Twilight found the city of Deepgate slouched heavily in its chains. Townhouses and tenements relaxed into the tangled web of ironwork, nodded roofs and chimneys across gently creaking lanes. Chains tightened or stretched around cobbled streets and hanging gardens. Crumbling towers listed over glooming courtyards, acknowledging their mutual decay. Labyrinths of alleys sagged under expanding pools of shadow; all stitched with countless bridges and walkways, all swaying, groaning, creaking.
As the day faded, the city seemed to exhale. A breeze from the abyss sighed upwards through the sunken mass of stone and chain, spilled over Deepgate's collar of rock, and whistled through rusted groynes half-buried in sand. Dust-devils rose in the Deadsands beyond, dancing wildly under the darkening sky, before dissolving to nothing.
Lamplighters were moving through the streets below, turning the city into a bowl of stars. Lanterns on long poles waved and dipped. Brands flared. Gas lamps brightened. From the district known as the League of Rope, right under the abyss rim, and down through the Workers' Warrens to Lilley and the lanes of Bridgeview, lights winked on among thickets of chain. Chains meshed the streets, wrapped around houses or punctured them, linking, connecting, weaving cradles to hold the homes where the faithful waited to die.
Now all across the city, sounds heralded the approach of night: shutters drawn, bolted with a clunk and snap; doors locked, buttressed; padlocks clicked shut. Grates slammed down over chimney tops, booming distantly in all quarters. Then silence. Soon only the echoes of the lamplighters' footsteps could be heard, hurried now, as they retreated into the shadowy lanes around the temple.
The Church of Ulcis rose unchallenged from the heart of Deepgate, black as a rip in the blood-red sky. Stained glass blazed in its walls. Rooks wheeled around its spires and pinnacles. Gargoyles crowded dizzy perches among flying buttresses, balconies, and crenellated crowns. Legions of the stone-winged beasts stared out beyond the city, facing towards the Deadsands: sneering, grinning, furious.
Lost amidst these heights, a smaller, stunted spire rose from the shadows. Ivy sheathed its walls, smothered one side of a balcony circling the very top. Only a peaked slate hat broke completely free of the vegetation, skewed but shining in the waning light. A rusted weathervane creaked round and round, as if not knowing quite where to point.
Clinging to this weathervane was a boy.
He hugged the iron with thin white arms. Tufts of hair shivered behind his ears. His nightshirt fluttered and flapped like a tattered flag. For a long time he held on, all elbows and knees, turning regularly with the weathervane, studying the surrounding spires with quick, nervous eyes. His toes were cold and he was filthy.
But Dill was happy.
Warily, he stood upright. The north-south crossbar tilted under his bare feet, moaned in protest. Rust crumbled, murmured down the slates below. A flock of rooks broke around him, screaming, then uncoiled skywards to scatter among the gargoyles and jewelled glass. Dill watched them go, and grinned from one pink ear to the other.
He took a deep, hungry breath, and another, and then unfurled his wings and let the air gather under his feathers. Muscles in his back tightened. Blood rushed through his veins, reached into his outstretched wings. The wind buoyed him, tugged him playfully, daring him to let go. He leaned out and threw back his head, eyes bright. The weathervane spun him like a carousel. An updraught swelled under him. He flexed his wings, straightened them, and pulled down on them. His feet lifted and he laughed.
A hooded figure hunched at a window, yellow lantern raised.
Dill scrambled to clutch the weathervane to his heaving chest. He folded his wings tight and dropped to a crouch, heart thumping.
The figure hovered for a while, the shadow of its cowl reaching like a talon over the temple's steeply canted roofs. Then the figure lowered the lantern and moved away.
Dill watched the priest's shadow flit over the glass before the same window went dark. A hundred heartbeats passed while he clung there shivering. How long had the priest been there? What had he seen? Had he just then happened to pass by, or had he been hiding there in the room, waiting, watching, spying?
And would he inform on Dill?
The tracery of scars on Dill's back suggested he certainly might.
I didn't fly. I wasn't going to fly. He'd only unfurled his wings to feel the wind. That was all. That wasn't forbidden.
Still shaking, Dill climbed down from the weathervane and squatted where the moss-covered cone capped the surrounding slates. At once there seemed to be watchers hovering at every window, hooded faces scrutinizing him from all around, unseen lips whispering lies that would find their way back to the Presbyter himself. Dill felt blood rise in his cheeks. He tore free a scrap of moss and feigned interest in it, scrunching it in his palm without feeling it, examining it without seeing it. As he let it go, the wind snatched it and carried it out over Deepgate.
It was said that once, you could have stood on the lip of the abyss and peered into the darkness below the city with nothing but the foundation chains between you and the fathomless depths. A sightglass, perhaps, might have offered views of the ghosts far below–but not now. The great chains were still down there, somewhere, hidden beneath the city that a hundred generations of pilgrims had built. But time had seen cross-chains, cables, ropes, girders, struts, and beams grow like roots through those ancient links. Buildings had been raised or hung, bridges and walkways suspended, until Deepgate had smothered its own foundations.
Dill lifted one calloused foot and thumped it down. A slate shattered under his heel. He picked up a fist-sized chunk of it and swung his arm to throw it at the window. But he stopped in time. The windows were old, maybe even as old as the temple and the foundation chains. As old as the roof tile he'd just broken, he thought miserably. Instead he hurled the slate into the sunset and listened hard to hear whether it hit anything before falling into the abyss beneath the city.
Glass shattered in the distance.
He flopped back, not caring if he crushed his feathers, and gazed past the twinkling streets to where the Deadsands stretched like rumpled silk to the horizon. Purple thunderheads towered in the west, limned in gold. To the east, the Dawn Pipes snaked into the desert, and there a ripple of silver in the sky caught his attention. He sat up.
An airship was purging its ribs for descent, venting hot air from the fabric strips around the liftgas envelope. Turning as it descended, it lumbered toward the Deepgate shipyards, abandoning the caravan it had escorted in from the river towns. The caravan threaded its way between water and waste pipes, the camels trailing plumes of sand. Behind the merchants, a line of pilgrims shuffled in their shackles between two ranks of mounted missionary guards.
"See you tomorrow," Dill murmured, but he didn't really imagine he would. It would be days before the pilgrims died.
Darkness was creeping into the sky now, pierced by the first evening stars, and so he slid the rest of the way down the roof, hitting the gutter with a thump and a tussle of feathers. A rotting trellis, overgrown with ivy, formed a rustling, snapping ladder back down to his balcony. When his feet finally found solid stone, he was shaking more than ever.
Once inside, he closed all four of the bolts in the balcony door, then checked the window, making sure both locks were also tight. The fire was uneasily low, and deep shadows lurked at the edges of his room. Dill piled on more coals, then knelt before the hearth, prodding them with a poker. The fire snapped and popped and sparkled briefly, billowing heat. Orange embers spiralled up the flue; coals crumbled and settled. He tapped the poker against the iron-toothed fender, and hung it back on its hook. Then he took an armful of the big temple candles from their chest and circled his cell, lighting each with a taper from the fire before pressing it down on yesterday's melted stub, where it would best keep the night at bay.
When he was satisfied, he looked up to the wall above the mantle, to the sword.
He raced over to the weapon and slid it free from its mount. His soot-smeared fingers barely managed to close around the leather-bound hilt, but that didn't worry him. Tomorrow he would wear it, all the same. Firelight washed over the curved hand guard and blade. He dipped the sword and raised it again, measuring the solid weight of it. It was still too big for him, too heavy, but he took a step back, thrust forward the blade, and raised his other hand the way all great swordsmen supposedly did. His nightshirt sleeve slipped down to his elbow. The sword tip wobbled.
It took a moment to muster his grimmest expression. He covered his uneven teeth with his lip, thrust out his chin, and spread his wings.
"Are you afraid?" he asked the wall.
His brow furrowed as he swished the sword through the air, once, twice.
"Do you fear this weapon? Or its wielder?" He arched an eyebrow. "My name?" He snorted, rubbed a sooty hand on his nightshirt. "That doesn't matter. I'm an archon of the Church of Ulcis, Warden to the Hoarder of Souls." He hesitated, thinking. "And mortal blood of his Herald, Callis."
That sounded right.
In his mind's eye, an army of heathens advanced, sword hilts drumming on their shields. They cried out in voices edged with fear:
One archon against a hundred warriors.
"A hundred?" Dill laughed. "No wonder you tremble." With a twist of his wrist, he spun the sword end over end like a propeller–
–and caught it by the wrong side of the guard, on the sharp side.
"Balls on a skillet!"
The weapon clattered to the floor. A chip flew from the tile where the hilt struck, but the mark was tiny, barely noticeable among all the others.
Dill sucked his finger, then examined it. The scratch, like all the previous ones, wasn't serious. For the priests had neglected to sharpen the blade in his lifetime–and Dill knew why. He picked up the sword, slammed it back into its wall mount, and dropped to his haunches before the hearth.
Mortal blood of his Herald, Callis.
This time he resolved not to look up at the sword, not as much as a glance. He wrapped his arms around his knees and rocked backwards and forwards, gazing into the warm currents between the coals, brooding.
Darkness gathered outside his cell. The wind picked up, whispered behind the windows, and teased the flames in the hearth. Only once did Dill's eyes flick back to the sword. He grimaced, hugged his knees tighter.
Tomorrow he would wear it. . . .
Dill cursed, then rose and yanked the sword free again. He'd owned the weapon for six years now, almost half his life. He ought to be able to use it by now. The priests had said he'd grow into it. It was a good sword, they'd said. He wheeled about, snapped his wings out, and addressed the wall once more. "Are you afraid?"
This time there was no army of heathens: nothing but the cold temple stones between Dill and the night sky. He swung the sword backwards and forwards in fierce arcs. "Are you afraid?" Slash. "Are you afraid?" Cut. "Are you afraid?"
He leapt, stabbed the sword into the wall. The tip of the blade sank an inch deep between the stones. Mortar crumbled. The hand guard jarred against his fist. Wincing, he dropped the weapon again.
Dill squeezed his stinging hand under his armpit, and folded to his knees beside the fallen sword. "Why are you afraid?" he asked himself.
Why was he afraid? Temple service was a privilege, an honour, Soul Warden a position of respect. Hadn't his ancestors performed this duty? His father, Gaine? But they'd been Battle-archons, they'd trained with the Spine, flown far across the surrounding Deadsands on behalf of the temple. They'd warred against the Heshette and carved the will of Ulcis into heathen strongholds. While Dill himself . . .
Dill lifted the sword in both grubby hands.
Who am I? An angel who reads about the exploits of his ancestors in books, who stands on his balcony day after day watching the airships return from the river towns, the Coyle delta, the bandit settlements where Battle-archons once fought and died.
Places he would never see. Now churchships and warships ploughed the skies, and an angel's place was here in Deepgate among the chains. While his father's armour rusted in a locked storeroom deep in the heart of the temple, ivy had grown unchecked around Dill's spire. Dust had thickened the old stained-glass windows. Now spiders lived among the jumble of rafters high above his cell, softened the wood with their cobwebs. Now damp crept up the stairwell and saturated the rooms below, all of them empty but for mould and snails.
Dill had been born too late.
But they'd still given him a sword. That meant something. Didn't it?
A hammering at the door startled him. Dill scrambled to his feet, replaced the sword in its mount, then brushed soot stains deeper into his crumpled nightshirt and padded over to open the door.
Presbyter Sypes stood wheezing on the landing. A black cassock engulfed the old priest, and melted down the spiral stairwell behind him. Only his head and hands were visible: the head shaking like a bone loose in its socket; the hands grinding his walking stick into the stones. "Nine hundred and eleven steps," he said. "I counted."
For a moment Dill just stared at him. Then he stammered, "Your Grace, I didn't expect . . . I mean, I thought . . ."
"No doubt," the Presbyter growled. "I seem to have been climbing up here since breakfast." He hobbled into the cell, dragging his robes, scowling. "So this is where all the temple candles get to. Place looks like the Sanctum itself. Your clothes"–he handed Dill a rumpled bundle tied with string–"but you'll need to fold them again. I dropped them, twice."
"Please, sit down, Your Grace." Dill scraped a stool closer to the fire.
The Presbyter eyed the tiny stool. "A terminal manoeuvre, I suspect. My bones are still climbing steps. No, I'll rest here by the window until they realize I've finally arrived." He gathered the folds of his cassock and perched on the window ledge, folding his hands over the silver pommel of his walking stick.
"Well," he said.
Dill fumbled with the bundle against his chest.
"I said, well?"
Dill hesitated. "I'm looking forward to it," he said, lowering his eyes.
"Are you really?"
Dill shook his head.
"Really?" The old man's eyes narrowed. "Good."
A long moment of silence passed between them. Coals shifted in the fire. Dill glanced back up. His sword was still there, glinting in the candlelight.
"Callis's own sword," the Presbyter observed.
Dill gave the weapon another brief look. His head dropped even lower as he turned back.
The Presbyter's gaze travelled round the cell, lingering on the cracked tiles, Dill's stool, the candle-chest, snail-bucket, and sleeping mat. There was little else to snag anyone's attention. His hands twisted on the top of the walking stick. "Well–"
"Thank you," Dill interrupted, "for bringing my clothes."
Presbyter Sypes coughed. "I was coming up anyway, on my way to the observatory. Thought I'd wish you luck for the big day."
Dill's cell wasn't on the way to the observatory. It wasn't on the way to anywhere.
"Thank you, Your Grace."
The Presbyter chewed his lips, struggling with something. Finally he said, "Been up on the roof again, have you?"
Dill flinched. "I . . ."
"Certain priests have nothing better to do than spy and snipe." The Presbyter's entire face wrinkled. "I won't name names." The wrinkles deepened. "It was Borelock, that bloodless pickthank. Skulking in the shadows like a damn Shettie saboteur, watching everything, as if it were any of his business. At least he came to me this time. . . ." His voice trailed off.
From the Hardcover edition.