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"The complex cultures, detailed geography, and the palpable weight of history provide a solid background to an intense story...some truly original touches." —- Locus
"Epic, non-stop action adventure." —- Starburst
"A page-turner of the highest order...Formidable." —- SFX
“Matriarch Ady, can I check the Solaces for you?” said Wil, staring at the locked basalt door behind her. “Can I, please?”
Ady frowned at the quivering, cross-eyed youth, then laid her scribing tool beside the partly engraved sheet of spelter and flexed her aching fingers. “The Solaces are for the matriarchs’ eyes only. Go and polish the clangours.”
Wil, who was neither handsome nor clever, knew that Ady only kept him around because he worked hard. And because, years ago, he had revealed a gift for shillilar, morrow-sight. Having been robbed of their past, the matriarchs used even their weakest tools to protect Cython’s future.
Though Wil was so lowly that he might never earn a tattoo, he desperately wanted to be special, to matter. But he had another reason for wanting to look at the Solaces, one he dared not mention to anyone. A later shillilar had told him that there was something wrong, something the matriarchs weren’t telling them. Perhaps—heretical thought—something they didn’t know.
“You can see your face in the clangours,” he said, inflating his hollow chest. “I’ve also fed the fireflies and cleaned out the effluxor sump. Please can I check the Solaces?”
Ady studied her swollen knuckles, but did not reply.
“Why are the secret books called Solaces, anyway?” said Wil.
“Because they comfort us in our bitter exile.”
“I heard they order the matriarchs about like naughty children.”
Ady slapped him, though not as hard as he deserved. “How dare you question the Solaces, idiot youth?”
Being used to blows, Wil merely rubbed his pockmarked cheek. “If you’d just let me peek…”
“We only check for new pages once a month.”
“But it’s been a month, look, look.” A shiny globule of quicksilver, freshly fallen from the coiled condenser of the wall clock, was rolling down its inclined planes towards today’s brazen bucket. “Today’s the ninth. You always check the Solaces on the ninth.”
“I dare say I’ll get around to it.”
“How can you bear to wait?” he said, jumping up and down.
“At my age the only thing that excites me is soaking my aching feet. Besides, it’s three years since the last new page appeared.”
“The next page could come today. It might be there already.”
Though Wil’s eyes made reading a struggle, he loved books with a passion that shook his bones. The mere shapes of the letters sent him into ecstasies, but, ah! What stories the letters made. He had no words to express how he felt about the stories.
Wil did not own any book, not even the meanest little volume, and he longed to, desperately. Books were truth. Their stories were the world. And the Solaces were perfect books—the very soul of Cython, the matriarchs said. He ached to read one so badly that his whole body trembled and the breath clotted in his throat.
“I don’t think any more pages are coming, lad.” Ady pressed her fingertips against the blue triangle tattooed on her brow. “I doubt the thirteenth book will ever be finished.”
“Then it can’t hurt if I look, can it?” he cried, sensing victory.
“I—I suppose not.”
Ady rose painfully, selected three chymical phials from a rack and shook them. In the first, watery fluid took on a subtle jade glow. The contents of the second thickened and bubbled like black porridge and the third crystallised to a network of needles that radiated pinpricks of sulphur-yellow light.
A spiral on the basalt door was dotted with phial-sized holes. Ady inserted the light keys into the day’s pattern and waited for it to recognise the colours. The lock sighed; the door opened into the Chamber of the Solaces.
“Touch nothing,” she said to the gaping youth, and returned to her engraving.
Unlike every other part of Cython, this chamber was uncarved, unpainted stone. It was a small, cubic room, unfurnished save for a white quartzite table with a closed book on its far end and, on the wall to Wil’s right, a four-shelf bookcase etched out of solid rock. The third and fourth shelves were empty.
Tears formed as he gazed upon the mysterious books he had only ever glimpsed through the doorway. After much practice he could now read a page or two of a storybook before the pain in his eyes became blinding, but only the secret books could take him where he wanted to go—to a world and a life not walled-in in every direction.
“Who is the Scribe, Ady?”
Wil worshipped the unknown Scribe for the elegance of his calligraphy and his mastery of book making, but most of all for the stories he had given Cython. They were the purest truth of all.
He often asked that question but Ady never answered. Maybe she didn’t know, and it worried him, because Wil feared the Scribe was in danger. If I could save him, he thought, I’d be the greatest hero of all.
He smiled at that. Wil knew he was utterly insignificant.
The top shelf contained five ancient Solaces, all with worn brown covers, and each bore the main title, The Songs of Survival. These books, vital though they had once been, were of least interest to Wil, since the last had been completed one thousand, three hundred and seventy-seven years ago. Their stories had ended long before. It was the future that called to him, the unfinished stories.
On the second shelf stood the thick volumes entitled The Lore of Prosperity. There were nine of these and the last five formed a set called Industry. On Delven had covers of pale mica with topazes embedded down the spine, On Metallix was written in white-hot letters on sheets of beaten silver. Wil could not tell what On Smything, On Spagyric or On Catalyz were made from, for his eyes were aching now, his sight blurring.
He covered his eyes for a moment. Nine books. Why were there nine books on the second shelf ? The ninth, unfinished book, On Catalyz, should lie on the table, open at the last new page.
His heart bruised itself on his breastbone as he counted them again. Five books, plus nine. Could On Catalyz be finished? If it was, this was amazing news, and he would be the one to tell it. He would be really special then. Yes, the last book on the shelf definitely said, On Catalyz.
Then what was the book on the table?
A new book?
The first new book in three hundred and twelve years?
Magery was anathema to his people and Wil had never asked how the pages came to write themselves, nor how each new book could appear in a locked room in Cython, deep underground. Since magery had been forbidden to all save their long-lost kings, the self-writing pages were proof of instruction from a higher power. The Solaces were Cython’s comfort in their agonising exile, the only evidence that they still mattered.
We are not alone.
The cover of the new book was the dark, scaly grey of freshly cast iron. It was a thin volume, no more than thirty sheet-iron pages. He could not read the crimson, deeply etched title from this angle, though it was too long to be The Lore of Prosperity.
Wil choked and had to bend double, panting. Not just a new book, but the first of the third shelf, and no one else in Cython had seen it. His eyes were flooding, his heart pounding, his mouth full of saliva.
He swallowed painfully. Even from here, the book had a peculiar smell, oily-sweet then bitter underneath, yet strangely appealing. He took a deep sniff. The inside of his nose burnt, his head spun and he felt an instant’s bliss, then tendrils webbed across his inner eye. He shook his head, they disappeared and he sniffed again, wanting that bliss to take him away from his life of drudgery. But he wanted the iron book more. What story did it tell? Could it be the Scribe’s own?
He turned to call Ady, then hesitated. She would shoo him off and the three matriarchs would closet themselves with the new book for weeks. Afterwards they would meet with the leaders of the four levels of Cython, the master chymister, the heads of the other guilds and the overseer of the Pale slaves. Then the new book would be locked away and Wil would go back to scraping muck out of the effluxors for the rest of his life.
But his second shillilar had said the Scribe was in danger; Wil had to read his story. He glanced through the doorway. Ady’s old head was bent over her engraving but she would soon remember and order him back to work.
Shaking all over, Wil took a step towards the marble table, and the ache in his eyes came howling back. He closed his worst eye, the left, and when the throbbing eased he took another step. For the only time in his life, he did feel special. He slid a foot forwards, then another. Each movement sent a spear through his temples but he would have endured a lifetime of pain for one page of the story.
Finally he was standing over the book. From straight on, the etched writing was thickly crimson and ebbed in and out of focus. He sounded out the letters of the title.
The Consolation of Vengeance.
“Vengeance?” Wil breathed. But whose? The Scribe’s?
Even a nobody like himself could tell that this book was going to turn their world upside-down. The other Solaces set out stories about living underground: growing crops and farming fish, healing, teaching, mining, smything, chymie, arts and crafts, order and disorder, defence. They described an existence that allowed no dissent and had scarcely changed in centuries.
But their enemy did not live underground—they occupied the Cythonians’ ancestral land of Cythe, which they called Hightspall. To exact vengeance, Cython’s armies would have to venture up to the surface, and even an awkward, cross-eyed youth could dream of marching with them.
Wil knew not to touch the Solaces. He had been warned a hundred times, but, oh, the temptation to be first was irresistible. The book was perfection itself; he could have contemplated it for hours. He bent over it, pressing his lips to the cover. The iron was only blood-warm, yet his tears fizzed and steamed as they fell on the rough metal. He wanted to bawl. Wanted to slip the book inside his shirt, hug it to his skin and never let it go.
He shook off the fantasy. He was lowly Wil the Sump and he only had a minute. His trembling hand took hold of the cover. It was heavy, and as he heaved it open it shed scabrous grey flakes onto the white table.
The writing on the iron pages was the same sluggishly oozing crimson as on the cover, but his straining eye could not bring it into focus. Was it protected, like the other Solaces, against unauthorised use? On Metallix had to be heated to the right temperature before it could be read, while each completed chapter of On Catalyz required the light of a different chymical flame.
A mud-brain like himself would never decipher the protection. Frustrated, Wil flapped the front cover and a jagged edge tore his forefinger.
“Ow!” He shook his hand.
Half a dozen spots of blood spattered across the first page, where they set like flakes of rust. Then, as he stared, the glyphs snapped into words he could read. Such perfect calligraphy! It was the greatest book of all. Wil read the first page and his eyes did not hurt at all. He turned the page, flicked blood onto the book and read on.
“I can see.” His voice soared out of his small, skinny body, to freedom. “I can see.”
Ady let out a hoarse cry. “Wil, get out of there.”
He heard her shuffling across to the basalt door but Wil did not move. Though the crimson letters brightened until they hurt his eyes, he had to keep reading. “Ady, it’s a new book.”
“What does it say?” she panted from the doorway.
“We’re leaving Cython.” He put his nose on the page, inhaling the tantalising odour he could not get enough of. It was ecstasy. He turned the page. The rest of the book was blank, yet that did not matter—in his inner eye the future was unrolling all by itself. “It’s a new story,” Wil whispered. “The story of tomorrow.”
“Are you in shillilar?” Her voice was desperate with longing. “Where are the Solaces taking us? Are we finally going home?”
“We’re going—” In an instant the world turned crimson. “It’s the one!” Wil gasped, horror overwhelming him. “Stop her.”
Ady stumbled across and took him by the arm. “What are you seeing? Is it about me?”
Wil let out a cracked laugh. “She’s changing the story—bringing the Scribe to the brink—”
“Who are you seeing?” cried Ady. “Speak, lad!”
How could the one change the story written by the Scribe Wil worshipped? Surely she couldn’t, unless… unless the Scribe was fallible. No! That could not be. But if the one was going to challenge him, she must have free will. It was a shocking, heretical thought. Could the one be as worthy as the Scribe? Ah, what a story their contest would make. And the story was everything—he had to see how it ended.
Ady struck him so hard that his head went sideways. “Answer me!”
“It’s… it’s the one.”
“Don’t talk nonsense, boy. What one?”
“A Pale slave, but—”
“A slave is changing our future?” Ady choked. “Who?”
“A girl.” Wil tore his gaze away from the book for a second and gasped, “She’s still a child.”
“What’s her name?”
“I… don’t know.”
Wild-eyed and frantic, Ady shook him. “When does this happen?”
“Not for years and years.”
“When, boy? How long have we got to find her?”
Wil turned back to the last written page, tore open his finger on the rough edge and dribbled blood across the page. The story was terrible but he had to know who won. “Until… until she comes of age—”
“What are we to do?” said Ady, and he heard her hobbling around the table. “We don’t know how to contact the Scribe. We must obey The Consolation of Vengeance.”
The letters brightened until his eyes began to sting, to steam. Wil began to scream, but even as his vision blurred and his eyes bubbled and boiled into jelly that oozed out of his sockets, he could not tear his gaze away. He had longed to be special, and now he was.
She tottered back to him, wiped his face, and he heard her weeping. “Why didn’t you listen to me?”
He took another sniff and the pain was gone. “Stupid old woman,” sneered Wil. “Wil can see so much more clearly now. Wil free!”
“Wil, what does she look like?”
“She Pale. She the one.”
“Tell me!” she cried, shaking him. “How am I to find this slave child among eighty-five thousand Pale—and see her dead.”
Whenever Mama wasn’t watching, the huge man that Tali called Tinyhead poked his white tongue out at her. Black spots on it were like crawling blowflies and Tali had to turn away before she sicked up her breakfast.
She did not like Tinyhead, but he was helping them to escape. In a thousand years, no Pale had ever escaped from Cython, and Mama had tears in her eyes whenever she talked about going home. Not wanting to upset her again, Tali clutched Mama’s hand and kept her worries to herself.
The further Tinyhead led them, the more alarming the tunnel art became, as if warning: try to escape and you’ll die. For an hour of their journey the walls they passed were carved into the skeletons of burnt trees surrounded by ash like black snow. Then they walked along a dried-up river with water buffalo trapped in grey mud. Finally, as the passage became an endless desert where spiny lizards picked salt crystals off sharp rocks, Tinyhead heaved open a stone door and stood to one side so they could go through.
They had crossed into another world, one that was cold and dank and slimy underfoot, a vast oval cellar where mist hung in the stagnant air. It looked like the inside of a mouldy old skull and the stink of poisoned, decaying rats made Tali gag.
“Here you are.” Tinyhead flopped out his tongue. “All your troubles are over, Pale.”
Mama whirled, reaching up to him, but he slammed the door in her face. She let out a whimper.
“You’re hurting my hand, Mama,” said Tali.
Her mama crouched in front of Tali, holding her so tightly that she could hardly breathe. Mama’s blue eyes were wet, and Tali hated to see her so sad.
“We’re betrayed, little one. We’re never going home.”
“Why not?” said Tali, looking around in confusion. Why had Tinyhead shut them in? Why hadn’t she told Mama her worries? Was this her fault?
A familiar face carved into the stone high on the wall made her shiver. It was Lyf, the enemy’s last and wickedest king, who had died long ago. She had often seen the tattooed Cythonians kneeling before his image.
To her left, a series of dusty stone bins ran along the wall, partly concealed by tiers of barrels. On the right, hundreds of wooden crates were stacked nearly to the ceiling. In the centre, twenty yards away, stood a stained black bench. The floor was damp and littered with pieces of fallen stone.
Something rustled, far across the cellar. Mama looked around frantically. “Over here,” she said, hauling Tali to the crates. “Squeeze into the middle where you can’t be seen.”
Tali clung to her. “I don’t like this place, Mama.”
“Me either. And yet, I feel close to our ancestors here. In, hurry.”
Tali was a good little girl, so she bit her lip and edged into one of the gaps between the rotting crates. The floor was so slimy that her bare feet kept slipping.
“Don’t cry. I know how brave you are.” Her mama kissed her brow. “Tali,” she choked, “if I don’t come back, Little Nan will give you your papa’s letter when you come of age.”
“Mama?” Why would she say such a thing? Of course she would come back.
“Shh!” Mama took Tali’s hands in her own and drew a ragged breath. “Our family has a terrible enemy—”
The dead rat smell thickened and grew fouler. “Who, Mama?”
“I don’t know. He’s never seen, never heard, but he flutters in my nightmares like a foul wrythen—”
“You’re scaring me, Mama!”
“When you’re older, you’ve got to find your gift and master it. It’s the only way to beat him.”
Tali shivered. In Cython, magery was forbidden. Magery meant death. Children were beaten just for whispering the word.
At a hollow click from the far side of the cellar, Mama jumped.
“But Mama,” said Tali, lowering her voice, “if our masters catch any slave using… magery, they kill them.”
“Even innocent little children,” said Mama, hugging her desperately. “You must be very careful.”
Tali’s voice rose. “Then how am I supposed to find my magery?”
Mama clapped a hand over Tali’s mouth. “I don’t know, child. Don’t tell anyone about your gift. Trust no one.”
Tali pulled away. “Is Tinyhead the enemy?” She took hold of a splintered length of wood, wanting to jam it through his disgusting tongue.
“Shh! You know what happens when you get angry.”
“I’m already angry, and I’m going—”
“Forget him. He’s nothing.”
“When I find my gift, his head will be nothing. I’ll blast it right off.”
“Tali, never say such things! You must lower your eyes and say, ‘Yes, Master.’ ”
“I won’t!” Tali said furiously. “I hate our masters and one day I’m going to escape.”
“Yes, one day,” said Mama, dully. “But for now, promise you’ll be a good little slave.”
Mama stroked Tali’s golden hair. “You may think whatever fierce thoughts you like, little one, for one day you will be the noble Lady Tali vi Torgrist, but in Cython you must always act the obedient slave.”
It frightened Tali to hear her mama say such things. “All right,” she muttered. She had a bad temper, and knew it, but for Mama’s sake she would try. “I promise.”
Her mother looked doubtful. “I’ll put a little glamour on you. It’ll hide you, as long as they don’t look directly at you. Hold still.”
She put her hands on Tali’s cheeks, whispered a word Tali could not make out, then drew her hands down Tali’s sides, all the way to her feet. Tali’s skin tingled and when she looked down, her body had blurred into the shadows. Magery! She ached for it. Feared it, too.
Something made an ugly scraping sound, closer this time, and her scalp felt as though grubs were creeping across it.
“Stay here,” Mama said softly. “Don’t look.”
“Mama, what was that noise?”
“I don’t know.” Mama’s teeth chattered. “But whatever happens, even if your gift comes, don’t use it here.”
Mama darted away, her pale blonde hair flying. Her bare feet skidded on the flagstones as she passed an ugly tapestry of three jackals fighting over the guts of a nobleman, recovered, then zigzagged between the barrels and the stone bins. She was a beautiful little bird, leading a snake away from her nest.
But as she passed between a pair of stone raptors with flesh-tearing beaks, two masked figures came after her. Tali clutched at a crate, her fingers sinking into the powdery wood.
“Mama, look out!” she whispered, for the masks had fanged teeth and awful, angry eyes. “Don’t let them catch you.”
Then Mama slipped and twisted her ankle, and the moment they caught her Tali knew they were going to do something terrible.
“No!” she whimpered. “Mama, get away!”
The big man caught Mama’s arms and held her while his accomplice, a bony woman, punched her in the mouth.
“Treacherous Pale scum!” the woman hissed.
Mama sagged, staring at them like a mouse trapped by two cats, and Tali’s front teeth began to throb. Stop it, stop it! Mama, use your gift on them.
They dragged her to the black bench and heaved her onto it. The woman forced an oily green lump into Mama’s mouth, then passed a stubby crystal back and forth over her head until the end glowed blue, scattering brilliant rays across the cellar. Mama moaned and her toes curled.
As the blue crystal glowed more brightly, pain stabbed around the whorled scar on Tali’s left shoulder, her slave mark, and cold spread through her like venom. She shuddered and remembered to cover her eyes.
Born to slavery in underground Cython, she had learned life’s lesson in her stone cradle—obey, or suffer. But the people who held her mama weren’t tattooed like Cythonians, and they were too big to be Pale slaves. Who were they?
Something made an ugly grinding sound. Mama shrieked.
“Careful,” the man cried. “He won’t pay if—”
“It’s stuck,” said the woman, and the grinding grew louder.
What were they doing to Mama?
“It’s got to be taken while she’s alive,” said the man.
“Do you think I don’t know that?”
Tali peeped between her fingers and nearly screamed. Mama’s arms and legs were thrashing, green foam was oozing from her nose and a strand of hair dripped blood. Mama! Tali could not breathe; for a moment she could hardly see.
“I can’t hold her.” The man’s voice was hoarse, his eyes darting.
“Nor me if you don’t!”
The woman was pressing a metal rod against the top of Mama’s head, twisting and shoving as if trying to force it in. Through the mouth of the mask her grey teeth were bared. She was grunting and her hands were red.
Why were they talking like that? Why were they hurting Mama? Tali’s breath came in painful gasps and her stomach was full of fishhooks. She had to help Mama. But Mama had told her not to move. Only magery could save Mama now, but she had told Tali not to use it here. Yet if she didn’t, Mama was going to die. But Tali had promised…
No! She had to break that promise, and if she got into trouble she would take her punishment. Tali had used magery once before, when she was little. She had been really angry about something and her gift had burst forth out of nowhere. She tried to summon it now but it shrank from her mother’s warnings, Always hide your gift! Never use it or they’ll find out and kill you.
She tried and tried, but it would not come. Tali was desperate now. She had to save Mama. The glamour would hide her, wouldn’t it? She crept out, picked up a piece of stone, took aim at the woman’s head and hurled it with all the fury her small body could muster. And missed her.
“Ow!” cried the man, clapping a hand to the back of his head. “What was that?”
Tali eased backwards to the crates, praying the glamour would hold. She felt with her foot for a bigger stone.
The woman gave a last twist of her length of metal, withdrew it and flicked a white disc, trailing a clump of bloody hair, to the floor. Was that a piece of Mama’s head? Tali was reaching for a fist-sized chunk of rock when the woman opened a pair of golden tongs behind Mama’s head, pushed in and yanked. Tali heard an awful, squelchy pop. Mama’s arms and legs jerked, then hung limp.
“You’ve ended her,” the man said hoarsely, shying away. “Who cares about a filthy Pale?” said the woman, holding up the steaming tongs. “I got it in time.”
Tali’s head spun and her eyes flooded. But for the crates she would have fallen down. Though she was only eight, she had seen all too many dead slaves. Why was this happening? Was it her fault? She should have run and led them away; she should have done something, anything. Had the evil woman killed Mama? No, she couldn’t be dead.
“Mama, Mama!” she whimpered, hurting all over.
The man gasped, “Did you hear a cry?”
You stupid fool, thought Tali. Now they’ll kill you too. “Are you useless?” sneered the woman.
The man drew a long knife and waved it at her.
She laughed in his face. “Find the brat and finish it.”
The man took a lantern in his free hand and crept towards the stacked crates.
The woman put on a long glove that shone like woven green-metal—Tali sensed the whisper of magery coming from it—and removed something round from the tongs. It looked like a black marble. She stripped off the glove so it turned inside out, trapping the black object inside.
Now—horrible, horrible!—she opened a vein in Mama’s neck and filled the glove with dribbling blood, then tied a knot in the long wrist and thrust the glove down her front. Tali made out a crimson glow there, shining through the glove, but it went out. She checked on the man, who was at the other end of the stacks, slowly moving her way.
On the far wall of the cellar, the carved face of Lyf shifted. Yellow moved in its stone eyes and a foggy hand reached towards the woman, stretching and stretching as if to pluck out the glove. It was more magery, but whose?
There came a purple flash from behind a pile of barrels, a zzzt like a spell going off and the hand recoiled, then faded out. The woman froze, staring at the stone face, then laughed and picked up the gory tongs.
“Oh!” she whispered. “Oh, yes!” and licked them clean.
Tali saw her muddy eyes roll up until the whites were showing through the holes in the mask. Tali wanted to punch her nose flat. After checking that the man wasn’t looking, the woman filled a square, green-metal tin with Mama’s blood, twisted on a brass cap and licked her bony fingers.
Tali’s eyes burnt and her nose was running. She wiped it on the back of her hand, fighting the urge to scream. If she made a sound, the man would cut her open like Mama. But she was much more scared of the evil woman with the crab-leg fingers and those awful eyes. She pressed a finger to the slave mark on her left shoulder, for luck. Touching it always made her feel better.
The man was tall, with a round, jiggling belly like a pudding basin. He was outside her hiding place now and she caught a glimpse of the gleaming knife blade, as long as her arm. Tali recoiled and felt a shocking pain as a nail in one of the crates pierced her hip to the bone. Tears stung her eyes yet she dared not move. If she made a sound he would stab that knife right through her.
The man was panting and the spirits on his breath made her head spin. His hand shook as he raised the lantern, then lowered it. Silence fell, apart from a sickening drip-drip from the black bench.
After Papa’s terrible death, Mama had taught Tali how to hide. “A slave must be invisible,” she had said. “Never be noticed and you’ll be safe.”
No slave was ever safe, but Tali was the best of the slave kids at hiding. She traced the loops and whorls of her slave mark with a finger tip, trying to find comfort there, but nothing could comfort her now. Mama couldn’t be dead. It wasn’t possible, yet she was gone.
He waited, as if he knew she was there. What if he pulled the crates away? She had to do something. She felt among the broken wood on the floor for the sharpest length, a piece as long as her forearm. If he came at her, she would shove it into his fat belly and run.
Her arm was trembling so much she could hardly hold the weapon. Then, to her shame, Tali realised that wee was running down her legs. She clamped her thighs together and, to distract herself, began to count her heartbeats, which were so loud that surely he could hear them. After another twenty beats, the man grunted and moved on. She kept still.
He sprang back, hacking at the crates with his knife and roaring, “Haaaaaa! Got you.”
Tali’s heart leapt up her throat and the nail ground into her hip-bone. She was almost screaming from the pain but she did not move. She was going to win this contest, for Mama.
With savage hacks of the knife, the man began to tear down the crates to her left, smash, crash. He was going to find her. How could she stop him? She eased off the nail, took hold of the lowest crate and heaved. It did not budge; the weight of all the crates above it was too great.
More crates crashed down. It would not be long now. She could not go further backwards; the gap was too narrow. And she dared not wait. Once he saw her, he would jam the knife through her guts.
Tali crouched, took hold of the lowest crate and heaved, using her legs this time. Even little girl slaves were strong, and she forced upwards, slowly straightening her legs, until her back ached and her knees trembled. But she wasn’t going to give in, ever.
The moving crates scraped and squealed. He swung around, trying to work out where the sound had come from. She gave an almighty heave, the ten-high stack swayed, then with a roar the lot fell down on him.
Tali scurried sideways into a new gap and hid in the darkness. The man groaned. The woman appeared, taking her time, and heaved the crates aside. The man’s face was covered in blood. Ha! thought Tali. Take that! But it could never make up for what they had done to Mama.
“What happened?” he moaned.
“Stop whining,” said the woman disgustedly. “You pulled them down on yourself. Did you find anything?”
Fifty heartbeats passed, then the man lurched away. “Must have been rats. Come on. I need another drink.”
“I’ll pour it down your throat until you choke.”
Tali pressed a fingertip against the nail wound, trying to heal it the way Nurse Bet had taught her, but the hole went too deep. The beads of blood on her fingers were as bright as jewels, as bright as Mama’s blood. Mama! Her eyes flooded.
The woman pulled on a dangling rope and, with a screech, an iron staircase corkscrewed down. Tali felt sure the point at the bottom was going to twist right through Mama, but it brushed by her tiny waist before grounding on the black bench. The man shot up the steps, a rat running away from a ferret. The staircase was a coiled spring quivering under his weight.
But then—then the woman picked up the tin of blood, climbed onto the bench and stepped onto Mama’s chest as though she was rubbish. One of Mama’s ribs snapped like the wishbone of a poulter and a scorching fury surged through Tali, an urge to smash the woman down. She fought it; Mama had told her to not make a sound.
The woman rocked back and forth as she scanned the cellar, crack-crack, standing on Tali’s beautiful mama as if she were a piece of firewood, then followed the man.
Once they were gone, Tali darted across and touched the crimson beads on her fingers to her mama’s head, as if her own blood could heal her. There was blood everywhere, but none left in Mama. Taking hold of her hand, Tali squeezed it tightly, trying to will Mama back to life, but the spirit had left her forever.
She had taught Tali not to fight back, to always bow her head and say, “Yes, Master,” and it had killed her. Tali wasn’t going to make that mistake. Mama said it was wrong to hate people, but Tali’s rage had red-hot teeth and talons as sharp as spikes. How dare they treat her beautiful mama that way?
“When I’m grown up I’ll find them out,” she whispered, hand upon her mother’s heart. “Once I get my gift I’ll hunt them down and make them pay.”
Someone took a heavy breath, close by. The murderers! Coming back to kill her! Tali scuttled into the shadows between two of the stone bins, grabbed a grey stick protruding from its broken top and prepared to defend herself.
But it was a handsome, black-haired boy, a few years older than herself, who stumbled out from behind a heap of empty barrels. He wasn’t a slave, though, nor a tattooed Cythonian. He must have been rich, for he wore a plum-coloured velvet coat with gold buttons, an emerald kilt and shoes with shiny buckles. His face was white, his eyes a rich, purply brown, his yellow vest was covered in vomit and his teeth were chattering.
That wasn’t the only odd thing about him. The faintest misty aura, pale pink as the gills of a mushroom, clung to his head and hands. The aura of magery—though not his. Tali could tell that he had no more gift than a log.
The boy reached out towards Mama then drew back sharply, staring at his hands. Tali’s hair stood up. His hands were covered in blood, yet he hadn’t touched Mama.
He doubled over, sicked onto his shoes and let out the moan of an animal in pain. Tali must have made a sound for his head shot around and he stared at her, then bolted up the stairs, yanking on the rope as he went. The iron staircase howled as it rose with him out of sight.
Tali could hold back no longer. “I’m going to get you!” she screeched, brandishing the stick. A trapdoor clanged shut and the greenish light began to fade.
What if Tinyhead was waiting outside? Tali shivered. What if he came after her? No, he had betrayed Mama and he had to pay. Rage swelled until her heart felt as if it was going to explode, then she pointed the stick at the stone door, willing Tinyhead’s head to burst like a melon. With a sudden gush, the pressure was gone and her rage as well.
She was holding the stick so tightly that her knuckles hurt, and for the first time Tali saw it clearly. It wasn’t a stick, it was a human thigh bone. There was nothing horrible about it, though. Oddly, it felt like a friend.
Tali put it back where she had found it. Now so exhausted that she could barely stand up, she stumbled to the door, trying not to think about the man with the knife or the woman and her golden tongs, trying to wipe out the memories forever. When she slipped into the painted tunnel that led back to Cython, there was no sign of Tinyhead.
Learn to lower your eyes and say, “Yes, Master”.
“All right!” Tali said savagely. “But once I come of age, once I find my gift, look out!”
How could she find her gift when she couldn’t trust anyone? How could she beat her enemy when no one knew who he was? Blinded by scalding tears, she crept home to Cython, and slavery.
At least she would be safe there.
It takes an unnatural cold to touch a wrythen: cold bitter as bile and empty as a dead man’s eyes. Cold so bleak that he felt his frostbitten plasm congealing and it took precious strength to maintain his uncanny, neither-live-nor-dead state. Strength he could not afford to waste.
Not when vengeance was so achingly near.
The wrythen suppressed his rage at the loss of a third nuclix. He had a plan to get all three back and avenge himself on the thief. It would not take long—not as he counted time.
He cleaned the hollow needle of a graver and filled it with diluted alkoyl, the last of his hoarded store. The wrythen had to be exquisitely careful using it, for alkoyl was inimical both to his plasm and to most things he had created here in his five-fold caverns. The graver was made of purest platina, yet alkoyl would eat through it before he finished the iron book. No other substance could contain it at all.
He had to complete the book, if the alkoyl lasted, and transmit the completed pages to the Chamber of the Solaces as soon as he could find the strength for such challenging magery. The Consolation of Vengeance had to be finished soon. His people must be ready when the call came.
As the wrythen set his graver to the page, he was summoned. He did not have to go; nothing and no one had any hold on him. But in life he had been a decent and an honourable man, so he rose to the top of his home cavern.
Spaced around his lovingly imagined ancestor gallery, looking out from spectre sculptures as perfect as mind and memory could create, a hundred and seven pairs of regal eyes measured him. Their collective reign had lasted three thousand, six hundred and forty-two years; their wisdom could not be measured by any set of numbers. He had shaped them from his own plasm, had long relied on them for company, advice and support, had argued every point of his plan innumerable times, yet still they spoke to him, even the angry, red-throated shade of Bloody Herrie, in a single voice.
Don’t do this!
It’s the only way to save our people, the wrythen said, though what he meant was, It’s my sole reason for being. Without the urge to vengeance he would have faded to a miserable ghost a thousand years ago.
We have no people—with your blasphemous Solaces you’ve constructed these Cythonians just as you made us. And these caverns. And the vile shifters down below.
What are you talking about? said the wrythen. Our blood runs in Cython’s veins.
But nothing else. They’ve lost our language, been robbed of our history—
I won’t discuss it, he said coldly. It was our only hope.
This must stop now, said Queen Hilga, whose luminous eyes protruded past her eyelashes. Errek, tell him.
The faded wisp of Errek First-King, so old that he found all human follies amusing, was not smiling now. The price is too high.
They destroyed our cities, our libraries and our art, said the wrythen, and profaned all we held sacred.
A monstrous crime, said Hilga, but all things have their hour and their ending.
Posterity is rife with oblivion, said Errek wryly. Let it go.
The wrythen returned to the iron book but was too agitated to finish the page. What if they were right? Since he could not speak to the matriarchs and they had no way to contact him, there was no way to judge their preparedness.
Like a trapped moth, he flitted around his home cavern, which he called a flaskoid. It resembled an upside-down alchymister’s flask, save that the long neck looped down and up again, passing through its own wall and up through the bulb, its inside becoming its outside then its inside again. Though he had etched it in four dimensions out of solid rock, the shape even confused him at times.
Settling to the base of the loop, he drifted along the shelves of his memory library to the lovingly recollected epics that sustained him in the darkest times. Today they offered no comfort. All he saw were flames leaping high as the treetops as the treasures of ten millennia had been burned, along with the curators who had tended them. The epics of Cythe existed only through him now and, once he was gone, all would be lost.
But before that—vengeance.
Weeks had gone by and the wrythen still had to write the ending of the iron book. He drifted alongside the towering condenser of his platina still, tapping each of its thousand coils, but it yielded not a drop. The apparatus could only extract a few drops of alkoyl from the breath of the Abysm in a year, and even that was a sacrilege. The ending of the book would take twenty drops of the magical fluid, at least.
Frustrated, he ploughed up through solid rock to the top of the cloud-piercing crag. In warmer years the passage had been effortless but today every atom dragged through him like an anchor caught in weed. As a bodiless wrythen he was tied to his caverns. Bound forever, unless…
He could not afford to dream. His head slid through black ice into moving air, then stopped. Even here, a mile above the home cavern, it was warmer than down below.
Warm enough to feel the tension in sinews long gone to dust, in fingernails splintered from the stone with which his enemies had walled him in to die, in shinbone stumps where his feet had been hacked off with that accursed blade—Oh, yes! Vengeance, once he completed the Consolation. If his people followed the plan…
Swallowing the self-doubt, he looked around. From here he could see the whole of the great island he still called Cythe, which the enemy had renamed Hightspall, and south across the bergcrusted strait to ice-capped, uninhabitable Suden, two hundred miles away. To the north, he was pleased to see that the Brown Vomit was erupting again. One or other of the three Vomits had been erupting for the past hundred and seventy years, their ash sifting down on the bountiful lands of central Hightspall like grey flour, crushing the enemy’s houses, burying their stock and choking the rivers with sludge.
Had it gone too far? What if the eruptions never stopped? What if they got worse? The cauldron at the heart of the world was unstable, he knew. But how unstable?
A king’s highest duty was to protect his realm and it was torment to see his country so ravaged, but there was no other way to bring Hightspall to its knees. Volcanoes had made his country, then blown it to pieces and created it anew. Cythe was resilient; it was forever, and so were his people. When the enemy was no more, his people could come home.
But what would they return to? The wrythen wanted to weep for the ancient cities torn down, the temple gardens sown with salt, and for that desperate time when his noble people had been reduced to a handful of nomadic origines and a few thousand contemptible degradoes.
Save for the wrythen’s intervention they would have vanished from the world, for the invading Hightspallers had set out to erase ten thousand years of history and they had been ruthlessly thorough. Only the king had stood in their way then, only the wrythen now. But he dared not weep—tears etched quessence out of him and he remained desperately weak.
The ash might not be enough, nor the poxes and pestilences that followed it. Nor even the vicious shifters he’d created with the blasphemous art of germine. Before ordering his remade people from their underground hiding place he must be sure.
Further south, the globe-circling pall of ash and fume blanketed the sky all the way to the southern pole. The once mighty mountains of Suden were no more than pimples standing above mile-thick ice sheets and the ice crept further north each year. It would soon batter down the walls of accursed Hightspall, then freeze it solid like blood congealing in blocked veins.
It was time.
Back in his home cavern, the wrythen avoided the accusing eyes in his ancestor gallery and drifted down the curve to the cleft where the flaskoid passed back through itself in the fourth dimension.
He had to fold himself over seventeen times before he could fit through the infinitesimal cleft. New dimensions exploded out around him, then he was floating in the white shaft of the Abysm beside a disc of grass-green viridium, on which sat his prize, his joy and his terror. It was both the source and the limit of his magery. It represented all that had been lost, yet the means by which it might be regained. Though it sustained him, it must finally be the mode of his beautiful annihilation.
It was no bigger than a marble yet it represented the world; and it had taken him sixteen hundred years to create. It was so black that, even in the brightest light, it looked like a hole in the air, an emptiness nothing could fill, a cold that no fire could warm.
It was a nuclix. An ebony pearl.
Binding it to himself with magery so that the intangible could retain the tangible, he floated, holding his sensitive shin stumps well away from the wall of the shaft, and cupped the nuclix in his hands, waiting for the call.
Shortly it came, faint as the mewling of a newborn kitten.
Nuclixes longed for the completion of unity, and after several minutes the second whispered its answer, followed by the third’s shout and finally the dry chuckle of the fourth, the nuclix he’d been reaching for in the cellar when that thickening spell had blocked him.
Rage washed through the wrythen, that a third-rate magian had robbed him of treasures belonging to him alone. Until the Hightspallers invaded, magery had been a sacred and healing force belonging solely to the king. The enemy had perverted it, as they had corrupted beautiful Cythe, and he felt a special hatred for their magians.
He crushed the emotion—the three stolen nuclixes were still where the thief had hidden them. They would be his in time. He waited, as he had done so many times, for the fifth and last call.
The nuclix that had not yet answered.
A lesser shade might have twisted its plasm into knots. But if the king had not learned patience while starving to death walled up in a tomb, his wrythen had done so in the centuries of crushing defeat that had followed.
Once the master nuclix answered, the thief magian, Deroe, would try to take it. He must be killed. The wrythen could not take the nuclix himself, nor have the host brought here, because nuclixes were wildly unstable after extraction. It had to be taken by one of the enemy, but he would never use the man or the woman from the cellar, sickening predators that they were.
What about the boy?
He had been traumatised by the killing and, clearly, felt tainted by the blood on his own hands. Now the wrythen realised that the boy had been bathed by the aura of a heatstone since infancy. A heat-stone—if only they knew!
For hundreds of years the wrythen had railed against Cython’s vile heatstone trade with the enemy, but at this irony he allowed himself a small smile. Hightspall believed it was robbing a crushed enemy. In reality, it had carried the infected seed into its palace garden. Yes, with the heatstone the boy could be moulded, all unwitting, and once the fifth nuclix answered he would cut it out.
Months passed as the wrythen tweaked the heatstone from afar, setting it up to shape and influence the boy, and it was not easy. Though the wrythen knew where the boy lived, he could not travel there, and could only reach him when he was in dreaming sleep. Nonetheless, over the slow march of the years, the wrythen could command the lad as effectively as if he had possessed him.
Weeks went by.
Years, and still the wrythen lacked the strength to transmit the next set of pages to the Chamber of the Solaces. Ten years passed before a loud, angry call shivered the silence. The master nuclix was fully formed and it yearned for union with the lesser four.
It was time.
The wrythen knew nothing about the host’s identity. All he could read was a roaring rage, so youthful and furious that it made him smile, for the Pale were cowed creatures whose anger threatened no one but themselves. And because all those with the gift had been culled, they were the only safe hosts.
Taking up a pale-blue ovoid like the egg of a small bird, he touched it to his forehead. Far away and deep underground, his sole servant stirred.
The host is a slave girl who has just come of age. Bring her to the cellar, unharmed, two nights from now.
How will I find her without a name, Master? There are many, many Pale.
Enquire of the overseers. The woken nuclix will trouble her and she lacks self-control. She will draw attention to herself. But tell no one.
No one, Master?
The host is a threat to Cython. No one must ever know about her.
Not even the matriarchs?
Especially not the matriarchs. You must protect the host from all dangers, and sacrifice yourself before you allow anyone to know what she carries.
The wrythen drew quessence from the small store left to him and traced a link for twenty-six miles: out of the Crowbung Range, north-east around the treble cones of The Vomits, above the scalded lands and boiling mud pools of the Seethings then across the edge of bottomless Lake Fumerous which filled the chasm where the fourth Vomit had once stood two miles high, to the capital city of enemy Hightspall, Caulderon.
To a dirty, crumbling chateau overlooking the lake. To an upper room where the withered magian, Deroe, sat at a table before a selection of arcane instruments. His left hand was raised, ready to snatch the appropriate weapon at the first hint of intrusion.
The wrythen’s consciousness edged along the link. Carefully now. The terrified magian had wards everywhere, in layers overlapping layers, but there was a way through. The wrythen bypassed the wards, wrapped himself octopus-like around Deroe’s mind before he had time to use his carefully prepared defences, and took possession again.
It sickened him to occupy such a foul instrument, but if he was to recover the stolen nuclixes there was no choice. Being physically bound to the caverns, the wrythen could only travel to two places: the mind of the magian he had first possessed a century before, when the blasphemer had broken into the Catacombs of the Kings, greedy for plunder; and the cellar that had once been the wrythen’s own temple, where for aeons the kings had worked their magery to heal the land of Cythe.
You heard the call, the wrythen said into Deroe’s mind. You know the last of the five is ready. The host will be brought to the cellar two nights from now, but this time, I will take delivery.
“Damn you,” whined Deroe.
He was fighting the possession, growing stronger all the time, but the wrythen did not fight back. Nor did he look for the nuclixes Deroe had stolen in the hope of driving his possessor out. The master nuclix was Deroe’s bait, the cellar a fatal trap. When Deroe came, he would bring the three with him.
And he would die.
It was time to mobilise the rich boy, now grown to a man. Time to send him the final nightmare, a horror like no other, and embed within it a command that must be obeyed.
Soon the wrythen would be strong enough to begin transmitting the completed sections of the iron book. Once that was done, with freshly distilled alkoyl he would begin on the last, terrible page. Then, when he had all five nuclixes…
Ruin upon his enemies.
Vengeance for his dispossessed people.
Annihilation and rebirth for his beloved country.
He’s coming for me. There’s no way out. He’s going to take me to the cellar and they’re going to hack my head open like Mama’s and there’s no way out. He’s coming for me.
Round and round it cycled, as it had ever since Tali had read her father’s horrifying letter this morning. To survive, she had to escape, though in a thousand years no Pale slave ever had. There was only one way to gain your freedom here—the way Tali’s mother had been given hers.
“Your eyes are really red,” said Mia, arms folded over her pregnant belly. “Something the matter?”
They were in the sweltering toadstool grottoes where they worked twelve hours a day, every day of the month, every month of the year. At times the drifting spore clouds were thick enough to clog the eyes.
“Stupid spores,” Tali lied. “They gunk everything up.”
“You look terrible. Have a break; I’ll do this row for you.”
Tali had woken in the middle of the night feeling as if a stone heart was grinding against her skull with every beat. And with each beat, brilliant reds and yellows swirled madly in her inner eye, like beams trying to find the way out of a sealed lighthouse until, with a spike of pain, they burst forth and she collapsed into sleep.
When the work gong had dragged her into wakefulness this morning, the inside of her skull felt bruised. She desperately needed to think, to plan, but now the colours were back, spinning like clay on a potter’s wheel, and fits of irrational anger kept flaring. She had to restrain herself from smashing the toadstool trays against the bench.
He’s coming for me and there’s no way out. They’re going to cut a hole in my head, just like Mama. No way out, no way out!
Tali pressed her cheek against the wet wall and after a minute the colours faded, the headache died to a dull throb. Take deep breaths and stay calm. Don’t do anything silly. You’ve got time. He might not come for months, even years. Mama had been twenty-six, after all.
Her racing heartbeat steadied and Tali wiped her face. “I’m all right now.”
“Be careful. The Cythonians are really agitated today.”
“I don’t know. Keep your head down and don’t attract attention.”
Tali managed a smile. “When did I ever do that?”
“I’m always getting you out of trouble.” Shaking her head fondly, Mia turned away to her work.
The grottoes were a series of broad, low-ceilinged tunnels linked by arched doorways. Cages filled with fat-bellied fireflies provided a bluish light that barely illuminated the walls, which were sculpted to resemble a forest by moonlight—a humid glen whose every surface was covered in fungi, like the grottoes themselves. The air was so heavy with their mixed earthy, fishy, foetid and garlicky odours that it made Tali heave.
The floor shook, grinding the stone trays against the benches. It had been shaking all day. What was the enemy up to in the secret lower levels? Was that why they were so touchy?
“Tali, try to look like you’re working.”
Today’s job, one of the worst of her slave duties, was de-grubbing the harvest. Tiered stone benches running the length of each grotto were stacked with trays of edible toadstools and mushrooms, dozens of kinds, plus leathery cloud ear fungi and giant red puffballs as big as Tali’s head. The puffballs had to be cut and bagged carefully lest they gush clouds of stinging flame-spores everywhere. In the darkest corners, tiny toadstools sprouted in clusters like luminous white velvet, though Tali wasn’t fool enough to stroke them. They were delicious when properly cooked, but deadly to touch in their natural state.
Reaching between the brown toadstools in front of her, she found a red-and-yellow girr-grub by feel and crushed it, wincing as the sharp bristles pricked her fingers. After dropping the muck into her compost bucket she rinsed her hands under a wall spring. Last year she had sucked a sore finger covered in girr slime and spent the next three days throwing up the lining of her stomach.
Mia was humming as she worked. At least she could still dream. Tali’s vow to hunt down her mother’s killers had never faltered, but in ten years she had learned nothing more about them and this morning’s revelation had extinguished all hope. This morning, her eighteenth birthday and coming-of-age day, Little Nan had given Tali the letter her father had written her mother only days before his own tragic death. The letter that made it clear Tali would be next to die.
Her hand clenched on the stone tray. “It’s not right!” she hissed.
“What?” said Mia.
“Our servitude! Living in terror every day of our lives. Sleeping on stone beds. Being flogged for a scowl or a sideways look. Torn apart from our loved ones—”
“Don’t say such things,” Mia whispered. “What if the guards hear?”
Tali’s voice rose. “Worked to death in the heatstone mines, killed for no reason at all.” The blood was pounding in her head. “We’ve got to throw off our chains and cast the enemy down.”
“Shh!” Mia slapped her hand over Tali’s mouth. “They’ll condemn you to the acidulators.”
Tali yanked the hand away. “If they try,” she said recklessly, “I’ll smash—”
Mia shook her head and backed away, her eyes wide and frightened.
A ululating whistle sounded behind Tali and she sprang aside, too late. The chymical chuck-lash wrapped around her left shoulder and went off, crack-crack-crack.
She staggered several steps, clutching her blistered, bloody shoulder, and through a drift of brown smoke saw Orlyk, the bandy-legged guard, scowling at her. A fringe of chuck-lashes swung from Orlyk’s belt like red bootlaces and she was raising another, ready to throw. Most of the guards were decent enough, but Orlyk was an embittered brute and she had been in a foul temper all day. And if she’d actually heard what Tali had said—
“Lazy, Pale swine,” Orlyk grunted, her blue-tattooed throat rising and falling like a calling toad. “Come the day when Khirrikai leads us to take back our land and we don’t need your kind any more. Oh, soon come the day!”
Tali’s head gave another throb. She fantasised about tearing the chuck-lashes from Orlyk’s belt, driving her to the nearest effluxor with them and dumping her head-first into the filth.
“Tali!” Mia hissed.
Lower your eyes and say, “Yes, Master’.
Tali shivered at the hatred in Orlyk’s bulging eyes, then managed to regain control and forced out the sickening words, “Thank you for correcting me, Master.”
She bowed lower than necessary. One day, Orlyk, one day! Tali knew how to defend herself, for she had practised the bare-handed art with Nurse Bet every week since her mother’s murder, but raising a hand against a guard was fatal.
Orlyk snapped the tip of a chuck-lash at Tali’s left ear, crack-crack, grunted, “Work, slave,” and headed after another victim.
The pain was like a chisel hammered through Tali’s ear. She lost sight for a few seconds, the colours in her head swirled and danced, then her returning sight revealed Orlyk’s broad back as she approached the archway. Scalding blood was dripping from Tali’s ear onto her bare shoulder, and blood-drenched memory roused such fury that she snatched up a chunk of rock.
“Tali, no!” Mia hissed.
As the guard passed the puffball trays, Tali hurled her rock twenty yards and struck a giant puffball at its base. It disgorged an orange torrent of flame-spores, but then the shockwave set off a hundred other puffballs and she watched in horror as the guard disappeared behind churning spore clouds. When they settled, Orlyk was convulsing on the floor, choking, her face and throat swelling monstrously.
“Are you insane?” hissed Mia. “If she dies…”
“I didn’t mean that to happen,” Tali whispered.
“You never do.”
“Sorry, Mia. I’m really sorry.”
Mia ran down the far side of the bench, picked the rock out of the puffball tray and tossed it out of sight. Reaching up to the clangours beside the archway, she struck the square healer’s bell with the ring-rod. The bell’s chime was picked up by trumpet-mouthed bell-pipes running across the ceiling, and shortly Tali made out an echo from outside. Mia came back, glaring at her.
“I’m not taking it any longer,” Tali said defensively. “If I have to die, I’m not going quietly.”
“Leave me out of it,” Mia snapped.
Shortly a lean, austere Cythonian, the red, linked-oval cheek tattoos of a healer standing out on his grey skin, ran in. “What happened?”
“Puffballs went off spontaneously,” Mia lied.
He inspected the tray of burst puffballs and the thick layer of orange spores surrounding Orlyk, then stared at Tali. She kept working, watching him from the corner of an eye. Her cheeks grew hot.
“I tried really hard,” Tali said under her breath once he had turned to Orlyk. “But when she hit me with the second chucklash—”
“I told you not to draw attention to yourself.”
“Mama died because I didn’t act quickly enough, and I’m never—”
“Shh!” said Mia.
Several slaves appeared on the other side of the archway, pretending to work while looking in sideways.
“You!” called the healer to the nearest slave, a thin girl with stringy yellow hair and eyes that must have seen a nightmare. “Run to the spagyrium. Get a sachet of blast-balm and a large head bag, quick!” He handed her a rectangular healer’s token made from shiny tin.
“B-blast-balm and head bag, Master,” she said, head dutifully lowered.
“Large head bag.”
“Master!” She ran out, sweaty feet slap-slapping on the stone floor.
The healer dragged Orlyk away from the spore-covered area, dampened a cloth and began to clean the spores out of her eyes, mouth, ears and nose. Orlyk’s face was scarlet, the swollen skin shiny and balloon-taut. Clotted sounds emerged from her throat as her lungs struggled to draw air.
“Pray she’s all right,” Mia said from the corner of her mouth. “If she dies—”
Tali could not meet her eyes. Why had she been so stupid? The slave reappeared, panting, and handed the healer a clear bag made from the intestines of an elephant eel. The healer pulled it over Orlyk’s head, inflated it with a small bellows, pulled the string on a pillow-like sachet of blast-balm, inserted it inside the bag and held the bag closed around Orlyk’s tattooed neck while he counted to five.
A loud, wet flupp sounded, like gas bubbles bursting at the top of the squattery pits. Mustard-yellow vapour swirled inside the head bag then it shrank tightly against Orlyk’s head. After a minute the healer peeled the bag off, thumped Orlyk in the chest and she took a gurgling breath. Red blisters protruded through the coating of yellow balm but the swelling was already going down.
As the healer and the slave girl carried Orlyk out to the Healery, her black eyes fixed on Tali and, with a convulsive snap of the wrist, Orlyk hurled another chuck-lash. Tali ducked, it soared over her head and struck Mia on her swollen belly, crack-crack-crack.
Stifling a cry, Mia pressed both hands to her wildly quivering belly.
Tali ran to her. “Are you all right?”
Mia nodded and took her hands away to reveal a red and white welt as long as a finger. “Only the tip caught me. Lucky.”
“Lucky,” said Tali, guilt churning in her. “Let me heal—”
“Someone’s coming.” Mia began to squash girr-grubs as though it was her sole delight.
Tali did the same. A replacement guard came in, stared at her for several minutes then went into the next grotto. Through the arch-way, a toothless slave was scattering compost onto trays of mauve, curly-tipped Sprite Caps. One cap could cure the worst toothache within minutes; three caps would cure life almost as quickly. It was not unknown for desperate slaves to take that way out.
“We got away with it.”
Mia touched the welt on her belly and winced. She was paler than usual, and in evident pain. Her belly was churning, the muscles clenching and unclenching.
Any other slave would have sworn at Tali, or slapped her. Tali wished Mia would do the same. Anything would be better than this sickening shame. But Mia was too nice, too gentle. She reminded Tali of her mother.
“I’m really sorry, Mia. I just snapped.”
“What is it with you? You’ve been acting strangely all day.”
“You know what happened to Mama?”
“You’ve told me at least fifty times,” said Mia. “You never stop talking about it.”
Tali hadn’t realised. “Well, according to Father’s letter, Mama’s mother, grandmother and great-grandmother were also killed the same way, and now I’ve come of age I’m marked to be next. Every time someone looks at me, every time I see a stranger pass by, I think they’re the one. I can’t take it any more. I’ve got to—”
“Shh!” Mia jerked her head towards the archway.
Tali glanced at the old slave. “Suba’s no harm. She’s simple.”
“I think she’s a kwissler.” An informer.
Tali moved out of Suba’s sight and pressed her hand against the welt on Mia’s belly, beginning the charm Nurse Bet had taught her when she was little. Most Cythonians turned a blind eye to healing charms, since they weren’t real magery, though a vengeful guard might still chuck-lash you for using one.
Healing charms were all Tali could do. She had practised her mother’s gentle magery every night since her death, but it never worked. Tali’s own gift had only come a handful of times, always when she was furious, though it was neither gentle nor controllable. It exploded out of her, wreaking unintended ruin, then vanished for years. Was that because she was so afraid of it?
To save herself and beat the enemy her mama had spoken of, the one that had fluttered in her nightmares like a wrythen, Tali had to find her buried magery and learn to control it. She had to find it fast, but who could she ask?
Trust no one.
Tali pressed her back against the oozing wall. She always felt vulnerable with an open space behind her. Could Mia know magery? Tali had seen no evidence of any, though those few who had the gift hid it.
“We’ve got to escape,” said Tali.
Another spasm shook Mia’s small frame and she bit back a cry. “Leave me out of it. I’ll soon have a baby to look after.”
“All right, I’ve got to escape, and there’s only one way. Mia, I don’t suppose—”
“I hope you’re not asking what I think you’re asking.” There was no warmth in Mia’s voice now.
Mia checked over her shoulder. “I could be flogged for saying the word. And anyone who does say it is watched thereafter.”
Sweat trickled down Tali’s bare chest to soak her threadbare loincloth. “If I don’t get away, I’m going to be killed.”
Mia avoided her eyes. Maybe she did know magery.
“Mia, I’m desperate.”
“I don’t have the… the gift,” she muttered. “And I don’t know anyone who does.”
Tali felt sure she was lying. “If you were my friend, you’d help me.”
“If you were my friend, you wouldn’t ask,” said Mia, deeply hurt. “Haven’t you done enough to me today?”
“Sorry.” Tali put her arms around Mia. “I am a terrible friend, I know.”
“You’re a wonderful friend,” said Mia, pulling free. “You just—you push too hard.”
She staggered, catching at the bench as a spasm twisted her soft face. Everything about her was soft and sweet. Save for the matter of her belly she would have been the perfect slave.
“It’s not your time yet, is it?” said Tali, holding her up.
The spasm passed and Mia resumed her work. “It’s not due for two months.”
“How did you get pregnant, anyway?”
She smiled. “The usual way.”
But Pale boys were taken away at the age of ten to slave in Cython’s mines, comminuteries, segregators, calciners and foundries, where most were worked to death before the age of thirty. The adult women only saw their partners on monthly mating nights, though, Tali had been told, some men were so weak that they weren’t up to it. Besides, she had never seen Mia with a man. There weren’t enough to go around.
Tali’s stomach rumbled. Food production in the grotto farms, eeleries and poultyards was higher than ever, yet rations had been reduced again last week. Did slaves no longer matter? Why not?
They continued down the outside, steadily filling their buckets with girr-grubs. Mia kept well ahead, avoiding her, and Tali did not raise the topic again. She worked absently, making plan after plan, but all foundered on the same obstacle. No slave had ever escaped Cython, so how could she hope to? Many times she had sought the tunnels Tinyhead had led them along that terrible day, but she had never found them.
As they reached the end of the grotto, Mia gasped and doubled over.
“What is it?” Tali cried, holding her up.
Pink fluid was flooding down her friend’s legs and puddling on the stone floor. Her waters had broken.
“Tali,” wailed Mia, “it’s too early!”
It must be coming because of the chuck-lash. Curse Orlyk! But Tali knew it was her own stupid fault. Mia had warned her, and yet again she had allowed her anger to control her. What a lousy friend she was.
Tali helped Mia to the floor, lifted the loincloth and her hands clenched involuntarily.
“What’s the matter?” Mia grabbed Tali’s wrist.
Tali shivered. Let it be stillborn. If it’s born dead, we can hide the body and she might get away with it.
“Tali?” whispered Mia. “My baby is all right, isn’t it?”
What to say? Tali looked again, but there was no doubt at all.
“It’s small,” she said, standing up to check on the guard in the next grotto. For bearing a Cythonian’s baby Mia would be scourged, and Tali too, for witnessing the crime. “It’ll come quickly.”
“Babies can live at seven months, can’t they?” Mia’s tone was pleading.
“I don’t know.”
“Is it good and pink?”
Of course it’s not pink, Tali wanted to scream, but then the slate-grey baby slipped out. Surely it couldn’t live at seven months. What was she supposed to do? Scourging meant a life of agony that no healing charm could repair. There had to be a solution. But what, what, what? She could not think. Her mind had gone numb. “It’s a boy, but…”
“My beautiful boy!” sighed Mia.
“I don’t think he’s breathing.”
“Doesn’t have to ’til the cord is cut. Give him here.”
Tali cut the cord with her harvesting knife and knotted the end, carefully, respectfully. She picked the tiny baby up, feeling his lungs struggling as she embraced him with her hands and gave him to Mia. If he died, they might escape punishment—no, what sort of a monster was she, wishing that on a helpless infant?
He took a faint breath. “You’ve got to hide him, Mia. Hurry! I’ll say you’ve gone to the squattery to pee.”
“Don’t be silly,” Mia said dreamily. “I’ve just had a baby.”
Tali wanted to slap her. “A Cythonian baby! And you know the penalty.”
“They wouldn’t hurt my baby.” Mia cradled the infant in her arms.
It was like standing beneath a toppling wall. “Come on!” Tali tried to lift her. “If you’re quick, you can still get away with it.”
“Leave me alone,” wailed Mia. “You’re spoiling everything.” She looked down and her face cracked. “Tali, he’s not breathing. Do something.”
The baby’s lips were turning blue. Tali put her hands around his tiny body. Heal, heal! But saving a life was far beyond her skill. He gave a little shudder and lay still. Tears welled in Tali’s eyes. The poor little thing hadn’t had a chance.
As she stood there, not knowing what to do, a rumbling voice echoed through the archway from the next grotto. Her stomach gave a sickening lurch. What was Overseer Banj doing here today? Investigating what had happened to Orlyk, of course.
Guilt rose up in her throat like vomit. She crouched in front of Mia, pressing the baby into her arms. “It’s Banj, checking up. Hide it, quick!”
“Banj won’t hurt me,” said Mia. “Not when I show him my beautiful baby.”
“Your son is gone,” Tali said gently.
“No, he’s not!”
“Mia, he’s dead. Please—”
Mia’s face crumpled. “Why are you doing this to me?”
Banj was kindly, as slave masters went, but he could not overlook a grey baby. “He’ll have both of us scourged.”
“Run away, then,” said Mia, kicking Tali in the knee. “It’s your fault my little boy is dead.”
That hurt all the more because it was true. It was her fault Banj was here, too, and if ever there was a time for risking her mother’s subtle magery it was now. Tali closed her eyes, whispered the words and made the gestures exactly as she had been taught, then focused her will to cast a concealing glamour over the baby. Mist churned in her inner eye and her scar tingled, but when she opened her eyes the baby was still visible.
It was too late to try again. “Put it in my bucket,” she whispered. “I’ll cover it up and carry it out to the composter.”
The compost buckets were often checked in case the slaves were stealing food, and if she were caught the consequences would be dire, but Tali had to make up for the disaster she had caused.
“Lost everything,” choked Mia. “Want to die.”
“You’ll get over it. Soon—”
Mia slapped Tali across the face. “Don’t want to get over my baby. Go away! I hate you!”
The overseer was approaching the archway and the best option for both of them was for Tali to disappear. If no other slave had seen the grey baby, Banj might not punish Mia too severely. Tali kissed her damp cheek then ducked below the benches as he came down the central path. It was the only thing to do, so why did she feel like a faithless friend?
She reached the archway, rinsed her bloody hands under a spring and slipped into the next grotto. Suba had gone and the half dozen slaves were moving away, heads down.
Tali scuttled to the exit and out into the broad passageway, which was sculpted and painted to resemble a resin-pine forest under snow. Water gurgled by in one of the siphons, its stone sides carved to resemble a rivulet with reed beds cut in relief. Where to go? Idle slaves attracted attention; she could not wait here.
She headed for the squattery, then stopped. Further on, the passage was blocked by a Cythonian teacher, a buxom brunette with single, bright blue spot-tattoos on each cheekbone, who was instructing a dozen chattering children in the art of wall sculpting.
“First we take a measure of solu,” the teacher said, pouring a cupful of palest green liquid from an orange-ringed carboy into a bucket. “Be careful with it. The waste alk–” She broke off, colouring. “Forget I said that.”
“Yes, teacher,” chorused the children.
“Solu is a thrice-diluted waste from the segregators, made for us by the master chymister, but it can still burn.” She held out her forearm, where a long red scar cut across her smooth grey skin.
The children stared at the scar, big-eyed. Tali did, too. She had often wondered what solu was made from, that even thrice-diluted waste could do such damage. She stopped to watch, for she had never seen stone carving done up close before.
Every wall in Cython was carved into dioramas of forest or meadow, glade or stream, mountain or pool or wild seashore. Inlaid pieces of glowstone fostered the illusion of distance, as if the cramped caverns extended out into their lost homeland, while water gurgling in the siphons, and air sighing through wind-pipes brought each scene back to human scale.
No people, buildings or roads featured in these dioramas, which depicted a natural paradise empty of humanity. Could they not bear to think of Hightspallers occupying the land that had once been theirs, or was there a darker reason?
“We paint the solu on a small patch of wall, thus.” The teacher dipped a broad Pale-hair brush in the bucket and swept it back and forth across a square yard of stone until the surface began to swell. “We wait one minute.” She consulted the greenstone chrono around her neck, tapping her right sandal as she waited for the toothed wheels to mesh. “Then,” she took up a small mallet and a chisel with a curved edge, “we carve away the unwanted stone like curd.”
Within another minute she had cut a hollow elbow-deep into the softened stone and, at its centre, shaped a noble tree with spreading branches. A lump on one branch became a predatory wildcat, its long tail hanging down. It was staring out of the forest and, as the teacher shaped its eyes with a stone pick, it seemed to wake and the children gave a massed sigh.
“That’s boring,” said a round-faced boy. “Can I carve a crocodile eating a slave-girl?”
The teacher smacked his face. “No, you impertinent lout.”
“Why not?” said the boy.
“Only those scenes set down in the fourth book of the Solaces are permitted.”
She turned back to the wall. “Now, children, we roughen the fur with four-times-diluted etchu.” She painted liquid from a yellow-ringed carboy onto the cat, then washed it off at once. “And finally, to make smooth areas we use sheenu—”
“Why do we have to live in this horrible place?” said the troublesome boy.
“Because the enemy stole Cythe from us.”
“Who were we before we came here?”
“We don’t ask that question.”
“We’re not allowed to ask any questions,” the boy muttered.
“You don’t need to. The matriarchs follow the Solaces, and the Solaces know best.”
“I don’t think we ever lived in Cythe,” said the boy. “I think the matriarchs made it all up.”
The teacher’s face went purple, then she pulled a black wafer from her bag and said furiously, “Take this to your father.”
The boy’s grey skin went as pale as Tali’s. “Sorry, teacher.”
The teacher thrust the black wafer in his face. “Go! You have no place here.”
The boy took the wafer and stumbled away, wailing. No one else in the class said a word and, after a minute or two, the teacher resumed her carving, though now her hand was shaking. It was rare for the enemy to reveal any dissension.
Tali headed back past the air wafters, praying that Mia had hidden the baby and she was all right. Here the only sound was the whisper of the wafter blades and the soft panting of the slaves who drove them, walking their treadmills hour after hour, year after year, life after life.
The gentle air current cooled her sweat-drenched skin. One of the treadmill runners made a faint squeal-squeak. It needed greasing but the best grease in Cython came from the fat of dead slaves and there was never enough—“Slave!” roared Banj, from inside.
Tali jumped. Cythonians never called the Pale by their names but she knew he meant her. The treadmill walkers did not look up—if she was in trouble, they wanted to know nothing about it.
What was she to say? Tali was better than most slaves at putting on an act and telling convincing lies. A heap of spilled compost lay against the wall, so she dirtied her feet in it and headed into the grottoes, holding her belly.
Banj, a compact, handsome man built like a bag of boulders, held up the dead baby. “Slave, what do you know about this?”
His tattooed face softened as he looked at Tali and he tugged on his lower lip. Banj didn’t like scourging slaves. Could they get away with it? Then she glanced at the baby and it took all her self-control to stifle a gasp, to compose her face.
“N-nothing, Overseer.” Tali clutched her belly, grimaced and looked down at her muck-covered feet. “Got a flux of the bowels.” She heaved, as if she were going to throw up. “Been at the squattery.”
Her stomach muscles tightened. She really did feel ill. Mia must have been out of her mind with grief—in trying to save herself a scourging, she had earned the Living Blade for them both.
Mia had lied. She did have the gift, but far better she’d not used it at all than in such a feeble way. She had turned the baby’s grey skin pink, like a Pale child, but the night-black eyes and the sturdy little Cythonian frame proved otherwise. The faint aura surrounding the baby was an amateur’s mistake, proof that she’d done it with forbidden magery.
Mia caught Tali’s eye and a stricken look crossed her face at being caught out in the lie. Sorry, she mouthed. With Banj watching, Tali wasn’t game to reply.
He studied Tali’s hot face and her dirty feet, staring into her eyes as if trying to read her thoughts. It was hard to breathe; the sodden air stuck in her throat like glue.
Finally Banj grunted. “You’re lucky today is Lyf’s Day, slave.”
The most sacred day in the Cythonian calendar. Tali choked. They were safe! It was unbelievable, but it had happened. She bowed to the floor. “Thank you, Overseer. Thank—”
“You’re on a warning. Offend again and it’s the acidulatory for you.”
Then Banj drew Mia to her feet and, still holding her hand, bowed until his broad forehead touched the backs of her fingers.
Shivers scalloped tracks all the way up Tali’s spine, because only one circumstance ever led the Cythonians to bow to their slaves. She sought for her gift, sought it recklessly, suicidally, but it failed her again.
“Alas,” said Banj, and Tali knew his regret was genuine, “not even today can I forgive a Pale cursed with the abomination of magery. That art is forbidden to all except our long-lost kings, and you know the penalty.”
From the broad sheath on his back he drew a long hilt which terminated in a plate-sized annulus of transparent metal, wickedly bladed all around. It sang as it moved through the air and the colours of the spectrum flickered across it before settling to red.
Mia’s eyes widened, as if she finally understood what was happening. Her lips moved, Tali, help!
There was nothing Tali could do. One second Mia was warm, alive and real. The next, after a precise and poetic sweep of the overseer’s Living Blade, she became a human fountain, painting the low ceiling crimson.
And for an hour afterwards the drunken blade kept singing.
The ice leviathan rolled over the shanty town beyond the eastern palace wall, pulverising it and squeezing its miserable occupants dry. Their blood foamed into the leviathan’s transparent tanks, the flattened husks were ejected at the rear. The tanks were already half full and one pass through the hive that was Palace Ricinus would fill them completely.
This is your fault, but you can stop it.
Go away, Rix gasped, but the split-ice voice kept echoing inside his head.
Two nights from now, at midnight, you will go down.
You will cut it out and bring it to me.
White worms were crawling all over Rix’s face. Go away!
It belongs to me.
Please leave me alone.
This is the only way for you to atone.
But I’ve done nothing wrong.
The voice became low, cunning. Remember the cellar, and the blood on your hands?
No, no, no!
Obeying me is the only way you can gain peace.
I’m not doing it. Get out of my head.
If you refuse, this is what will happen…
The leviathan crushed the outer walls of the palace, then the inner, before toppling a dozen towers and smashing the Great Hall, the wonder and the glory of Hightspall, to powder. Finally, as it loomed outside Rix’s tower, destroying everything that House Ricinus had achieved over four generations, coming directly for him because of what he’d done and what he refused to do, he screamed.
“What’s the matter with you now?”
He roused, thrashing. A lovely young woman was shaking him, her breasts quivering in the golden light of his bedchamber. She was enchanting, all bosom and bottom and a waist that could be circled with a headband, yet he could not remember her name.
“Blood,” he whispered. “It squeezed the blood right out of them, into tanks.”
She thrust Rix back onto the pillows. “You’re sick! Sick as dog vomit.”
She marched out the door, across the hall and into Tobry’s bed-chamber. There was a mutter of feminine complaint, then Rix heard Tobry’s amused drawl.
“Sorry, Liana. There isn’t room.”
“I’m not staying with him!” cried Rix’s lover. “He’s off his head.”
Tobry sighed theatrically, then said, “Oh, all right. Squeeze up, girls.”
Laughter tinkled. Rix slumped against the headboard of his bed, shuddering.
“I’m slipping out for a minute,” said Tobry. “Don’t do anything I can’t do better.”
He came through, wrapping a robe around his lean, duel-scarred form. Tobry was only of middle height, wiry and not handsome, but there was a look in his grey eyes that every girl wanted more of and no mother could ever trust. He drew up a dainty chair and sat by Rix’s bed.
“You’re dripping sweat. Another bad dream?”
“Ugh!” Rix rubbed his eyes, trying to wipe the images away. It was both his strength and his weakness that he could imagine the violence as clearly as if it had been painted. Two words kept ringing through his head and he could not rid himself of them. It’s time. IT’S TIME.
“Much worse… and more urgent. I dreamed I was in my salon, in a trance… then moving pictures appeared on the heatstone… as if someone had sent them to me. Do you think that’s possible?”
“Dreams come from inside, not out,” said Tobry. “Wait here.”
He went out, then returned with a thick, square bottle and a vase-shaped goblet into which he poured a half measure of grey fluid.
Rix’s nostrils tingled. “What’s that?”
“A traditional remedy—best to take it in a gulp.”
Rix did so, and wished he hadn’t. It seared up his nose, leaving him breathless and his eyes watering, then burnt all the way down. And it stank.
“What the hell’s in it? Smells like stink-damp.”
“Sulphur water plus various volatiles and mercapts.” Tobry clapped Rix’s cheeks, grinning. “Rosy! It’s already doing you good.”
The nightmare was fading, though not the fear behind it. “They’re getting worse. I’ve got to get away, Tobe, I can’t take any more.”
“Any more what?”
Rix told him about the ice leviathan. He did not mention the crackly voice like breaking ice, for he never remembered what it had said after he woke, but thought of the night after tomorrow made him feel so rotten that he wanted to run and never come back. “My nightmares are full of blood and butchery, and the fall of our house.”
“After what happened to my family, I wouldn’t wish that on anyone,” said Tobry.
“The other night I dreamed someone was rubbing blood into my wounds. That’s got to be an omen, hasn’t it?”
“Dreams don’t mean anything. Have a drink and go to sleep.” Yawning, Tobry looked towards his bedchamber.
Rix felt the tension ease, the horrors fade. Nothing shocked Tobry, nor could anything faze him and, though he took few things seriously, he was as solid as the foundations of Palace Ricinus.
“It seemed so real. Could Cython be building an ice leviathan to attack us?”
“They’d hardly use something that’d melt when the sun came out.”
“And I keep having these feelings…”
“Of impending doom?” said Tobry helpfully.
“As if the world is about to collapse around me.” Rix glanced around the magnificent bedchamber, the walls of which were lined with yellow painted silk. The steepled cedar ceiling was inlaid with ivory and ebony, and touched with gilt. “Me, of all people. I mean…”
“Unlike me,” said Tobry with a wry grin, “you’re tall, handsome and heir to the biggest fortune in Hightspall. You turn twenty in a few weeks, and then you can spend as if there’s no—” He broke off. “Sorry.”
“No tomorrow,” Rix intoned darkly. “You might as well say it.”
“Stop fretting over nothing. You may be a conservative, dimwitted, irresponsible layabout—” Tobry laughed. “In fact, you are.”
“But again, unlike me, you’ve never done anything truly bad. Or have you?”
“Not that I know of,” Rix muttered. So why did he feel so festering inside, as though Hightspall’s troubles ran right down the aeons to him?
“Don’t take everything so seriously,” said Tobry. “What can you possibly have to worry about?”
“Apart from Father? And Mother’s crazy plan?”
“I’m sure she’s thought it through,” Tobry said carefully. “Lady Ricinus—”
“Oh yes. Mother calculates everything to a nicety.” Rix bit the tip of his tongue at the disloyalty. “Forget I said that. I know she has our best interests at heart.”
“She thinks of nothing save how to raise House Ricinus higher,” said Tobry ambiguously. “And with plague and grandgaw bringing down the ancient families wholesale, there’s never been a finer time to better one’s own.”
“House Ricinus hasn’t been touched by plague or pox in a hundred years,” said Rix.
“Something else to be thankful for.” Tobry went across to the heatstone and put his back to it. “Why don’t you try a new painting? That’s cheered you up before.”
Rix was a gifted artist, the best of the new generation, the chancellor said, but now he felt goose pimples rising on his arms. “One or two of my paintings have been divinations. I’m afraid…”
“That what you paint might come true?”
“Or I might paint something I don’t want to see.” Rix’s art was everything to him. It was truth in a land of lies, an island of beauty in a corrupt, ugly world, and the one thing that House Ricinus’s wealth had not bought.
He picked up a glass sphere from the bedside table and rotated it in his hands. Inside, a master craftsman had built a perfect model of Palace Ricinus in silver and gold—all eighty-eight towers, every dome and turret and buttress, even the fountains, pools and gardens. The chief magian himself had enchanted the sphere so it would mimic the weather outside, but lately it had only shown one season—wind-blasted winter.
“Don’t drop it, whatever you do,” said Tobry.
Rix had never liked it, priceless and perfect though it was, for magery unnerved him. He considered hurling the miniature into the fireplace. “Why not?”
“Considering your nightmare, it would be a bad omen.”
Rix set the model back where it had come from, moodily watching the driving snow plastering the walls of the tiny palace, then sprang out of bed. He swung on a red and gold kilt and went down the hall to his salon, a six-sided chamber with a tented ceiling, dimly lit by an enormous heatstone. He looked at it askance, afraid of what he would see, for there was a wrongness about it, something brooding and baleful. But the heatstone displayed only its normal enigmatic shimmer.
“I could understand it if you were having the nightmares,” said Rix over his shoulder.
He turned on the stopcock and caught a whiff of stink-damp. Using a flint snapper on a long pole, he ignited the gaslights in a series of small explosions and the rotten-egg stench was replaced by the cleansing odour of burnt sulphur.
“Because I’m a gentleman fallen so low I have to live on my wits?”
“You’re not a gentleman.”
“No, I’m the Lord of Nothing,” Tobry said drily, “family disgraced, ancestral manor burnt down, lands confiscated to pay our debts and not a penny to my name.” He brushed away an imaginary tear. “Forced to rely on the charity of my friends, and sleep in their hard beds—”
“With soft women,” retorted Rix, managing a smile. “My women.”
“Someone has to keep the poor girls warm after they flee from your bed.”
The smile vanished; Rix wasn’t feeling that good humoured. “Make yourself useful and ring the bell. I’m starving.”
Tobry did so and, despite the hour, a manservant appeared at the outer door within seconds. Night or day, when the family rang, the servants jumped, or else. At the end of each month Lady Ricinus rated all the palace servants, and those in the lowest tithe were flogged as a lesson to all.
“Food and drink, please, Choom,” said Tobry. “Something traditional, I think.”
“At once,” said Choom, who was so old and thin that his joints creaked as he walked. He lowered his voice. “I heard a cry. Is the young master—”
“I’m afraid so.”
Rix scowled and stalked into his dressing room. Shortly, Tobry joined him, wearing his own kilt, black shot with threads of scarlet and gold.
“May I?” Tobry said, indicating the racks of garments.
Despite their long friendship, he never presumed, and Rix appreciated that. He waved a hand. Tobry went down the other end of the rack, where Rix kept clothes in his indigent friend’s size. Rix selected a cream shirt, plain save for puffed-out shoulders and a diagonal sash of white lace across the front.
He climbed the stairs to his white studio, which encircled the core of his personal tower like a doughnut, and leaned on a malachite windowsill, looking down across the lawn to the shores of Lake Fumerous, the sapphire glory of Hightspall. The nightmare had been so real that he half expected to see the leviathan approaching, but the palace gardens, lit by a thousand hazy gaslights, were empty save for a gang of navvies in a trench, packing another layer of asbestos around the main hot water tubule.
“Waste of time,” said Tobry from behind. “The heat’s gone and it’s never coming back.”
Caulderon had been built on a geyser field and for two thousand years a network of tubules had carried hot groundwater around the city, but a century ago it had started to cool. Now, no amount of lagging could retain what little heat was left.
“ ’Course it will,” said Rix, without looking around. “We just have to delve deeper.”
“The last hot-rock bakery went out of business two weeks ago, and it was four hundred feet down. And all the public scalderies have closed.”
“No wonder the common folk are on the nose.”
“In my grandfather’s day, even the poorest folk were well fed and clean.”
“Why don’t they use heatstones?”
“Your mother would love that.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Nothing,” Tobry said hastily. “You have to be wealthy to afford heatstones, Rix. Life in the shanty towns is grim, and getting grimmer. The steam mills and screw pumps have to be driven by firewood boilers and we’ve stripped every hill bare for ten miles—”
“Enough bad news,” snapped Rix. “Did you bring anything to eat?”
He turned and Tobry was levitating a tray above his head.
Involuntarily, Rix clenched his fists. “Do you have to? You know I hate anything uncanny.”
“It’s hardly magery at all,” Tobry said mildly. “You know what a dilettante I am. Never done a day’s work in my life.”
A waggle of his fingers and the black bottle poured a goblet of a brown, foul-smelling wine. The tray turned upside down and floated towards Rix, yet nothing spilled or fell. Despite Tobry’s self-deprecation, his forehead had a faint sheen. He was showing off, just to be annoying.
Rix resisted the urge to swat the tray out of the air. Stay calm. It’s just his way. He clung to the carved green windowsill until his heart steadied and the pounding in his ears stopped.
“Why do you hate magery?” said Tobry.
“Don’t know. I always have, since I was a kid.”
“Did someone use it on you once?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Mother protected me from everything.” Rix took a goblet, sniffed and made a face. “Yuk! What’s this?”
“Fishwine. It’s traditional. I know how important that is to you.”
Tobry was mocking him because House Ricinus was so recently risen. Rix sipped. The wine left a foul taste in his mouth, but he drank it anyway. He wasn’t going to be beaten that easily.
“Did you bring anything to eat?”
Tobry handed him a flat oval of hard yellow clay, the size of a small platter. His eyes were gleaming; he seemed to be restraining himself.
“What is it?” Rix said suspiciously.
“Never heard of it.”
“It’s a rare delicacy. Very traditional in the oldest families.” “Baked?” Rix sniffed the clay, which had no odour.
“No, just matured for a hundred years. Or more.”
Rix cracked the clay, gingerly. The hundred-year cod was brown as peat, hard, and had no odour. “This isn’t one of your jokes, is it?”
“Would I joke about Hightspall’s noble traditions?”
“You make fun of everything else I hold dear.”
Rix picked a small piece out with the corner of a knife, put it in his mouth then, gagging, ran to the window and spat it out. “That’s the most disgusting thing I’ve ever tasted.”
“Too traditional for you?” Tobry was smirking.
Rix scrubbed his mouth with a handkerchief. “I don’t see you eating any.”
“I only live for the present.”
Rix stalked away and uncovered a ten-foot-long canvas on which a nobleman in blood-spattered coil-armour was severing the head of a monstrous wyverin. The lava-streaked volcanoes in the background were nearly complete, and the wyverin had been painted in intricate detail, even down to the reflections in each pearly scale, but the nobleman was little more than a sketch. Only the purple, bloated nose looked finished.
“Not your father’s best feature,” Tobry said quietly.
How long could Lord Ricinus keep it up, Rix wondered. Surely the drinking would kill him before much longer. What had driven him to such sodden excess, anyway?
“How can I do it to him?” he said aloud.
“I’m sure he’d want you to paint him the way he is.”
“Father wouldn’t give a damn. It’s Mother who ordered the portrait, and if it’s not finished in time she’ll crucify me. But that’s not what I meant.”
Rix opened a pot of red ochre and dabbed some on his palette. He mixed colours, picked up a large brush then threw it down with another heavy sigh.
“You used to love painting,” said Tobry, sitting down. He brought out a liqueur bottle from behind his back, filled his own goblet and leaned back.
“I still do.” Rix selected a smaller brush. “When I’m working, all my troubles disappear, but this picture won’t come right.”
“Your heart’s not in it,” said Tobry. “You don’t want to do it.” He sipped the liqueur and his eyes rolled upwards in bliss.
Rix’s knuckles whitened around the brush, which snapped. He tossed it aside, irritated by the pleasure his friend could take from the simplest things while he, Rix…“Of course I want to do it,” he said. “It’s for Father’s great day.”
“When is his Honouring?” said Tobry.
Rix glanced at the cherry wood month-clock by the stairs. The knife-blade hands seemed to be spinning towards him. He blinked, focused and it was just a clock.
“Eleven days,” he said ominously. At this rate he wouldn’t have his father’s face finished by then, and the whole portrait had to be completed by the Honouring. That it not be done was unthinkable, for he was a dutiful son, and yet…
“Would you like me to leave you alone?”
“You’d better get back to my women,” Rix said curtly, collecting crimson paint on the tip of another brush.
Laughter echoed up the stairs. “They seem happier without me.” Tobry rubbed his chin. “And considering how hard I tried to please them, I find that a tad ironic.”
“You find everything ironic.” Rix dabbed at the line of his father’s twisted mouth, then scraped it off. “You don’t take anything seriously.”
“With the world about to end in ice or fire,” Tobry said lightly, “why should I? Life is a joke at our expense. I sometimes wonder if the entire universe isn’t a farce.”
As Rix reached out to the canvas, he felt the palace closing around him like dungeon walls. He was exhausted, but if he went back to bed the nightmare would batter him again, and again. He could not stay here, must not be here the night after tomorrow—
“Are you all right?” said Tobry.
“What?” Rix felt dislocated, as though a segment had been snipped from his life.
“You’ve been as still as a gargoyle for a good five minutes.”
Rix cast the brush down. “I can’t do it… Come on.”
“Where are we going?” Tobry rose lazily, goblet in hand.
“Anywhere but here.” Rix thought for a moment. “Let’s go hunting in the mountains.” He held his breath, waiting for Tobry to tell him what a bad idea it was, hoping he would. “Don’t try to talk me out of it,” Rix said half-heartedly.
“I wasn’t planning to. I love it when people run away from their responsibilities.”
“I’m not running away—” Of course he was, and Lady Ricinus would be furious. Rix stopped, wryly imagining her listing him into the month’s flogging tithe. He wouldn’t put it past her.
“I’d encourage you to neglect all your duties,” said Tobry, studying the canvas. “For instance, it can’t possibly take eleven days to finish this. Leave it ’til the last night, then fling the paint on with a bucket. None of the philistines at the Honouring will know the difference.”
Had Tobry been talking to anyone else, Rix would have laughed. “Oh, shut up and come on. Bring the liqueur.” Was he turning into his drunken father already? “No, leave it.”
“What say I bring it and you don’t have any?” Tobry said cheekily.
“I suppose we might need it,” Rix rationalised. “For the cold, I mean.”
He had to get away from Lady Ricinus who controlled every minute of his life, from the terrorised servants and the beautiful palace which was as suffocating as a coffin. Tobry didn’t know how lucky he was, having nothing.
Rix ran down the stairs to the dressing room, exchanged his kilt for mustard-yellow woollen trews, selected a pair of black knee-boots and heaved them on. He reached for his favourite weapon, a magnificent red broadsword he had been given on his seventeenth birthday, then hesitated.
“Is that a new one?” said Tobry, pointing to a battered scabbard at the back. A square hilt, tightly wound with worn black wire, protruded from it.
“Actually, it’s a family heirloom, and ages-old. Mother told me to use it but I don’t like it.”
“It’s too light. I’m afraid it’ll break,” Rix lied.
Tobry carried the scabbard out into the salon, drew the sword, sliced the air across and down, then diced it. “It’s beautifully balanced.” He flicked the tip, ting. “Lovely metalwork. It’s titane, almost unbreakable. And damnably hard to forge.”
It had a bluish tint and the blade was slightly curved, like a sabre, though it had cutting edges on front and back. An inscription down the blade was so worn as to be illegible save for the first two words, Heroes must.
“Heroes must?” said Tobry, looking from the blade to Rix, then back to the blade. “What does that remind me of?”
Rix had no idea. “Mother said it’s enchanted to protect its owner,” he said reluctantly. His throat tightened. He thumped his chest a couple of times to clear his air passages.
Tobry ran a finger along the flat of the blade and pale yellow swirls appeared in the air around it. “No ordinary charm, though.”
“What do you mean?”
“It’s not meant to work against soldiers, or wild beasts.”
“Really? What’s the good of it, then?”
“It protects against magery.”
Sweat formed in Rix’s armpits. “Why would anyone attack me with magery?”
“I can’t imagine,” Tobry said drily. He handed it to Rix and went out.
The sword jerked like a dowsing rod and swung around until its quivering tip pointed towards the heatstone. For a few seconds Rix strained to hold it, then it stilled like any other lifeless blade.
Was the magery of a sword enchanted to protect its owner worse than the attack of some uncanny creature? Probably not. He slammed it into its scabbard and belted it on, shuddering. After considering his kilt, head to one side, he tossed it into his bag in case the weather turned warm.
Tobry reappeared with a small case containing balms and potions, bandages and needles.
“What’s that for?” said Rix irritably.
“When some beast tears your legs off, I’ll be able to sew the loose skin over your stumps,” Tobry said casually.
Rix felt a phantom pain at mid-thigh level, but shook it off.
“Why go at this time of night?” asked Tobry.
“It’ll be light when we get there.”
“And by the time the servants wake Lady Ricinus, she won’t be able to order you back.”
Rix didn’t bother to reply. Tobry knew him better than he knew himself.
“What are we hunting?” Tobry went on.
“I don’t care, the more savage the better. I need to cleanse myself.”
“I can’t tell! But there’s something wrong inside me.”
“Drinking and wenching aren’t crimes. Even Lady Ricinus encourages you in that.”
“I’d feel better if she disapproved. What kind of a mother urges her only son into debauchery?”
Tobry opened his mouth, but wisely closed it again.
“Something is badly wrong with the world,” said Rix. “And I feel as though it’s all down to me.”
“Hightspall’s troubles began over a century ago.”
“I know. Yet I still feel it’s my fault!”
Tobry frowned at that. “Well, I’m not sure that killing some unfortunate beast is the answer.”
“Right now,” Rix said bleakly, “it’s the only answer I’ve got.”
Tali kept seeing that frozen moment—the singing blade, Mia’s body on its feet and her eyes begging Tali to save her even as her head flew through the air. She could not take it in, tried to deny it, rationalised that Mia had chosen to use her feeble magery, but Tali knew she had caused the tragedy. After her mother’s death she had vowed not to be a docile slave. Now Mia was dead because she had been so reckless. She would never get it right.
If only she hadn’t lost her temper with Orlyk. If only she hadn’t woken with the blinding headaches that had driven her into that uncontrollable rage. If only she hadn’t ducked the last chuck-lash. But she had, and gentle Mia, whose quick thinking had saved her life, was dead in her place. Nothing would ever be the same again.
Why were the innocent Pale held as slaves, anyway? Why was the wonderful gift of magery such a crime? What gave their masters the right of life and death over Mia, or any of them?
No other Pale posed such questions; they accepted the slaves’ lot. Tali’s aged tutors, Nurse Bet, Waitie and Little Nan, had always shushed Tali when she spoke up, and the other slaves avoided her. Only Mia had stood by her.
The body had been taken away and the other Pale were back at work, as far from Tali’s grotto as possible. She was tainted now and they wanted nothing to do with her. She looked down at the blood spotting her hands. Nothing could bring Mia back—the best Tali could do was offer her own life in recompense.
She laid her right hand over the blood on her left, took a breath, then said, “On this precious blood, I swear to make up for what’s been done to the Pale. For you, Mia. And your poor little boy who never had a chance.”
It was done. A binding blood oath. But first she had to escape and she did not know how. In Cython, only docile, obedient Pale survived. Those who displayed boldness or daring earned a one-way trip to the heatstone mines. Yet to find a way out she had to be bolder than any of them.
Work in the grottoes had finished early because of Lyf ’s Day, but it was too early for dinner and Tali wasn’t ready to face the accusing stares of the other Pale. She wandered down the outside passage to the entrance of a partly excavated tunnel. A team of Cythonian miners had been working there for weeks, using the chymical technique of splittery to cut a defile down to the next level.
A slave gang was pushing a heavily laden rock cart up the slope, the women gasping and grunting with every heave. Sweat carved runnels down their dusty faces. I’m going to free you, too, Tali thought. Every one of you.
Down at the workface, a Cythonian miner was trowelling the rusty, chymical powder called thermitto into channels chiselled into the rock. He turned away and a red-faced firer wearing smoked-glass goggles packed a length of silvery ribbon into the thermitto, ignited it and stood well back. Tali, who had seen splittery done before, hastily averted her eyes.
The thermitto burnt with a roar and such blinding, blue-white ferocity that molten rock trickled from the ends of the channel. Shortly, the rock split with resounding cracks and a second gang heaved the debris out of the way. The miners began to set up the next shot. Tali continued.
But a hundred yards past the tunnel she stopped, for there was a ward post around the corner and if she approached without a pass the guards would sound the clangours.
Having nowhere to go, she crept into an empty breeze-room where a little waterwheel in a stone flume drove a set of ticking box-fans, pumping air down to the lower levels of Cython. She huddled in its darkest corner, holding her throbbing head, and forced the bloody images of Mia’s death out of her mind. She had to focus. The Cythonians were watching her, her enemy might be after her already, and she had to find a way out where no one ever had.
How could she save herself when she did not know who was hunting her? Ticker-tick-sniffle-tick. The box-fans might have been counting down her remaining moments. Or mocking her increasing panic as she struggled to think of any plan to escape.
There were only two possibilities: to find an unknown way out of Cython, or develop a plan to get through one of the four exits. But after years of searching, she had already exhausted the first possibility. And though a master of disguise might make her way through one of the four guarded exits, Tali had no such skills. Her only hope was magery, the key to everything.
She wiped her sweaty face. Cython was always sweltering and seemed to grow hotter every year. There came a muffled boom, the floor shook and an acrid smell gushed up from the cracked flange around the air duct. Absently, Tali waved it away. Peculiar bangs, shakes and reeks were commonplace here, from the digester chambers, amalgamators, abluters, sublimaters and elixerators on the chymical level below.
“Alkoyl spill!” someone roared, distantly. “Get help!” and the healers’ bell began to ring.
Tali did not move—the Pale were not permitted to enter the lower levels. From down the passage she made out the squeaking axles of the rock carts, the crack of stone cloven by splittery and, once, a low rumble that could have been part of the excavation falling in.
She looked around distractedly. The breeze-room diorama offered an enticing glimpse of freedom, a steep mountainside where grey rocks angled up from cropped grass scattered with clumps of yellow sun-daisies. She imagined the doorway as a portal through which she could walk to safety, though even if she’d had command of her gift such magery was as far off as the moon.
Tali’s mouth went dry—there was someone in the breeze-room with her. Someone who had been waiting for her, hunting her? She rose to a crouch and began to edge along the wall. How had her hunter known she would come in here, anyway?
No one could have known; Tali hadn’t known herself until she had reached the doorway. She stood up, peered over the box-fans, and started. A pair of huge hazel eyes, the left one black and bruised, stared at her from a grubby, tear-smeared face.
“What’s yer name?” said the girl, who looked about ten. A livid handprint stood out on her left cheek.
“Tali. Who are you?”
“Who’s been hitting you?”
Rannilt shrugged. “Why are you hidin’? Are they pickin’ on you too?”
She had a pinched face, a sharp little chin and unusually dark hair for a Pale—almost black. Both knees were scabbed and yellowing bruises covered her thin arms and legs.
“Not exactly,” said Tali, wishing the girl would go away. “Better get back to work or you’ll be in trouble.” She returned to her hiding place.
Rannilt scurried around the box-fans and settled beside her. “I’m always in trouble.”
“Well, I’m sure your mother is looking for you.”
“She’s dead,” said Rannilt with a tragic sniffle. She wiped her nose in a shiny streak up her forearm, looked up at Tali, fat tears welling in her eyes, then said hopefully, “You could be my new mother.”
“Don’t be silly,” Tali said as kindly as she could. “Off you go now, I’m really busy.”
“You’re not doin’ nothin’.” Rannilt peered into Tali’s eyes. “You look really sad.”
Tali choked, and suddenly it flooded out of her. “My best friend got the Living Blade today, and it’s all my fault.” She sank her head in her hands and wept as she had not done since she was a little girl.
Impulsively, Rannilt threw her arms around Tali and hugged her. “There, there. It’ll get better, you’ll see.”
Tali knew it wouldn’t, but could hardly say so to an urchin so much worse off than she was. She wiped her eyes.
“Got some gummery.” Rannilt unfolded a toadstool skin wrapper to reveal a grubby orange chunk the size of her fist.
Tali salivated. She hadn’t had the sweet since childhood. “Where did you get that?”
“Nicked it from an enemy dinner trolley,” Rannilt said proudly. “Here.” She cracked the chunk in half and, after a moment’s hesitation, offered Tali the larger piece.
“You could be flayed alive for that,” Tali whispered. All slaves stole food, though only the most reckless took it from the enemy’s table.
“Got quick fingers.” Rannilt held up her free hand. Her fingers were crooked, as if the bones had been broken and had set badly.
Tali could not refuse the child’s earnest generosity. “Thank you.” She broke a corner off the chunk, which was oozing wasp-honey, and handed the rest back. “I’m not very hungry just now.”
It was a lie. Slaves were always hungry.
She was licking her fingers when a line of male slaves staggered past bearing massive crates on their shoulders, escorted by burly Cythonians with grim expressions. The slaves were gaunt and hollow-eyed, and all wore baggy knee-pants, for the enemy considered exposure of the male thigh to be obscene.
“Shh!” said Tali, pulling Rannilt close.
She had never seen male slaves labouring here before. They were held prisoner near the mines and foundries where they worked, and only brought to the women’s quarters for a few days a month, to breed more Pale.
“What are men doin’ here in daytime?” said Rannilt.
A balding Cythonian guard stopped at the doorway, peering in with eyes so black they looked like holes in his head. The hot blood drained from Tali’s face and her breath thickened in her throat. He seemed agitated. Was he after her? If he came inside he must see them. She squeezed Rannilt’s thin wrist, keep still.
Outside, an emaciated slave stumbled, dropped his crate and it smashed open, spilling dozens of fist-sized, bizarrely shaped metal objects across the passage. Objects with too many legs, and jaws like iron traps, that went clacking and skittering in all directions. With a scutter-click-clack, one shot a foot into the air and its toothed jaws tore into the slave’s calf. He shrieked, knocked it off in a spray of blood and Tali recognised him.
She covered her mouth; she had almost cried out his name. It was Sidon, Nurse Bet’s son. Tali had been friends with him when they were little. Sidon was only two years older than her but his eyes had the death longing in them and his curly red hair had been charred off.
The bald guard turned away, raising a chuck-lash and shouting hoarsely, “Get the skritters. Now!”
Tali breathed again. He was just another guard, nothing to do with her.
Sidon drew on an armoured gauntlet and hobbled after the bloody skritter. As he bent to grab it, pieces of crisped skin the size of a hand flaked off his back. He looked like a roasted poulter.
“Poor man,” whispered Rannilt, wringing Tali’s forearm between her hands. “What have they done to him?”
“That’s what happens when you work in the heatstone mines.”
What had Sidon done, to be sent to the mines so young? He would be dead in days and it would kill Bet, too.
Tali could not look at him without imagining her father dying the same way, slaving for the vile trade that had caused so many deaths. Her mother and father had loved each other desperately, their passion all the stronger because they saw so little of each other, and his death had shattered her.
Cursed heatstones! They were unnatural, and the Cythonians were afraid to go near them, but they were not afraid to profit from the Pale’s agony, the stinking hypocrites.
Newly cut heatstones were barged down the floatillery to the neutral Merchantery on the southern shore of the lake. There they were bought in private rooms by nationless Vicini traders, and immediately sold, in other private rooms, to Hightspall. Neither Cython nor Hightspall soiled their hands by trading directly with the enemy, and everyone profited. Everyone save the Pale, she thought bitterly, and who cared about them?
“They got all kinds of lotions at the healery—” said Rannilt. “The mine is a punishment. Men are sent there to die. They don’t get lotions.”
With a strangled sniff, Rannilt closed her mouth, and kept it closed for a minute before the next question burst out of her.
“What were those horrible things?” she said, once the skritters had been collected and the slaves driven on. “Were they alive?”
“I don’t know,” said Tali, swallowing. She had never seen anything like them, but the one that had attacked Sidon had been scarily fast. Did the enemy plan to use them on the Pale? She imagined one creeping towards her while she was asleep and bit down a scream.
“Can I stay with you?” said Rannilt. “Please.”
Tali was tempted, for the girl was generous, and in great need. It was hard to refuse her, but there were thousands of children like her in Cython. Besides, Tali was a danger to everyone around her.
“I’m sorry. Run back to work, Rannilt, before they notice you’re missing.”
The girl went, with many a big-eyed backward glance, and Tali returned to her previous thoughts. Her father, Genry, had also been looking for a way out, for himself, her mother, Iusia, and my precious daughter.
She wiped her eyes. He had loved her enough to die for her, yet all she remembered of him was a thin, sad-eyed man covered in bruises. If he had found a way out, Genry had not lived to tell Iusia about it. He had died in the heatstone mine on Tali’s sixth birthday.
Her mother’s murderers had been Hightspallers, her own people, but neither the whining man nor the crab-fingered woman was her real enemy. Nor was the treacherous Cythonian, Tinyhead. Tali’s real enemy was never seen, never heard, her mother had said, but he flutters in my nightmares like a foul wrythen.
A wrythen was a terrible spectre from the past, far stronger than a feeble ghost or spirit. Wrythens were said to be immortal and rumoured to have powers of magery that made them invincible. The mere thought of such an unknown, unknowable creature turned her bones to water. How could she hope to defeat one?
Had the wrythen ordered her four direct female ancestors murdered in the same way, over nearly a hundred years? Why would he want to kill insignificant Pale? What passion ran so deep that it treated innocent women as though they were worthless?
Ticker-tick-tick went the box-fans, tolling down Tali’s remaining days.
An overseer ran past, yelling, “Miners, come quickly! A terrible accident down at the elixerator. Bring your tools.”
The miners hurried by. Last year an explosion far below had riven the floor of the wax-nut grottoes from one side to the other and blistering green vapour had gushed up, shrivelling ten thousand wax-nut plants as though they had been scorched by fire. Dozens of Pale and five Cythonians had died, choking on bleeding lungs.
The grottoes had been cleared, the fissure blocked with stone wedges shaped by splittery, and life had resumed, but Tali had been bent by a new burden. What was the green mist for? Why had the enemy’s brilliant chymisters created something whose only use was to kill swiftly and painfully?
Her eyes followed the air ducts down. No one knew what they did in the secret levels, though all manner of ores and minerals mined by the slaves were lowered down shafts to the floors below, along with thousands of odd-shaped pieces of metal cast in the foundries. What were they making down there, apart from those clever, deadly skritters?
No one understood the Cythonians, or had any idea what they really wanted, but one thing was clear. They were more clever than anyone imagined, they were working to a plan, and it was rapidly coming to a head.
The dinner gong sounded. Tali slipped out, then noticed a tumble of stone down near the workface, evidently fallen from the tunnel wall in the collapse she had heard earlier. Dim light touched one corner of the pile, which was curious, since the miners had taken their lanterns. After checking behind her, she walked down. The rock fall had opened a small, triangular hole into a narrow service passage, and if she could wriggle through, she might be able to bypass the guard post around the corner. Had the miners not been called away they would have blocked the hole.
Bypassing the guard post did not help. Tali had no way to get through any of the heavily guarded exits from Cython. She turned back.
The tunnel was empty save for a ragged fellow up ahead, kneeling in one of the effluxor sumps. He was so thin that Tali first took him for a slave, until he turned and she saw the empty, blackened sockets and the seeing eye tattooed in the middle of his forehead. It was Mad Wil, also called Wil the Sump because he spent all his days doing slaves’ work, cleaning the sumps until they shone.
Slaves never spoke to their masters unless answering a question, but Wil the Sump was not even master of himself. Tali nodded to him as she approached on silent feet, before remembering that he could not see her. But as she passed, he shot upright in a surge of grey water. His eye sockets were fixed on her and his toothless mouth was gaping.
“You the one. You the one.”
He scrambled out, reaching towards her with cracked hands that were too big for his puny body. Tali recoiled, for his nasal septum had been eaten away, leaving him with one cavernous, red-rimmed nostril.
“Not Wil’s fault,” he wailed. “Wil didn’t put them to death. Wil had to protect the story.” He choked. “Ady made him tell. Poor Wil couldn’t help it.”
He turned aside, surreptitiously drawing a small metal tube from inside his coat and uncapping it, and Tali caught a sickly sweet, oily odour. He pressed the tube to his ragged nostril and took a gasping breath. Blood trickled down his upper lip.
She hurried away, but as she reached the corner his voice soared—“They all died for you.”
What was he talking about? Her mother and her ancestors? But Wil hadn’t been there when her mother died, and he wasn’t old enough to have seen any of the earlier deaths. He’d been mad since an accident that had taken his eyes a dozen years ago, and maybe he said that to everyone, but it was one disturbing incident too many.
The entrance of the subsistery was carved to resemble the mouth of a grinning eel, one of the main foods in Cython. Tali had thought of it as a rare Cythonian joke, though today it felt like a threat.
Inside, the subsistery was lit in ghostly yellow by dozens of suspended circular plates encrusted with luminous fungi. The wall dioramas were views of the Seethings above Cython—an eerily beautiful wasteland of scalded soil, sinkholes of bubbling mud and glass-clear pools surrounded by concentric bands of red, orange and yellow salts. The dioramas seemed intended to teach another lesson—trying to escape led only to death.
Curved stone tables in various sizes, shapes and colours were scattered around the chamber like an eel’s inner organs, while the kitchen slaves doled out the rations from a heart-shaped counter in the middle. All this month it had been eel-head and mushroom stew with yellow pea bread, though not on Lyf ’s Day.
Tali caught the haunting aroma from the doorway and her mouth flooded. The slaves were only given meat on the Cythonians’ most important day of the year, Lyf ’s Day. The anniversary of the day their last and greatest king, Lyf, had disappeared two thousand years before.
From her lessons with Waitie, Tali knew that Hightspall also celebrated Lyf ’s death, though for a different reason. Hightspall knew Lyf as a liar and oath-breaker who had signed a solemn charter with the Five Heroes, then repudiated it. His treachery had caused the
Two Hundred and Fifty Year War between Hightspall and Cythe, which had ended with the Cythians’ ruinous defeat. Centuries later, the broken survivors had taken refuge in their deepest mines, named their underground realm Cython, and had never come out again.
Heads turned as she entered, then a tall slave stood up, Tali’s enemy since they were little girls together, the beautiful Radl. Her black hair shone like anthracite, her eyes were the colour of unpeeled almonds and her skin had the glow of rubbed amber. Radl’s man had been executed last year, baked to death between two heatstones, and since then she had become feral. No one knew who she would turn on next, but she kept the Pale in her section in line more ruthlessly than any overseer.
“Give it to her,” said Radl, raising her arms.
The slaves rose, their glares fixed on Tali, blaming her for Mia’s death. Tali faltered. There were no guards inside the subsistery and the women could beat her to paste if Radl so ordered it.
Radl let out a low hiss, then table by table the slaves took it up until the hall echoed, sssssssssss. As Tali tried to stare them down, her face grew so hot it must have been glowing.
Don’t let them beat you. If you can’t take this, how can you hope to survive and escape? She forced herself to take another step, then another. Radl raised her hands like a chorus mistress and the women pulled together on their benches, three hundred unifying against one. The hissing rose and fell, the pressure of all that hatred undermined Tali and her courage cracked.
As she turned to flee, fighting to maintain a wisp of dignity, she noticed a small blonde slave sitting by herself near the entrance to the kitchens, head bowed over her dinner. She was not hissing; indeed, she seemed oblivious to what was going on. The slave was Lifka, and in appearance she was almost Tali’s double.
Lifka’s silence gave Tali heart. She stared down the slaves, met Radl’s eyes and raised her chin in defiance, then went to the serving bench for the feast.
Baking trays held a number of crispy-skinned poulters, each with their four fat drumsticks upright. Cythonian legend held that Lyf had created the four-legged fowl with the magery called germine, as a gift to his suffering people.
A serving slave put the smallest drumstick on a square slate, added some curly, baked roots, a wedge of transparent glass-eel cake and a minute bowl of prawn-head soup. After decanting a measure of the purple-black drink called hulee into a narrow vase until foam rose above the top, she handed the slate to Tali.
Eyeing the glorious drumstick she would not be able to stomach, she took a seat opposite Lifka. Tali met her eyes and said in her most friendly voice, “Hello, I’m Tali.”
Lifka inspected Tali’s plate, drool beading on her lower lip, but did not answer.
Tali fished a prawn scale off the top of her soup and sipped the gloriously fatty broth. Through the kitchen doorway she could see slaves cleaning the oval heatstone ovens and benches, and other slaves on their knees, scrubbing the floor. No dirt or grime was permitted in Cython.
The top of her skull throbbed and she looked away; the uncanny shimmer of heatstone always unnerved her. Tali plucked a couple of charred pinfeathers from the poulter leg and put them on the edge of her platter, already tasting the gamy orange flesh from childhood memory. She sniffed the hulee, which she had never had before, then gagged and shoved it aside.
“Yuk. It smells like the seepage from the compost pits.”
“I’ll have it,” Lifka said eagerly.
Tali pushed it across the table top and Lifka drained it in a gulp, as if afraid another slave would take it off her. She shuddered, licked the clinging foam from the vase with a pointed tongue, then bit the curly end off a baked piece of horse-parsnip.
The hissing died away, the pressure eased and Tali realised she was ravenous. The gobbled length of baked yam was a nutty explosion in the mouth, the spicy dregs of the prawn-head soup made her tongue tingle. She nipped a corner off the glass-eel cake, which had a pleasant tang but was otherwise flavourless.
Tali gave Lifka a tentative smile.
The vacant eyes inspected her. “Ya look like me. Though yer not as pretty.”
Tali had never met anyone like Lifka, who uttered whatever thoughts came into her empty head. She studied her, side-on.
With her shaggy gold-blonde hair, high brow and neat, oval face, Lifka looked remarkably like Tali. She was prettier, Tali conceded, apart from the drooping lower lip which accentuated the vacant look in her eyes. Lifka wasn’t as curvy, but appeared stronger. Her thighs were more muscular, there were callused indentations on her shoulders and her face and hands were lightly tanned, which was odd, since no sunlight ever penetrated into Cython…
Tali was wondering about that, trying to understand it, when the ghost of a plan whispered into her mind. Could it be possible?
“Aren’t ya scared?” said Lifka, chewing with her mouth open.
“Of them?” Tali put on her most disdainful voice.
“No, of him.”
Her stomach turned a back flip. The biggest Cythonian she had ever seen stood in the eel-mouth entrance, staring at her. His biceps were the size of her thighs, yet he had a tiny head no larger than a two-year-old’s. A peculiar, purplish head, bulging in all the wrong places.
Tali had blocked out most of what had happened in the cellar that day ten years before, but she could never forget Tinyhead. Could this Cythonian be the same man? The man who had promised to show Iusia the way out, then betrayed her?
She did not think so. His head had neither been misshapen nor purple.
Then he flopped out a disgusting white-coated tongue flecked with black spots like crawling blowflies.
Yes, it was.
“Free, free, and not a care in the world,” Rix exclaimed as the sun rose.
Tobry raised an ironic eyebrow. His horse, a neat chestnut with a white blaze on its forehead and a muzzle that always seemed to be smiling, rotated its hairy ears as if it could not believe what it was hearing.
“All right, one or two cares.” Rix drew the frigid air into his lungs and sighed. “But I can breathe up here; I’m not choked, stifled, cramped.” He wouldn’t suffer the nightmares here, either. He never had them anywhere but at the palace.
“Cramped? Your chambers are the size of a small mansion. No, make that a large mansion.”
“I was born to live under the stars,” Rix said lyrically, sweeping his arms towards the heavens, “to tickle fish in icy streams with my bare hands, to—”
“To paint in your studio while a hundred servants wait on your smallest whim.”
Rix scowled. “After the stinking portrait is completed I may never paint again.”
Tobry and his horse both snorted. “It’s the one thing in your life that has nothing to do with house and heritage. You can’t give it up.”
“If you had to choose whether to give up painting or your inheritance, I believe you’d renounce your inheritance.”
“Have you been at the flask while I wasn’t looking?”
After an exhilarating race along the moonlit highway in the night, they were now mile-high in the Crowbung Range, which squeezed around Lake Fumerous and the city of Caulderon like the coils of a constrictor. Spear-point peaks pricked the belly of the sky behind them. Ahead, a monstrous bluff of tortured rock blocked a third of the horizon. It was snowing gently and bracingly cold.
Away to the right, the Red Vomit rumbled, shaking snow from tree branches and blasting steam and ash higher than any storm cloud could reach.
“Cursed Vomits,” said Rix.
A change in the wind had drifted volcanic ash over House Ricinus’s south-western estates for the past month, ruining the autumn crops, collapsing roofs and costing the family’s treasury a fortune it no longer had.
“Cythonian legend says Lake Fumerous filled the hole where a fourth Vomit blew itself to bits in ancient times,” said Tobry.
“If this one goes up, Caulderon will cease to be,” said Rix, his good mood fading, “and probably half of Hightspall.”
“Look on the bright side. Cython won’t want to fight us for it any more.”
“I see menace and doom everywhere, and all you can do is make jokes?”
“If you really want to see my dark side, I’ll indulge you this once.”
While Tobry sometimes hinted about his family’s troubles, he had never spoken about them openly. Maybe he needed to. “I’m listening,” said Rix.
“Did I ever tell you what really brought down the House of Lagger, or the terrible part I played in it—when I was a boy of thirteen?” Red flecks danced in Tobry’s eyes.
Rix could not bear to look into them. “Perhaps some other time,” he said hastily, and twitched the reins. “C’m on, Leather.”
The great horse, black as the inside of a chimney and ferociously loyal, trotted to a rock platform that looked over the mountain chain encircling the fertile lands of central Hightspall, and towards the broad South Plains and the sea beyond.
He wished he had kept straight on. The strait between Hightspall and the long southern island of Suden was choked by icebergs, and that had never happened before.
Tobry came up beside him. “Until two hundred years ago, House Lagger’s richest estates were in Suden.”
“And now?” said Rix.
“Buried under half a mile of ice. Everyone and everything lost.”
The wire-handled sword rattled in its scabbard. As Rix steadied it, an image flashed into his mind—a statue of a screaming man, rudely carved from a single piece of black opal, his arms and legs spread as though he was falling. Rix jerked his hand away and the image disappeared. He touched the hilt with a fingertip, but this time saw nothing.
He swallowed, looked where Tobry was pointing and goose pimples ran up his arms. “No wonder I dream about ice leviathans.”
The coastline of Suden was ice-locked as far as he could see, and to either side the cliffs of oceanic ice crept ever north, closing in on Hightspall from the south, west and east. The northern sea passages remained open, but for how long? Only the most reckless sea captains dared venture into the mazy pack ice these days, and few returned.
“What’s to become of us, Tobe? Is Hightspall to die under endless ice?”
Tobry shrugged. “Or a fiery eruption.”
“The chancellor has doubled the prize,” said Rix. “To fifty thousand.”
“What prize?” Tobry was studying the strait with Rix’s telescope.
“For anyone who can turn the ice sheets back. Mother says the chief magian has thirty assistants working on ice-wasting spells.”
Tobry swung the telescope towards the descending moon. “Gramarye can no more turn back the ice than stop the moon in its orbit.” The dire thought seemed to cheer him up.
Rix took a swig of water but his throat felt just as arid afterwards. “Is this the end of the world, then?”
“The world endures. But Hightspall may not.”
“You’re not helping my mood,” Rix muttered. “Let’s go hunting.”
After a few hundred yards, the path angled to the right around a finger-like rock. Slantwise to the left, in front of the monstrous bluff, lay the slot-like entrance of a narrow valley, still dark inside, whose bare walls rose steeply to east and west.
Further right, a red, triangular peak rose out of a stubble of pines like a pointed head. A round opening near its base resembled a yawning mouth. “Is that…?”
“Catacombs of the Kings,” said Tobry. “A sacred place in old Cythe. We’re not going there.”
“Afraid of ghosts?” Rix teased.
“Wouldn’t you be?”
“We should have torn the Catacombs down, like their other foul places.”
“Take a closer look.”
Scanning along the base of the peak with his telescope, Rix made out a line of stone figures carved into the red stone on either side of the entrance. The effigies to the far left and right were no more than thirty feet tall, but they grew progressively taller until the pair framing the entrance—the first kings of Cythe—towered at least five hundred feet high.
“Every king and ruling queen of Cythe for ten thousand years is represented there,” said Tobry. “Save the last.”
Tobry gave Rix a sardonic glance.
He refocused on the statue to the left of the entrance. The red stone was crumbling, and ferns and small bushes had taken root in crevices here and there, but—“The head’s upside-down.”
“After we won the war, Chancellor Nidry ordered the head of every king taken off and replaced upside-down.”
“It’s a worse insult than pissing on their graves. Do you wonder that the Cythonians hate us so much?”
“They started the war!”
Rix mentally inverted the head—an artist’s trick—and fitted it to the body. And stared. “But… it’s magnificent.” He did the same for the others. “They’re masterpieces. The finest sculptures I’ve ever seen.”
“Haven’t you seen their art before?” said Tobry.
Excerpted from Vengeance by Irvine, Ian Copyright © 2012 by Irvine, Ian. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted May 29, 2012