Stands a Shadow
The Heart of the World Book Two
By Col Buchanan
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2011 Colin Buchanan
All rights reserved.
Beneath the Gaze of Ninshi'
Ash awoke with a groan, and found that he was drenched in freezing sweat and shivering beneath a sky full of stars.
He blinked in the darkness, wondering where he was, who he was, experiencing a moment of delicate affinity with the All.
And then he saw a smear of light track high above him. A skyship, its tubes trailing blue fire across the face of Ninshi's Hood, her one eye glimmering red as she watched the ship and Ash and the rest of the world turning beneath her.
Q'os, Ash remembered with a sudden sensation of sickness in his stomach. I'm in Q'os, on the other side of the ocean, at the spitting end of the Silk Winds, thirty years in exile.
The remnants of his dreams vanished like so much wind-blown dust. He let them go, the fading tastes and echoes of Honshu. It was a loss of something irreplaceable, but it was better that way. Better not to dwell on these things while he was awake.
The light of the skyship faded slowly on its course towards the eastern horizon. It diminished in the hazy air above the city, occasionally blocked from sight by the dark, towering shape of a skysteeple. In the starlight, Ash saw his breath coil from his open mouth.
Damn it, he thought as he pulled his cloak tighter about his neck. I need to piss again.
Twice already he'd awoken in the night; once with a straining bladder, the other time for no apparent reason at all. Perhaps there had been a distant shout in the streets below, or a spasm in his aching back, or a gust of cold wind, or he'd simply coughed. At his age, everything woke him if he wasn't thoroughly sodden with alcohol before he attempted to sleep.
Grumbling, the old R shun assassin cast the cloak aside and clambered to his bare feet, his joints popping loud enough to be heard in the still air of the rooftop.
The roof was a flat expanse of gritted pitch, and the grit felt sharp beneath the soles of his feet. It was little better to lie on, even with a spare cloak laid flat for bedding. He turned and looked at the tall prominence of concrete that rose at the centre of the grey, starlit space: a concrete cast of a great hand, its forefinger pointing skywards. Ash rubbed his face and stretched and groaned once more.
He didn't make use of the gutter that ran around the foot of the roof-edge parapet, or any of the small drainage holes in each corner of the roof, clogged green with algae. He didn't wish to betray his presence to someone in the streets far below.
Instead, he padded to the southern side of the roof as the city of Q'os lay silent all around him, the curfew still in place since the death of the Holy Matriarch's only son. He lowered himself onto the adjoining rooftop with a throb of complaint from his bladder. This roof was flat and tarred too, though it was interrupted by the raised triangular skylights that served the luxury apartments beneath them. Each was pitch dark, save for the nearest.
The widow, Ash thought. Up again in the middle of the night.
Ash stood relieving himself in his usual spot, while he peered into the candlelit warmth of the apartment below. Through the sooty glass he could see the lady sitting at the dining table in a cream woollen nightshift, her white hair tied back with a bow. Her delicate, wrinkled hands were poised with knife and fork over a small plate of food as she chewed with deliberate care.
Four days now Ash had been on his rooftop vigil, and each night he had observed this woman eating by herself without any servants in sight; sitting in the chill black hours next to the empty head of the table, staring off into the depths of the candle flame before her as she ate, her knife or fork occasionally striking the plate with a harsh ring that to Ash sounded, for some reason, of loneliness.
He'd created a story for this night owl in his curiosity. A young woman of privilege once, a great beauty, married off to a man of high status. No children, though – or if there were, then long flown from her life. And the husband, the master of the house, carried off by illness perhaps in his prime. Leaving her with only memories, and a bitter lack of appetite save for whenever dreams of the past awoke her.
Or perhaps she's also wakened easily by her bladder, Ash thought, and grunted, and considered himself an old fool.
A tinkle against the glass alerted him to the fact that he'd swung around too much in his curiosity, and was now splashing over a corner of the skylight. The flow ceased abruptly as the woman glanced up.
Ash held his breath, not moving. He was fairly certain she couldn't see him in this light; though for a curious instant he almost wished that she could.
She looked down at the table again, returned her attentions to her meagre meal. Ash shook himself dry, wiped his hands on his tunic. He nodded a silent goodnight to the woman and turned to make his way back.
Just then, a flicker of the candlelight caught his eye. A large fire-moth, alight with its own inner glow, bobbed around the candle flame as though in courtship. The flame fluttered against the briefest of touches. Ash and the widow both stared transfixed as the creature became ensnared in the flame. A wing stuck fast to the melting wax of the wick. The wing curled and crisped and ignited; the other beat a frantic rhythm as the moth's body caught fire, and the other wing too, until the creature was a struggling form burning alive in a miniature, crackling pyre.
Ash looked away, a bitter taste in his mouth now. He couldn't bring himself to look back a second time. Instead, he scrambled up the brickwork of the wall as fast as he could, as though to escape the sudden images flickering unwanted at the edges of his vision.
They came anyway. As he rolled over the parapet, for an instant he saw nothing but a young man struggling on a different pyre. His apprentice, young Nico.
Ash sucked in a breath of air as one might do from a sudden, sharp knock. His gaze rose to the Temple of Whispers, the towering shadow wrapped by ribbons of windows lit from within. She was in there somewhere, the Matriarch, mourning her own loss; most likely in the Storm Chamber at its very peak, itself brilliantly illuminated. It had been lit like that for the last four nights Ash had been watching.
He blew into his hands and rubbed them together for warmth. Always he felt the cold more these days. He noticed that his left hand was trembling, though not his right one. Ash clenched it into a fist as though to hide the shaking from himself.
After a moment he sat down on his bedding and made himself comfortable before the eyeglass perched there on its tripod, aimed resolutely at the Storm Chamber. He lifted the skin of Cheem Fire and pulled the cork and took a short pull from it. For the cold, he told himself. To help me sleep. He tossed the skin next to his sword, which rested upright against the concrete hand, and the small crossbow with its double strings removed to keep them safe from the weather. He squinted into the eyeglass. Caught a vague passing of a silhouette in the wide windows of the Storm Chamber.
Ash wondered how much longer he would have to wait like this, perched above the city of two million strangers at the very heart of the Empire of Mann. He was anything but an impatient man; Ash had spent the greater portion of his life sitting and waiting for something to happen, for an opportunity to present itself. It was a R shun's main occupation when not risking his life in the final violent stages of vendetta.
Somehow, this waiting felt different to him. It was no R shun vendetta after all. He was isolated here, without support, without even a home to return to if he saw this personal act of revenge through to its end. And his condition was clearly deteriorating.
He had been surprised when the loneliness had first settled in amongst his grief, his guilt. It had come on that first evening he'd found himself alone in the city of Q'os, after Baracha and Aléas and Serèse had left to return to the R shun monastery in Cheem, the vendetta completed against the Matriarch's son, his own apprentice dead by her orders. It had been a long night that, huddled in his cloak upon the safest vantage he had been able to find of the Temple, this playhouse rooftop, with a bleak desolation falling upon him.
Ash lay back and pulled the cloak across his stiff body. He rested his head on a boot and locked his fingers across his stomach beneath the coarse cloth of the cloak. It was the first clear night so far in his vigil. Already the twin moons had set in the west, while overhead the Great Wheel turned as it always turned, as slow and fluid as a tide. To the right, low in the sky, hung the constellation of the Great Fool, with the sage's feet hovering close over the earth. Above and further to the right of it, Ninshi's Hood continued to watch over it all.
He found himself gazing at the stars that formed the face within the hood. Most of all he stared at the single eye shining hard with its ruby light, the Eye of Ninshi. It was like no other, that star. At times, it vanished entirely from sight while its companions continued to burn, only to return several hours later, slowly brightening as before.
To see the wink of Ninshi's gaze, the old Honshu seers maintained, was to be absolved of your very worst wrongdoings.
Ash gazed at the Eye unblinking. He stared long and hard enough for his own eyes to begin to sting and glimmer in their sockets, though still he stared, willing the star to disappear.
He failed to notice his hand reach up for the clay vial of ashes that hung about his neck, and grasp it tightly.
'The family hearth, friends, kinships ... these are nothing more than the collective denials of the weak in response to the fundamental truth of our existence: that each us is driven by the impulses of self-interest, and nothing more.
'Hence why the weak abhor accusations of selfishness. Why always they will offer charity and goodwill when it suits them. Why with great conviction they will talk of the spirit of a just society.
'Yet take these people. Oppress them. Starve them. Strip them of their notions of solidarity until they are truly exposed to the real.
'Then choose one. Tell him he may save himself if he kills another. Offer him a blade.
'Watch as he takes the knife from your hand and performs the deed.'
* * *
The Diplomat Ché raised a hand to his mouth to stifle a bored yawn, and for a moment heard the words from the Book of Lies squashing down to nothing in his ears. Beside him, the nearest Acolyte regarded him through the holes in her mask. He stared back at the woman, coolly, without blinking, until she turned away.
Lazily, Ché looked around at the great windowless chamber filled with smoke and gaslight, and to the roof unseen in the vaulting space that rose hundreds of feet above them – so that here, within it, the mood was that of being at the bottom of a well. His attention settled on the sea of shaven heads gathered here on the eve of the Augere el Mann, the hundreds of priestly officiari of the Caucus, listening attentively to the holy words of Nihilis, the first Holy Patriarch of Mann.
Ché couldn't say if he believed in these teachings any longer, or if indeed he even respected the notion of belief itself – for what was it in the end, save for seeing the world how you really wished to see it, through personal experience and inclination and opinion? Rarely did it seem to bring you any closer to the truth, save by chance or by self-fulfilling prophecy; more likely it led into realms of delusion, of blinkered fanaticism.
Instead, Ché liked to remind himself of the opening line in Chunaski's forbidden satire, 'The Sea Gypsies': Beliefs are like assholes, for everybody has one.
He folded his arms and shifted the weight on his feet so that he leaned back against the cool mosaic of the wall. It had been a long day, and still there was no end in sight. All he wished for was to be done with it, so he could get home to his apartment and relax in the comfort of his own company.
Ché sought out the one face he was meant to be watching tonight. The assembly of priests filled the floor in seven thin wedges of seating: five for each of the cities of the Lanstrada, the Mannian heartland, with Q'os in the very middle, and another two for the regions of Markesh and Ghazni on the outer edges. The man he was looking for, Deajit, sat amongst the faction from the heartland city of Skul, several tiers behind the single chair that was positioned at their apex, where the High Priest of Skul, Du Chulane, was positioned in isolated silence facing the central podium to the fore. He couldn't see the man for a moment, but then a priest tilted his head to whisper into his neighbour's ear, and Ché caught a glimpse of him. The eyes of the young priest were downcast and hooded, as though he was half asleep or deep in contemplation.
Ché sighed, relaxing even further into his slouch. He was hardly out of place here, observing from the perimeter of the chamber, where lesser priests stood between the occasional Acolyte guard, and others came to and fro through the doorways at the back of the room. Each year the Caucus came together in this place during the week of the Augere. Always the assemblies were held at night, a nod to the old ways of Mann, when once it had been nothing more than a secret urban cult plotting to overthrow the Q'osian dynasty. Always they went on until just before dawn.
A rumble of rising thunder; hundreds of feet stamping as the sermon drew to a close. Officiari took the opportunity to leave their seats for refreshments. Others hurried to return. Deajit remained seated as a new speaker took to the podium, a man who announced himself as a tax officiari from Skansk. Deajit sat up in his chair as though suddenly interested.
The new speaker launched himself into a passionate discourse concerning the failing crops in Ghazni. The boom years of intensive farming and overly irrigated fields in the eastern region had finally resulted in a crash in productivity. To maintain revenues, insisted the speaker, they would need to raise taxes for the new year and cut what public expenditure they could. It was enough to rouse another chorus of stamping feet.
Ché found that he was absently scratching his neck again, just beneath the right ear, where it still throbbed with a fast pulse not his own. It was the pulsegland implanted under the skin, responding to the same gland of a fellow Diplomat elsewhere in the chamber. Already, several times, he had studied the faces of the various priests and wondered who it might be, or indeed if there was more than one of them. But there was no way to know, save for approaching each and every person in the room, and so he stopped his scratching, and tried to ignore it as best he could, though his stare continued to roam.
Ché turned inwards instead, letting his thoughts drift to pass the time.
He thought of his plush new apartment in the southern Temple district, recently handed to him upon his return from his mission in Cheem; a reward from the Section, it seemed, for his recent show of loyalty. He thought too of the two young women, Perl and Shale, whom he'd been courting these last few months for sex and the pleasure of their easy company. Like a cat toying with a piece of string, he considered which one he would call on next for an evening of entertainment.
Movement caught his eye. It was Deajit, rising from his chair at long last. Ché watched without turning his head as the young priest ambled to the doors at the rear of the chamber.
He pushed himself from the wall and strode after him.
* * *
In the bustle of the main corridor, the beat of Ché's pulsegland slowed almost imperceptibly. He spotted Deajit ahead, the priest helping himself to a glass of wine from one of the banqueting tables that lined both sides of the hall. Attendants stood along the tables, explaining the more exotic items displayed there. Deajit sampled a small spoonful of lobster meat, then tried a mouthful of jellied marrow from a snow mammoth. He nodded his head in appreciation.
Ché paused, and sought the cover of an alcove containing a bronze life-sized statue of Nihilis. With the First Patriarch's strikingly dour features looming over him, features more famous now than when he had been alive, Ché removed a small vial from a pocket in his robe. He unscrewed the lid and tilted it upside down with his forefinger upon the opening. Carefully he closed it again, then dabbed the wet finger across his lips. For a second, the scent of something faintly noxious came to his nostrils, and then it was gone.
Deajit was wandering into one of the side rooms along the main hallway, glass still in his hand. Passing a table, Ché snatched up a glass of wine too, and followed him inside. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Stands a Shadow by Col Buchanan. Copyright © 2011 Colin Buchanan. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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