Authors: Ian Whates
City of Dreams & Nightmare
ITY OF A
To Helen. For everything.
Table of Contents
Only men of the right sort were eligible to join the Kite Guard. Only those with families of sufficient standing and the proper pedigree were even permitted to apply. Tylus qualified. Just.
From an early age his parents had groomed him for the part, sculpting his soul with philosophy, channelling his mind with geometry, anemonautics and alchemy, broadening his intellect with semantics and linguistics and honing his physique with fencing, swimming and pugilism. It seemed his whole life had been spent in preparation for the day he would apply to join the Kite Guard.
The day the Guard actually accepted him was the proudest of his parents’ lives. At the lavish party to celebrate, his father, a functionary of minor significance within the mechanism of senior government, puffed and preened to such an extent that any there would have been forgiven for assuming that it was
who had achieved something commendable rather than his son. His mother became the focus of the local coffee circle for many months on the back of his success – no event was considered complete without her.
Yet in all the joy of that day and in all the years of toil and dedication that had led up to it, nobody ever stopped to ask Tylus whether this was what he wanted. Not even Tylus himself. Not until it was too late.
He wondered afterwards whether this played a part in the events of that night. Could it have been a simple, straightforward arrest had he been more diligent and more enthusiastic in his duties? Might all that was to follow have been avoided had he been the guard his parents always intended him to be?
These were questions that would haunt him often in the days that followed.
Tom was unnerved, far more so than he cared to admit. Not scared, no – he would never confess to that – just a little unsettled. No doubt this was due in part to being so close to his goal, a goal which, in his heart of hearts, he had never believed achievable. Yet as the Rows fell away one after another, and he climbed unseen into the city’s highest reaches, where both custom and law forbade him to go, he began to hope and, eventually, to believe.
This was Thaiburley: the City of a Hundred Rows, known by many as the City of Dreams and by those who dwelt beneath it as the City of Nightmare.
Tom was born to the nightmare but now, for the first time in his young life, he had caught a glimpse of the dream.
Presently he was crouching in the shadows on yet another Row, willing himself invisible as he hid beneath a wrought iron staircase, his heart pounding and blood racing. He refused to dwell on where he was, on the impossibility of it all. If he did, he would likely lose his nerve altogether and bolt straight back down again.
His feet were sore from all the climbing, all the walking and occasionally running. It felt as if the sole of his left shoe was wearing through again, but there was nothing handy to patch it with and, besides, he had lived with worse things. At least it wasn’t as cold up here as he had half-expected it might be.
The staircase that hid him rose from a broad, stone walkway, walled on one side with the familiar yellow-brown stone that predominated throughout the city. The wall’s surface contained an apparently endless row of evenly spaced doors, all of them closed. He assumed that behind these doors were quarters or dwellings of some sort. The other side of the walkway stood open to the outside world, with just a calf-high sculpted guardrail separating passers-by from a headlong plunge into a veritable abyss.
Having looked over that rail once, Tom had no intention of venturing anywhere near it again. This was the other reason he was so unnerved; he had again fallen victim to his insatiable curiosity and peered over the edge, even when a tiny voice at the back of his mind whispered that it would be a mistake to do so. Below him, the walls of the city had dropped away, dimly visible where torches and lanterns burned, before disappearing into the darkness completely. In their place there was nothing: a vast, gaping space. Raised in the crowded slums of the City Below, Tom had never seen so much emptiness. It horrified him but at the same time pulled at him. His head spun, he couldn’t breathe and felt himself breaking out in a sweat. For a moment he had lost all sense of where he was, uncertain even of which direction was up or down.
This all occurred within a handful of seconds, though to Tom it seemed far longer before he was able to stagger back from the edge, wondering for a panicked heartbeat whether in doing so he was actually surrendering to the void, so uncertain was he of his own judgment. Then he felt the solid stone beneath his feet and perspective was restored, leaving him safe to scrabble to the nearby stairway and to haul his trembling body beneath it. There he was determined to remain, until his legs felt more stable and his heart ceased pounding quite so quickly.
Never having experienced anything like this before, Tom had no name for the awful sensation, though anyone who actually lived at these levels would have nodded knowingly and informed him that he had just suffered an attack of ‘vertigo’, before slapping him on the back with a jovial smile and telling him not to worry, that it would soon pass. Lacking such sage advice, Tom could only wait and hope that it would.
He knew that when he did move, he was going to hug the wall as closely as possible; anything to avoid approaching that drop again. The wind up here was ill-tempered and unpredictable. It huffed and puffed with erratic bluster, and he was afraid that going too far away from the wall would leave him vulnerable to a particularly strong gust picking him up and tipping him over the balustrade.
Slowly his thoughts cleared and his breathing returned to normal. His legs still felt as if somebody had used the bones as moulds, pouring jelly into them before removing the bone and leaving just the jelly behind, but he knew that time was pressing. Night was not about to linger for his sake; it had a nasty habit of turning into day when you least wanted it to, and he intended to be long gone before dawn arrived and Thaiburley started to stir. His legs would just have to cope.
The rest of the gang would be amazed when he returned and told them of his exploits, and none would dare call him a liar, not when Lyle was there to back him up. His status was assured. All of them would want to be seen with him, to associate with him, even Barton, who boasted so often and so loudly of his own exploits but who had never ventured beyond the Shopping Rows. Tom had left those behind long ago. Then there was Jezmina. How could she fail to be impressed when he returned a conquering hero from the furthest reaches of the City Above?
Of course, before he could do that, there was the small matter of completing this unlikely task, the task Lyle had set him, which he had accepted in a rush of blood, dazzled by the wide-eyed smile of a certain girl who’d been looking on. Yes, all he had to do was achieve the impossible and then retrace his steps – all of them, without being caught, through a city that would be stirring with the onset of morning.
That was all.
He was feeling progressively better and knew that it was time to move on, though he wished he’d kept a better check on the Rows. The truth was that Tom had no idea precisely how high he had come, how much further remained to go.
At first he’d kept count, reciting the lines of the levels-verse which every citizen, Below or Above, learnt almost as soon as they could speak, but there were so many of them; and so many other things to worry about as well: not being seen, for example. Despite his determination not to, Tom had quickly lost count. He knew this must be somewhere close to the top, but had no idea how close.
The first lines of the nursery rhyme ran through his mind again.
From the Streets Below to the Market Row,
From taverns and stalls to the Shopping Halls…
The early stanzas were easy enough: they dealt with the known world, the Rows near to home, the ones that were permitted and accessible. But the higher he went, the more difficult it became to remember the right sequence as he ventured into areas of the city he had never imagined visiting in his wildest dreams.
From trinkets so cheap to exclusive boutique…
It was no good; he might as well face the fact. His memory of the verse faltered and everything became a muddle long before he reached this far in the rhyme’s verbal record of Thaiburley’s bewildering Rows.
His musings were interrupted as two figures emerged from one of the many doors along the walkway. Two men, chatting amiably. They wore the deep blue tunics of higher arkademics. Tom felt a surge of triumph and relief. Higher arkademics were to be found in the residences – he remembered that much – which meant there were only the Tiers of the Masters between him and his goal, the Upper Heights, the very crown of the city – the roof of the world.
Where the Demons lived.
The arkademics strolled towards him: two tall, fit men, looking far healthier than any who were to be found in the City Below, even Lyle, who was one of the best-fed people Tom knew. He tried to hunker down a little lower and thought invisible thoughts, willing them not to see him.
As they drew nearer, he became conscious of their words, and also of how loud his own breathing sounded. He did his best to take shallower, quieter breaths.
“I would never allow something like that, surely you must realise as much.” The man currently talking was the older of the two and spoke earnestly, as if it were vitally important that his companion should believe him.
The other, who was nearest the edge and so furthest away from Tom, walked with his head bowed, as if his thoughts weighed heavily.
“Magnus, you know I want to believe you, but Syrena says that…”
The older man made a disdainful noise and stopped walking. “And you would truly take her side against
The younger man also stopped and the two faced each other. They were now just a few paces away from Tom, who remained statue-still, hardly daring to breathe. In his mind he kept repeating his own private litany:
you can’t see me, you can’t see me, I’m invisible, there’s nobody here, nobody here
, over and over, desperate to stay hidden.
The younger man’s face was clearly illuminated by the lanterns lining the walls as he looked up. Strong, handsome features dominated by piercing eyes. It was the eyes that concerned Tom. If he were to glance beyond his friend’s shoulder and slightly to the left, the man would be looking straight at Tom’s hiding place. Fortunately, his eyes never wavered from the other man, the man he had addressed as Magnus.
“There’s no question of taking sides, but even you have to admit that her arguments
compelling. It’s because I respect you so much that I’ve agreed to this meeting at such a late hour, so that we can talk frankly, away from curious ears. I’m not accusing you, Magnus, I’m simply asking for an explanation. Don’t I deserve at least that much?”
The older man sighed dramatically, and rested a hand on the other’s shoulder. “Thomas, Thomas…”
The boy froze in his hiding place, thinking himself undone, believing that he had somehow been discovered by some arcane, sorcerous means, but the man continued talking and it was clear that the words were not directed at him but at the other, younger arkademic. The boy remembered to breathe and stared at the pair with renewed interest. Here was another Thomas. If they shared a name, what else might they have in common?
“Have things between us really come to this?” the older man continued.
“That rather depends on what you have to tell me.” There was steel in the young arkademic’s voice; a determination not to be fobbed off.
Without warning, everything changed. One second the two figures were involved in apparently relaxed conversation; the next, Magnus was anything but relaxed, moving so rapidly that at first Tom wasn’t sure of what he was seeing. He had to replay the sequence in his mind to be certain. Yes, there could be no doubt; the older man had drawn a knife from his belt and plunged it into his companion’s chest in one fluid, serpent-swift motion.
The other Thomas staggered backwards – three faltering steps that brought him closer to the edge, almost against the balustrade. He stared down at the blade that still protruded from his torso, as if unable to comprehend what was happening. His hands clasped weakly and ineffectually at the knife’s handle.
Then his gaze rose from the weapon to the face of its wielder. “Why, Magnus? Why?”
Magnus had followed his victim’s stuttering retreat, stepping forward like some stalking predator as the other moved back. When he spoke, it was in the same measured tones he had used throughout, his voice betraying no hint of regret.
“Questions, Thomas. You always did have too many questions.”
With that he lifted both his hands, again in a rapid, assured movement, and pushed the other firmly in the chest, sending Thomas staggering backwards, so that he teetered on the very edge. Just a low stone barrier stood between the wounded man and that long, fatal drop. For an instant he hung there and the watching boy hoped irrationally that he was not about to fall after all, but then the man’s body seemed to sag, his legs buckled and he toppled over, vanishing into the night without another sound.
Tom could picture that fall all too easily: the long plummet past Row after Row, past terraces and balconies and stretches of featureless city wall – the city that he had spent the best part of the night climbing through – with the murdered man’s body gaining speed the whole way, until eventually it struck ground. The Market Row, Thaiburley’s ground floor, had long since spread beyond the walls and any faller from this height stood a good chance of killing someone or destroying a hut or other structure with the force of its impact. Such things were not unknown. Sky-bounty the lower citizens called the fallen dead. Whatever remained of the body would be picked at and fought over, at first for whatever might be valuable – a shattered limb or surviving organ could raise a good price, as could the ring on a soon-severed finger, a finely wrought knife still in its scabbard, a piece of quality silk or linen clean enough to merit salvaging and reusing. Then, once the human scavengers had claimed their prizes, the dogs and rats, the heart beetles and the spill dragons would move in to feed on what remained; those scraps that had been overlooked or had simply not been worth carting off to the dog master or any of the other darker practitioners who paid well for fresh human meat.