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By Ian Irvine
Orbit Copyright © 2013 Ian Irvine
All rights reserved.
"Lord Rixium?" Her voice was desperate. "You gotta get up now. The enemy are coming. Coming fast."
Rix's right wrist throbbed abominably, and so did the back of his head. He groaned, rolled over and cracked his ear on a stone edge. His cheek and chest were numb, as if he'd been lying on ice.
"What ...?" he mumbled. "Where ...?" His eyes were gummed shut and he didn't want to open them. Didn't want to see.
"Chancellor's stolen Tali and Rannilt away, to milk their healing blood."
He recognised her voice now. A maidservant, Glynnie.
"And Lord Tobry's been chucked off the tower, head-first. Splat!" said a boy's voice from behind Rix.
"Benn!" Glynnie said sharply.
Rix winced. Did he have to be so matter-of-fact about it? "Tobe was my oldest friend."
"I'm sorry, Lord," said Glynnie.
"How long was I out?"
"Only five minutes, but you're first on their death list, Lord. If we don't go now, we're gonna die."
"Don't call me Lord, Glynnie."
"My parents were executed for high treason," he said softly. "House Ricinus has fallen, the palace lies in ruins and I betrayed my own mother. I am utterly dishonoured. Don't call me Lord!"
"R-Rixium?" She tugged at his arm, the good one.
"That's what my murdering mother called me. Call me Rix."
Glynnie rubbed his eyelids with her fingertips. The sticky secretions parted to reveal a slender servant girl, about seventeen years old. Tangled masses of flame-coloured hair, dark green eyes and a scatter of freckles on her nose. Rix had not yet turned twenty yet he felt a lifetime older. Foul and corrupt.
"Get up," she said.
"Give me a minute."
They were on the top of his tower, at the rear of what remained of Palace Ricinus. From where Rix lay he could not see over the surrounding wall – and did not want to. Did not want to see the ruin a hundred-foot fall had done his dearest friend.
A freezing wind carried the stink of burned deer meat, the forgotten skewers Glynnie had been cooking over the embers of Rix's artist's easel. He would never paint again. Beside the fire stood a wide-eyed boy of ten, her little brother. A metal drinking cup sat on the stone floor. Some distance away lay a bloody sword. And a small puddle of blood, already frozen over.
And a right hand, severed at the wrist.
Rix's right hand.
Something collapsed with a thundering crash not far away, and the tower shook.
"What was that?" said Rix.
Glynnie ran to the wall, went up on tiptoes and looked over. "Enemy's blasting down the palace towers."
"What about Caulderon?"
Her small head turned this way and that, surveying the great city. What was left of it.
"There's smoke and flame everywhere. Rix, they're coming. Tell me what to do."
"Take your brother and run for your life. Don't look back."
"We've nowhere to go, Lord."
"Go anywhere. It's all the same now."
"Not for us. We served House Ricinus; we're condemned with our house."
"As am I," said Rix.
"We swore to serve you. We're not running away."
"Lyf hates Herovians, especially me. He plans to put me to death. But he doesn't know you exist."
"I'm not leaving you, Lord – Rix."
Rix did not have the strength to argue. "What about Benn? If the Cythonians find him with me, they'll kill him too."
"Not runnin' either," said Benn. "We can't break our sworn word, Lord."
Unlike me, Rix thought bitterly. The servants outreach the master. "Ah, my head aches."
"That mongrel captain knocked you out," said Glynnie. "And the chancellor – he –" Her small jaw tightened. "He's a useless, evil old windbag. He's lost Caulderon and he's going to lose the war. No one can save us now."
"You can, Lord," said Benn, his eyes shining. "You can lead Hightspall to victory, I know it."
"Hush, Benn," said Glynnie. "Poor Rix has enough troubles as it is."
But he could see the light in her eyes as well, her absolute belief in him. It was an impossible burden for a condemned man and he had to strike it down. Hightspall was lost; nothing could be done about it.
"Benn," he said softly, speaking to them both. "I can't lead anyone. The chancellor has destroyed my name and all Hightspall despises me—"
"Not all, Rix," said Glynnie. "Not us. We know you can—"
"No!" he roared, trying to get up but crashing painfully onto his knees. "I don't even believe in myself. No army would follow me."
Benn's face crumpled. "But, Lord—"
"Shh, Benn," said Glynnie hastily. "Let me help you up, Lord."
She was stronger than she looked, but Rix was a huge man and it was a struggle for her to raise him to his feet. The moment he stood upright it felt as though his head was going to crack open. Through a haze of pain and dizziness he heard someone shouting orders.
"Search the rear towers next." The man had a heavy Cythonian accent.
"Where are we going, Rix?" said Glynnie.
He swayed, his wrist throbbing. She steadied him.
"Don't know." He looked around. "I need Maloch. It's enchanted to protect me."
That was ironic. A command spell cast on Rix when he was a boy of ten had left him with a deep-seated fear of magery, and recent events had proven his fear to be justified.
"Didn't do a very good job," she sniffed. "Benn, get Rix's sword. And ... and bring his hand."
"His hand?" Benn said in a squeaky voice. "But – it's all bloody ... and dead ..."
"I'm not leaving it for the crows to peck. Fetch the cup, too."
Benn handed the ancient, wire-handled sword to Rix, who sheathed it left-handed. The roof door stood open. Glynnie helped him through it and onto the steep stair that wound down his tower. Rix swayed, threw out his right arm to steady himself and his bloody stump cracked against the wall.
"Aaarrgh!" he bellowed.
"Sorry, Lord," whispered Glynnie. "I'll be more careful."
"Stop apologising. It's not your damn fault." Rix pulled away from her. "I've got to stand on my own feet. It's only a hand. Plenty of people have survived worse."
But few men had lost more than Rix. He'd been heir to the biggest fortune in the land, and now he had nothing. His family had been one of the noblest – on the surface, anyway. For a few moments, House Ricinus had even been a member of the First Circle, the founding families of Hightspall. Then the chancellor had torn it all down.
Rix's parents had been hung from the front gates of the palace, then ritually disembowelled for high treason and murder, and everything they owned had been confiscated. Now, not even the most debased beggar or street girl was lower than the sole surviving member of House Ricinus.
He had also been physically perfect – tall, handsome, immensely strong, yet dexterous and fleet – and accomplished. Not just a brilliant swordsman, but a masterful artist – the best of the new generation, the chancellor had said in happier times. Now Rix was maimed, tainted, useless. And soon to die, which was only right for a man so dishonourable that he had betrayed his own mother. As soon as Glynnie and Benn got away, he planned to take the only way out left to him – hurl himself at the enemy, sword in hand, and end it all.
He reached the bottom of the tower stair, ignored Glynnie's silent offer of help and lurched into his ruined studio. When Tobry had smashed the great heatstone in Rix's chambers the other day, and it burst asunder, it had brought down several of the palace walls. There were cracks in the walls, part of the ceiling had fallen and the scattered paints, brushes and canvases were coated in grey dust. He crunched across chunks of plaster, stolidly looking ahead.
"Where we going, Lord?" Glynnie repeated.
"How the hell would I know?"
Not far away, sledgehammers thudded against stone and axes rang on timber. The Cythonians were breaking in and they would come straight here.
"We're trapped," said Glynnie, her jaw trembling. She stretched an arm around Benn and hugged him to her. "They're going to kill us, Lord."
"Go out the window—"
Rix looked down. From here the drop was nearly thirty feet. If they weren't killed outright, they'd break their legs, and in a city at war that meant the same thing. He cursed, for it left him with no choice. Glynnie and Benn were his people, all he had left, and as their former lord he had a duty to protect them. A duty that outweighed his longing for oblivion. He would devote his strength to getting them out of Caulderon, and to safety. And then ...
He headed down the steps into his once-magnificent, six-sided salon, now filled with rubble, dust and smashed, charred furniture. The crashing was louder here. The enemy would soon break through. The only hope of escape, and that a feeble one, was to go underground.
"Get warm clothing for yourself and Benn," he said to Glynnie. "And your money. Hurry!"
"Got no money," said Glynnie, trembling with every hammer and axe blow. "We got nothing, Lord."
"Tobry—" Rix choked. How was he going to do without him? "Tobry brought in spare clothes for Tali. She's nearly your size. Take them."
Glynnie stood there, trembling. "Where, Lord?"
"In the closet in my bedchamber. Run."
He still had coin, at least. Rix filled a canvas money belt with gold and other small, precious items, and buckled it on one-handed. He packed spare clothing into an oilskin bag to keep it dry, and put it, plus various other useful items, into a pack.
The crashing grew louder, closer. Glynnie filled another two oilskin bags, packed two small packs and dressed herself and Benn in such warm clothes as would fit. She strapped on a knife the length of her forearm and collected the dusty food in the salon.
"They're nearly through," she said, white-faced. "Where are we going, Lord?"
Benn still held Rix's severed hand in his own small, freckled hand. His wide grey eyes were fixed on Rix's crusted stump, which was still ebbing blood. Benn caught Rix's gaze, flushed and looked away.
Rix gestured to a broad crack, low down in the wall at the back of the salon. The edges resembled bubbly melted cheese, the plaster and stonework etched away and stained in mottled greens and yellows.
He hacked away the foamy muck to reveal fresh stone, though when he flicked the clinging stuff off the knife the blade was so corroded that it snapped. He tossed it into the rubble. Benn ran back and fetched him another knife, which Rix sheathed.
"Go through," said Rix. "Don't touch the edges."
"What is that stuff?" said Benn. "Alkoyl. Mad Wil squirted it around the crack to stop us following him."
"An alchymical fluid, the most dangerous in the world. Dissolves anything. Even stone, even metal – even the flesh of a ten-year-old boy." Rix took Benn's free hand and helped him through.
"We'll need a lantern," said Glynnie.
"No, they'd track us by its smell," said Rix.
He handed the boy a glowstone disc, though its light was so feeble it barely illuminated his arm. Tobry, an accomplished magian, could have coaxed more light from it, but ... Rix avoided the rest of the thought.
"We'll need more light than that," said Glynnie.
She bundled some pieces of wood together from a broken chair, tied them together with strips of fabric, tied on more fabric at one end and shoved it in her pack.
They went through, holding their breath. The crack snaked ever down, shortly intersecting a network of other cracks that appeared to have freshly opened – and might close again just as suddenly.
"If they shut, they'll squeeze the juice out of us like a turnip," whispered Glynnie.
Rix stopped, frowning. "Can you smell alkoyl?"
"No," she said softly, "but I can smell stink-damp."
Stink-damp smelled like rotten eggs. The deadly vapour seeped up from deep underground and collected in caverns, from where it was piped to the street lamps of Caulderon and the great houses such as Palace Ricinus. Stink-damp was heavier than air, however. It settled in sumps, basements and other low places, and sometimes exploded.
"I can smell alkoyl," said Benn.
"Good man," said Rix. "Can you follow it?"
"I think so."
Benn sniffed the air and moved down the crack.
"Why are we following alkoyl?" said Glynnie.
"Wil was carrying a tube of it," said Rix. "He also stole Lyf's iron book, and if anyone can find a safe way out of here, Wil the Sump can, the little weasel."
"Isn't he dangerous?"
"Not as dangerous as I am."
The boast was hollow. Down here, Rix's size put him at a disadvantage, whereas Wil could hide in any crevice and reach out to a naked throat with those powerful strangler's hands.
They squeezed down cracks so narrow that Rix could not take a full breath, under a tilted slab of stone that quivered at the touch, then through an oval stonework pipe coated with feathery mould. Dust tickled the back of his throat; he suppressed a sneeze.
After half an hour, Benn could no longer smell alkoyl.
"Have we gone the wrong way?" said Rix. "Or is Wil in hiding, waiting to strike?"
Neither Glynnie nor Benn answered. They were at the intersection of two low passages that burrowed like rat holes through native rock. Many tunnels were known to run under the palace and the ancient city of Caulderon, some dating back thousands of years to when it had been the enemy's royal city, Lucidand; others had been forgotten long ago. Rix's wrist, which had struck many obstacles in the dark, was oozing blood and throbbing mercilessly.
"Lord?" said Glynnie.
"I don't think anyone's following. Let me bandage your wrist."
"It hardly matters," he said carelessly. "Someone is bound to kill me before an infection could."
"Sit down!" she snapped. "Hold out your arm."
An angry retort sprang to his lips, but he did not utter it. He had been about to scathe Glynnie the way his late mother, Lady Ricinus, would have done. But Glynnie had never done other than to serve as best she could. She was the worthy one; he should be serving her.
"Not here. They can come at us four ways. We need a hiding place with an escape route."
It took another half hour of creeping and crawling before they found somewhere safe, a vault excavated from the bedrock. It must have dated back to ancient times, judging by the stonework and the crumbling wall carvings. A second stone door stood half open on the other side, its hinges frozen with rust. To the left, water seeped from a crack into a basin carved into the wall, its overflow leaving orange streaks down the stone.
"I don't like this place," said Benn, huddling on a dusty stone bench, one of two.
"Shh," said Glynnie.
In the far right corner a pile of ash was scattered with wood charcoal and pieces of burnt bone, as if someone had cooked meat there and tossed the bones on the fire afterwards.
Rix perched on the other bench and extended his wrist to Glynnie. "Do you know how to treat wounds?"
"I can do everything." It was a statement, not a boast.
"But you're just – you're a maidservant. How do you know healing?"
She pursed her lips. "I watch. I listen. I learn. Benn, bring the glowstone. Rix, hold this."
Gingerly, as though she would have preferred not to touch it, she pressed Maloch's hilt into Rix's left hand.
"Why?" he said.
"It's supposed to protect you."
"Only against magery."
She knelt in the dust before him, then took a bottle of priceless brandy from her pack, Rix's last surviving bottle, and rinsed her hands with it. She laid a little bundle containing rags, needle and thread and scissors on her pack, poured a slug of brandy onto a piece of linen and began to clean his stump.
Rix tried not to groan. Blood began to drip. By the time she finished, Glynnie was red to the elbows.
He leaned back against the wall and closed his eyes, for once content to do as he was told.
"Hold his wrist steady, Benn," said Glynnie.
A pair of smaller, colder hands took hold of Rix's lower arm. He heard Glynnie moving about but did not open his eyes. She began to tear linen into strips. Liquid gurgled and he caught a whiff of the brandy, then a chink as she set down a metal cup.
"I could do with a drop of that," he murmured.
Glynnie gave a disapproving sniff. She was washing her hands again.
"Steady now," she said. "Hold the sword. This could hurt."
She began to spread something over his stump, an unguent that stung worse than the brandy. Rix's fingers clenched around Maloch's hilt.
"Ready, Benn?" said Glynnie.
"Yes," he whispered.
Excerpted from Rebellion by Ian Irvine. Copyright © 2013 Ian Irvine. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
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