as she put a foot on the shelf a rock went straight through the bottom of the basket. It began to wind back up. She rang the bell rope furiously. It stopped but jerked up again. Snatching out her knife, Tiaan hacked at the tough rope. She hung on with one hand, going up with the rope, but after sawing through three-quarters dared go no higher. She leapt free, onto the landing of the ninth level.
The rope moved, stopped, jerked again, then with a twang it broke. The short end whipped down, lashing the water into foam. The other end zipped up. Cries echoed down and she heard a threshing noise that must have been the wheel-housing stripping the baskets off. The rest of the rope, a couple of hundred spans, sizzled into the water. Silence came from above.
No way back. Tiaan gathered her pack, started to head up the tunnel, then realised that a length of rope might mean the difference between survival and death. She sawed off a length, looped the heavy stuff over her shoulder and set off down the tunnel to nowhere.
Tiaan walked all day, through the labyrinth of tunnels and cross-passages, many flooded, of the ninth level. Finally, when it must have been well after dark and she had heard no sign of pursuit, she could drag her weary feet no further. Probably she would starve down here. Missing Joeyn terribly, she spread out her coat, lay on the floor with her head pillowed on her pack and tried to sleep.
That did not work either. Her body was worn out but her mind kept turning on the possibilities, none of which were pleasant. The luminosity of the crystal swirled in front of her. Its brightness had not changed in the days she'd had it. Surely that energy could not be coming from within or it would have run dry by now. Not only was the crystal awake, it must be drawing power from the field without human intervention. If it was, it was different from any hedron she had ever heard of. Maybe stronger, too.
Placing the hedron inside her wire sphere, Tiaan adjusted the beads into a pattern that pleased her and put the helm on. She sensed nothing at all. She rotated the beads on their wires. Still nothing, which was strange. From any hedron she could pick up the field. With the power of this one, focussed by globe and helm, she should be able to hear the ticking of the earth.
Perhaps it was too strong; too raw. Or maybe it worked in a different way. How little she really knew about the forces she'd been tinkering with for the past eleven years.
Putting it away, she began on the other crystal, which required a good bit of work with her toolkit before it would fit the bracket. She snapped the crystal in, took it out again and inserted it the other way round, made sure the brackets were tight and lowered the helm onto her head. Brilliant colours exploded in her mind: swirling, twisting, running back on themselves, vanishing and reappearing. They became brighter, more lurid, until everything went a brilliant white in which she could see nothing at all. Tiaan lost the capacity to think, to see, to be.
The next thing she knew, she was picking herself up off the floor. The helm lay beside her. There were cramps in her belly. The glow of the hedron seemed brighter and a tiny spark now drifted down one of the central needles, vanishing as it came to the bubble.
What had happened? She could not think straight. Tiaan leaned against the tunnel wall. It took ages for the cramps to go away. Had the crystal always been that way? Had it lain in that rock cavity for a million years, waiting? She felt a deeper chill. How could she hope to control a device that had been its own master for so long? Those patterns would be crystallised into its very matrix. Such a thing was not for her.
Her stomach felt awful and it could only get worse. Freedom no longer seemed so precious. Freedom for what – to starve to death in the dark? Was this really better than being pampered in the breeding factory, pleasuring the clients and being pleasured by them in turn? Tiaan had overheard enough talk about the business from her workmates – they seemed to enjoy it.
Her life was out of control and she hated it. That was why she'd worked so hard at her craft. It offered control over her existence. As soon as she entered the world of emotions Tiaan floundered. Relationships were like a blueprint where the lines had faded, leaving only a jumble of meaningless symbols. Now Joeyn, the only person she'd really cared for, was gone.
The cramps faded. Leaning back against the wall, she slipped imperceptibly towards sleep. One hand groped across the floor until it found the helm. Tiaan slid it onto her head, where it perched rakishly over her ear. Her hand dragged the globe toward her. Clutching it against her chest, Tiaan's fingers moved the orbital beads on their wires. It felt good to be using a hedron again. Very good. She could never be parted from it. Volcanoes exploded. Congealing lava bombs wheeled through an acid sky, slowly fading to nothing.
Her slender fingers found new positions, rattling the beads back and forth faster than a merchant's abacus. The scene flashed into view – a colossal lava fountain, achingly beautiful. It vanished too.
Again she worked the beads and all at once the scene locked in, tuned perfectly to the man of her dreams. The balcony was white marble, stained ruddy red by flames not far off. His dark fingers gripped the rail and he stared at the distant mountains as if seeking an answer in eternity.
Help! he mouthed.
An age later the cry came to her, or its echo. Help!
'I'm coming!' she cried aloud, still in her dream.
His head snapped around. Who are you? Where are you?
'I'm Tiaan,' she said softly. 'I'm on the ninth level of the mine.'
Mine? He sounded uncomprehending. What mine? He spoke in a rough, attractive burr, though with a speech pattern she had never come across before. He articulated every letter – m-i-n-e; h-e-l-p.
'The one near the manufactory, not far from Tiksi.'
What is Tiksi?
In her dream, Tiaan wondered how intelligent this young man really was. But after all, it was only a dream. She knew that.
'Tiksi is a city on the south-east coast of Lauralin, on a spur of the Great Mountains.'
Lauralin? His astonishment could have been no greater if she'd said the surface of the sun. Lauralin? He let out a great roar that made her hair stand up. Are you speaking to me from SANTHENAR?
Goosepimples broke out all over her scalp. 'Yes, of course I'm on Santhenar. Where else could I be?'
Abruptly he disappeared from the balcony. She heard him say, Be praised, uncle, an answer! From Santhenar!
The dream ebbed away, to Tiaan's regret, and she did not get it back. She woke shortly afterwards, having tossed so hard that she'd cracked her head on the wall, leaving a painful bruise. She spent hours of frustrated wakefulness, turning the globe over and over in her hands, moving the beads into a thousand positions, but could not tune him in again. The young man was gone.
Tiaan slept, finally, and when she woke the dream was still there. It was definitely not a crystal dream for she could remember every instant of it, even replay it at will like one of her blueprints. It was seared into the fibres of her brain.
The young man was real, not some fevered hallucination. And that meant… Recalling her previous, sensual dreams, her cheeks grew hot. What if her dreams were also going to him? What would he think of her? Somehow that mattered more than anything.
There was no point arguing so Irisis did not bother, though she had no idea how to do what the perquisitor wanted. How could she work with Ullii, who shied at light and sound and touch. Who knew not how to communicate what she saw?
Going into Tiaan's cubicle she sat, head in hands. Someone had lied to her. It was now clear that Tiaan had never been a spy or a saboteur. Irisis had allowed her feelings, and her ambitions, to blind her. She had wronged the other artisan and was going to pay for that folly. The existence she had so carefully constructed was being pulled down around her. After this it could not be put up again.
'What progress, artisan?'
Jal-Nish's voice roused Irisis from her despairing daze. She glanced across at the round figure filling the doorway.
'It's a different kind of problem,' she said stiffly. 'I have to think it through and then come up with a workable design.' To her ears the lie was unconvincing.
'It's urgent!' he said coldly.
'There are many problems to be solved: communicating with Ullii; finding how her talent works and how to tap it; making a type of device that has never been made before. These are not tasks that can be done in an afternoon. What you want may never be possible.'
'It had better be.'
Irisis let her forehead fall on the bench so hard that it raised a bruise. Worse than anything – death, even the breeding factory – would be to be exposed to her family for what she really was.
Irisis hated her family for what they had done to her, yet she craved their approval and desperately wanted to achieve their goals. This news would destroy her mother. Even more horrible, she, Irisis, would go down in the family Histories as the cheat and liar that she was. Her name would be black as long as the Histories endured, and on Santhenar that was a very long time indeed. The Histories were the core of civilisation and the root of everyone's life, great and humble.
Even illiterate peasants knew their Histories by heart, back ten generations or more. Minor families had written Histories. Those of the House of Stirm went back twenty-six generations; eight hundred and seventy-one years. Years of her childhood had been spent learning them by heart. The greatest families recorded as much as three thousand years and had a personal chronicler at their elbows all the time to remind them. Her family Histories defined who she was. They were, at once, an ocean she was drowning in, and a lifeline.
She went out, locking the door, and stumbled up to Nish's room. He was still sleeping soundly. Sitting on the edge of the bed, she watched him until the light began to fade. Even Nish, who only weeks ago had begged for her body, had cast her aside. She could not blame him but it had proven unexpectedly painful. She should leave before he rejected her again, but Irisis had nowhere to go.
Kicking off boots and socks, she slipped under the covers. Nish was warm. She pressed her cold body against him, took a little comfort there, and slept.
When she woke it was dark. Nish rolled over carefully, putting an arm across her back. She drew him to her, mindful of his wound.
'Irisis?' he whispered.
Feeling the tension in him, she steeled herself. 'Yes?' she said in his ear. 'If you want me to go away, just say so.'
He squeezed her hand, almost as if he cared. 'You saved my life.'
She did not answer.
'What are you doing here, Irisis?'
'It was this or killing myself.'
She let out a choked sob, which she tried unsuccessfully to turn into a cough. 'I'm undone, Nish. I'm going to be exposed for the fraud I am.'
'What are you talking about?'
She told him about the blind seeker, Ullii, and what Jal-Nish required of her.
'A seeker!' he exclaimed, but the cry turned into a moan and he fell back on his pillows.
She sat up. 'Are you all right?' It surprised her that she cared, for in his disgrace he could be no further use to her, but somehow she did care.
'My neck feels as if someone hacked into it with a sword.'
'It's a nasty wound.' She stared up at the ceiling, invisible in the darkness. 'You've come across seekers before?'
'I heard mention of them when I was a scribe, though I never met one. It may even have been Ullii that they were talking about.'
'What did you hear?'
'Wild theories and hope unsubstantiated, for the most part. My master held that they were the answer to our prayers. His friend, a damned lawyer, thought the whole idea a nonsense and a waste of precious time and money. Father was somewhere in the middle. If an idea works, he believes in it. From what I heard, seekers are strange people, highly unstable.'
'That's Ullii! She's even more flawed than I am.' Irisis gave a bitter snort.
'What are you talking about? You're still an artisan, and could well be crafter again, like your uncle. Some day you may even be chanic. And after your great deeds this morning, who could believe -'
'Nish!' She squeezed his arm hard and he broke off. He no longer minded her calling him that. 'It's true; I do come from a long line of artisans and crafters. Two reached the very pinnacle of the art and were awarded the honour of chanic. I'm not one of them, Nish.
'The day my mother knew she was with child she began making plans for me. The first words I heard were not baby talk, but a map of my future, which was no more than a reflection of our past. You think my father and uncle were great achievers because they became crafters? In fact they let the family down. Once we were chanics, now we're reduced to crafters. What next? Labourers in the pit? It was up to me to restore the family.
'I was trapped in our Histories. Other children had toys; I was given a tiny set of tools, waste hedrons and old controller apparatuses that had been taken to pieces. I was putting them back together as soon as I could walk. Before I turned six I was making controller parts. By the age of twelve I could make anything: the tiniest part for a pocket chronometer, the most delicate jewellery, perfect lenses for a 'scope. I wanted to be a jeweller; I knew I had a rare skill for making beautiful things. Even my controllers are works of art.
'My family would not allow that for an instant. A jeweller? A common craft worker! I might as well have said a brothel madam, the way they reacted. I was to be the greatest artisan of all time, raising the House of Stirm back to the pinnacle it had fallen from. They told me that every day. You can have no idea how I suffocated under their ambition. There was only one problem.'
She stopped there. Nish did not say a word, and after some minutes she continued. 'I have no talent for tapping the field, Nish. None whatsoever! I'm a fraud.'
He sat up and lit the lantern. 'But, that's not possible, Irisis. You make the most perfect controllers I've ever seen.'
'I lie and cheat and manipulate others to do what I cannot do myself. I've been doing that since I was four and discovered that I'd lost the talent every member of my family has had for five generations.'
'What?' He stared into her eyes.
'It was my fourth birthday and I was in my party dress and ribbons, the prettiest child there!' She spat the word out. 'Everyone else was doing tricks with the family talent, showing off, each trying to top the other.'
'What kind of tricks?'
'Oh, you know. The usual stuff.'
'I have no idea. My family doesn't have the talent, remember?'
'Sorry – I assume everyone knows. In our family, people did it as often as the washing up.'
'Did what, Irisis?' he said irritably.
'Pulled energy out of the field to play tricks. Like making snow fall in the house in mid-summer, or cooking the food on our plates at the dinner table. Silly little things that could only amuse silly little people! Anyway, on my birthday Uncle Barkus, the old crafter, put a hedron in my hands and told me to show them what I could do. He boasted that I would be the most brilliant of the lot, though I was the youngest. My brothers, sisters and cousins already hated me, having been told I would be better than all of them put together. You have no idea the pressure I felt, and how I strove to work some wonderful trick with the hedron.
'I tried too hard. I knew I was the best, for I had been doing tricks since I could walk. But I wanted it too much, and I was too anxious. I could feel the talent, deep down somewhere, but I just could reach it. I began to think that I never would, and that was that. The harder I tried the further the talent receded. I lost it that day and never found it again. It taught me a good lesson,' she ended bitterly. 'Don't give yourself, and don't care too much. About anything!'
'I don't understand,' said Nish. 'What did you lose?'
'The ability to tap the field. I can see it as well as anyone. I can visualise how to draw power from it, and the precise sub-ethyric path it must take. But when I try, nothing happens.'
'What did you do?'
'The only thing a pretty little girl could do. I burst into tears. Mother yelled at uncle and there was a huge fuss, everyone blaming everyone else. My father gave me a special gift. Mother put the hedron in my hands and did a trick with it, saying it was me. She froze the flowers in the vase so hard that when she tapped them they shattered like glass. The adults clapped, my cousins scowled, my big sister punched me when no one was looking, and everyone went home. I learned two good lessons that day. To use my beauty, and to lie! My family would not hear the truth so I kept lying. I even learned to fool my mother. It wasn't hard; she wanted to be fooled.
'I got by here easily enough. It was easy to trick Uncle Barkus, and I was so good with my hands that no one considered I was incapable of drawing power. Lying and cheating served me well, as a workshop girl, then as a prentice. Once I became an artisan it was even easier. I had the other artisans and prentices do the work I could not, under the guise of teaching them their craft. I have a rare talent for teaching, born out of desperation. When that fails, I fly into a rage, or use my womanhood. I hate myself, Nish, but I can't go back. I live in terror that I'll be exposed.'
Nish put his arms around her but she pulled away.
'The examiner seduced me at my eleventh-year examination,' she continued. 'I allowed him to; I could see no other way to avoid discovery. At the examination when I was sixteen, I seduced the examiner for the same reason. I did it subtly though. I used my wiles to give the impression of vast ability, and a family destiny, tempered by a charming smallness of confidence.
'When all other avenues failed I was not afraid to humble myself. I would go to the crafter, or the examiner, and explain what it was I did not understand, or what I could not solve. I was quite brilliant at leading them through it step by step, with my bosom heaving and tears of frustration quivering on my lashes, so they thought they were drawing my knowledge out of me. I know it all, as well as Tiaan does, but I just can't do it!
'It worked perfectly until Uncle Barkus died, leaving me and Tiaan as the senior artisans, and not much in terms of experience between us. A problem came up that I could not solve. I tried to work Tiaan the way I had manipulated uncle, but she was too smart and too impatient. She simply told me what to do and waited for me to do it. I had the most agonising moment of humiliation, sitting there with the hedron in my hands and her staring at me expectantly. Of course I could not do it. I thanked her, made my face into a mask, and fled.
'Fortunately she went to see her mother and was snowed in for a week. By the time she returned I'd taught another artisan to do what I could not do myself. I never approached Tiaan again. She did not ask how I solved the problem, though I knew she hadn't forgotten. I was sure she suspected my incompetence and I've hated her ever since. That's why I had to get rid of her. I knew she would expose me, eventually. Horrible, aren't I?'
'How would you have survived as crafter?' said Nish.
'It would have been easy.' A smile crept into her voice. 'I'd have hired artisans with the skills I lacked, ones I could control. People who did not ask questions; who were creative but lacked ambition. I can manage people, and I know exactly what's required. I just can't do it.'
'Why not do that with the seeker?'
'Tracking the Secret Art is a new problem and it needs a brilliant, creative mind. I have no idea how to solve it and the other artisans won't either. If Tiaan was here I would simply turn it over to her…' She gave a hollow laugh. 'Ironic, isn't it?'
He did not reply. She blew out the lamp. He drifted into sleep, Irisis back to her despair. Why had she confessed? Nish was as much an opportunist as she was. He would denounce her to gain credit for himself. There was only one way out. She eased her feet to the floor, trying not to disturb him.
'Where are you going, Irisis?'
'Nowhere. For the rest of my life!'
His groping hand caught her wrist. Irisis jerked away but he did not let go, so her heave pulled him out of the bed. His head struck the corner of the cupboard and Nish let out a shriek.
Footsteps came running down the corridor. The door was thrust open. A lantern dazzled her eyes. She made out the portly figure of Jal-Nish. Other faces appeared.
'What's going on here?' snapped the perquisitor. 'What have you done to my son?' He seized her arm.
Nish rubbed his head. A trickle of blood seeped from under the bandage on his throat. She held her breath, waiting for him to betray her. She had no doubt that he would, for Irisis judged other people by her own standards. Nish was out for what he could get and she was in his way.
'Well?' raged Jal-Nish. 'Move, woman! Let me get to him.'
Nish got to his feet, shakily, and subsided on the edge of the bed. He gave Irisis an ambiguous glance. She steeled herself.
'I can solve my own problems, thank you, father.'
'You can't!' Jal-Nish said curtly. 'That's increasingly evident.'
Nish supported himself on the cupboard. Looking his father in the eye, he hardened his downy jaw. 'It was just a lovers' tiff and I don't need you to sort it out. Get out of my life, father!'
Jal-Nish looked as if he had been struck across the face. It was the first time any of his children defied him. Then he nodded, reached down and hauled Irisis to her feet. 'Get back to your workshop. Time's wasting.'
'She stays!' Nish snapped.
Irisis looked from one to the other. What was Nish up to?
'We are working together on your problem,' Nish said.
'It has nothing to do with you, Cryl-Nish,' said Jal-Nish.
'I am an artificer. I know how to make things; I know how to talk to people; I know many languages. Together Irisis and I will learn how to communicate with the seeker and solve your problem, father.'
The perquisitor's face became unreadable. He frowned, nodded and withdrew, pulling the door shut. Nish lit the lamp with trembling hands, but had to sit down. His face was covered in a sheen of sweat.
Irisis did not move. 'Why did you say that?'
'What did you expect me to do?'
'To tell him the truth,' she said simply. 'Let's not delude each other, Cryl-Nish. I'm not a nice person and neither are you.'
'Maybe so but if there's one lesson from my childhood I did take to heart, it's loyalty to my family, and my friends!'
Irisis choked, and tried to muffle it with her hand. Friendship had played little part in her life. Her dealings had always been 'use more than you are being used'. Friendship was a weakness other people were afflicted with. She had never understood it.
'Why, Nish? I mean, Cryl-Nish.'
'I know you lie and cheat and connive, and yes, maybe you did murder the apothek. But I saw you on the wall this morning. You showed courage that I don't have.'
'I was terrified! I had to kill it before it killed me. To be eaten by a lyrinx…' She shuddered.
'All the more courageous,' he said softly. 'You killed a lyrinx all by yourself, Irisis. Not many people can claim that.'
'A lucky shot,' she said, still wary.
'A clever shot! And your operation saved my life.'
'I might just as well have killed you. I might have been trying to, and make it look…'
'You didn't though, did you? No one else knew what to do, yet you knew in an instant. They would have let me die, too afraid to save me. You tried, knowing that if you failed you would be put to death. The perquisitor is not a forgiving man.'
'A rush of blood to the head. I did not stop to think.'
'You thought it through in an instant. Can it be that you… love me, Irisis?'
Irisis could not believe that Nish, or anyone, would care what happened to her. 'Don't flatter yourself, my spotty little Nish-Nash. Love makes fools of the cleverest of people. I was just trying to buy favour with your father.'
'And I with your family just now!' he snapped. 'If you don't mind, I'm tired and my neck hurts, and I'm going back to bed. Good night!'
She stood in the shadow cast by the half-shuttered lantern, unmoving. Irisis opened her mouth as if she wanted to speak, then closed it again.
'What is it?' he said irritably, holding his neck.
'Nothing!' she whispered. 'It's nothing.'
She went out, closing the door silently. Irisis returned to the workshop and sat in the dark, turning what had happened over and over in her mind, like stones on a barren plain. She expected to find something venomous underneath. She did not. All she found was cool shadow, and in it things she did not recognise at all.
That night a despatch came from the scrutator, by skeet. What it contained was not revealed though it appeared to be more bad news about the war. Jal-Nish, pallid and uneasy, held a hasty conference with Fyn-Mah, after which she sent out search parties in all directions.
In the morning Nish learned that Gi-Had had taken a troop of armed men into the mine in pursuit of a lyrinx. Not even the bravest soldiers wanted to venture into the maze of shafts, drives and unstable tunnels, but duty must be done.
Irisis appeared at the door around eight in the morning. 'Nish, your father bids you come to meet the seeker.' She went out at once, her back very straight.
'Wait!' he called but she took no notice.
Nish dressed as quickly as he could. His neck was nicely scabbed over, front and back, though so painful that he could not turn his head. He felt utterly drained.
Going via the refectory, he collected a handful of millet cakes. Slabs of boiled pork lay on a platter, the thick layers of fat like grey jelly. The thought of eating it was nauseating.
He found Irisis standing outside the seeker's door. Jal-Nish was not there. 'Irisis…?'
She cut him off, briefly explaining what the seeker was like and how she must be treated. Nish followed her in. Irisis carried a lantern but kept it fully shuttered, so the room was lit only by scattered rays from under the door. There was no furniture apart from a wooden chair with high arms.
The seeker crouched in a corner. The light was too dim to see her clearly, only that she was hunched right over, enveloped in a shroud-like cloth and rocking back and forth. At Nish's footfall she started, then began to rock furiously.
Irisis plucked at Nish's sleeve, drawing him out and closing the door. They went looking for the perquisitor. He was not to be found, however Fyn-Mah was working at a table in the overseer's office. A pair of carpenters had the smashed door up on a trestle in the hall and were tapping new timbers into place.
'Jal-Nish has gone down to the mine,' Fyn-Mah said without looking up.
'Oh!' replied Irisis.
'There is a difficulty?'
'It's the seeker,' said Nish. 'She's just sitting in the corner, rocking.'
'You'll get nothing from her this morning then. If ever!'
'What do you mean?'
'I've seen it too many times!' With a sigh, Fyn-Mah laid down her quill. 'What you're trying to do is impossible. I told Jal-Nish that before he began.'
'The poor child is too sensitive. A whisper is like a shout to her; silk feels like sandpaper; a candle flame hurts her eyes like the noon sun.'
Nish tried to imagine it but could not. 'A wonder she didn't go insane.'
'Her family tried to beat it out of her, then abandoned her to a cripples' asylum. The things that went on there – well, she doesn't trust anyone, now. You're wasting your time.'
'I might as well go straight to the breeding factory,' said Irisis.
'It's an important duty,' snapped the querist. 'Not a punishment.'
Irisis glanced at Fyn-Mah's ringless fingers. 'Really?' she sneered. 'That's not how the workers here see it.'
Fyn-Mah went rigid. 'How do they see it?'
'One rule for them, another for the powerful. People like you.'
A red flush crept up Fyn-Mah's face. She closed her eyes for the count of three but when she opened them she was icily calm. 'The scrutator is furious that Tiaan has not been found. He has a special job for her. Now, if you'll excuse me?'
They went out. 'Did you see how she reacted?' said Irisis to Nish. 'I was right. She must be taking a preventative.'
'To prevent children? But that's a crime.'
'And I'll use it against her if I have to.'
He stared up at her. 'You would dare attack a querist?'
'What have I got to lose?'
'Give me a hand,' he said before they had gone much further.
'Why?' she responded listlessly.
'I can't stand up any longer.'
She offered him her shoulder. Nish held on, she caught him about the waist, and they made their slow way down to the refectory, where they sat at a long bench furthest from the door. The room was empty, breakfast having finished long ago.
'It's not like you to give up so easily,' he said.
'This job is impossible, so I'm resigning myself to my new life in the breeding factory. Or a swift extinguishment, should it come to that.'
'No!' he cried.
She smiled sadly, touching him on the arm. 'Enough of that. If you like I could find you a replacement lover. It won't be easy, with the stigma you bear, but -'
'I don't want another lover, you stupid bitch!' He hurled himself off the bench, swayed, the blood ran from his face and he fell down. As she ran around to him, Nish regained his feet and staggered out like a drunken man, waving her away.
He got as far as one of the warm niches around behind the furnaces, dragged a sweeper lad out by the ear and fell into the deliciously warm space. Someone cried out. Beneath him, a girl frantically adjusted her garments. Nish cursed the pair of them, though he should have looked first. Such places offered the only privacy most lovers got.
Crawling out, he lurched back the way he had come. He made it as far as the door of Ullii's room, caught the handle and fell through the door as it opened. As it swung shut he swooned on the floor. Opening his eyes Nish saw a shadow behind his head. What was Ullii doing? He tried to turn his head and felt such a stabbing pain in his neck that he groaned aloud. She backed away. He raised his hand to the bandage. It was wet with blood.
The seeker crouched nearby. She was curious about him. He watched her from slitted eyes, wondering if he might use the incident to his advantage. She might feel empathy. Or contempt that he groaned at what she had suffered in silence.
Ullii came creeping back, a little shadow from which, occasionally, those big eyes reflected a stray gleam of light coming under the door. She crouched not far away, hands on the floor but head in the air, sniffing like a dog. If she could smell as well as a dog there would be plenty to read off him: blood; tears; sweat; the scent of Irisis.
Nish lay so still that he could hear his heartbeat. She came closer, sniffing around the back of his head. Something touched his hair – a fingertip. He did not move, sensing that she was ready to spring away at any provocation. Fingers touched his hair, shaping his head as gently as a sigh.
Nish held his breath. The fingers traced his cheek and the other hand joined them: eyes, nose, mouth, ears, chin. At his infinitesimal movement she drew back. He heard the faintest sound, like an inrushing of air. And again. She was sniffing her fingers, imprinting his smell on her memory.
She edged forward and her fingers slid down the curve of his face from either side. Her hand struck the wound. Nish cried out; it was torment.
Ullii scurried to the corner and curled up into a ball. He came to his knees, enduring the shooting agony. She began rocking furiously, perhaps scared he would beat her. An interesting experiment, though it was over for the moment. When the pain became bearable Nish went out, as quietly as he could.
He walked between the furnaces, where stokers were shovelling slabs of pitch into the fire pits. The blast was so intense that they wore suits of woven rock fibre, with goggles of black glass to stop their eyes from drying out. The heat made him feel dizzy. Another worker was drawing out samples of molten metal with a cup on the end of a long rod. He was similarly garbed and goggled, and wore earmuffs, for the roar of the furnaces up close was deafening.
Nish went out the back gate, desperate for a gasp of clean, cold air. In the distance Irisis was walking along the edge of the ravine. He turned the other way, which led him to the slag and ash piles. Beyond he was brought up by the breath-snatching whiff of ammonia and a corrosive reek of phenol from the effluent drains. A group of workers, supervised by Foreman Gryste, were busy clearing tar-choked drains.
'It's no use,' said Gryste, tossing his spade-tipped probing pole to one side. 'We'll have to go up. Glyss, are you ready?'
Glyss was a large man, big in the upper body but with thin legs and a meagre bottom. He was clad head to foot in a waxed canvas suit, booties and cap. They greased his face, his hands and every speck of exposed skin. He donned goggles, slipped plugs up his nose and went down on hands and knees. Taking half a dozen deep breaths, he scuttled up the drain as fast as a cockroach. A rope unreeled behind him. Thumping went on for a couple of minutes then stopped.
'Pull!' Gryste roared. Two labourers, holding the rope, hauled Glyss out again.
He was gasping, and his hands and lips were blistered. Glyss plopped on the ground, spitting bloody sputum.
'Ready, Glyss?' Gryste said after a few minutes.
A look of terror crossed the man's face, then he gave a spasmodic jerk of the head. Nish resumed his walk. There were worse lives than being a soldier. Nish paced back the way he had come. The air near the sewer drains reeked so badly that he wished for a pair of Glyss's noseplugs. Further on, he diverted from the path that led to the front of the manufactory, not wanting to go inside. Instead he wandered along the edge of the gully, here a broken slope that plunged steeply into the gorge. Further along, the slope became a cliff.
Feeling faint, Nish sat near the edge, scowling at the leaden sky. The air was clean here but deathly cold and it was looking as though it would snow. How he hated the manufactory. It was the filthiest place he had ever been. Every plant back there was dead, while the river into which their wastes flowed was a reeking cesspit. Moreover, the place had the most miserable weather on Santhenar and it prevailed all three hundred and ninety-six days a year.
Weighing an egg-shaped pebble in his hand, Nish tossed it idly over the cliff.
'Aah!' came a cry from below.
Nish looked down to see a big man scowling up at him, rubbing a completely bald pate. It was Eiryn Muss. The halfwit eked out a living growing air-moss on a ramshackle structure of poles and withes on the upper edges of the ravine. Air-moss was a superlative wound dressing, though the war had used up all accessible natural supplies. It grew naturally only on tree trunks on the upper parts of escarpments near the coast, where up-draughts maintained the moist air it required. The trees here had been burned long ago, fuel for the insatiable furnaces, hence Muss's dangerous yet poorly paid occupation.
A touch of sulphur in the air resulted in premium-quality moss, but the growth rate was so low that no normal man could have survived on the earnings, even from such an extensive array of structures as Muss had built. Fortunately Muss was no ordinary man. He was happy to eat wood grubs and beetles if he could get no better, and after each sale rewarded himself with a flask of turnip brandy and an hour of watching the sweeper boys through a crack in the wall of the bathhouse.
But Muss had sold no moss in a month and someone had plastered over the peeping hole. He was desperate for turnip brandy, had no money to get any and wanted someone to suffer for it.
Catching sight of Nish, Muss growled and began to scramble up the slope.
'It wasn't me!' Nish lied instinctively.
'I'll kill you and eat your brains,' Muss roared, hurling a rock at him. Nish ducked. 'It's Little Nish, isn't it, the overseer's bum chum! Enjoy your flogging the other day, Nish-Nash?' Muss clawed his way up. 'I'll whip your fat little backside so hard…'
Nish fled up the path in the direction of the cliff, then darted off among the boulders. Peeking out, he saw the fellow come panting and gasping up over the edge. Muss looked around wildly, cursed and ran up the road toward the rocks, his great belly wobbling. He stopped, panting, baffled, then shambled back the other way, swearing blood-black oaths.
'Stupid old fart!' Nish squatted until his head steadied before continuing the other way. He had to rest every few minutes now. Must have lost more blood than he realised. He was leaning against a boulder, its frosting of wind-driven snow steadily melting, when someone appeared on the cliff edge several hundred paces further on. Yellow hair flew in the wind. It was Irisis. He thought it best to creep away, even at the risk of running into Muss again.
Something stopped him. It was the way she was standing right on the brink, staring down. Didn't she realise how dangerous that was? What if the edge crumbled…?
Of course she realised! Maybe she was daring the cliff to hold her up. Or fling her down!
Irisis tensed, then went into a crouch. Nish's heart turned over. She was going to jump.
He began to run. It was so awful he could not contemplate it. Her beautiful body, her lovely face, smashed on the rocks. Not brave, bold, fearless Irisis. Not even Irisis the liar, cheat and possibly murderer. It must not happen.
He lost sight of her as he pounded down into a little dip in the path. Let her still be there, he agonised as he laboured up the other side. His legs felt like wet string. Her image shivered, body and legs seeming to move separately. Nish's neck wound pulsed; wetness ran down his chest. He felt faint. As he gained the top she was still there, trembling on the brink.
'No, Irisis!' he screamed. 'Don't jump!'
Wobbling down the slope, he hit an icy patch where the path was in shadow and his feet went from under him. 'No!' Nish said faintly, fell forward, landed on his knees and skidded over the edge. His head struck something and a black overcast blocked out the sky. Irisis felt the rock slip beneath her left foot and had to steel herself not to move. Her heart was leaping from backbone to ribcage. Killing herself was not quite as easy as she'd thought. Three times now she'd gone into a crouch, preparing to fling herself over, but found after the crisis passed that she was still standing there.
It was the leap she feared. The fall would be an instant of bliss. She did not want to think what came after that or she would never do it. Inordinately proud of her looks, Irisis dared not contemplate the splattered ruin she would become. She prayed that her remains would be eaten quickly. For people to see her like that…
Again the rock cracked. She wanted it to do the job for her but it refused. Perhaps if she just toppled forward?
Irisis was about to when she heard Nish's frantic cry and saw him staggering toward her like a white-faced drunk. She tried to jump but her muscles refused. Vanity had beaten her – she especially did not want him to see the aftermath.
She spun on one foot, the rock broke under her and Irisis had to fling herself sideways to survive. She landed hard, just a breath away from oblivion. Before she could move Nish cried out, threw out his arms and skidded over the edge.
Irisis, who had not wept since her fourth birthday, let out a scream of anguish. Rolling to safety, she came to her feet and ran. It was easy to imagine his fate. She could not stop herself.
Where had he fallen from? The icy patch stretched along the curving path for twenty or thirty paces. It could have been anywhere along here. Walking carefully now, she peered over the edge. There was a fall of ten or fifteen spans onto blocky, broken boulders. She could not see him, nor any splash of red, but he might have gone into the shadows between the boulders.
'Nish?' she said softly, knowing how pointless that was. 'Nish?' Perhaps it had been further up around the point. It was really slippery here. She put her arms out, afraid of falling now. Also ironic.
Coming around the point she saw him, caught in Muss's air-moss farm. He'd landed on a coarsely woven withy mat, half collapsing the structure of poles and round cross-pieces supporting it. Now he was tangled up in the mat and the poles leaned crazily out over the lower cliff.
'Nish?' she whispered.
He groaned and she felt a pang of longing. 'Irisis? You're alive!' The joy in his voice was, somehow, alarming.
'Of course I'm alive!' she said sharply. 'Why wouldn't I be?'
'I thought you were going to jump…'
'Don't be stupid!' she lied.
Nish jerked around, trying to see her. One of the supporting poles lifted right out of its rock socket. 'Don't move!' she roared. 'You'll go right over. Stay perfectly still.'
She looked around. It was a long way to the manufactory – more than half a league. The best part of an hour by the time she got back here with help. If Nish lasted that long in his thin garments, she doubted that the structure would.
'Muss!' she roared, cupping her hands around her mouth. 'Eiryn Muss.'
'He won't help!' Nish said weakly.
'I accidentally dropped a pebble on his head a while ago.' He had the grace to look ashamed.
'Bloody idiot! Muss!'
Some minutes later he came blundering up the path, brawny arms hanging loose. Irisis ran to meet him. 'Muss, help me! Nish has gone over the cliff.'
'Good,' said Muss. 'Very good!' His halfwit eyes gleaming, he turned away.
'Muss, please. He's fallen into your moss farm. He's breaking it.'
Muss followed her to the edge, looked down and gave an incongruous, high-pitched giggle. 'Old one. No good now. Build new one.'
'Please, Muss. I will pay you well.'
His blank face strained to express some emotion. An idiot's leer appeared. What could she offer that would mean anything to him? 'Bottle of brandy.' Irisis held her hand out as if offering him one, then her other hand as well. 'Two bottles.'
His eyes shone. A trickle of saliva made its way down his bearded chin. He licked his lips. 'More!'
She could not imagine what he would value. He was some kind of pervert or peeping tom, she recalled.
'Would you like to see my breasts?' she said in desperation. She'd even sleep with him if there was no other way to save Nish, though it would be the most squalid transaction of her opportunistic life.
Such a look of disgust mixed with terror passed across Muss's face as she had never seen before. Nish let out a choked gasp, writhed and the brittle withies broke. He went through head first but a branch end caught in the waistband of his trousers, dragging them down to his ankles.
He stopped with a jerk, hanging upside down, bare bum pointing at them. His shirt fell down over his head, revealing the healing lash marks on his back.
Irisis eyed his stocky body, discovering that she liked the musculature, especially his smooth, pale backside. So, evidently, did Muss, who was giggling and snorting beside her.
No time to waste. As Nish swayed back and forth, several poles lifted from their sockets. It would take little for the whole tangled structure to go over.
'Come on!' she hissed, shaking Muss by the shoulder. 'Four bottles.'
Muss tore his eyes away from the glorious sight. They climbed down to the ledge. Irisis held the poles steady while Muss swung along the rickety frame and freed Nish. It took more time than it should have, but Irisis closed her mind to that. If Muss was taking liberties, she thought unsympathetically, it served Nish right for being so damn stupid.
Finally they were back at the top. Nish was white-faced and shivering. 'Carry him back,' Irisis said.
Muss threw Nish over his shoulder, steadied him with a paw on his backside and shambled off. Half an hour later the artificer was propped up on a bench in the refectory, next to the wall warmed by the great ovens, and warmed inside by a bowl of dried fishhead soup. Irisis went around the back and purchased four bottles of brandy from Flyn the miner, who kept an illegal stall behind the practice ground.
She gave them to Muss, who tore the cork from one bottle and poured half straight down his gullet. His eyes crossed, he reeled, giggled and said, 'Good luck with hunt for crystal lady.' Juggling his bottles, Muss wandered off.
She stood looking after him, wondering how the halfwit came to know that. Well, he was always snooping around, minding other people's business.
As she entered the refectory, Nish smiled at her, uncertainly.
'If you were my slave for the rest of your life you'd never repay what you owe me!' she said furiously. That he'd saved her from killing herself was another black mark against him.
He sat up straighter, giving a cheerful grin. 'Oh, I don't know. While I was hanging back there, and you were letting Muss fondle my bum, I had an idea that may just save us both.'
Ullii crouched in her corner, shivering. The room was cold but she had thrown off her clothes. Her pants and shirt were made of finest lamb's wool that a baby could have worn without difficulty, yet the fabric felt to be covered in tiny hooks that pulled at her skin with every movement.
She put her fingers in her ears. That kept out the cacophony which made it impossible to think. Even so, sound was everywhere. Ullii could hear the chomping of tiny borers in the floorboards. A mouse skittering in the ceiling was like a man walking in miner's boots. She could even hear the faint movements made by a spider's spinnerets, the clacking of its joints as it moved, the subtle twang of silken threads.
The smells were overpowering. Ullii knew when the furnace stokers changed from one pitch bin to another. The stokers did not notice, yet to her it was like the difference between apple and onion. She could even tell which way the wind was blowing from the smell of the air.
Easterlies carried the tang of salt, seaweed and fish smoking on the racks below Tiksi. Northerlies, a mixture of tar, ammonia and human waste from the drains. South brought the faint aroma of pine needles and resin, though only on warm days. Westerlies had no smell at all, for that way was only snow and ice and mountains forever.
Ullii knew everyone who had ever walked past her door, as a dog knows each creature by its smell. She could recognise at least a hundred people; some foul, some fair, some masking poor hygiene with sickly, cloying scent. One unfortunate wretch had teeth so rotten that she could smell him as soon as he came into the corridor.
Of all these she knew only the names of four. Jal-Nish had a sweetly foetid smell, with metallic overtones. She knew him well, having come all the way from Fassafarn with him. She shrank inwardly as soon as she detected the perquisitor. He pretended to care about her but she knew he did not. Jal-Nish wanted to be scrutator desperately and feared only two things -the wrath of his wife, Ranii Mhel, and displeasing the scrutator of Einunar, Xervish Flydd. His smell reminded Ullii of childhood memories better forgotten.
Ullii also knew Querist Fyn-Mah, soap-scented with rose petals. She must wash six times a day to have so thoroughly removed all trace of her own odour. Fyn-Mah spoke in soft tones, the least hurtful Ullii had encountered in years. She did care, in an efficient sort of a way, though not to the extent of inconveniencing herself. Fyn-Mah was wrapped up in her own torment.
The third person was Nyg-Gu, the woman who brought food and cleaned up Ullii's messes. She had a strong complex odour, such that Ullii wondered if she bathed from one year to the next. The last was Irisis, who also smelt of soap and flowers but her own scent was stronger – ripe womanhood. Ullii did not know what to make of her. Irisis's voice had harsh overtones, and she looked to have a temper, but Ullii saw warmth carefully hidden.
The scent that most intrigued her had no name. It was the young man who had appeared with Irisis, then returned to collapse on the floor. He had a musky, spicy aroma that warmed her in ways she did not understand. He also smelt of metal, oiled machinery and blood. She did not know his voice. And she had hurt him, which made him special in her eyes. Many people had made her suffer but she had not hurt anyone before. He had not struck back at her either. He was a very special man. Ullii wanted to see him again. She was waiting for him now.
Her mind wandered back to Fassafarn, where she had lived for most of her eighteen years. Ullii was not stupid, despite what people thought of her. Far from it. She could not read or write, but only because the glare from paper burned her eyes. Ullii's life had been shaped by her experiences, and she'd experienced life as no other person on Santhenar had.
She had first met Jal-Nish twelve years ago, when as a child of six she'd been put up before the examiner. In normal times Ullii would have been classified as a moron and cast out on the streets, or shut up in an institution if they'd felt like prolonging her torment. But Jal-Nish was no ordinary examiner and those were desperate times. The examiners had been ordered by the Council of Scrutators to keep watch for children with unusual talents, especially those related to the Secret Art. Humanity was fighting for its very survival and no one knew which abilities might prove vital in the struggle against an enemy unlike any this world had ever encountered.
Ullii was as unusual a child as Jal-Nish had met. Sight and hearing and touch being overwhelmed, she lived mainly through smell and through another sense long since atrophied, or perhaps never developed, in ordinary people. She sensed the structure of things, and the forces that held them together or acted to pull them apart. Ullii could stand outside with her eyes screwed shut and describe the wind. She could see it in three dimensions like waves all flowing, ebbing and billowing.
More importantly, she could see the Secret Art like knots in a lattice, though one whose structure fitted no pattern anyone else could comprehend.
Ullii had often heard Jal-Nish talk about her unique talent. In her worst moments the feeling of being special was all that kept her going. He had referred her to one mancer after another, to see if any use could come of her abilities. Nothing had, for no one had the patience, or the vision, to understand Ullii. She knew instantly when someone wanted to use her. Ullii would go into a catatonic state that no amount of punishment could bring her out of. They could hurt her, and many did. It made no difference.
Ullii had not run away, because she could not survive in the outside world. She simply withdrew. Finally old Flammas, the last mancer she had been given to, put her in one of his dungeon cells and forgot about her. She was fed once a day, like the other prisoners, and every few days given a bucket of cold water to wash in while the cell's filth was hosed into the drain.
It was the best thing that could have happened to her. Her cell was dark; little sound penetrated the heavy door. The smell was unpleasant but at least it was her own. And it was warm enough, so that she never had to wear the hated clothes. It suited her better than anywhere she had lived since she'd left her mother's womb and found the world to be a sensory nightmare.
Ullii spent five years in that cell, living a life entirely of the mind. She grew into a woman there and suddenly her abilities blossomed. To fulfil her need for order, she began to construct a three-dimensional lattice of all the world within range of her unique sense. Physical objects like tower, dungeon, land and rock were poorly defined, but some life-forms made tangled shapes in the lattice that she might, with much effort, unravel. Occasionally she could identify them and they always turned out to be mancers or other powerful adepts. If they were using the Secret Art, or a device driven by such magical power, that knot in the lattice flowered especially brightly.
One day, trying to unpick a difficult and unusual knot, she uncovered an alien – a lyrinx. Times before she had sensed natures that frightened her, but none like this. It was terrifyingly different.
She began to scream, and kept on until Mancer Flammas was called to what he had forgotten years ago. He had to be reminded of her name, found that nothing could be done with her, and called Jal-Nish. Ullii was then sixteen, so she was taken to her third examination.
Jal-Nish coaxed out of her what the matter was and realised that he had made the discovery of the age, if a way could be found of using her. It gained him the perilous honour of perquisitor, but two years later he was no further advanced when came the dreadful news about Tiaan. Unwilling to leave Ullii with people who might break her to get at her talent, and thinking that, just possibly, she could be able to help, Jal-Nish had bundled her up and brought her with him.
The journey had been a torment for Ullii. She'd spent all the daylight hours in a silken bag suspended from the roof of a wagon, held in place with guy ropes. Even so, she'd been in sensory overload from the instant they'd set out. Her screams made the trip a hideous experience for all and Jal-Nish had to post a guard over her bag lest someone tumble it, with her inside, over a precipice while no one was looking. Shouts and roars outside the door brought Ullii back to the room where she crouched in the corner, rocking on her bare feet. Of necessity, her feet and hands were the only parts of her not hypersensitive.
It was Irisis, talking quietly. Ullii knew the fascinating young man was out there too. She wanted him to come in so she could learn about him, for he did not appear in her lattice. Irisis did, though as an impenetrable ball. The door opened but a tidal wave of light roared in, stabbing her in the eyes. She covered them with her hands and curled up in a hopeless attempt to block the world out.
Irisis entered, and the young man. His musky aroma unsettled her. They left the door open, flooding her with so many sensations that Ullii was helpless. Their feet thundered toward her; nothing could block the sound out.
Irisis bent over, her breath whooshing in and out, her heart like a great drum being pounded. Was Irisis going to torture her?
Irisis pounced, grabbing Ullii around the waist and lifting her easily. The seeker flailed her legs, letting out a shrill squeal, but could not take her hands away from her eyes to defend herself. The iron grip, the rough fabric pressed against her skin, were unbearable.
Irisis spoke to the man in booming notes that smashed together in Ullii's mind. She had spoken softly before. Why did she want to hurt, now? The man answered, less loud, but Ullii could not make out what he was saying either. He was not kind after all.
Turning Ullii's head to one side, Irisis said something in an urgent whisper. It sounded like 'Now!'
Ullii felt an uncomfortable, hot feeling in her ear. Awful crackles, booms and bubbles reverberated through her head. Whatever was in her ear slowly cooled until she could not feel it at all. She felt dizzy. Where was up? Where down? She tried to claw the stuff out of her ear. Irisis held her hands. The sensations built up in her brain, echoing back and forth, feeding on themselves. It was the worst feeling of all, for it cut off the lattice – the only place she had ever been able to escape to.
Without warning, Irisis turned her over while the man poured the hot substance in her other ear. More crackles and booms as the stuff cooled, then for the first time in her life Ullii experienced absolute, blissful silence. It was so unprecedented that she stopped screaming and hung limply from Irisis's arm with her hands over her eyes, exploring the sensation.
The man closed the door and unshuttered a lantern so it cast a faint light on the far wall. Irisis put Ullii down on her feet, holding her in an unbreakable grip. Ullii did not move. She no longer felt the desperate urge to curl up and rock. She stared at the pair through the cracks between her fingers, wondering.
'Now what?' said the man.
Ullii read his lips and turned to face him. Irisis must have spoken though Ullii did not see it.
'My name is Cryl-Nish!' said the man. 'You can call me Nish, if you like.' He was resigned to the nickname now.
'Nisssshh!' she whispered.
He reached out one hand, as she had done when he lay swooned on the floor. She did not withdraw. He grazed her hair with a fingertip, stroking down its length. The back of his hand came to her cheek, touching it gently. It felt rough, but kindly. A strange feeling, kindness. Something silky hung from his fingers. He stroked them up her face; the silk came with it. He put his hands over her hands. Aah, the smell of him; the touch! She drew her hands out. Her eyelashes fluttered against the palms of his hands. She felt that she might trust him after all, this unknown, nice-smelling man.
'You smell good, Nish.'
His fingers urged the silk up over her eyes. She allowed him to. The light seeping between his fingers was cut off. Glorious, absolute dark descended. Ullii, wondering, allowed him to tie the mask at the back of her head. Nish stroked her face with his fingertips then backed away. Irisis let go too.
Instinctively, Ullii bent down to go into her crouch, but discovered that she did not need it. There was no light, no sound, no feeling but her feet on the floor and the touch of the mask over her eyes. The sensations that for the whole of her life had flooded her were gone.
The lattice was so much clearer now. The knots, she felt, would be so much easier to untangle. Her brain could think what she chose. Ullii sat down on the floor. A tear formed in one eye, then the other. Soon she was weeping floods for what she had never dared hope. The war in her mind was over. She was free of her prison at last. Nish and Irisis stood watching, not saying a word. Ullii wept for a long time, then drooped, tilting forward until her forehead touched her hands, which rested on the floor. And in that strange position, bottom in the air, completely naked, she slept.
Nish went to cover Ullii with her clothes but Irisis shook her head. 'Come outside. She's used to sleeping like that, strange as it seems. We'll come back later.'
Irisis closed the door and they went down to the refectory. 'Hungry work!' said Nish, selecting a bowl of lemon tea and another of pickled kumquats.
'That was a brilliant idea, to fill her ears with wax. How did you think of it?'
'I'm amazed no one else has. Lots of workers here wear goggles or earmuffs or gloves. It wasn't until I was upside down over the cliff, with my bum hanging out and you leering at it, that I realised what she needed.'
'It's not my leers you need to worry about,' she said cheerfully. 'You should have seen the looks Muss was giving you.'
'More than looks, as he was getting me down,' Nish said sourly. 'He felt me up something severe. You might have stopped him!'
'I was holding the pole,' she said.
'So was he!'
Irisis burst out laughing. 'Maybe that will teach you to mend your ways and treat the unfortunate more kindly. You know, I wonder about Muss.'
'What do you mean?'
'Something he said. I don't think he's as stupid as he seems.'
'He couldn't be.'
'Still, I'm going to keep an eye on him.'
'You can't think he's the spy?' She did not answer, so he went on, 'We'd better make something more permanent for Ullii.' That took a day. It was simple work for an artificer to design and make a pair of lightweight goggles that completely covered her eyes. He had the glassblower tint glass until it was almost black and cut two round plates from it to fit the frames. Nish tested the goggles by looking at the sun, which became the faintest glowing disc. Every part that would touch her skin he padded with silk. He also made a pair of padded muffs to go over her ears, in case the wax irritated her.
Irisis was also busy, though she did not say what she was doing. Nish was conscious that the time was fleeting by, and of the sentence they both were under.
They checked on Ullii every few hours. She slept for most of the day. Later they found her walking back and forth talking to herself, wearing her silk shirt but not the trousers.
'She must have been cold,' Irisis said as they went out again. 'In an hour or two she'll throw it off again.'
That night he went to Irisis's workshop to see what she had been up to. She was holding a pair of trousers up to the light. They were made of a fine fabric with the faintest blue iridescence that swirled and shimmered as she moved it in the light.
'And to think I've been working,' he sniffed.
'And I haven't?'
'A bit small for you, I would have thought. Ah, the vanity of the woman!'
'They're for Ullii, fool!' She held them up. 'What do you think?'
She tossed them to him. They slipped through his fingers as if coated in oil.
'They're beautiful!' He picked them up. They were made of the softest, silkiest fabric he'd ever felt. 'How did you make them?'
'Uncle Barkus had some reels of spider-silk in his storeroom. He'd got it for some project or other but never used it. I had the master weaver make cloth from it and I've made Ullii two complete sets of clothing. She can wear it next to her skin, and ordinary clothes on top.'
'From the deathwatch spider. It's the softest thread in the world, but many times stronger than silk. I defy anyone to tear it.'
'And you think Ullii will wear it?'
'She'll have to. She can't go marching across the mountains in the nuddy.'
'Who said she would be?'
'How else are we going to track Tiaan down?'
T WENTY -O NE
The following morning found them back at their starting point. Ullii had knocked off her mask while sleeping and was woken by Nyg-Gu slamming in with her breakfast, leaving the door wide open. Ullii let out a screech, whereupon Nyg-Gu, frightened, slapped her. The seeker went into a screaming fit in which she clawed out her earplugs. By the time Nish, who had heard the screaming from the other side of the manufactory, arrived, Ullii had gone catatonic. Nyg-Gu was shaking her and roaring abuse. Before he could drag the servant out, a hundred workers were crowded around the door, all talking loudly, staring and making rude remarks about the naked madwoman.
'Get them away from here,' Nish yelled as Irisis came running up.
'What are you going to do?' she said, breathless.
'I don't know!' Pushing the people away from the door, he closed and bolted it. As he stood there in the dark he heard his father's voice.
'I've had this!' said Jal-Nish. 'It's a damn waste of time. I knew you'd fail.'
'We haven't had the chance to show you what we've done,' came a honeyed voice, the one Irisis used to get her way with men. 'This time tomorrow you'll be amazed.'
'Oh, all right!' he said angrily. 'But…'
They moved away; Nish did not hear the rest. 'Ullii,' he said in the softest voice he was capable of. There was no reply but he could hear her rocking, humming to herself. He went back and forth across the floor until he found the mask. He discovered the earplugs when they crunched underfoot. The racket outside had stopped.
He could make her out now, right in the corner. Nish went forward, slowly but not creeping. He had the feeling that creeping might alarm her. 'Ullii,' he whispered. 'I have your mask. Do you want it?' He held it out.
She rocked faster than ever. Her eyes were tightly closed.
'Ullii, here!' Reaching out with exquisite care, he touched her cheek with the back of one finger.
Faster she rocked. He was amazed she did not topple over. As he touched her, she made a keening noise in her throat. He backed off.
'Ullii? Can you see me? In your mind's eye?'
She shook her head. Nish squatted back on his heels, rubbing his jaw. She stiffened. Having not shaved in several days, there was enough soft stubble to make a rasping noise.
'Can you smell me?'
The keening stopped. Nish was sure he saw a fleeting smile. Maybe that was the key. She'd mentioned his smell earlier.
'What do I smell like, Ullii?'
Again that smile. 'Nice!' she said softly, mimicking his voice. 'You smell like a kind man – musk and spice, metal and oil.'
He was flattered but knew he'd made a breakthrough. If she judged people by the way they smelt, it might be a way into her confidence. He found that he liked her. He also wanted to see what she looked like in the light. The brief glimpses he'd had were tantalising.
He rubbed the mask over his face, then inside his shirt in sweeping curves. Taking it out again, Nish sniffed it. It had no smell that he could detect.
He extended his arm, mask in hand, toward her face. She smiled, snatched it and brought it to her face, sniffing like a dog. A barely audible sigh escaped. Ullii put the mask over her eyes, gave another sigh, and tried to tie it at the back. The mask fell off. She tried again with the same result.
Ullii whimpered. Nish's fingers found hers, she drew them to her nose, sniffed deeply, then allowed him to tie on the mask. Her fingers followed every movement of his. When it was done she pushed his hands away, tore off the mask and tied it herself, giving a little chuckle when she succeeded at the first attempt.
Nish sat back on his haunches, wondering what she would do next. Had he made a lot of progress, or none at all? She squatted along the wall, just an arm's length away. He sensed her alertness, her curiosity, but also the barely suppressed terror of being hurt again. How could he convince her otherwise in time to save himself?
He thought about his own troubles, particularly the threat of being sent to the front-lines. Giving a little whimper, he began to rock back and forth. It was partly feigned, but only partly. The whimper expressed how he felt, alone in his personal darkness.
Ullii turned her head.
He kept rocking, sure she was investigating him with her strange senses. What would Ulli do now? That was all that mattered.
She reached out ever so tentatively, touched his cheek with a fingertip and swiftly withdrew it. He sighed. She went still, her head cocked to one side. Then Ullii rubbed her hands over her face, through her hair and across her breasts and belly. She extended her fingers toward him till they were cupped under his nose.
A tiny miracle. She was offering him her trust, that she had never offered to anyone. He sniffed her fingers. Ullii had barely any smell, for after the mancer's dungeon she'd developed a compulsion for washing and would do it as much as a dozen times a day. She just smelt pleasant, and faintly creamy. He pressed his nose into the cup of her hand.
Nish sighed, and smiled, and raised his head. She withdrew her hand, brought it back palm outward and urged him away. Taking the hint, he went softly to the door. There was a long way to go but at least they were on the road.
As he lifted the latch, but before the door opened, she said quietly, 'I will wear your mask, Nish. I will help you find her.'
'Thank you,' he whispered back. In the artisans' workshop he told Irisis all that had happened, scarcely able to contain his glee. 'I've done it!' he concluded. 'She trusts me. She said she would help find Tiaan!'
Irisis was not quite as pleased as he'd expected, and she positively scowled at the sniffing episodes. 'Like a dog and bitch on heat!' she snapped. 'Let's get to work.'
They began with the goggles, which were as light a pair as Nish could manufacture, large oval lenses framed with wire and filled in all around with beaten silver. The arms hooked around Ulli's ears like a pair of spectacles.
She fitted them over her eyes, tentatively, walked across the room and back, then whipped them off again. 'Can't!' She rubbed her ears and the bridge of her nose.
The first setback. Nish tucked them under his arm, handing her the earmuffs instead. Putting them on, she adjusted the fit and smiled – the first true smile he'd seen from her, though it fleeted away.
He gave her the clothing. She ran her fingers over the blouse, a high-necked one, and frowned. Ullii pulled it over her head, settled it around her waist, arched her back and screamed.
'It's crawling! It's crawling all over me!' In a single movement she tore it off, flung it into her water bucket and held it under. She stood up, shuddering and rubbing furiously at her belly, breasts and shoulders.
Irisis flung the door open. 'What's the matter?'
Nish took the bucket, goggles and the rest of the clothing and went outside. 'Well, at least she likes the earmuffs.' He told her what had happened.
'I checked everything,' said Irisis, piqued. 'All the seams are concealed. There's not a single thread loose.'
'If she says it's crawling,' said Nish, 'it must be. Maybe if we talked to the weaver.'
'Good idea!' They turned out the gate, past the water cisterns and the slaughterers doing their bloody business, and down to a collection of smaller buildings occupied by craft workers not directly related to the making of clankers.
'Good morning, master weaver,' Irisis said, putting her head through the door. 'Are you busy?'
'I'm always busy!' A cadaverous-looking man with one twisted leg, he never smiled. He was untangling a mess of threads in one of the looms. 'Look at this. Damned prentices; if you put all their brains together it wouldn't fill the skull of a nit. What do you want?'
'It's this spider-silk.' She explained what had happened.
'Women!' he said under his breath, evidently being one of the new breed. 'Hold on! There was a bit left over.' Diving into a chest of reels, he pulled one out and wound some of the thread off, testing it with skeletal fingers. Nish thought he looked rather like a spider, the way his fingers worked. 'Did you wash the cloth first?' the weaver challenged.
'No!' said Irisis. 'I thought you'd already done that.'
'Not a bloody washerwoman!' He glared at her. 'There's your answer then. This is raw silk. It's still got the prints of the spider on it.'
'How do I get it off?'
'How would I know? I've never used spider-silk before. Nor will again, after the trouble it was to weave.' Scowling, he banged the loom with his fist. 'Warm water and mild soap. No lye! Definitely not hot water, or it'll only fit a mouse afterwards.'
'Thank you,' said Irisis.
'Bah!' he turned back to the loom, tossing a head like a fluffy skull.
'Charming fellow,' said Nish.
'He's all right. He does a good job, exactly the way he's asked. Just doesn't like women. And with some reason, I understand.'
Nish did not ask why and she did not elaborate. She left the garments at the laundry with many instructions. Nish returned to his workshop, where he replaced the arms of the goggles with a split strap that would buckle over the back of Ullii's head. The padding he covered with scraps of spider-silk cloth, washed carefully beforehand.
He spent hours in Ullii's room that afternoon and evening, watching her walking about with the earmuffs and mask on. She tried the goggles several times, but each time took them off after some minutes. Evidently she preferred to see nothing rather than put up with the least discomfort.
Nish kept quiet. He wanted her to get used to him being there. The door was open now, lighting the room, though guards at either end of the corridor kept the curious away.
He liked watching her. Ullii was small but sweetly formed, her compact curves a contrast to Irisis's elongated form. Her skin, which had never seen the sun, was as soft as a baby's. As she walked back and forth, unselfconsciously naked, a germ of desire formed.
And why not, he thought. She is a grown woman. Perhaps it would help to cement her trust in me. Irisis need never know. His mind wandered on that delicious track until he realised that Ullii was pacing frantically, radiating anxiety.
Had she sensed the direction of his thoughts? Nish hastily adjusted his trousers and saw a tall figure at the door. He went across. 'She's better, though she still has trouble with the goggles.'
Irisis gave him a frosty, up-and-down glare as if she knew what he had been daydreaming about. 'Her clothes are dry!' she said curtly.
Nish held out his hand but Irisis brushed past and stalked straight up to Ullii. The seeker backed away until she hit the wall, holding her hands up as if to ward off some horror.
'It's crawling!' she said in a cracked voice.
Irisis looked irritated. Her frustration must soon burst out. That would ruin all the trust built up so far.
'Stop!' he hissed. 'Let me do it.'
Irisis raised her fist. Nish thought she was going to thump him. Well, let her, if that was what it took. It might lower another barrier between him and Ullii. He steeled himself against the blow.
A wild, bubbling hiss came from Ullii's throat and she went into a crouch, her fingers hooked into claws, glaring through her mask at Irisis.
Irisis took a step backwards, then shrugged and tossed the garments to Nish. 'I wish I inspired that kind of loyalty.' She went to the door.
He wondered how to convince Ullii that the clothes were different now. Unbuttoning his shirt, Nish dropped it on the floor. Her face turned his way.
Irisis gave a disgusted snort. 'I don't believe this!'
'Just keep quiet!' The clothes were too small for Nish, of course. Taking up the spider-silk shirt, he smoothed it across his chest and rubbed it up and down, then pulled it over his head, burying his face in it. It felt sensual, like nothing he had ever worn before.
Tucking the garment under his arm, he did the same with the pants, socks and gloves, then held the shirt out to her. She took it by one finger and thumb, holding it away as if it was crawling with spiders. Slowly she brought it up to her face and sniffed. She sniffed it up and down, across and back, gave a little grunt and touched her face with it, gingerly. It seemed to be all right for she pulled open the neck hole, eased her head through and drew it on. At the level of her breasts she stopped, giving a little shudder of remembrance. She pulled it down and stood frozen, one foot in the air. Nish held his breath. Irisis, by the door, was doing the same.
Ullii gave a little, sensual chuckle that was, to Nish, like his lover blowing in his ear. In a single movement she stepped into the trousers, pulled them up to the waist and leapt high in the air, crying out for joy. She ran around the room skipping and dancing.
Coming up behind Nish, she threw her arms around him and put her hands over his nose. He sniffed her hands, evidently what was expected, for she resumed her dance. She was perfectly dexterous and graceful. Despite the mask, Ullii knew where everything in the room was. She did not once look like tipping over the water bucket or crashing into the walls.
Nish went to the door. 'Very good,' said Irisis. 'This afternoon we begin.'
T WENTY -T WO
Before long, Tiaan found herself at a dead end. She turned back and not far from the entrance to the ninth level crossed a passage that she must have stumbled by yesterday without noticing. Right or left? Going left, she soon encountered another cross-passage. Tiaan stopped, frowning. It would be easy to get lost in here. Returning to the entrance, she looked up the shaft. Hammering echoed down. They must be preparing to come after her.
She hurried back to the first cross-passage, noting the number of steps and wishing she had paper to make a map on. As a prentice artisan she'd often been required to memorise an entire blueprint and recreate it perfectly a week or even a year later. Could she still do it? As she paced, Tiaan began to create a map of the mine in her head. It would not be accurate, since she could only estimate directions, but better than none. Eventually, if she did not starve to death, or her pursuers didn't find her first, she hoped to locate the long passage Joeyn had mentioned, that led to the other mine.
She moved back and forth, building the map in her mind, a labyrinth of thread-like passages with herself just a speck at the centre. At one point Tiaan realised that she was humming a tune. She felt back in control.
A full day went by, judging by her stomach, before she had mapped the entire level. Maintaining the relationships between wandering adits, shafts and pillars was hard work. Her skills were rusty. She enjoyed testing herself though; the harder the work, the better.
The lower sections were partly flooded. She wished she'd brought along Joeyn's grappling pole to probe the lifeless water. Without it, all she could do was wade in and hope it did not come up over her shoulders, for her gear was too heavy to swim with.
Most times the water only reached her thighs but it was damnably cold and not doing her boots any good. By the end of the day Tiaan was exhausted and the wet cloth had chafed the insides of her thighs.
She found a place to sleep for the night, took off her clothes and inspected the damage. She was red raw. Imagining what Matron would say to blemishes in such a strategic spot, she burst out laughing. It sounded strange, and more so after the pitch-shifted echoes came back. On edge; maniacal. That was not far off it, either.
Tiaan had been thinking about the glowing crystal all day. It was different from every hedron she'd come across. It had never been shaped, it just was, as it had crystallised half a billion years ago. She wanted it desperately, and that worried her. Could the bond have been established after only using it once? It took all her willpower to leave it in her pack.
That night she again dreamed about the young man, though this time it was different. They were on opposite sides of the room, gazing at each other. He began to run towards her. She ran too. He held out his arms, naked desire on his face. She froze. Her daydreams had always ended with the rescue. The reality of this dream was that he wanted something of her. What was it? Afraid to commit herself, she turned away. He let his arms fall and, with sunken shoulders, stumbled off.
Once Tiaan woke, she recalled the mortifying emotions all too well. Feelings of helplessness, of having no idea what was required of her, flooded her. That was the other reason she had not taken a partner. To share her life with another meant losing the control that she had worked so hard for. Afraid of those unplumbed emotions, she closed her eyes and groaned aloud. Then a thud echoed down the tunnel.
They were after her! Stripping off her dry clothes, Tiaan put back on the wet, which were clammily uncomfortable. With the pack on her back, the coil of rope over her shoulder, the glowing crystal in one hand and a crust in the other, she set off.
Only as she neared the first cross-passage did Tiaan realise that the map of the ninth level had vanished from her mind. She stopped dead, panic rising up from her stomach like bile. How could it have happened? Without that rational part of her controlling the world around, she was no more than an indenture breaker, a non-citizen who had no rights and belonged nowhere.
Thud-thud! Nearer this time. She stood still, pushing the panic down as she had so often done before a test of her prentice's skills. Calm yourself. You can do it. This map is simple compared to the blueprints you've memorised. Take deep breaths, one after another. Empty your mind of everything else.
Tiaan could not get the map back – she was too tired. Snatches of a soldiers' marching song drifted up the tunnel. Panic told her to run. She almost gave in to it.
She had to consciously lay out, step by step, what had long ago become automatic. 'Start from the beginning, girl!' the old crafter had told her many times. 'You're trying to do more than your mind can manage.'
This place could not beat her. Imagining her starting point at the entrance to the ninth level, Tiaan mentally went into the dark and began to make her map anew. She traced a path to the intersection where she now stood. As she passed it, the side passages marked themselves on her map, though only as far as the illumination from the hedron reached.
She walked forward, slowly mapping the labyrinth again, then one time she went through an intersection and the cross-passages of her mental map ran off through the darkness to link up with another tunnel. She refused to think about that, just kept going, and suddenly the map exploded into her mind, entire and complete. At that instant she understood where the long tunnel to the other mine had to be.
She zig-zagged through the maze for a couple of hours, twice through breast-deep sections of water. It was cold and uncomfortable but she did not mind – the water was an obstacle to her pursuers too, and one they could not track her across. They would have to search every passage.
Once on the long tunnel, Tiaan moved as fast as she could. She had to get well ahead or she'd never dare to rest, and already she was desperate for sleep. After going hard for another few hours, Tiaan calculated that she'd gone about five thousand paces: a league. She sat down for a brief rest and a swig from Joeyn's flask. It was only water; the brandy was gone long ago. A pity -she could have done with something to warm her up right now.
Hunger had become a constant ache, one she could do nothing about. But at least she had heard no further sound from behind. That was no comfort. Maybe they knew where she was headed and had sent people off another way to catch her. Or maybe they were just sneaking along, biding their time. After all, they thought they were hunting a lyrinx.
On and on and on. Step after weary step. Slower and slower. Everything hurt except her stomach, which was numb, though when she drank it throbbed. Tiaan snatched a few hours of restless sleep, afraid they would come on her in the darkness. She lost track of time. Had it been a day, or two, or even three she'd been marching? Her map was still extending eastwards. She'd gone nearly five leagues in this winding, up-and-down but otherwise featureless passage.
At some point along that endless scream of infinity, Tiaan became aware that she was being followed. She did not know how she knew. There had been no sound, no telltale glimmer of light. Her pursuers were a long way back, but they were there. Tiaan came around a gentle curve in the tunnel, which dipped down and at the bottom contained water as far as the light extended. She moved into it, her legs so lethargic that it was like pushing through syrup. What if it was too deep to wade?
The water came up to her neck, her chin, her lips, then fell again. After ten minutes of splashing, the tunnel ended in smooth rock. Too smooth – it turned out to be a stone door and it took little searching to find the concealed lever that opened it. Tiaan was not surprised to find a door. There were many old tunnels in these mountains, and in the past whole villages had sheltered in them during the winter. She stood in the water, staring at the blank face. The tunnel walls were still granite but the door was pale grey stone. She ran the tip of the knife down it. Marble.
She heaved on the lever; the door rose vertically with much whining and grating, and when it reached its full height, an alarming twang. Water poured through, pulling at her trousers. Tiaan ducked under and took hold of the lever on the other side, wondering if she could seal the door against her pursuers. There was a louder twang, the slab fell, drenching her, and split down the middle.
Tiaan kept going, shortly to be confronted by a mound of blue clay and fragments of rock. A great shear cut across the tunnel, on the other side of which the pink granite changed to crystalline marble, streaked with blue and purple. Above, a ragged cavity extended into the darkness.
She passed through rock that was every colour and pattern she could imagine, eventually to emerge in a natural cavern about the size of the breeding factory. A ragged pool of clear water lay in the centre. The floor sloped up on all sides, though much higher to her left, where corrugated humps and hollows were reminiscent of theatre benches.
Tiaan drank from the pool, filled her flask, washed her face and hands, went up and heaved herself onto the highest hump. Down to her left, five passages led from the cavern, roughly like the ribs of a fan. Surely one of them was the exit she had been seeking for so long. Utterly exhausted, she made a bed between the humps and slept. In a long dreaming of being hunted, several times Tiaan was roused by sharp rapping, a distant, echoing sound as of metal on stone. It sounded like a stonemason working on a carving, except that the blows were few and separated by long intervals of silence.
The sound was more intriguing than disturbing; each blow roused Tiaan momentarily before she slipped back into sleep. Soon she settled into a dreamless slumber, the like of which she had not had in weeks. 'There it is! Up top! Careful now!'
The cry frightened Tiaan awake. The cavern stank of burning tar. She sat up, rubbing sleep from her eyes.
Four tarred sticks blazed in a staggered line down below, near the tunnel through which she had entered. Another crept towards her. The light revealed soldiers, in uniforms she did not recognise.
'It moves! Shoot now!' roared a man in sergeant's colours.
Tiaan threw herself flat. Crossbow bolts smashed into bench and wall. 'Stop!' she screamed.
After a silence, the sergeant shouted, 'Who are you?'
'I'm from Tiksi!' She dared not say her name. 'Don't fire!'
'Show yourself. Hold your hands high.'
She did so, slowly and carefully. Five heavily armed soldiers trooped up. She did not know any of them.
'I'm Sergeant Numbl, of the Morrin garrison,' said the leader. He was a tall man, greatly scarred on the left cheek. 'What are you doing here?'
'Have you seen the lyrinx?' a dark, thickset soldier added.
'There is no lyrinx,' she said weakly.
'What is she talking about?' the soldiers cried. 'Where has it gone?'
'Maybe it's a shapechanger lyrinx, turned itself into this miserable girl,' said a thin bald man. 'Better kill it to make sure.' Thrusting his sword forward, he twisted it and made a squelching sound.
Sergeant Numbl clouted him out of the way. A dangerous light flashed in his eyes and, taking Tiaan by the collar, he shook her. 'It was you! We've been hunting you, all the time.'
'Yes!' she whispered, terrified of the man.
'Who is she?' asked another soldier, who had a chirping, over-the-mountains accent.
'It must be the runaway from the breeding factory,' said the thickset soldier. 'The mad woman!'
'Shut up!' the sergeant roared over his shoulder. His face had gone purple, except for the scars, which were bone-yellow. 'Do you realise what you have cost us?'
'You were shooting at me!' she cried.
'Stupid girl!' Numbl slapped her hard across the face.
The bald soldier raised his sword. Drops of saliva hung on his lower lip. 'Let me finish her,' he said eagerly.
'We might as well have the pleasure of her first,' said a broad-shouldered, good-looking man with a receding chin disguised by wisps of beard. He began to tear at her garments. Tiaan tried to protect herself, but another soldier caught her hands.
This could not be happening. 'You're scum!' she said, struggling furiously. 'I'd sooner be eaten by a lyrinx.'
'That's all you'll be good for when we've finished with you,' said the good-looking man.
'You would take a woman without her consent, Pelf?' said Numbl.
'She's a runaway,' said Pelf. 'If you don't like it, walk away.'
'Please, no!' Tiaan whispered.
'I'll take care of her,' cried the bald man with the bloodlust in his eye.
Seizing him by the arm, the sergeant walked down toward the tunnels. 'Oh, let them have their fun! We might all be dead tomorrow.'
The remaining three threw her down on the stone. Tiaan struggled but they were too strong. Someone bound her hands. She screamed at the top of her voice. A rough hand went over her mouth.
'Hoy?' came an echoing cry from below. The sergeant ran toward the left-most of the five lower passages, to listen at the entrance.
'Hoy?' came the cry, once more.
'Yes?' said Numbl cautiously. Before long Gi-Had appeared, followed by a troop of ten soldiers, and a guide.
'How did you get here?' said Numbl in amazement.
'I would ask the same of you?'
Tiaan bit the hand, which jerked out of the way. She gasped for air.
'What's going on?' roared Gi-Had. 'I heard a woman scream.'
The soldiers let Tiaan go. She stood up. There was a mutter of conversation down below.
'You damn fools!' Gi-Had roared. 'That's Artisan Tiaan! If you've harmed her you'll be quartered by the perquisitor himself! Get down here.'
The soldiers trotted down, looking everywhere but at him.
'How were we supposed to know?' said the sergeant. 'Nobody told us you wanted her.'
'Tiksi cretins!' Gi-Had raged. 'So you just go around molesting every woman you meet, do you?'
None of them met his eyes.
'Bah!' cried Gi-Had. 'Get out of my way! Tiaan, I must – '
Before he could move there again came that tapping sound she had heard in her dreams.
The overseer's head whipped around. 'What's that? Sergeant, go and see.'
The entire group went still. Tiaan could hear Gi-Had's breath whistling in and out. No one spoke. Tap-tap-tap.
Numbl tiptoed from one entrance to another, trying to work out where the noise was coming from.
'I heard it before,' Tiaan called down.
'When?' cried Gi-Had.
'Quite a few hours ago.'
'It could be someone in the mine,' said Pelf.
'This mine's been abandoned for twenty years,' said Gi-Had. 'It was worked out when my father was still alive.'
'Could still be a prospector in there,' said the bald man who had wanted to kill her.
'Or a bear,' the sergeant conjectured, 'cracking open a goat's thigh bone.'
'I said shut up!' hissed Gi-Had. 'Gull, Dom, Hants, Ven-Koy, Thrawn! Stand at the tunnel entrances and listen. Everyone else, ready your weapons and take cover.'
Five of his soldiers went to their positions. 'It's probably nothing,' said Gi-Had, pacing back and across. Another tap.
'It came from here,' said stocky, white-haired Hants, an ugly man with pox scars and a cast in his left eye. He was standing at the entrance to the middle tunnel. 'Will I go and see?'
'Yes!' said Gi-Had. 'Hey, what's your name?' he asked the good-looking soldier.
'You're a brave man, Pelf. Go with him.'
The two headed off, pitch-coated torches flaring. Tiaan flexed her bound hands, began to go down, then stopped. Everyone was as tense as wire. Gi-Had jammed a torch in a crack in the floor and stared into the third tunnel, tapping one boot. There was no further sound.
'Can you see their torches?' he asked.
'No!' said tall Gull, beside him.
'Neither can I,' Gi-Had muttered.
A scream reverberated out of the tunnel.
'What was that?' whispered Gull.
'More torches!' yelled Gi-Had, gesturing behind him. The soldiers crowded around.
'We'd better go help them,' said Gull, making no attempt to do so.
There came a thud, a shriek, and feet pounded down the tunnel. Pelf burst from the entrance, running without sword or torch. A continuous moan came from his open mouth.
'What is it, man?' yelled the sergeant. 'What's the matter with you?'
Pelf kept going. Gi-Had caught him by the shoulder, twisting him around. He shook him. 'Speak, damn you!'
Pelf choked and a clot of slobber ran into his beard. 'A band of lyrinx. We walked right into them.'
'How many?' said Gi-Had.
'What's happened to Hants?' yelled Numbl.
'He's dead. It bit his head right off. He kept walking, like a slaughtered rooster. The brains squirted…' Pelf vomited on his boots.
Gi-Had blanched but stood his ground. 'There's fifteen of us, and the guide. How many of them, Pelf?'
'Three, that I saw.' His downy jaw quivered.
The soldiers moved uneasily. 'Not good odds,' said the sergeant. 'Reckon we'd best retreat while we can. And maybe send someone on ahead to warn the manufactory. Just in case,' he added in a low voice, 'if you take my meaning.'
'Good idea. Rusp, go with the guide. Run, and don't stop for anything.'
Rusp, a man as wide as he was high, said, 'Think I'd be more use here, surr.'
'Maybe you're right. Gull -'
'I'll go,' said Pelf. 'We can take the woman too. Get her out of the way.'
A chill ran all the way down Tiaan's back.
'Get to your post, Pelf!' said Gi-Had. 'I'll not leave her in your hands. I'll be looking to you to lead the defence, since you showed such courage with an unarmed woman.'
Gull and the guide, an ancient miner Tiaan had met once or twice, by the name of Hurny, hurried off. The soldiers moved into a semicircle around the mouth of the third tunnel.
Tiaan did not rate their chances highly, or her own. She began to rasp her bonds on an edge of stone, since she could not reach her knife. It was hard work, for the marble tended to wear away before the fibres did. She had not made much progress when a noise shocked the soldiers rigid. It was a sharp clack, like an armoured foot striking a pebble.
'They're coming!' hissed Gi-Had.
The soldiers jammed their torches into whatever crevices and hollows they could find. The advance guard presented their javelins. Those on the wings of the semicircle held out swords. They looked like a bunch of terrified youths. Two, armed with crossbows, moved back.
Another noise, like the skittering of a stone across the floor. The javelins wavered, dipped then firmed. Fourteen pairs of eyes stared at the black opening. Tiaan rasped her bonds furiously.
Without warning a dark creature erupted from the tunnel to the left of the middle one. Another lyrinx came out of the right tunnel. They hurled themselves through the swordsmen and attacked the javelin-armed soldiers from behind. Three were dead before they could get their weapons into position. The fourth impaled a lyrinx in its armoured thigh, then his spear was broken, and he with it.
'To me!' roared Gi-Had, standing at the front with the sergeant. 'Archers, fire!'
The crossbows fired over the heads of the soldiers. A green-crested lyrinx fell, shot through the eye. Another was pierced in one mighty shoulder, though it shrugged at the injury and kept fighting. The creature was powerfully armoured there.
Four swordsmen were still on their feet, and Gi-Had. They stood shoulder to shoulder, their swords weaving, while the archers struggled to reload their clumsy weapons. A third lyrinx hurtled out of the middle tunnel. The soldiers had their backs to him and three fell without ever knowing why. The sergeant and Gi-Had fought on.
One archer fired again. The third lyrinx, which was smaller than the others, clawed at the back of its neck. It recovered, bounded across the cavern and took out both archers with single blows. A bolt shot vertically from the other crossbow, shattering a stalactite to pieces and raining down shards of limestone on the creature. A large piece struck it on the head, felling it. The second lyrinx had disembowelled Numbl, but was skewered between the thigh plates by Gi-Had. Purple blood gurgled out. Gi-Had feinted, ducked, darted to one side and ran for the tunnel that led back to the hedron mine. The lyrinx went after him, limping badly.
In all her life Tiaan had never seen such bloodshed and brutality. Everywhere she looked, men were thrashing, moaning, dying. She gave a last rasp of her bonds and they parted. She crept down to the battlefield. Twelve soldiers lay on the floor. Ten were dead, no question of it, and the others had not long to live.
One was handsome Pelf, the man who had wanted to molest her. A slash of the lyrinx's claws had opened a rift between his ribs, from which pink foam oozed. Parts of one lung could be seen.
Despite everything, Tiaan could feel only pity for the man. She put a hand on his brow.
Pelf's eyes opened wide as he relived the horror of the last few minutes. They drifted as aimlessly as fireflies, before lighting on her face. She saw his self-revulsion. 'I knew I was doing the greatest wickedness of all,' he said. 'I brought all this down on us.'
Pelf twitched and a clot of pink foam shot from the chest cavity to land quivering on his trouser front. He watched it dribble down, then caught at her hand. 'Take this dagger, girl. Put out my eyes that lusted over what they had no right to. Tear out my tongue that urged foul rape on you. Sever my treacherous member…'
'Hush!' said Tiaan. 'You're dying, Pelf. Make your peace before it's too late.'
She ran to the other man. He was fatally wounded, blood pooling in the hollows of the floor beside him, and already unconscious.
She dared not go after Gi-Had, not with a live lyrinx between her and him. But she could not stay here with the mutilated dead, and maybe the lyrinx already on the way back. There had to be another way out. Perhaps that was what the tapping signified.
She'd need plenty of food if she was to venture outside, for it would take days to get back to the manufactory from here. Feeling in the unconscious man's pack, she found some cloth-wrapped rations. 'Have you food?' she said hoarsely to Pelf. She felt uncomfortable about robbing the dead and the dying.
'Take it all!' he gasped. 'I've gold in my wallet. Take that too!'
She took the provisions but not the gold, and rifled the sergeant's pack as well, until she had as much food as she could carry. The torches were burning low now. The scene was like a twisted, classical painting of hell. Tiaan heaved the bulging pack on her back and went down between the two dead lyrinx toward the middle tunnel.
As she passed by, the smaller lyrinx grabbed her by the forearm. She tried to reach her knife but with a swift movement the creature caught that arm too, holding both in a clawed hand that could have spanned her skull. As it drew her forward, leathery elephant skin parted on its face to reveal an eye. It was large and oval, yellow with tawny specks and a star-shaped pupil.
The head was enormous, the mouth as wide as her skull. Tiaan had heard awful tales about lyrinx. It would torment her just for the fun of it. The mouth opened, revealing a large quantity of grey teeth. Its breath was strangely sweet. Chameleon colours flickered across skin that had been dark-grey.
'Get it over with!' she said limply.
T WENTY -T HREE
Irisis sat in a leather chair in the master crafter's old chambers, listening to the storm rage outside. The wind howled in the battlements and it was turning into a blizzard. The weather suited her mood. The experiment with Ullii was bound to fail. What was she to do then?
Another artisan might have fled to make a new life somewhere far away. Irisis could not. Her entire identity was tied up with her family and her trade. For all that she railed against them, for all that she neglected them, she would rather die, even in disgrace, than live without her family.
Nish brought the seeker down before dawn, when the manufactory was at its quietest. Even so, it was a trial for her. Ullii shied at every sound and whenever someone approached she shrank against the wall.
The crafter's chambers comprised two rooms. The larger one was a combined office and workshop with an enormous rosewood desk in the centre, surrounded by three leather chairs. Along the far wall a wide bench was still cluttered with the equipment Barkus had been using when he died. Another wall contained a library of several dozen bound volumes, plus scrolls and fan-folded books. The smaller room was stuffed with artisans' tools, charts and blueprints, mechanical devices complete and incomplete, and stores and materials of every kind. Irisis had found the reels of spider-silk there.
A tray beside the door contained food and drink. Irisis was tapping one foot when Nish came in, Ullii at his heels like a masked, earmuff-wearing dog. He closed the outer door and locked it, then the inner.
Ullii looked anxious. Irisis wondered if it was the unfamiliar surroundings, or what they expected of her. She stood against the inner door, head to one side, sniffing the air.
'Would you like something to eat, Ullii?' Irisis said loudly.
The earmuffs allowed some sound through and the seeker jumped, as if she'd not known the artisan was there. There were so many odours in the room that she had not picked Irisis out. It smelt of old books, mouldy carpet, the spicy bouquet of rosewood, oil and fuming acid from the bench, hot candle wax and an indescribable odour from the mounted swordfish over the fireplace. Irisis had half a dozen aromatic oil diffusers going over candle stubs: civet and rosemary and the sharp tang of cedar oil. She'd done it deliberately, to see if Ullii could be confused.
'No, thank you,' Ullii said, mimicking Irisis's voice. She went around the room step by step, once bumping into the desk, another time a stool, though only on her first circuit. Occasionally she touched things, or brought them to her nose.
Nish stayed close behind. He can't take his eyes off the little cow, Irisis thought. It made her angry. Could she be jealous of the seeker? Surely not.
'Tell us what you're doing, Ullii,' said Nish softly.
Perhaps too softly, for she looked around as if trying to make out a whisper in the dark. He repeated his words more loudly. Ulli looked at Nish, using her own voice now, which was as soft and colourless as her hair. 'The lattice is different here. It's all twisted up and there are new knots in it.'
'From the old crafter's artefacts, no doubt,' said Irisis. 'If you can see the Secret Art, you're in the right place. He had magical devices aplenty. He used to show them to me when I was little.'
'I can only see two,' said Ullii, in Irisis's voice. She no longer used Nish's. That irritated Irisis too. Ullii answered Nish's question. 'I am seeking out the lattice and trying to fit you into it.'
'What does it look like?' Irisis asked.
A stubborn expression crossed Ullii's face, then she seemed to think better of it. 'Did you make this?' She held out the front of the spider-silk blouse.
'Yes,' said Irisis. 'Do you like it?'
'It feels lovely. Other clothes make me itch and burn all over.' She shivered. 'The lattice looks just how I want it to. I change it, sometimes.'
'What does it look like now?' asked Nish.
She frowned, just visible above the mask. 'Fans.'
'Fans?' cried Irisis. 'What the hell does that mean?'
For once Ullii did not cringe or bridle, though she moved closer to Nish. 'I like fans!' she said defiantly. 'Mancer Flammas, who let me live in his dungeon, had hundreds of them. They were beautiful. All the colours; all the patterns. I used to peek through my fingers.'
'Ullii, our minds can't see what you see,' said Nish. 'We don't understand what you mean by fans.'
'My lattice is a fan. A great one comes out in front of me, folded in a hundred places.' She held out spread arms. 'It's turquoise now, but I can change the colour if you like – '
'I don't care what bloody – ' Shushed by Nish, Irisis broke off.
'Everything in front of me is on the fan, like a million scribbles. People look different to things. They're brighter, but tangled. Sometimes I can unravel their knots.'
'What people?' said Irisis, intrigued. 'You mean you can see everyone in the world?'
'Of course not! Only people with talents.' Her scorn was withering. 'Most are just little tiny spots and I can't see inside, but some people make bright tangles, especially ones who use the Secret Art. Jal-Nish taught me that.'
'Can you see me?' Nish asked eagerly.
'You don't have any talent.' She said it so baldly that he cringed.
'You can't see me either,' Irisis said in a dead voice.
'Oh, yes. I can see you! But you're not a knot, you're a hard black ball.'
After a pause Irisis spoke. 'You said fans.'
'Another fan goes behind me. It's azure now, much smaller. I can't see it so well. And fans go out to the sides.' She held her arms out. 'And up, and down. The one that goes down is brown but I can't see much on it.'
'Brilliant!' said Irisis. 'That's the talent we've been working so hard to tap? She scribbles on fans? We might as well ask the perquisitor to cut off our heads right now.'
Ullii froze with her arms out. Nish gave Irisis a furious glare.
Ullii slowly rotated, arms spread, until she faced Nish. 'Cut your head off?' she whispered.
'If we don't find Artisan Tiaan and get her back, that's what will happen to us,' said Nish. 'What we were hoping, Ullii, was to make a magic device that we could use with you, to see where Tiaan might be.'
'It doesn't have to be fans,' said Ullii. 'It can be anything I want it to be. Sometimes the world is like an egg floating in the air, full of coloured speckles. Or -'
Irisis gripped a handful of yellow hair as if to tear it out. She began grinding her teeth.
Nish squatted down in front of Ullii. 'The problem is, Ullii, that we don't understand how you see the world. We don't see in fans, or specks in eggs, and we don't know how to use your lattice to find Tiaan. We have to find her or we will lose the war and the lyrinx -' He broke off as she shrank away.
'She has to know,' said Irisis.
'The lyrinx will eat us all,' Nish finished.
Ullii choked, scuttled into the storeroom and curled into a ball. They did not go after her.
Nish carried the platter of food to the desk, offering it to Irisis. She refused. He took a handful of dried figs, tearing their leathery skins open with his teeth and sucking the grainy insides out. Irisis found the sound particularly irritating.
'This isn't going well, Cryl-Nish!'
He looked up, startled. 'That's the first time you've used my proper name in ages.'
'Which should tell you how desperate I feel.'
'I can't believe you'd give up, Irisis.'
'We'll never do it. We'll never see what she sees, and even if we could, I can't make a device to hunt Tiaan down. You know why.'
'I'm beginning to,' said Nish.
'What are you going to tell your father?'
'That it's impossible to make a seeker device because it would take years to work out how Ullii does it. That's true enough, anyway.'
'Yes! No need to say that it's because I'm a useless, incompetent fraud!'
'No need,' Nish echoed. 'We're finished, then.'
He wandered the room, looking at the charts, books and scrolls, and the strange, half-finished devices on the bench. Irisis tore the end off a stick of cinnamon-flavoured sausage. She ate a small piece before laying it aside and staring gloomily at the dusty table.
Someone knocked on the outer door. Nish ignored it but the knocking continued.
'Will you answer the damned thing!' Irisis snapped.
He opened the inner door, unbolted the outer. It was the perquisitor, looking agitated. 'Well?' Jal-Nish cried.
'We're making progress,' lied Nish. 'I can't talk now; we're in the middle of something.'
Jal-Nish grabbed him by the shirt. 'You've got till dawn. Gi-Had's troops found Tiaan in the mine but a band of lyrinx attacked them. Gi-Had was the only one to survive. And Tiaan… Tiaan…' He choked on his own rage. 'This is going to ruin me.'
'What?' cried Nish. A cold foreboding came over him. 'What is it? Is she dead?'
'Her body wasn't among the others. Either she's dead and eaten, or they've taken her! If they torture our secrets out of her…'
'Maybe she's escaped,' Irisis interrupted. 'She's good at it.'
'No one could escape a lyrinx. What am I going to tell the scrutator?'
Nish sank to his knees. 'What are we going to do?'
The perquisitor hauled him up. 'The scrutator wants Tiaan. We're going to find her, if she's alive, and get her back.'
He flung Nish backward to land hard on his bottom. 'You've got until dawn. Succeed or fail, you two are coming with us to finish your work, or to go up against the lyrinx as common soldiers.' He slammed the door in Nish's face.
'I feel sick,' said Nish. 'Like when my father asked me about my school work. Nothing was ever good enough.'
Selecting a piece of cheese, Irisis gnawed at a hard edge. Nish scratched his fingernails on the floorboards. The noise was so annoying that she wanted to smack him in the mouth.
'There's only one thing we can do,' said Nish, 'since making a seeker device is quite impossible. We'll have to take Ullii with us and try to use her directly.'
'She'll go mad!'
'Our necks depend on finding a way.'
Ullii came creeping over to Nish and touched his cheek. 'I want to help you, Nish.'
'I know you do.' He sat up. 'Can you see Tiaan?'
Ullii shrugged. 'I don't know what she looks like.'
Irisis leaned forward. 'The other day you said you could see a woman with a bright crystal. Can you still see her?'
'The crystal went out.'
'You mean she's dead?' cried Nish.
'I can't see her.'
'When was this?'
'Which, Ullii? It's important.'
'I don't know.'
Irisis put a controller on the table and unfolded its arms. 'This was made by Tiaan. It might help you sense her out.'
Ullii did not look at it. 'I don't need to sense her out. If the crystal wakes, I'll see it in my lattice.'
'Is the woman Tiaan?' Irisis demanded. 'Is her knot like this controller's?'
'No, but I can tell she made it.'
'So the woman was Tiaan?' Nish said urgently.
'At last!' Irisis cried. 'And what is the crystal? Is it like the one in this?' She held the controller out.
'No,' said Ullii.
'What about this?' Irisis took the pliance from her neck and pressed it into the seeker's hands.
'No, it's much stronger.'
'What can it be?' said Nish.
Irisis's blue eyes positively gleamed. 'I wonder…?'
'Do you understand maps?' Nish said to Ullii.
'I know what they are. I've never looked at one. The bright light hurts my eyes.'
Pulling down one of the charts he had been looking at earlier, he unrolled it on the floor. 'This is a map of the manufactory. Here is the room where you live…' He broke off. 'Of course, you can't see it, and I can't describe it well enough.'
She stared at him through the mask. A long silence. She shivered. Finally, 'I will try with the… goggles. Just for a little while.'
He fetched them off the bench then eased the mask off her face. Her eyes were screwed shut. He fitted the goggles and buckled the straps.
Irisis, noting how his fingers grazed Ullii's nape, scowled.
Ullii looked down.
'Can you see the map?' Nish asked.
'Yes.' Her reply was faint.
He explained the symbols for walls, doors, windows and furniture. She seemed to catch on quickly. Ullii lived in a world of symbols. 'Your room is here. This is the way we walked today. This is where we are now.'
She traced the walls with a finger, so Nish knew she could see them.
'This symbol is the scale. You can use it to work out how far things are from each other – how many steps we walked.'
She understood the concept of measurement but could not apply it. Direction was another problem – she knew right and left, front and back, but the points of the compass meant nothing to her. Her lattice was not based on a fixed frame of reference.
Nish tried to explain north, south, east and west, but Ullii related them to right hand and left hand, becoming hopelessly confused when he turned the map around. He showed her another map, of the lands between Tiksi, the manufactory and her home town of Fassafarn. That meant nothing to her either – the journey here, inside her bag all the daylight hours, had been such a nightmare that she had blocked everything out. Ullii had no idea how far she'd gone, what lands she had crossed or even how long it had taken.
'This is so frustrating,' Nish said to Irisis that evening. They had made no progress at all.
'Give it a rest. You can't teach her in a day what takes most people years.' She turned to Ullii. 'Tomorrow, we must go after Tiaan. We have to go outside. We need you to find her. No one else can do it. Will you help us?'
Ullii tore off the goggles and put the mask back on. She was trembling. Putting her hands over her eyes, she shook her head from side to side.
Irisis stood up. 'What is it? Is she saying no?'
'I don't know,' said Nish.
Ullii also rose, looking up at them. Her fingers were curled into hooks. 'I will go with you,' she said in a despairing voice. 'Though I'm afraid. But if you leave me behind…'
'We're afraid too,' said Irisis.
'I'm very, very afraid,' shuddered Ullii. 'Clawers. Clawers everywhere.'
T WENTY -F OUR
The lyrinx's mouth opened wider. The front teeth were as long as her thumb and fearsomely sharp. Tiaan closed her eyes.
The creature dragged her closer, trying to say something. Only a choking noise came out, as if there was a bone caught in its throat.
'Chzurrrk!' it said. 'Zzhurripthk!'
She thought it was going to throw up all over her. Then, as its mouth yawned wider, she saw the crossbow bolt protruding into its gullet through the back of its neck. Blood ran down its throat. It tried to get its tongue at the obstruction but could not reach. It clawed at the back of its neck with its free hand, which had lost three fingers in the battle. The bolt was too deeply embedded to grip.
The creature gave a choking cough, which brought purple blood foaming up its throat. Another cough spattered Tiaan with the stuff. It was drowning in its own blood. Its eyes crossed; it gasped a breath which made a gurgling sound deep in its chest, like a plumber clearing a blocked sewer pipe, and its grip relaxed. Tiaan rolled out of the way as the lyrinx collapsed, still clawing at its neck. Its impact with the floor blew foam everywhere.
She stood up on shaky legs, watching the creature in the guttering flares. A whiff of pitch-smoke caught in her nose. It felt as if her air passages were on fire. Bent double with coughing, Tiaan circled behind the creature. The bolt had gone through the corded muscle to the right of its spine. The other beast lay nearby. It looked dead but she kept well clear. The live lyrinx tried to turn its head and gave another gasp.
Unlike other lyrinx she had seen, this one lacked wings, apart from a pair of vestigial nubs below its shoulders. Something seemed wrong about it – it did not quite seem to fit its body.
A spear lay on the ground. If she forced it into the lyrinx's neck beside the bolt, might it be enough to kill it? She raised the spear, staring at the bloody wound, imagining the gruesome thud of blade into flesh, the creature thrashing and screaming. Tiaan hesitated and with a pained grunt the lyrinx turned its head, looking her in the eye.
She willed herself to deliver the death blow. Her sheltered life had not prepared her for this. Tiaan had not killed a living creature before, but now she had to. She dare not risk leaving it alive to follow her.
The big eyes were mesmerising. Blue patterns ran up and down its neck. Tiaan felt an unexpected surge of compassion and wondered if the lyrinx was trying to control her. Some of them were mancers.
She plunged the spear into the wound. The lyrinx screamed and flung itself around, tearing the spear out of her hand. One thrashing leg caught her on the hip; it was like being struck by a battering ram. Before she could pick herself up, the lyrinx was standing over her, the spear still waggling in the back of its neck.
'Glarrh!' it rapped. 'Minchker!'
'I don't understand you,' she gasped. It was hard to make out what it was saying. A wonder it could speak at all with such an injury.
'Take… out,' it said in a bloody croak.
Tiaan hurt too much to move. Seizing her by the shoulder with its good hand, it squeezed so hard that her joints ground together. Claws pricked through her skin. 'Take out!'
There was no choice. 'I will. Let me go.'
It released the shoulder but immediately caught her leg. 'Go behind. Take out. Do not… try again.'
She edged behind, wondering if she dared defy it. It could tear her leg right off. Eyeing the mess her spear had made, Tiaan felt nauseated. Besides, it seemed to have done little harm, though a lesser creature, a human, would have been dead. Tiaan took hold of the spear. Dare she give it one hard thrust? The lyrinx crushed her ankle, a warning. Pulling the blade out, she tossed the spear on the floor.
'Take out… bolt!'
She put her fingers around the bloody bolt and pulled. She could not get a grip.
'It's buried too deep,' she said, repulsed by the gory wound.
Her tentative efforts to lever out the bolt only made a bigger mess. The operation was horrible, not to mention the lyrinx's stifled groans. It must be in agony. She wished it would die, though maybe not even that would relax the manacle around her ankle.
'Keep trying!' It choked on blood. 'If I die – you too.'
She believed it. 'I have a tool in my pack that might help.'
'Show me.' It did not let go of her ankle.
She had to take everything out to get at her toolkit. Inside the folded canvas was a pair of pincers.
'Yes,' said the lyrinx. 'Use!'
Tiaan probed into the wound, gripped the base of the bolt and gave a mighty heave. It did not budge.
Taking a firmer grip, she put her boot on the back of the creature's massive neck and pulled with all her strength. The lyrinx screamed. Waves of colour pulsed from one end of its body to the other. It tossed its head, Tiaan kept pulling, and slowly the length of steel slid free. Purple blood pulsed from the hole, replaced by a clear fluid that congealed like the skin on boiled milk. The bleeding stopped.
She dropped the bolt and bloody pincers on the floor. The lyrinx convulsed from crest to claw, gave a retching heave that deposited a bucketful of bloody, foaming mucus on the floor, then rolled over to face Tiaan. What had she done? She had helped the enemy and now it would eat her anyway.
It opened its eyes. They stared at each other. It would be six, eight, maybe ten times her weight, and all muscle, bone and armour. Even with one injured hand it could tear her in half.
'Well, are you going to eat me, or what?' Her voice squeaked.
'What is your name?' The sound, formed deep in its throat, had a raspy, reverberating echo that was clearer than before, though it seemed to have difficulty shaping the words. Was it the injury, or the strange sounds in her language?
'I am called Tiaan Liise-Mar.'
'My name is… Ryll. What is your work?'
'I have none.'
'Everyone works, small human. You carry mechanic's tools.'
'I was an artisan.'
'Artisan? Of controllers?' It made a purring sound in its throat.
Why had she mentioned that? Alarmed, she tried to distract the creature. 'To my people I am good for nothing but breeding!'
Ryll looked uncomprehending. He gagged, swallowed and spoke more clearly. 'My mother has bred four little ones. She still takes her place in the battle line.'
'Some of our people say females should breed, and only men work and fight.' It felt wrong to be admitting it to this monster.
'No wonder we defeat you so easily,' said the lyrinx. 'You waste the talents of half your people. Your species is flawed.' His voice grew stronger, more confident, and Tiaan realised that he spoke her language rather well. Moreover, his accent was similar to her own. She wondered who had taught him.
'Females are too precious to risk. If we lose too many, our entire species is at risk. We must breed to survive.' Tiaan found herself mouthing arguments used to justify the breeding factory, arguments that even at the time had outraged her.
'As must we, human. What if we struck at your homes, where your defenceless women live with their offspring? Better they be armed and trained to defend their children. Better still, we will feed on you all. We are fittest.'
'You're nothing but barbarians!'
'How so?' Ryll said mildly.
'You eat us!'
'And you don't eat other animals?' said the lyrinx. Surely it was just pretending astonishment.
'They're just animals. We're intelligent. We're human!'
He gave a sniff. 'You smell like an animal to me, little Tiaan. That you are sentient does not make you better than other animals, or more worthy. Why should I not eat you, if I be hungry? Why should you not eat me?'
She shuddered at the thought. 'I couldn't! It would not be right. Besides…'
'You would probably taste disgusting.'
'How did your unworthy kind come to dominate this world?' said the lyrinx. 'There are a hundred sentient creatures in the void, little Tiaan. We all ate each other as the need arose.'
'Are you going to eat me?' Her voice rose to the very edge of a shriek.
'I'm not hungry. Besides…'
The unfinished sentence hung in the air between them. Was it a threat of worse? Torture, to extract secrets vital to the war? Or… She'd heard horrible stories of what the other side did to prisoners. 'What?' she snapped. 'How will you use me?'
The lyrinx drew itself up and its rubber lip curled into what she interpreted as a sneer. Tiaan had to remind herself that this creature's facial gestures would probably have entirely different meanings.
'I cannot understand your kind. Why do you insult me?'
'Why do you make war on us?' said Tiaan.
'Because you have attacked us from the moment we came out of the void.'
'You started it!'
'We would say that you began it.'
'But it's our world. You're trying to take it from us.'
'You've turned Santhenar into a sewer. A ruined world. And it's not yours anyway.'
'It's our right…'
'How so?' said the lyrinx. 'Who gave such a right to humankind?'
'We are the top -'
'In our philosophy no species can confer rights on themselves. The very concept is derisory. How dare you put yourselves above other creatures! Humanity destroys for the sake of destruction. Your kind deserves to be eaten.'
'Why must we fight and die?' said Tiaan. 'Why can't we live together?'
'That is not nature's way.'
Ryll licked his lips. Was he licking his chops? Had the conversation made him hungry? Tiaan moved back a pace.
He gave a gurgling chuckle. 'If I was going to eat you, nothing could save you.'
'Why aren't you?'
'You saved my life. A debt of honour.'
Tiaan almost made a sneering reference to lyrinx honour but thought better of it. What did she know about them, apart from the propaganda that came up the mountain?
'You forced me,' she said weakly. 'I was going to kill you.'
'But you did not, and thus I owe you.'
It was all too much. She could hardly stand up for hunger. She tried, her head spun, and Tiaan collapsed. When she roused, the creature was looming over her. 'Are you injured?'
'I'm starving. I haven't eaten for days.'
'I often go a week without eating,' said Ryll. His knee wobbled and he sat down hurriedly. 'But then, I might consume a whole antelope, or a small…' He broke off. 'Your tiny belly would only hold one mouthful.' He gripped her thigh, the fingers curling all the way round. 'There's nothing of you. Eat! I won't harm you.'
'What are you going to do?' she asked, taking out one of the ration packets with many an uncomfortable glance at the creature that, even sitting, was taller than she. He was holding out his injured hand, staring at it. Previously, pieces of ragged bone had protruded from the severed ends of his fingers. No bone was visible now. The stumps were covered with smooth skin, pinkish grey.
'What are you doing?' she said.
'Regenerating my hand.'
'It's just something we can do – there are animals of your world with the same ability.'
Ryll was concentrating so hard that droplets of perspiration appeared on his brow.
'Is that a form of mancing?' she wondered.
'I dare say. Without it, we would never have survived in the void.'
No further changes were evident. Regeneration must be a slow process, and an exhausting one, for Ryll went limp, his colours fading to pastel greens and blues. He could barely hold himself up now. She might escape after all, if she was quick. She'd better be, before the other lyrinx came back.
'You are different to the humans we meet – soldiers and armed men,' said Ryll. 'We can learn a lot about humankind from people like you.'
Tiaan methodically chewed her way through the ration packet, rice pasta layered with vegetables cooked to a thick paste. Was talking to this lyrinx treason? Saving its life, even under duress, must be.
She rose, watching Ryll from the corner of her eye. He put out an arm as if to restrain her, but had to let it fall. Her chance had come. Careful now; don't alarm him in case he's saving his strength. She went across to check on Pelf and the other man. Both were dead. Tiaan closed their eyes. The dead flesh made her shudder. Ryll's eyes followed her though he lay still, panting softly. Gathering her pack, she kept well out of reach.
'Where are you going, little outcast?'
She glanced at the entrance to the long tunnel. 'The other lyrinx went up there. I have to find another way.'
'You are brave,' said the lyrinx, 'but I fear you will die just the same. There is a blizzard blowing outside. Or…' Ryll tilted his head, giving her a cunning look.
'You could come with me.'
'No!' She backed away. 'I know what you want. I'm not going to be a little grub to feed your hatchlings.' The thought nearly made her scream. She imagined herself lying helpless in a food chamber while its vicious young tore out her soft parts.
'We give birth, just like you,' said Ryll. 'Do you know so little about us?'
She knew nothing but dreadful rumour and what she had seen with her eyes.
'Besides, I owe you,' he went on.
'I do not wish to insult you again,' she said carefully, 'but how do I know you have honour?'
'I could have killed and eaten you a dozen times.' Ryll slammed his mighty fist down and his skin changed to the uniform grey it had worn into battle.
Tiaan backed away hurriedly. 'Now you reveal your true colours.' The pun was unintended, though it pleased her nonetheless.
Taking a crossbow and satchel of bolts from one of the dead archers, she fitted a bolt into the weapon. 'I could kill you.'
His skin faded to a sludgy green. Ryll slid sideways, his cheek striking the floor. 'I do not doubt it, in my present state,' he said hoarsely. 'Are you going to?'
Had he attacked she would have shot him, but while he lay helpless, watching her, she could not. At the mouth of the middle tunnel she took out her crystal, which was glowing as before. Ryll's eyes widened and Tiaan regretted her action. However, he did not move. He resembled a collapsed balloon, nothing like the flesh machines the lyrinx had been before the battle.
She hurried down the passage. After a few minutes' walking she was brought up by a body lying on the rocky floor. The head lay some distance away, only recognisable by its white hair – the unfortunate Hants. The eye with the cast was staring at her.
Stepping around the corpse, she continued, shortly coming to a dead end. The tunnel stopped at a smooth rock surface. The light revealed a lever down low. As she pulled it, the door rotated, letting in a blast of freezing air. The sky was gloomy grey, the same colour as the landscape. It looked ominous.
The wind went right through her. The cold was the worst she had ever felt. An icicle began to form on her upper lip. Tiaan ducked inside to put on the mountain gear that had belonged to Joeyn's wife. The gift warmed her and she spent a minute, head bowed, thinking of her dead friend. Opening the door again, she peered out. It was a blizzard and only the lyrinx could have made her go out into it.
The door opened onto a narrow ledge on a steep mountainside. To her left a spindly tree was just visible through whirling snow, maybe a hundred paces away. To her right the ledge disappeared into white. The manufactory should be on the other side of the mountain, though in this weather she could not be sure of anything. On the other hand, she dared not go back inside. She mentally tossed a coin. Left looked marginally more attractive than right. She went left and began to trudge up the ledge.
Beyond the tree she came onto an exposed slope where the wind was like needles of black ice. Tiaan looked down and could see nothing. Up was the same. Gritty snow blew horizontally. Forward and back, she now lost the path within a dozen paces. It could have been any hour of the day. Which way should she go? She had no idea. Her steps grew reluctant.
A wild gust thumped her against the cliff. It might just as easily have carried her over the edge. The weather was deteriorating rapidly. She moved on and knew that she was failing. If I keep going, Tiaan thought, I'm going to die.
She headed back. Better the risk of the lyrinx than certain death by freezing. It might hold to its word. Might be a creature of honour. The cold and wind was indifferent. It would kill her and scream defiance over her body.
Head down, Tiaan plodded into the wind. Snow clotted in her eyes, making it impossible to see. It seemed much further, going back. Surely she'd walked a thousand paces and still there was no sign of the place. Plod, plod, one foot after another. Trudge, trudge, ice crystals growing on her eyebrows, her ears going numb. Every step took an effort of will.
At last she saw the tree. The door could be no more than a hundred steps away. She counted each step to make sure. The weather had closed in, but even so, by the time she had reached ninety Tiaan expected to see the door. It should be a black hole in the grey mountainside. She went down a slope. One hundred, one hundred and one… Had she left the door open, or closed? If it was closed she would never find it. Ajar, Tiaan thought, but it was difficult to remember. Her brain felt like a frozen sponge.
One hundred and twenty-one, one hundred and twenty-two. She must have gone past it. She scanned the rock face but everything was crusted with ice. Could it have been two hundred paces? Tiaan could no longer remember. Maybe it had been. She kept going, but when she reached three hundred, she knew she had gone way too far.
Turning back, she soon found herself descending a precipitous slope she definitely had not climbed before. Again she turned but the path was icy and she'd only gone a few steps before her feet went from under her. She went flying through the air and buried herself in a drift.
Struggling out, Tiaan plunged neck-deep into another snow-filled hollow. She feebly scratched her way onto a ledge and foundered. An overhang blocked the way up. The snow was now falling as heavily as she had ever known it. It was a mighty blizzard and she would be lucky to survive.
Exhausted, Tiaan put her head down on the pack for a minute. The hedron dug into her cheek. She picked it out. It had a faint warmth. Holding it in her hands, she laid her head on the pack and closed her eyes.
T WENTY -F IVE
In the days Tiaan had spent in the mine, a deep, subpolar low had formed four hundred leagues south in the Kara Agel (the Frozen Sea) which lay between the boomerang-shaped Island of Noom and the steppes of N'roxi. It roared north across the Kara Ghashad (the Burning Sea), funnelled through the gap between the Smennbone Range and the Inchit Hills, passed directly across Ha-Drow on the Kaer Slass or Black Sea, burying the city of Drow under two spans of snow, then, still gathering strength, screamed across the inland sea of Tallallamel heading north. After dumping more snow on Lake Kalissi, a meteor crater with a curious spire island in the middle, it hurled itself against the ramparts of the Great Mountains in Tarralladell.
The mountains pushed the storm east where it found a gap in the chain, climbed the pass and began to empty its load on the branching ranges. Somewhere south of Tiksi the storm collided with a warm front moving up the coast from distant Crandor. The wildest blizzard of the century was about to strike the eastern mountains.
The wind had risen steadily all day. Now it screamed around the side of the mountain, scouring loose snow up into clouds. Tiaan began to feel really frightened. Unless a miracle happened she was going to die here.
Tiaan was trained to survive in the mountains, but this place was going to get colder and colder until it froze her solid. A snow cave was her only chance but it was too late to look for a suitable place. The best she could do was try to close off the space under the overhang.
She dug her knife into the snow plastered on the rock face. The blade went all the way in. Carving the compacted snow into blocks, she stacked them to make a curving wall on the outer part of the ledge. It was hard work, but useful, for the face turned out to be concave. Though not quite a cave, it offered shelter above and on either side.
By the time Tiaan's knife-point skated across rock, she had closed in two-thirds of her ledge. The visibility was falling; two steps from her shelter she could no longer see it. She stamped down the drift next to her wall, hacked it into blocks and continued raising the wall. Finally it met the ledge above, sealing her in. The space, about four strides long but only two across, looked like a white sepulchre.
It was getting dark. She warmed her hands in her armpits, for the crystal had gone as cold as the rest of her world and was hardly glowing at all. If only there was a way to draw power into it to warm herself. She tried to sense out the field but found nothing. Perhaps she was too far from the node, though that seemed unlikely.
Tiaan ate another ration pack, this one an unidentifiable melange of dried fruit, nuts and suet. It lay in her stomach like a brick. After rubbing her feet in a useless attempt to warm them, she wrapped the fur-lined coat around her and leaned back against the wall, trying to rest without going to sleep. She found herself dozing a couple of times, jerked awake then slipped into a restless sleep.
Outside, the storm was approaching its climax. Snow fell as it could not have fallen since the last Ice Age, at half a span an hour. Across the range it reached halfway up the great gate of the manufactory, but here, piled against the flank of the mountain, it was much deeper. By midnight it was four spans deep and falling as fast as ever.
In her snow cave Tiaan dreamed only of cold. She could feel it seeping into the core of her. There was nothing but cold anywhere in the world. Nothing…
At first she did not know where it came from. It might even have been her own subconscious. The cry slid like an icicle along her congealing synapses.
A long dreaming, a slow cooling, a slowing down of every process in her body. Imperceptibly it crept towards the point from which there was no recovery.
Tiaan shuddered in her sleep, slipping into a dream in which a single point of light moved slowly across a field of darkness. It left behind a few glowing specks. The point started another line, making a few more specks. Another line.
It was not until the hundredth line that her dazed dream-consciousness began to see an image in the specks. A series of horizontal lines, some verticals and two diagonals radiating up from one of the verticals. They made the sparest image that could possibly be made, though Tiaan's sluggish mind could see nothing in it but geometry.
Suddenly he was there. It was the young man on the balcony, his arms thrown up in entreaty.
'I'm here,' Tiaan croaked. Her mouth felt frozen shut.
He could not have heard, for there was no change in the image.
She groped for the globe, hedron and helm, checked that the crystal was in its setting and put the helm on her head, glacier slow. The frigid wire burned her skin but that did not register.
Tiaan played with the beads and the orbiting wires, rotating them into position after position, tuning the globe to the hedron. Suddenly, with the smoothness of two streams of oil merging, they were as one. The image of glowing lines vanished and the young man was there.
Who are you? he said directly into her mind, articulating every letter in that archaic mode of speech, W-h-o a-r-e y-o-u?
She spoke aloud. 'I am Tiaan. We spoke once before. I am an artisan from Santhenar.'
Show yourself to me, Tiaan.
Shyly, for he was obviously wealthy and of good family, while she was neither, Tiaan put together an image of herself. It was the one she had seen in the mirror at the breeding factory, after the attendants had done her hair and made up her face. That was her, after all. Not the ordinary her, but Tiaan nevertheless. She felt guilty about the little deception.
Tiaan! he sighed. You're beautiful.
She felt warm all over. 'What is your name?' she asked tentatively.
I am Minis, foster-son of Vithis, of Clan Inthis. First Clan!
She feasted on the image of him, so like the hero of her grandmother's tales. But he was in mortal danger, and so was she. 'I wish I could help you, Minis, but I am trapped.'
How? he said abruptly. I cannot read your future.
Tiaan wondered about the emphasis. Did he mean that he could read others'? She explained her situation.
Minis vanished and with a terrible pang of loss she slipped from her dream into half-wakefulness. Her whole body was shuddering with the cold. Her little cave must be buried deep. Tiaan did as many squats as her legs would allow, but at the end still felt cold, and a little drowsy. Was the air being used up? She attempted to enlarge her cave by tunnelling along the rock. She dared not remove any blocks from her wall. If the snow collapsed, it would pour in until it filled her shelter.
Just the faintest whisper inside her head. Minis was calling her! Tiaan found the helm under a pile of snow, put it on and winced as the freezing metal seared her forehead.
Her fingers danced along the wires but she could not tune him in; her conscious mind knew not how to do what dream intuition had done previously. Tiaan panicked.
In her terror the loss of Minis seemed worse than the prospect of dying. She flung the wires and beads back and forth. It did not help. They were clustered together now and she knew that was wrong, but had no idea what arrangement had worked previously.
Tiaan lifted the globe and hedron above her head, shaking it furiously. She wanted to jump up and down on it until it was smashed into a tangle of wire.
Startled, she dropped the globe. Her helm fell off and the little crystal rolled into the snow. She searched frantically for it. Everything was the same colour – the rock, the snow, the grey ice between her boots, the crystal. Ah, there it was!
She popped it into the bracket. Now, if only she could get…
Tiaan, stop it!
She froze at the peremptory tone, so reminiscent of Matron, Gi-Had and all the other authority figures in her life.
You're panicking, child. I can't find you.
Even worse was the word child. She had been cursed by that title since the day she began as a miserable floor scrubber, six years old. For Minis to use it felt like a betrayal.
She tried to concentrate. She must.
'I'm here, Minis.'
That's better. Show me where you are.
Tiaan concentrated on a mental image of her cave, and then of the mountain slope outside. She knew it was fuzzy but could do no better.
I don't like it, came another voice, a woman's.
You're wasting your time, said a third, a flat, despairing male voice. She's going to die and so are we. It is written.
Hush! whispered Minis. Tirior, Luxor, not so loud. I read our time lines, so there must be a way. Tiaan, show us the devices you used to contact me.
She mentally imaged the helm and globe.
Incredible, said the woman. Where has she come by such artefacts?
I don't know, Tirior. There was a mutter of talk in the background. Tiaan did not catch any of it.
Quickly, child! said the woman, Tirior. Where did you find these devices?
'I'm not a child!'' Tiaan tried to sound mature, dignified. 'I made them.'
You made them? came the third voice, Luxor. How? Who are you?
She said nothing. Tiaan was not going to be treated like a juvenile.
You're intimidating her, Luxor. It was Minis's voice. Please, let me talk to her. Tiaan, how came you to make such astonishing devices?
The praise set her heart soaring. 'I am an artisan at the clanker manufactory in the mountains above Tiksi. Minis…?'
What is a clanker? asked Tirior.
She described their construction, operation and purpose. 'I make the controllers that draw power from the field, to make them go.'
What are these clankers for?
'We are at war with the lyrinx.'
Lyrinx? cried Luxor. How did this come about?
'When the Forbidding was broken, and Maigraith crossed the Way between the Worlds…' She hesitated, afraid they would not know what she was talking about.
That is also part of our Histories. Go on.
'That was two hundred and six years ago…'
Three hundred and ninety of ours, said Tirior, but we have not forgotten.
'The lyrinx came to Santhenar at that time, as did other fierce creatures that lived in the void between the worlds.'
Some also came to Aachan,' said Tirior. Her voice sounded kindly. They did not last long. Tell us about yourself, Tiaan.
'I am skilled in the working of fine metals, in forming ceramics and shaping and polishing crystals. That is how I make clanker controllers.'
What are controllers? said Minis.
'Mind-linked mechanical systems which enable an ordinary person to power and control a clanker.' She sent an image of an eight-limbed clanker.
Amazing! The flat voice of Luxor showed a flicker of interest. His face appeared, so washed out that it was little more than outline. Ingenious. How do you make it go?
She explained how certain crystals could be tuned to tap into natural fields that existed around nodes, to draw a trickle of that power into the controller, and thence into the clanker itself.
You build such controllers? Where did the pattern come from?
Tiaan was becoming impatient. What did it matter how she made controllers? But, after all, she was not going anywhere. 'It's an old pattern I was taught in my prenticeship. I have made a number of improvements to it.'
Show us this pattern, said Luxor eagerly.
'You are not our kind. That would be treason.'
Then we cannot help you, he snapped.
Please, Luxor, said Minis. Tiaan, I don't understand. You say you built these devices. How did you know how?
'I needed something to amplify the signals from a faulty controller, so I simply made this globe and helm.'
That must have taken a long time. Months, surely?
'It took me a few days,' said Tiaan. 'That's what I do.'
Are there other artisans with your talent? She sensed awe.
'There are many artisans. I don't know how many have my talent. I have not travelled to other manufactories.' Then, with a trace of pride, 'But ours is said to be the best.'
What powers this device, Tiaan? Is there a crystal at the heart of it too?
Tiaan remembered that she had not shown Minis the hedron. 'A special hedron. I did not even have to shape it.' She held up the globe, visualising the perfect bipyramid of rutilated quartz at the heart of it, the twin balls of radiating needle crystals inside, the spark drifting across that cavity, the faint glow.
There was a long silence. A stunned silence, she realised.
What is it? said Minis. What's the matter?
The other two spoke among themselves. Tell me! cried Minis.
It's an amplimet! said Tirior in an awed whisper that clearly was not meant to carry to Tiaan. There has not been one found in four thousand years. Just look at it!
Does she even know what she has? Luxor's voice glowed with excitement. Could she be a budding geomancer?
Hush! Minis was back. Tiaan…
'Minis!' Tiaan interrupted. 'Why were you calling for help?'
Aachan is dying! he said harshly. Our beautiful world is finished.
'You are from Aachan?' she said incredulously. Tiaan knew of Aachan, the second of the Three Worlds. It was at the very core of the Histories and every child of Santhenar learned about it. It had been the world of the Aachim, until the Charon fled out of the void, took Aachan and enslaved its people. But at the time the Forbidding was broken, the Charon had gone to extinction and the Aachim became masters of their world again.
To think she was actually speaking to someone across the void – it seemed impossible. Subconsciously she must have known that Minis was from another world, but had not taken it in. Her dreams evaporated like a flake of snow in a frying pan. She could not help him. They could never meet. 'What is happening to Aachan?' she asked miserably.
The whole world is erupting. The very crust has cracked open in rifts five hundreds of leagues long. Aachan will survive it, but we won't! Our world may not be habitable for ten thousand years. Or ten million.
'How has this come about?'
An after-effect of the Forbidding being broken, we think. It began at that time.
'How long do you have?'
We think a few months. At the very outside, a year. Lava advances on us from all directions. The seas grow too hot to sustain life. Soon we will have no place to stand.
Tiaan went limp. Something caught in her throat, as if she had taken in a whiff of burning air. Minis was going to die.
Tears flooded down her cheeks, forming icicles.
'Yes?' She choked. 'You're going to die and so am I. We're all doomed.' She was shaking. Tiaan could not help herself. Despair was a black Hurn bear, eating her from the belly out.
There may be a way! Minis's voice was a seductive whisper inside her head.
We may be able to save you, through your amplimet. In return, you can do something for us.
'I will do anything!' she said eagerly. 'What would you ask of me?'
First we must save you. Listen carefully. Somehow you have stumbled on the ancient art of geomancy.
'Geomancy? Reading patterns in sand?' She could not conceal her scorn. It was the lowest fairground fakery of all.
Not that sad corruption, said Tirior. True geomancy is the most powerful of all the Secret Arts, for it draws upon the very power of the earth. Mancing is always limited by power. Most mages keep it within themselves, or store it in small devices, or channel tiny amounts of power from places they don't understand. But geomancy offers unlimited power for those who have an amplimet and are able to use it. Imagine the power of an earthquake, the force that keeps your world in its orbit about the sun, the strength of the winds, the motion of the continents on their plates, the hot spots ascending from the very core of the planet. Those are the kinds of power a geomancer has at her disposal.
But it is a dangerous power, said Luxor. Geomancy is the most difficult of all the Secret Arts, and the most deadly. Your amplimet is the key, and all that has saved you is the clumsy nature of your tuning. You tapped the merest trickle of power, fortunately, or you would not have survived it. Nonetheless, you must have a strong talent for it.
'Many artisans have died at their work,' said Tiaan. 'Burnt black inside. My headaches have been much worse since I made these devices. My arms feel hot and twitchy, and I have begun to see strange, impossible things.'
Oh? said Tirior sharply. What kinds of things? She glanced at Luxor.
'It's… hard to explain,' Tiaan said. 'Coloured shapes in the air that swell and contract, disappear and reappear somewhere else, different shapes and sizes and patterns. They remind me of…' She broke off with a strangled cry. 'I'm going mad, aren't I? I've got crystal fever.'
What do they remind you of? Tirior asked with another glance at Luxor.
'Pieces of things!' Tiaan said through her hands. She let out a crazed laugh.
You're not mad, Tiaan. You're seeing beyond.