‘In.’ Silas held a door open for Kate, ordering her into a room lit by glowing firelight. For a cell, it was not what she was expecting. It was bright and warm, and the sight of a soft bed was enough to make her realise how tired she was.
For Kate, entering that cosy room was like walking out into the summer sun. The cold that had sunk so deeply into her bones began to retreat against the woody air of a welcome fire, and she felt the numbness fade from her skin as the water that clung to it evaporated away. She knelt in front of the fire at once, letting its flames warm her face until her cheeks turned red.
‘This room will be your cell tonight,’ said Silas. ‘Da’ru has ordered for you to be treated well, despite your defiance towards her. Appreciate these comforts while you can. They are not offered to everyone.’
There was only one window in the room: a wide arch of clear glass looking out over the buildings that made up what Kate supposed were the High Council’s chambers. Silas walked over to it, signalling for the two wardens to go outside, and waited until they had closed the door.
‘Da’ru is keen to gain your trust, especially after your interesting revelation back there,’ he said. ‘The next time you see something that you cannot explain, I expect you to keep it to yourself. The more you give Da’ru, the more she will take from you. That would be costly for both of us.’
‘I gave her what she wanted,’ said Kate. ‘Whatever happens, it will be no more than she deserves.’
‘You let yourself see something that was not meant for you,’ said Silas. ‘Da’ru will not let this “foresight” of yours pass easily. She has devoted her life to manipulating the veil and yet you have just shown more of a connection to it in one night than she has been able to develop across many years. She must decide if you are to be an asset or a threat. If she cannot control you, she will kill you, so you will stay here and you will be quiet. You have already drawn too much attention to yourself. As far as those guards out there are concerned, you will be as silent as the dead. Do you understand?’ He waited for her to answer.
‘I’ll be quiet,’ promised Kate.
‘You are fortunate I was the one to escort you here,’ said Silas. ‘Anyone else might have seen talk of the councilwoman’s death as treason and have taken action against you. People have been executed for far less in this place.’
The words stung, but Kate tried not to show it.
Silas stood there for a moment, then he walked out of the door and locked it behind him without another word. Kate heard him giving orders to the wardens outside and she ran to the door, peering out through an eyehole set into the wood. Silas glanced at the eyehole from the other side, as if he knew she was standing there, then he turned and walked silently down a long empty corridor, leaving the two wardens to stand guard over her.
Kate could hear people moving on the floors above her and below, but despite all of the distant sounds of life around her, she had never felt more alone.
She turned her back to the door. Thoughts like that would get her nowhere. If Tom was right and Edgar had found his way out of that tiny cell, there had to be some way out of this room. All she had to do was find it.
Driven by new purpose, Kate stuffed the eyehole with a rag she found on the floor and decided to explore her prison. It did not take long. The walls were bare stone, enclosing a bed, a tiny fireplace and a washstand with soap, towels and a jug of hot water. Next to the bed was a table with a lit candle upon it and a tray covered with a white cloth. She lifted the cloth carefully to find a glass of water, an apple and a plate of sandwiches underneath. Food could wait. She had to get out of her freezing clothes, and that water was not going to stay hot for ever.
She undressed quickly and put her boots and clothes out to dry in front of the fire, before rinsing her hair and scrubbing her skin clean. When she was finished, she wrapped herself up in a towel and found a pile of dry clothes folded in a box at the end of the bed. She pulled out a long skirt and a red jumper and tugged them on before throwing a blanket around her shoulders and running her fingers through her clean hair.
Dawn was still a few hours away. It was time for a plan.
She tested the window. Locked. Even if she could break the glass, she was at least three floors up overlooking a guarded courtyard and she could see no way down. The walls all looked solid enough but she inspected them anyway, feeling around for secret doors or loose stones. She found none. Even the chimney was too narrow for her to squeeze through and a grille had been fitted over it just in case anyone was desperate enough to try.
It was not long before Kate was forced to accept her situation. There was no way out and nothing she could do to help herself escape that place. She ate some of the food to keep her stomach quiet and curled up on the bed, determined to check the entire room again in the morning, before finally giving in to the comfort of the fire and letting its warmth carry her into a restless sleep.
Kate woke some time later to the sound of a key turning in the door. She grabbed one of the bed blankets, flung it around herself and pretended to be asleep. Then the door opened and someone stepped into the room.
The candle on the bedside table had already burned out and her hand tightened around its wooden candlestick as the door clicked shut. Footsteps crept across the floor. The intruder skirted the bed, fingered the blankets, leaned over and - ‘Kate?’ - the candlestick struck the intruder’s head with a sharp crack and Kate squirmed away as he flopped on to the bed groaning in pain.
‘Ow! What was that for?’
Kate stopped halfway to the door. ‘Edgar?’
‘Of course it’s me. Did you have to hit so hard?’
‘What are you doing here? How did you get past the wardens?’
Edgar sat on the bed, rubbing his sore head, and Kate threw open the curtains to check that it was really him.
‘No! Wait!’ he said, as the moonlight streamed in. ‘I have to explain something first.’
It was too late. He smiled nervously and Kate stared at him in disbelief.
Edgar was wearing the long black robes of a warden.
‘Now that is something I never thought I would see,’ she said.
‘As plans go, you have to admit this is a great one.’
‘Are you insane? You’re at least a foot shorter than the rest of the wardens and those robes don’t even fit. How did you get in here?’
‘A little charm, a sprinkling of deception and a lifetime’s worth of luck. Those wardens’ll believe anything if they think it’s an order. Just put their robes on and they think you’re in the club.’
Edgar was trying to sound relaxed, but he was sweating. Kate gave him what was left of her water and he gulped it down at once, the glass shaking in his hand.
‘To be honest, I thought I’d be rat food by now,’ he said. ‘This is going a lot better than I hoped.’
‘But, how did you get out of the holding cell? I saw Silas lock you in!’
‘Not so hard really, when you know how. Every collector puts a dead-switch inside their cells, just in case a prisoner turns the tables and locks them in instead. Not all of them are as tough as Silas, you know. He‘d probably never need something like that, so it’s a good job he’s just as paranoid as the rest. Took me ages to find it, but it was there.’
‘How could you possibly know that?’ demanded Kate, stopping in the middle of pulling on her boots.
Edgar looked at her uneasily. ‘You don’t want to know.’
‘Yes, I do. What happened to you before you came to Morvane? You told me Kalen was lying when he said he knew you, but you were the one telling lies. He did know you from somewhere, didn’t he?’
‘I promise, I’ll tell you everything as soon as we get out of here.’
‘That’s not good enough.’
‘It has to be. We don’t have time to talk right now.’
‘Then what are you doing here? We can’t get out! There are two wardens standing right outside the door.’
‘Ah, but I have some inside information.’ Edgar pointed at the window.
‘It’s locked,’ said Kate.
‘Not for long.’ Edgar walked to the window, Kate heard the lock click and a tiny key sparkled in his hand. ‘All thanks to Tom. He was the one who told me where to find you.’ Edgar threw open the window and looked out across a sheer drop. ‘The wardens are going to change guards down in that courtyard soon.’ He dragged off his robe and pushed it into Kate’s hands. ‘Here’s the plan. You wear this. Go straight out of that door, turn right at the end of the corridor and head down the first staircase you see, all the way to the bottom. I’ll be waiting for you there.’
‘I can’t do that! They’ll spot me in a second!’
‘They won’t. They’ll just think you’re me.’
‘And how is that good?’
‘Wardens don’t ask many questions if they think you’re one of them. Trust me, you won’t get caught.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Me? I’m going to climb down there.’
The last thing Kate could ever imagine Edgar doing was climbing out of a window into a place full of wardens and, from the look on his face, he wasn’t too sure about it either. He looked like he was going to be sick.
‘All right, we’re doing this,’ she said, throwing the robes back into his arms. ‘But you’re using the corridor. I’m climbing down.’ She pulled on her coat.
‘You don’t know where to go!’
‘I’ll manage.’ Kate tied her hair back, twisted the skirt into a knot at her hip and tucked the fabric into the waistband. Once it was secure she clambered out on to the ledge.
‘Tom said there are hand- and footholds carved into the wall,’ said Edgar. ‘It’s a secret way down from when this used to be a warden’s room. Look to the right. You’ll see them.’
‘I can see one,’ said Kate, trying not to look down.
‘Kate, please be careful.’
‘I’m all right,’ she said. ‘Go.’
Kate clung on to the window frame, focusing upon the wall. The wind howled around her ears, swirling up from the square below, and the sun was starting to break upon the horizon, casting long rays of gold across the rooftops. She slid her foot into the first foothold she could find, let go of the window just long enough to grab the lower lip of a tiny stone arch and then edged her way along, step by step, heading diagonally down the wall.
The few guards that were left down below were too busy talking to one another to think about looking up. Darkness was Kate’s friend, for now, but at every moment she expected to hear a shout or a warning, or to see arrows come spearing up past her ears. Nothing came and the secret path took her right to the ground, where an archway hid her from a pair of wardens who were just starting their patrol. She dropped down from the last foothold, freed her skirt and ducked behind the stones, not daring to move until she saw movement off to her left. Edgar was there, hiding on the opposite side of the square, waving cautiously across the courtyard, which now looked much wider and dangerously exposed. There was no way either of them could cross it without being seen.
Something flapped above Kate’s head, and she looked up to see a crow perched inside one of the footholds. Silas’s bird. And if it was there, Silas had to be close.
Whatever Edgar’s plan had been, there was no time for it to work now. She could not risk leading Silas to him again. They had to separate. She had to find her own way out.
Kate did not see Edgar’s look of fear as she left without him, or see him crawl around a low hedge to avoid a warden that was heading his way. But Silas saw it all. He was on his way down from the testing room tower, carrying a stolen vial of what was left of Kate’s blood in his hand. He had no intention of allowing Da’ru to use that blood in her work. The councilwoman may have lost the book of Wintercraft, but she had learned enough from it to make that blood a very dangerous tool in her hands. He could not risk her using it against Kate, not until his work was done.
Silas did not know how Kate had escaped from the holding room and he did not care. He took the steps two at a time, his coat trailing through the stone dust as he slid the vial into the pocket at his chest and swept out into the open air.
She was out and she was his.
Kate ran into a quiet wing of the immense council chambers and raced along corridors and through empty rooms, checking every window to find some way out. All she saw were more buildings, more courtyards and endless grassy squares. The place was a maze and the wardens were everywhere.
Most of the doors she found were locked, so she was forced to cut through a dining room where two long tables were already laid out for breakfast. A door hung open at its furthest end: a servants’ door, meant to blend in with the rest of the wall. She ran straight for it and found herself inside a network of passageways built right into the walls.
The cramped pathways were dusty and tight, with passing places sunk into them at regular points wherever the thicker walls allowed. Kate often had to duck inside to let busy people pass, but no one questioned her. Many of the servants she saw there looked as bedraggled as she did, heading off to build fires, serve breakfasts, lay tables, polish floors and do a hundred other tasks that kept the council chambers running smoothly.
Suddenly the passageway came to an end and Kate squeezed out into a busy kitchen filled with steam and smells and shouts. Most of the workers were younger than her, boys and girls stolen from their own home towns, stirring, baking, boiling and frying under the keen eyes of three older cooks. Kate was not sure where to go next, until a young girl carrying a bowl of potatoes looked her way, glanced at the nearest cook and then changed direction, heading straight for her.
‘You’re one of them, aren’t you?’ she whispered. ‘Your eyes are different. I can tell. Edgar told me you might come this way.’
‘Edgar was here?’
‘He was looking for you a while ago. He said if you came here without him, I had to show you the door.’ The girl pointed to an iron hoop halfway along the wall. The door behind it was so well disguised that Kate never would have spotted it on her own.
‘Is Edgar coming back?’ asked the girl.
‘I hope so,’ said Kate, trying to smile. ‘Thank you so much.’
Kate left the girl behind and stepped through the door into a short hallway that led straight outside. The fresh air chilled her skin and she ran out on to a path edged by an iron fence that was far too tall to climb. Beyond that fence, the city rose like a black forest and a carriage path led from the council chambers right down into the city itself.
Kate followed the fence until she found a missing railing that left a wide space between the bars. She squeezed through and set off running down the edge of the path towards the safety of the nearest street. She was so busy worrying about what might be behind her that she did not spot the man waiting up ahead until it was too late.
He stepped out in front of her, snatched her up in his arms and pulled her into the hallway of a narrow old house. Whoever he was, Kate was not ready to be taken without a fight. She bit and scratched and punched and squirmed until the man cried out in pain and two more hands grabbed her in the dark.
Lanterns gathered around her and five dirty faces glowed in their light.
‘Is she the one?’ asked a man behind her, holding a light close to her face before she managed to free her arm and knock it away.
‘She fits the description.’
‘And she’s right where Edgar said she would be.’
‘What’s your name, girl?’
‘Do you really expect her to tell us that?’
‘If it is her, then where’s Edgar?’ asked the first man. ‘Isn’t he meant to be here?’
A woman’s voice rose above the rest. ‘I think Edgar may be lost to us,’ she said, moving round to stand in the light. Something about her was familiar to Kate. Her hair was short and flecked with grey, and her eyes were pitch black, edged with blue, like shining drops of oil.
‘It’s you,’ said Kate, remembering her at once. ‘I saw you. At the bookshop.’
The woman smiled kindly. ‘If you are who we think you are, then it has been many years since we last met,’ she said. ‘Perhaps if we introduce ourselves, you will understand why we are here.’
The woman reached out for Kate’s hand and this time she did not resist. A gentle warmth spread across her fingers and, for the first time since Artemis had been taken, for no reason she could explain, Kate felt safe.
‘It is her,’ said the woman. ‘She is scared, understandably, but she is no threat to us.’
‘Tell that to my nose,’ grunted one of the men, whose face was swelling quickly after taking a full punch.
The woman ignored him, never taking her eyes off Kate. ‘We are going to let you go now,’ she said. ‘We have a lot to talk about, so please do not try to run.’
The men released their grip, letting Kate stand by herself.
‘Who are you?’ she demanded, glaring at them in the light.
‘You have no reason to fear us,’ said the woman. ‘We are just like you, Kate. We are the Skilled.’