Authors: Tansy Rayner Roberts
And yes, Velody was not imagining those scars now. They webbed his face and neck and arms in ugly streaks. She stared with morbid fascination at the screaming man with the ruined skin. The dark ridged lines that had sliced his face into a twisted mess were moving…wriggling. The scars fell off his face like rivulets of water, and he screamed as if they burned as they left his skin. The Ducomte’s voice ran hoarse, and he gaped in silence as more scars dragged themselves from his hands and wrists, dripping off his fingers and leaving perfect, unmarked skin beneath. As he breathed, the golden light poured into his nose and mouth, glowing out of his eyes and from beneath his fingernails.
If I’m mad
, Velody thought with a touch of hysteria,
he is too
. It wasn’t a comforting thought.
The Duchessa reached out to her cousin and he pulled her to him, burying his face in her gown of beaded silk and roses. Pink petals fell to the floor of the white pavilion.
The mob was strangely docile, watching the bizarre scene. The lictors scrabbled towards the float with greater urgency, using their rods of state to bat people out of their way.
Up ahead, Delphine glanced at Velody across the heads of the onlookers that separated them and shrugged.
Velody was even more certain now that no one but herself—not even the Duchessa, currently cradling his face against her stomach—could see why the Ducomte was in such pain. As she thought this, she saw a brown-cloaked man crouching on the sloped rooftop of the council curia across the way. Even from such a distance, she could see his eyes boring down upon the figure of the damaged Ducomte.
, Velody thought, then wondered why she was so sure. The cloaked man lifted his gaze to make eye contact with her.
He knows about me too.
She didn’t know why she was suddenly so afraid, or what the stranger could possibly know about her, except that she could see the scars when no one else could. She glanced at her hands nonetheless, and was relieved to see no hint of the strange light that had entered her.
The crowd slackened around the float, many of the witnesses losing interest in the tableau of ruling Lady and mad Consort. The Ducomte drew away from the embrace with his cousin and stared at her with a fierce intensity.
Not at her
, Velody thought, and this time panic rose fully within her.
He’s looking at the dress
The Ducomte’s hands lunged out, grasping the fragile fabric of the gown and tearing violently at it. The silk ripped and a cloud of petals exploded around him as he tore the Duchessa’s dress away from her stomach. The crowd gasped with delicious horror. The Duchessa looked stunned as her cousin brandished a handful of torn pink silk, beads, ribbon and roses at her. ‘What is this?’ he bellowed in pure rage. ‘What are you?’
The young Duchessa squealed as her cousin pushed her back on the pavilion, covering his body with hers, scrabbling his hands over her pale and perfect face.
‘You’re not a King!’ he screamed at her, his voice breaking hoarsely. ‘I can feel you’re not a King, I can taste it. Who do you think you are?’
‘Ash!’ the Duchessa gasped with tears in her eyes. ‘Ashiol, please—’
The lictors had finally made it aboard the pavilion and now threw themselves to their lady’s defence, dragging the Ducomte from her and holding him fast between three of them while a fourth helped the Duchessa to her feet, shielding her torn gown from the populace with his black and scarlet cloak.
‘You’re not a King!’ the mad Ducomte screamed at the
Duchessa. ‘Where did you get that dress? Whose hands knitted those roses, whose fingers trimmed those ribbons?’
Velody clung to the cold wood of the hitching post, feeling hollow inside. The dress was spoiled. It could only ever have been worn once, so it shouldn’t matter, but somehow it mattered dreadfully. That, and it appeared to have driven a man mad.
‘He got to you!’ the Ducomte howled. ‘Five years in exile, and for what? New tortures, new games. What is this Garnet?’
He’s not making any sense
, Velody thought lightheadedly.
Why won’t anyone stop him?
‘What have you done to my scars?’ screamed the mad Ducomte.
‘Scars?’ muttered a seller of rose dumplings near Velody. ‘What scars?’
‘What have garnets got to do with anything?’ agreed her friend. ‘Boy’s gone daft.’
‘And that poor dress, Salle. I could weep.’
‘They were mine!’ screamed the Ducomte, struggling against the firm grip of the lictors. ‘You’re with them, Isangell. You’ve been consorting with Kings. Who gave you that dress?’
The lictors tried to manhandle him off the float and away from the Duchessa, but the Ducomte held his ground, not allowing them to budge him. One lictor made the mistake of trying to draw the sharp axe that was bound to his bundle of rods. The Ducomte let out a bloodcurdling growl and started fighting them for real. To the surprise—and evident enjoyment—of the mob, he turned out to be rather good at it. He flipped two lictors to the ground with great force, and slammed another against the side of the pavilion. The fourth was hurled back against the huddled, weeping figure of the Duchessa.
The crowd cheered as the Ducomte made an impossible leap towards the rooftop of the curia. His hands scrabbled wildly on the guttering, but he made it with a helpful hand
from the man in brown, who hauled him upwards. The two of them ran up the slope of the roof and vanished over the other side, out of view of the crowd in the Forum.
And that was all. Sensing that the action had come to an end, and that the parade was unlikely to continue, the crowd began to disperse. A few remained to watch the gulping Duchessa pull herself together. Some shouted out helpful advice to the lictors about how best to comfort a crying woman, but these soon descended into bawdy remarks.
Delphine made her way back to Velody, her eyes shining. ‘What did you make of all
‘I don’t know,’ said Velody. She didn’t want to explain about the scars or the golden light or the strange look that the man in brown had given her.
‘Your poor dress!’ Delphine said, giving her friend a hug. ‘What a brute! Gorgeous man, but you can’t respect a fellow who damages good frocks for no reason.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ Velody mumbled. ‘Let’s go home.’
‘Last time something went wrong at a Floralia parade we had the worst summer harvest on record,’ Delphine said chattily as she wound her arm into Velody’s. ‘It rained for three months, do you remember? And that was just because the sacrificial bull wasn’t drugged heavily enough and sprayed blood on the Damascine Virgins. For a mad Spring Consort and a half-ravished Spring Queen, we’ll probably have sleet from Lucina to Cerialis.’
Velody buried her face in her hands. She could not wipe away the image of the mad Ducomte screaming as the scars tore themselves from his hands and face.
Is he mad? I saw it too. Perhaps we’re both mad
‘Still, you have to look on the bright side,’ said Delphine with relish. ‘No one will forget what the Duchessa wore to this parade!’
he battle was over, and Garnet was dead. Macready rolled down the sloping roof of the Cathedral of Ires, on the Octavian hill, landing with a thump on the reassuringly flat roof of the city librarion. He crawled from the shadows into a patch of morning sunshine. Nice. He closed his eyes and relished the warmth for a little while before checking his body for damage.
A long scorch mark tore his uniform from shoulder to sleeve, and he could see the ugly redness of skyburn on his exposed flesh. He prodded the burn with one finger to see if it hurt. ‘Feck it!’ he exclaimed at the burst of pain.
There was more pain, in his leg mostly and lower back. General aches and scrapes and bruises. He vaguely remembered throwing himself at the bitch Livilla to save her life and cursed himself. It was Garnet he was supposed to have been protecting, and Garnet was dead. Macready hadn’t been close enough to make a difference, even if it had been possible. Swords might have bloody helped.
A small, sturdy figure jumped down from the parapet. ‘Ow,’ she said as she landed, glaring at Macready as if her bruises were somehow his fault.
He found himself grinning a little. It was good to see Kelpie in one piece, even with a damaged foot and an extra scar or two for tomorrow. ‘Eh, lass. You’re a sight for sore eyes.’
‘Sore is right,’ said Kelpie, limping over to him. Her boot had split open around her foot and her red, blistered toes stuck through the hole.
‘Come and sit in the sunshine with me,’ he invited. ‘A lovely afternoon, is it not?’
Kelpie gave him a dirty look, but lowered herself to the concrete near his feet. She was bedraggled. Her dark horsetail of hair was a tangled mess. Her uniform was as torn and scorched as Macready’s. She let out a lungful of air in one huge exhalation and closed her eyes. ‘I saw Garnet…well, “fall” isn’t exactly the right word, is it?’
‘Swallowed by the sky,’ said Macready. ‘They won’t like that, the Lords and Court. Denied their chance at cannibalism.’
‘You haven’t lost your sense of humour then.’
‘Would it not be a tragedy if I had?’ He thought he saw wetness in her eyes and deliberately looked away. Macready wasn’t good at dealing with weeping females, and the prospect of tough-as-nails Kelpie bursting into tears filled him with great alarm.
‘We lost him,’ she said. ‘I can’t believe we lost him.’
‘You’re not mourning that bastard?’
‘We were sworn to protect him—’
‘And we failed. Get over it, lass, I already have.’ It was an easy enough lie to tell while he sat in the sunshine, the horror of the nox’s battle behind him. ‘I seem to recall his High and Mightiness, the Boy King of Us, saying on more than one occasion that he could well look after himself. What was that phrase he used? “A true Power and Majesty needs no guard dogs yapping at his heels.” Charming man he was, our Garnet, very gracious.’
Kelpie stared at Macready with a fierce rage. That was
just fine with him. If anger kept the tears at bay, then he was all for anger.
‘Doesn’t it bother you that he was the last Creature King?’ she asked.
‘Not at all. We could do with a holiday, the three of us. Young Crane could surely do with a few weeks of rest and relaxation somewhere warm—he’s been looking a mite peaky.’ Macready frowned. ‘Where was our Crane last nox anyway? Not like him to miss a massacre.’
Kelpie hesitated, as if not sure whether to tell him or not. ‘Garnet sent him on a spying mission yesterday.’
Macready swore. ‘And that’s what I’m talking about. We’re sentinels, not ruddy spies. Our Power and Majesty has no respect for us; why the seven hells should we respect him?’
‘Because he’s dead?’
‘All the more reason. Safe to hate him now.’ Macready tried a reassuring smile, but somehow it didn’t work out too well.
Kelpie rubbed her face. ‘I can’t help remembering the old days. He was such a sweet boy.’
Macready was tired. The sunshine wasn’t so restful now that Kelpie was cluttering it up with her sentimental chatter, trying to turn Garnet into a fallen hero.
‘That sweet boy grew into a bad man and an evil King,’ he said. ‘He was a monster and a lunatic and he hurt you more than the rest of us put together, so if you shed a tear for him, Kelpie, I may well have to punch you in the face.’
Her eyes flickered dangerously. ‘Like to see you try, little man.’
That was more like it. This was the Kelpie he knew how to deal with. ‘Is it nice to tease a cove about his height?’
‘Big talk for a feller who hasn’t got any.’
A dark cloud of birds fell out of the sky, transforming into a mass of feathers and wings and long black limbs. The air crackled around the creatures as they shaped themselves into a single figure, a hard-muscled naked
teenager with blazing yellow eyes. ‘I should kill you,’ he snarled at Macready as soon as his bare feet slapped the roof.
Macready darted to his feet, moving away from the menacing figure. ‘Eh, Janvier, and how is your sweet mistress? Is there any chance that you would be bearing thanksgiving tidings for the noble way I pushed her out of the path of that devastatingly lethal skybolt?’
‘Must have missed that,’ said Kelpie, grinning. ‘Damaged her, did you?’
‘Perhaps a bruise or two, but ’tis a small price to pay for her continuing life and good health, would you not think?’
‘You broke her fucking leg,’ said Janvier.
Macready hoped beyond all hope that the burst of laughter building up in his throat would not break free. The last thing he needed was to have his head pounded in by one of wolf-bitch Livilla’s muscled thugs.
‘Eh, I’m sorry to hear that,’ he said, dancing back a step or two every time Janvier advanced on him. ‘I’ve nothing but respect for the demoiselle, as you know, and I was only acting on instinct, protecting a lady from harm, as the gentleman I am.’
Janvier curled back his lip. If he were a wolf like his mistress, he might have uttered a howl, but instead it was a hoarse raven screech that tore out of his throat.
Macready backed up again, but he had miscalculated the distance and was now dangerously close to the edge of the flat roof. Smart-mouthing the Lords and Court had been daft enough when he and the other sentinels were armed well enough to hold them off if they had to. These days it was just plain daft.
Don’t taunt the animals, my lad
, he reminded himself silently. And then, of course, being Macready, he did it anyway. ‘You do remember that rule about sentinels being sacrosanct, do you not? Courtesi are not allowed to do physical harm to sentinels.’ Helpfully, he drew a circle around his body in the air. ‘Invisible barrier of protection.’
Behind Janvier’s menacing presence, Macready saw Kelpie slap herself in the forehead. He guessed he wasn’t doing himself any favours.
‘How is it without a King to protect you, little sentinel?’ asked Janvier. ‘Feeling your mortality?’
,’ Macready gabbled. ‘But obviously you’re not interested in our job description—’
‘We won’t be without a Creature King for long, Janvier!’ Kelpie shouted from her side of the roof. ‘You know how these things work. The courtesi will kill each other, and the most ruthless of the survivors will become Lords. The Creature Lords will kill each other until one of them quenches enough to become a King. There will be blood and death, and at the end of it we’ll be useful again. Where will you be? Your mistress can’t be King, so what does that make her? Bait.’
Janvier whirled towards Kelpie with a threatening shriek.
Macready took advantage of the distraction to scamper back to the centre of the roof. ‘The lass has a point. Is your mistress not the most vulnerable of Lords at the minute? While you’re settling this little score between us, there’s only one courteso left to guard her, and her lyin’ there with a broken leg.’
‘Dhynar and his boys are the most dangerous,’ Kelpie said helpfully. ‘But I wouldn’t underestimate Priest’s ambition.’
‘Poet is a dark horse, I’ve always thought that,’ said Macready. ‘And as for that Warlord—sure, it wasn’t tea and biscuits that earned him his name. It will be a grand old bloodbath, will it not?’
Anger and frustration crossed Janvier’s face. ‘I’ll get you,’ he promised Macready.
Macready smiled sweetly. ‘Invisible circle of protection?’
Janvier moved so fast he was a blur, shaping himself into a cloud of ravens as he threw himself into the sky. Once they were three streets away, the dark birds dropped down out of sight.
Macready breathed out. ‘That can be our good deed for the day, can it not? Warning the lad about his lady’s safety.’
‘Two good deeds for you,’ said Kelpie. ‘You broke Livilla’s leg.’
‘Only in the interests of her ongoing health and happiness,’ Macready said in a lordly tone.
They broke then, hanging on to each other as they howled. Livilla’s broken leg was the funniest thing either of them had heard in months. The fact that Mac hadn’t meant to do it made it even funnier. ‘Invisible circle of protection!’ he wailed in between bouts of mad laughter.
Something furry brushed against their legs and both sentinels flinched back and away from each other. A cat stood between them, a patient little greymoon with short slick fur and green eyes. It opened its mouth and spoke a simple message in Crane’s voice. ‘I need you both now. The Crucible, Via Alysaundre.’ Message discharged, the cat walked on dainty paws to the sunniest spot on the roof and licked itself.
Kelpie moved fast, crossing to the edge of the roof and checking the safest way to get from there to street level. When she realised Macready wasn’t joining her, she looked back impatiently. ‘You coming or what? Crane’s the proudest of all of us—he never asks for help unless he’s up to his eyeballs.’
Macready had not moved. He was still staring at the placid greymoon. ‘I’m all for running to the rescue, lass. I just have one small question to ask about this situation of ours.’
?’ she demanded.
‘Since fecking when has Crane used cats to carry his messages?’
The Crucible in Via Alysaundre, on the less respectable side of the Alexandrine hill, was actually The Crest and Crucible, a shabby-looking inn with a closed bar at the front and guest rooms on the upper floor. It was obvious
that this was the place Crane had meant them to come, because there were cats everywhere. Tabbies, greys, tortoiseshells, blacks and whites, short and long hairs, moggies, strays and elegantly preened house cats—every kind of feline imaginable swarmed around the inn, some clambering on the roof while others rubbed themselves up against the windows as if they could will themselves inside.
The innkeeper, his bald head decorated with a wilting Floralia garland, stood in the street and swatted the cats with a broom, trying to keep them away from his door. ‘The damned weather, so it is,’ he grunted as Kelpie and Macready approached him, his Islandser accent as thick as Macready’s. ‘As soon as Aphrodal rears its head and we get a day or two of sun, all the animals in this city go crazy, do they not?’
‘Sure, there’s crazier still to come,’ said Macready.
‘Eh, but you’re a countryman,’ the innkeeper said, a cordial smile breaking across his face even as he belted several cats across the nose with the flat of his broom. ‘How long since you set foot on the Green Isles, son?’
‘Far too long,’ Macready said with a sigh. ‘My mammy will be sore at me when I do make it home, right enough. I told her I was only going out for a jug of milk.’
They laughed together.
‘We’re looking for a youth,’ Kelpie broke in, glaring at Macready as if to forestall a duet of Islandser drinking songs. ‘He said to meet us here. He’s this tall, and he looks, um…’ She waved a hand vaguely across her face. ‘How do I describe him, Mac?’
‘Pretty,’ said Macready.
‘I wouldn’t say pretty…’
‘Do me a favour, Kelpie. The lad looks like something they paint on theatre ceilings. He might be wearing a brown cloak,’ Macready added to the innkeeper.
‘Him,’ said the innkeeper. ‘Aye, he’s upstairs with the other cove. A little under the weather, if you ask me.’
‘A scarred man?’ Kelpie asked intently. ‘Dark eyes, talks fast?’
‘Talks fast, right enough,’ the innkeeper agreed, blocking the path of one persistent moggy with his boot. ‘No, you don’t, old Tom. I’ll set the rats on you, so I will. Didn’t see any scars.’
Macready grabbed Kelpie’s elbow. ‘We’ll be going up to see them, if you don’t mind.’
‘Eh, help yerself,’ the innkeeper said with a shrug. ‘Come down and have a drink afterwards, youngster. I’m sure we have kin in common.’
‘More than likely, so it is.’ Macready steered Kelpie through the inn doors.
‘If any of those dratted felines have made their way inside, do us a favour and chuck them out the window?’ the innkeeper called after them.
‘Aye, I will!’ Macready yelled back.
‘I don’t understand,’ said Kelpie as they crossed into the empty bar and went up the rickety stairs to the rooms above. ‘If it’s not Ash, who is it?’
‘You’re not thinking with your brain,’ Macready scolded her. ‘His scars don’t show to the daylight folk. Eh, and it could as easily be a new cat in town.’
‘Just when we need a Creature King?’
‘Don’t get your hopes up,’ said Macready. ‘If there’s one thing our Ashiol isn’t, it’s a Power and Majesty. We learned that last time around.’
Crane waited in the corridor upstairs, his lanky frame folded against a door. Two ginger kittens were playing with his bootstraps.
‘I don’t think I want to know,’ said Kelpie, hesitating.
Macready rolled his eyes in Crane’s direction. ‘Will you not put her out of her misery, laddie-buck, and tell us if it’s our man in there driving every cat in this city to distraction just like the bad old days?’
‘It’s Ashiol,’ Crane confirmed.
‘Is he…’ Kelpie trailed off as if she wasn’t sure what question she wanted to ask first.
Macready could think of a few.
Is he in one piece, is he sane, is he likely to kill us where we stand?
Crane looked haunted. His angelic face had aged a year or two since yesterday. ‘A couple of hours ago, he was the same crippled mess we saw when he was exiled from Court,’ he said. ‘Didn’t have enough juice in him to call a cat to dinner. Then dawn came…’ Crane indicated the kittens frantically attempting to climb up his legs and scratch their way into the room beyond. ‘Now he’s a full-blooded Creature King with animor leaking out of every pore in his body. It hit him hard. He’s half-drunk with it. I take it Garnet died just before dawn?’ Crane spoke casually, but Macready caught the hurt in the lad’s voice.