Authors: Tom Lloyd
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #General
For Ailsa Rebecca Lloyd-Williams
The prohibition on gunpowder weapons for lower castes has been in force for centuries and is obeyed across the Empire of a Hundred Houses. No such ban on lenses or telescopes exists, yet with our Gods residing in bright constellations in the nearer sky, common sense remains the first obstacle to progress.
by Ayel Sorote
For one glorious moment he was flying. Starlight shone wetly on the black slates below – the air around him was still, but charged like a God’s breath before the thunder. On the edges of his vision were faint yellow strands of light that spilled around doors and half-shuttered windows. He stared down as though trying to count the cobbles below the slate-tiled roof. Night’s serene hands cradled him and for that moment he felt the cares of the world slough away as sudden, beautiful clarity washed over him.
Bastard fucking fox.
Irato fell. With shocking speed the awning jumped up to meet him and black lights burst before his eyes. Head and chest smashed into the tiles with a crack that seemed to rip right through his skull. His mind filled with the white noise of pain that momentarily tore him from the world as the air was punched from his lungs.
The divine stars burned a trail through the night as he was yanked around by the force of impact. Then the ground struck him with the heavier thump of meat on the butcher’s block. The delicate tinkle of glass vials chimed around the cobbled street. Irato felt pieces patter as gently as summer rain on his close-cropped hair. A sense of warmth flowed over the black emptiness where his body had once been.
Numbness fleetingly consumed him, sucked him down into the belly of the earth before pain burst hot and jagged to wake him. Unable to command his limbs, Irato lay helpless and stunned – too dazed to recognise the sensations flowering in his damaged body. His arm lay crookedly beneath his chin, tilting it up to look over the blurry grey cobbles of the street. A pale, indistinct shape wavered directly in front of his eyes. His heart thumped two loud beats before the sight suddenly resolved into sharp focus. It was a shard of glass two inches long and shaped like a stiletto, pirouetting delicately in the groove between cobbles, barely a hand span from his eye.
Irato felt a lurch in his gut as he watched the shard slow and topple, spent of its energy – a message from the Gods now done and delivered. Combat-trained senses kicked in, observing with cold detachment while the man they belonged to stared with drunken incomprehension at the glass.
His moment of respite was short-lived. From the damp cobbles rose a new terror, like a cobra roused to anger. A wisp of greenish-white vapour curled before his eyes, then another and another. A quiver of spectral snakes regarded him with lethal intent and the detached voice of observation inside faltered, diverted by this new, unanticipated happening.
As though in automatic response, his lungs shrieked for air and it took all Irato’s strength of will to refuse. His eyes began to water and a single tear slid onto his nose, down to skirt his nostril and pat onto the ground below. A wet presence on his eyebrow followed, sharp pain and the touch of blood that took the place of tears in his right eye. Irato was forced to stare at the vapours with one eye, begging for them to dissipate, but they refused. The snakes watched him patiently, knowing their time would come soon – that they would not be denied their prey.
He tried to move but couldn’t fathom the tangle of his numb limbs. His chest began to burn, that particular hot sting of cracked ribs, and below that a more distant, discordant pain. He became aware that one hand was pinned and useless beneath his stomach, while the arm under his chin was wrapped in a bright-burning pain.
The realisation seemed to clear Irato’s thoughts. His body refused to obey, to drag him from the cruel vapours waiting to pounce. His vision started to blur and shiver as the ache for air increased, but instinct was fought to a stalemate by fear. It took the man inside to overrule both, to cast the bones and accept the fate they determined.
There’s a chance. I still have time.
He made one last effort to roll himself over, but neither arms nor legs could shift his limp frame and reluctantly he took a long, shuddering breath. The air burned hot and cold in his lungs as the vapour snakes struck, filling him with ecstatic horror as a cacophony of hurts resonated through his body. At last his limbs started to obey. Irato flopped onto his back, face screwed up at the light of the Gods above – the Order of Knight’s piercing glare momentarily pinning him to the cobbles like a doomed moth.
Irato winced and stared at the constellation above, far brighter than the lesser stars of the further night sky. There were four in a diamond shape around a fifth ; Shield, Knight’s ever-steady protector. He paused to blink away the dark ethereal shapes that danced before his eyes and realised coils of cloud covered three constellations in the Order of Knight. What remained were Shield, the twin pistols of Lord Knight and the scales of Lawbringer.
A cold-hearted divination, that one,
he thought drunkenly,
Lady Pity hides her eyes and the bastards in her Order come out to play. Not the omen I’d like right now.
He struggled to his feet, trying to cradle a damaged arm with one that hurt only marginally less. He stood low, hunched over and knees bent while he tried to outlast a bout of dizziness. He was a heavily-built man, of average height but appearing larger because of his broad limbs and a startling speed of movement. Right now he felt feeble and insubstantial, all that speed turned to sluggish inertia.
The clink of glass fragments sounded inordinately loud in the deserted night-time street as they cascaded off his body. Irato blinked around at the buildings surrounding him ; by the decorations he could tell he was not yet out of House Dragon’s district of the Imperial City. The last drips of the night’s rain fell from gutter heads shaped like that nation’s ubiquitous emblem. If he had made it to the Harbour Warrant they would be curved crests of waves instead – symbols of the Vesis and Darch merchant house who held the Imperial warrant for that district, rather than the noble House Dragon, but he had fallen short of his goal.
He shuffled forward a few steps to test his balance, feebly brushing the last of the broken glass from his body and glad his leather armour had at least protected him from that. A fragment of memory came back to him ; his coat snagging and tearing open, the glass vials spilling out like bloodless guts. He hissed in pain and tried to make sense of his memories.
Did something hit me ? Was it the fox-spirits ? Did Shield himself reach down from the heavens ?
Irato took another few steps until he was in the shadows of the building ahead, out of Shield’s starlight. He had never seen a God descend from the heavens – they rarely noticed the actions of one man and interfered even more rarely – but the fox-spirits had flooded the rooftops with silent signals and daemon-song that even now echoed through Irato’s mind. If Shield had been looking down at the Imperial City, the Ascendant God would have surely heard their fury and hatred.
The ambush was most likely a ploy – they were unlikely to kill him themselves, Irato knew. But they were sly little bastards, these foxes ; they’d happily attract the attention of something he couldn’t handle quite so easily. Some demon of the night, God or Astaren warrior-mage could have heard the clamour resonating out through an unhearing city and come to investigate.
I have to get off the street
, he realised. Whether or not something had been called by the foxes, he didn’t want to find out. And of course, given what he’d just inhaled, time was running out anyway.
Scouting desperately around, Irato at last spied a glimmer of hope in the form of lines of light around the shuttered window of a teahouse. It was late in the night and anyone there was surely smoking opium or balese. Irato didn’t give a damn which it proved to be – both would numb the pain of his injuries and he had more than a few streets to travel in a short time. If he passed out, or more than an hour elapsed, it would be all over.
That’s not going to happen,
Irato told himself.
There’s a cure, I still have time.
He remembered his mentor’s voice describing just what would take place, accompanied as always by the scents of aniseed and honey that had been ever-present in the man’s study. The old doctor had been an exacting master, but scrupulously fair to each of his protégés. Irato found himself drifting into the warmth of fond memories before he caught himself.
Knowing how much it would hurt, Irato shook his head as hard as he could to clear his thoughts.
Wake up, you bastard. You let yourself drift off again, it’s all over.
He headed for the teahouse, reaching behind his back with his right hand to try and free one of his hatchets. A band of pain clamped around his stiffening wrist ; not broken, he guessed, but it wouldn’t be much use and he gave up the effort to unhook it. His heart drummed a fearful tattoo in his chest as he reached the window. He was an easy target to anything that found him out there. Even a common thief was a danger now. Normally, Irato wouldn’t break a sweat if attacked, the Blessings imbued by his mentor’s spells had seen to that, but this wasn’t a normal evening.
A dull pain was building in his head, his thoughts clouded by dizziness from his fall. It felt like his skull was cracked and the numbing chill of night was slowly seeping into his head. Any sort of blow or stumble could see him collapse and once down he knew he wouldn’t be getting up. Even if something did, it wouldn’t be him any more ; of that, his mentor had been chillingly clear.
With skin darker than most natives of the Imperial City, jet-black hair and hooded eyes, few guessed his heritage correctly and Irato had lied about it so often even he found the truth rang false when spoken. A chill ran through him as he imagined that truth being lost to him.
He reached the window and listened a while, trying to peer through the cracks but able to see nothing of the inside. Wincing, Irato drew a knife with painful care and listened again, hoping to catch any small sound that might tell him if the room was empty or its occupants were still conscious. A tiny noise came from somewhere on the other side, perhaps a floorboard as someone shifted their weight slightly. Irato began to ease backwards and raise his knife.
He never even saw the shutter move. Light exploded across his eyes as it struck his head and smashed him backwards. The ground disappeared from behind him and the light faded to nothing as he fell. Blackness enveloped him and went on for ever.
Investigator Narin leaned cautiously out of the window, stave at the ready. There was a big man wearing black crumpled on the ground outside, a long-knife visible at his side.
‘Who is it ?’ Lady Kine whispered from behind him.
Narin raised a cautioning hand and she fell silent while he checked left and right down the street. It was empty, but the starlight illuminated a glittering trail of glass fragments and some fallen slates further down the road. He returned his attention to the supine man. He appeared unconscious and Narin didn’t doubt it was true. He’d kicked the shutter open as hard as he could and, from the cut to the man’s forehead, had caught him square on.
Narin peered closer. There were several scrapes on his forehead, one of which had bled down to his chin. He turned and motioned to Kine that she should stay silent. The dark-skinned woman nodded, lips pursed and hands pressed protectively to her belly. The green kohl around her eyes had smeared and he’d knocked one of the white combs in her hair loose so a trail of dark hair hung down to her shoulder. The ache in his heart intensified ; a bitter-sweet mix of joy, fear and longing, but a cool breath of wind from the street returned Narin’s thoughts to the man he’d injured.
He wore black leather armour underneath a ragged grey cloak. More glass remained on the man’s chest ; there were lines scored in his armour and tears in the cloak, while his left arm lay at an awkward angle. Narin grimaced. In his fear, he’d lashed out – thinking someone was spying on them – but this man could just as easily have been looking for help.
He picked his way over the window sill, stave still ready to deflect any attack, and looked toward the fallen tiles. He couldn’t hear anyone coming to investigate yet, but it was crucial Kine was not seen with him.
A small sound came from inside the teahouse. He turned and saw Kine beckoning frantically so he hopped back through the window and returned to her.
‘What’s happening ?’ Kine whispered in a pleading voice. As she spoke she tugged the ivory cinch of her cord belt tight. Having also realised the danger, Kine had wasted no time in pulling on her long coat, ready to leave. Sinuous wyverns were embroidered in blue down the left-hand side, the sign of her House.
‘I’m not sure.’ He glanced back towards the unconscious man. ‘I think he’s a thief, or a goshe maybe.’
‘Goshe ? You think he’s an assassin ?’
Narin took hold of her arms and brought the small woman close to his face. ‘Don’t worry ; no one’s going to hurt you.’
knows ?’ she insisted, eyes wide with terror. Against her dark skin the whites of her eyes were even more startling, her fear even more pronounced. ‘What if he’s sent someone to kill us ?’
‘Then they’ve lost the element of surprise,’ Narin said calmly, ‘and have backed off. Otherwise they’d be in the room by now. I think he was just crossing the streets by rooftop and fell – he’s nothing to do with us. All that talk about the goshe being assassins is only rumour ; the Lawbringers have found no evidence of anything like that. And anyway, your husband wouldn’t be hiring an assassin – that would mean trusting low-caste outsiders when he’s got loyal men in his own household.’
Kine opened her mouth to argue, but couldn’t seem to find the words so he ran a reverential finger down the side of her ebony cheek, catching the errant trail of hair in his fingers and tucking it behind her ear.