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MINA GREENE'S CIRCUS OF HORRORS
FROM THE WINDOW of their tavern room, Rachel Hael watched a small flotilla of fishing skiffs jostle past a barge at the bend in the river. Gulls swooped around the clutter of boats, their cries like harsh laughter, or perched on yards and basked in the late-afternoon sun. The larger vessel carried sandstone from the quarry at Shale, twenty leagues further up the Coyle. The skiffs were local and manned by louts with robbery in mind.
She had watched them use the same tactic on a Dalamoor palace barge yesterday morning. The Dalamooran captain and his men had been so busy yelling from the stern at the apparently hapless sailors responsible for the river jam that they'd failed to notice a small boy climb out of the water and steal inside the pilot's tent.
Now Rachel was watching a replay of yesterday's events. Amidst all the raucous confusion, the shouts and curses and steering poles knocking against hulls, nobody saw the young swimmer drag himself up and over the barge's stern bulwark. Once aboard, the boy moved quickly. He darted into the wheelhouse and emerged a moment later, stuffing a roll of paper into a waxed tube as he hurried back to the edge of the deck.
The captain's mercantile license, Rachel knew. The thieves would ransom it back to him shortly after his vessel docked. And the captain would be forced to pay whatever fee they demanded or risk facing the Avulsior's justice on the killing stage—for the Spine had brought martial law to Sandport.
Faced with this new and rigidly enforced system of order, the local thieves and cutthroats had added blackmail and extortion to their list of crimes. Sandporters, after all, looked for profit in any situation.
The presence of so many temple assassins in the town made Rachel uneasy. She had abandoned her own leather armour for a gabardine and wood-soled sandals, even weaving beads into her hair in the local fashion, but her pale complexion and striking green eyes still drew inquisitive gazes from the men who inhabited this desert settlement. She was clearly an outsider here. Despite all her efforts, she still looked like a Spine assassin, the image of the very people who now hunted her.
Of course Dill could not leave the room at all, nor even show himself at the window. Rachel had been fortunate enough to smuggle him unnoticed into the heart of Sandport in the first place, but she could not risk exposing him now. She glanced back to the bed where her friend was still sleeping. He was lying on his stomach, his wings furled against his back like a thick feather cape, still wearing the tattered chain-mail vest that had once cost him his life. His sword lay on the floor beside the bed, the gold guard gleaming in the morning sunshine.
Down on the river, the barge was approaching one of the deepwater pontoons where two Spine Officiators waited to check its cargo. The captain gave the men a cheerful halloo. The temple assassins stood perfectly still in their black leathers and did not respond.
Behind the harbor, the town of Sandport rose in tiers of brown adobe dwellings, like an amphitheater built around a bend in the river Coyle. Over the cluttered houses and streets hung a thin pall of dung smoke, the smell of which almost masked the odor of boiled fish and crab from the harbor broth shops. A unit of Spine moved through the market crowds on Hack Hill, ignoring eager calls from the costermongers' stalls. Rachel took an involuntarily step back from the window, before she stopped herself. The assassins were too far away to identify her.
Three knocks sounded on the door, followed quickly by another two: a code Rachel recognized at once.
She went over to let the tavern proprietor in.
Olirind Meer carried a tray laden with a jug of water, some bread, and two bowls of cold milk chowder, which he set upon a table by the window. A small dark man, he came from a small village, little more than a trading post, on the North Eastern fringes of the Deadsands. His hair and eyebrows were raven black and his skin was the colour of amarid bark: nomad blood. "Another day without pay," he said brightly, showing his small white teeth in a grin.
"And very much appreciated," Rachel said with genuine affection. Meer had sheltered them from the Spine for almost a week now, although Rachel's coin had run out after the first two days. "I will pay you back as soon as I'm able to," she added.
"Pah." The tavern proprietor dismissed her comment with a wave. "You are welcome to stay here as long as you need to. Friendship means more to the Ban-Heshette than profit. Unlike these quick-fingered Sandporters, we repay our debts of honour."
She had met Meer after the slaughter in Hollowhill, where she'd beaten a Deepgate Regular into a coma for what he'd done to the captured tribeswomen. One of those women had been Meer's wife.
"How is the angel today?" he asked.
"Much the same," Rachel replied. "Quiet, sullen, evasive. I think, in his own way, he's still struggling to come to terms with what happened." She gazed down at his sleeping form. "I'm not sure he'll ever fully recover."
"Archons are resilient," Meer observed. "Have faith in Providence. The boy is sane, which is more than most people could have hoped for after a visit to Hell. He'll talk when he's ready to."
Rachel was responsible for Dill's present condition. She had used angelwine to bring him back from the dead, plucking his soul back from the Maze, but then she'd pushed him to remember the experience. Her foolish inquisition had unearthed a horde of painful memories which now haunted the boy.
"You must not keep blaming yourself," Meer said. "There are too many other things that must concern you here." He hesitated. "More and more Spine arrive each day by airship. And they have offered a substantial reward for your return. It is no longer safe for you to venture outside."
The former assassin nodded. They should not have lingered in Sandport as long as this, but Dill needed food and rest, time to recover from his ordeal, and Rachel hadn't known where else to go. The Deadsands were brutally unforgiving to travelers and the tribal villages still harbored resentment against those from the chained city. Olirind Meer remained one of the few people she could trust. The scarred angel, Carnival, had spat when Rachel had announced her intentions, and then deserted them without a word of farewell. Rachel had not been sorry to see her go. Carnival was unpredictable and her intentions could not be trusted.
"I have another room in the back." Meer moistened his lips. "It's a bit smaller and darker, not having windows as such, but it's cozier, and more . . . private. People will be less likely to notice you there, less likely to ask questions. I've already had a dozen inquiries about the availability of your current room. It's very much in demand among some of my better clientele, you see? They like the view."
Rachel liked the view, too. It allowed her to see who was approaching the tavern. Swapping it for a cramped, windowless cell lacked any appeal. "Are we inconveniencing you here, Olirind?" she asked. "I wouldn't want to your business to suffer because of us."
"No, no, no," the small man replied. "Business is fine. Don't concern yourselves with that. I was only thinking of your security."
Yet Rachel had noticed a difference in Meer's attitude of late. As the days had passed, his lighthearted remarks had increasingly hinted at his fragile financial situation, his responsibilities to his regular guests, and how pleased he was to be able to offer his two stowaways the finest and most expensive accommodation on the south bank in repayment of his debt of honour. Rachel suspected he was beginning to consider that debt paid. The steadily diminishing quantity of fish in the chowder he brought them each day suggested as much.
Nomad blood might run in his veins, but Meer had become a Sandporter at heart.
"Just a couple more days," she said. "Then we'll be out of your hair for good."
The proprietor tutted. "I wouldn't hear of it. Let the boy recover in his own good time." Grinning again, he headed for the door. "I shall continue to deflect persistent guests with the skills for which I have become famous. Enjoy your breakfast."
Once he had gone, Rachel took one of the chowder bowls over to the bed and gave the young angel a gentle shake. "Dill?"
The angel opened his eyes, and jerked away from her with a start. But then he seemed to realize where he was, and his panic subsided. "A terrible dream . . ." He sighed, running a hand through his lank hair.
"The same one?" she asked.
He nodded. "I dreamed I was this room. The walls were my skin and bones, the windows my eyes. My blood ran through wooden veins in the floorboards. My nerves . . . I could feel you walking through me, and . . ." As he looked up at her, the colour of his eyes darkened from white to grey. "Meer? Was he here?"
"He just left."
Dill stared at his own hands for a long time. "I dreamed of him, too."
"He was outside this room, outside me, but searching for a way in. I couldn't see him, but each time I peered out of the window I spotted something odd: a house that hadn't been there before, a new pontoon in the harbor, a crooked tree. Are there any trees in Sandport?"
"No," Rachel admitted. "And there aren't any trees out there now. It was only a dream."
Her friend's nightmares had been consistent since his return from Hell. He dreamed of becoming the environment around him, whether it was a room in Sandport or a petrified glade or a sandy hollow in the Deadsands. And in each case the same shape-shifting figure waited nearby, disguised as a part of the wider surroundings. Dill had started calling him the Mesmerist, though he could not say why.
"You need to eat something." She handed him the bowl, noticing now that it contained little more than milk. "And we should consider leaving here soon. I don't know how much longer we can trust Meer."
Dill looked exhausted. "Where will we go?"
"As far away from the Spine as possible. The missionary ship Herald's Voice left Clune two weeks ago and should arrive in port any day now. With Spine martial law now in place, it may well be the last temple ship to sail out into the Yellow Sea. The missionaries have a settlement in a village called Baske, one hundred and twenty leagues east of the Pocked Delta. If we can get the Herald to take us there, we'll be safe."
"Would the priests shield us from the Spine?"
"They might shield you," she said. "You're a fugitive, but you're still an angel, and I can't imagine many of Deepgate's priests support the Spine's recent rise to power." She thought for a moment. "Yes, I'm sure they'd protect you."
"But what about you?"
An airship droned somewhere overhead. Rachel listened to it for a moment, but was distracted by another, closer sound: a ruckus in the street outside. She went back to the window.
A gaily painted box-wagon, pulled by an ox, was rumbling along the wharf in front of the tavern. It had a red roof and yellow slatted sides, and boasted wheels with garish green and gold spokes. Emblazoned across the nearest side were the words Greene's Magical Circus: Witness all the fearsome horrors of Iril! A crowd of people jostled around it, following its progress towards the center of town. Rachel realized that it must have disembarked from one of the barges at the deepwater dock that lay out of sight around the harbor peninsula. Curious. Normally that dock was used exclusively by Deepgate's Military to bring troops downriver from its outlying airship ports. Had the wagon originally arrived by airship? Or had it merely stopped to pick up cargo from one of the airship ports? Then she spotted a scrawled notice pinned to the rear of the wagon, and her breath caught.
See the slavering shape-shifting Maze demon here tonight!
The crowd of followers chattered with excitement. Groups of barefooted children ran ahead of the wagon, shrieking and clapping and chasing one another. Rachel sat on the windowsill and watched as the wooden vehicle wound its way up the hill behind the tavern wharves and disappeared in the knot of lanes around Market Square.
Traveling magicians and freak shows were not unheard of in Sandport. So-called shamans and thaumaturges sometimes arrived from Clune and Dalamoor with a veritable cornucopia of disturbing objects preserved in pickle jars. Yet Rachel had never heard of anyone claiming to have possession of an actual demon before. A shape-shifter? The timely relevance to Dill's recurring dreams seemed too unlikely to be merely a coincidence.
"I'm going out," she said to Dill.
But the angel had fallen asleep again.
By the time Rachel reached Market Square, the sun had fallen behind the low houses and the sky gleamed like gold fish scales. The wagon driver had almost finished setting up her sideshow in the center of the square, where a rude stage of crimson boards had been erected beside the wagon. A small crowd had gathered on the brown flagstones around it, while others stood further back in the shadows of the surrounding houses. Flies buzzed around the fringes of the quadrangle, where fruit from the weekly market festered in the gutters and Sandporters sat on their own doorsteps and sipped fig wine. The wagon driver had evidently conscripted two burly men from the audience to unload a large crate from the rear of her vehicle, and now stood to one side, petting a small dog cradled in her arms. As the crowd looked on, the two helpers manhandled the crate up some steps and onto the stage under the woman's direction.
Rachel scanned the crowd of onlookers for likely pickpockets, before she remembered that she didn't have any money. Smiling, she returned her attention to the unfolding spectacle at hand.
The wagon driver was young and slender and wore her dark brown hair in thick curls that tumbled heavily over her narrow shoulders. Her oval face and dark eyes suggested Dalamooran origins, yet her skin was lighter than that of most northern desert dwellers. She wore a vibrant, if somewhat garish, rainbow-coloured dress adorned with beads of glass.
Once her hired help had finished positioning the box and stepped down, the woman placed her puppy on one of the wagon's running boards, and then turned and raised her hands to settle the crowd.
"Hello," she called out in a cheerful voice. Her accent sounded Deepgate. "My name is Mina Greene and I have come to Sandport to bring you magic, horror, and wonder! If you are amazed by what you see here this morning, make sure to tell your families and your friends. And if what you see sickens or appalls you, then tell them anyway. Just be sure to tell someone."
A laugh from the crowd.
"And please return after dusk, for what you are about to see is only a little glimpse of my circus. I've traveled to the ends of the world looking for monstrosities, and later tonight I'll present them for your pleasure." She sounded like a child reading from a script she'd prepared. "I've got ghosts and mazewights trapped in amber, and the corpses of unspeakable demons from the darkest depths of Hell, even the bones of gods and stone monsters from under the earth."
One of the onlookers yelled, "Yeah, we seen all that last year," which triggered more laughter.
Mina Greene frowned and stamped her foot. "Yes, the stitched-together things—the fakes. Jars of mermen and spider babies, the pickled oxen calves. You've seen it all here, haven't you?" She seemed to realize that she'd lost her composure, and made an effort to control her temper. "But today I'm showing you the real thing. Not tricks or lies, but living, breathing demons . . ." She ended with a dancerlike flourish. "Behold the horrors of the Maze!"
From the Hardcover edition.