Authors: Sharon Cameron
heavy blade hung high above the prisoners, glinting against the stars, and then the Razor came down, a wedge of falling darkness cutting through the torchlight. One solid thump, and four more heads had been shaved from their bodies. The mob around the scaffold roared, a sudden deluge of cheers and mockery that broke like a wave against the viewing box, where the officials of the Sunken City watched from velvet chairs. The noise gushed on, over the coffins, around bare and booted feet crowding thick across the flagstones, pouring down the drains and into the deep tunnels beneath the prison yard like filth overflowing the street gutters. The city was bloodthirsty tonight.
Sophia dropped her gaze from the prison yard drains, where the din of the mob cascaded from high above her head, and squinted into the gloom of the subterranean passage. The tunnel was one of dozens like it, long and narrow, a mausoleum of rough rock and stink and rows of heavy, locked doors. It was why they called it the Tombs. Sophia pulled the door to prison hole number 1139 shut behind her, letting the iron lock clank quietly back into place.
She had planned for five prisoners to be in hole 1139, not thirteen, and there were not enough coffins to smuggle them out. Not all of them. She needed a new plan. She needed to think. She turned her head toward the echoing creak of hinges. A point of yellow light had entered the far end of the tunnel, descending step by step from the higher levels of the Tombs. Sophia looked down at the child that was standing on her boot top, clinging hard to her right leg. The little girl stared back up at her with solemn eyes.
“Quiet,” she hissed in Parisian, “and hold tight! Do you understand?” The child nodded, and Sophia dropped the long, dark robes of a holy man she was wearing over the blond head. The child disappeared beneath the voluminous black cloth. The little girl was tiny but still miraculously strong, her small hands digging into the back of Sophia’s thigh. She’d gone rigid and still, like a rabbit in the shadow of a hawk.
“Good girl,” Sophia whispered.
A woman was begging in the prison yard above them, screaming for her life before the Razor sliced the sound away. The scorn of the mob fell like rain. Sophia narrowed her eyes at the yellow light swinging down the tunnel, the Sunken City blue of the gendarmes’ uniforms now clearly visible. One of them was whistling. She stepped back into the shadows, the little girl beneath her robes, and drew up the black hood of the holy man, darkening her face.
Gerard followed the lantern light, whistling as he picked his way through the tunnel muck of the Tombs. Three more gendarmes of the Sunken City marched with him, blue uniforms making black shadows on the rough-hewn stone. One had his sword propped on a shoulder, fraying cloth at the point of his elbow just on the verge of becoming a hole. The sight made Gerard shake his head. He felt almost sorry for these men. They were not like him; they were not going to impress LeBlanc. He tugged on his jacket, brushing a hand over the space where his commandant’s badge would be sewn. It was a fine night for an execution, and an even finer night for a promotion.
The ropes of the Razor were straining in the prison yard above them, pulleys creaking as the finishing team hauled the gigantic blade back to its full height. The chanting of the mob matched them pull by pull, demanding more heads. Demanding the head of Ministre Bonnard. Gerard picked up the pace. It had taken weeks to have Ministre Bonnard denounced as a traitor, and then more weeks after that, scouring the countryside where the family had scattered, hiding their children like rats will hoard scraps. But LeBlanc had ferreted them out. LeBlanc had found them; Gerard had held them; and now they would die. The last of the ministres of the old Sunken City. A triumph of the new. A triumph of Gerard. LeBlanc would make him a commandant before the sun rose.
Gerard stopped, the gendarmes around him only just avoiding a collision. Prison hole number 1139. He straightened his back, put his key to the lock, and then stepped to one side as the holy man materialized from the murk of the narrow passage. Gerard tipped his hat. The holy man bowed slightly. There was something wrong with his leg tonight, Gerard saw. He was limping as he shuffled past, face half-hidden in an overlarge hood, the blue and white of the Allemande government pinned across the black robes. The holy man had been in the Tombs three nights this week. But if the condemned wanted to buy their final blessings from a priest who had replaced his vows to the saints with an oath to Allemande, then why should he, Gerard, be deprived of the bribes for letting the young man in? LeBlanc didn’t need to know everything.
A hint of a smile showed from beneath the holy man’s hood, the heavy robes just brushing Gerard’s knees before melting slowly back into the dark maze of the Tombs. Gerard waited until his gendarmes had brought their swords into position. Then he turned the key and thrust open the door of the prison hole.
“Family Bonnard! You have refused the oath of Premier Allemande and have been found guilty of treason against the Sunken City. You are sentenced to … you … you are …”
The well-practiced words caught in his throat like bones. Gerard snatched the lantern from the gendarme behind him and ran inside the fetid hole, turning a full circle before bringing a sleeve up to his nose. The cell was empty. Thirteen prisoners, including LeBlanc’s prize, all of them gone.
He kicked through the thin layer of rotting straw, as if some of the smaller ones might be hiding beneath it, strands of human hair sticking to his boot. And then he froze. The men who had come to cut the hair, to bare the necks for the blade. Gerard spun around.
“Go!” he bellowed. The three gendarmes in the doorway wore matching stares. “Seal the doors, you fools! Quick!”
They ran. The Razor thumped and the mob in the prison yard chanted again for the Bonnards. Fear seeped into Gerard’s chest, like the blood traveling down the scaffold, pooling in the cracks of the paving stones. There would be no promotion, and LeBlanc was not going to be impressed. LeBlanc was going to have his job. Or an ear. Or maybe his head.
Gerard took three steps to run for the messengers, to have the tunnels and the muddy streets of the Lower City searched, the gates blocked, and the roads watched. But his boot brushed a bit of color, something alien in a world of stench and rot and stone. He bent down. A single black feather lay in the straw, its tip a brilliant red.
And then there was an explosion in the prison yard.
Sophia hunched down in the seat of the haularound, the holy man’s hood obscuring her face, and handed a stack of papers to the gendarme in charge of the gates. The horses’ sides were heaving, their flanks dark with sweat. She held the reins loose in her hands. Behind her was the steep, zigzagged road cut into a leaning cliff face, the only way up and out of the chasm that was the center of the Sunken City. Behind the gendarme rose the gates, part of the miles of barrier fence running along the edge of the cliff tops, encircling the enormous hole, keeping the tall, stone-carved buildings of the Upper City safely away from the mud and shanties of the Lower City far below them. There were explosions somewhere down there, beneath the reek and fog, bright flashes of color and short, sharp pops—like the bedtime myths mothers told of guns. Sophia took no notice of them, and neither did the gendarme in charge of the gates. He was drunk. He tossed back the papers with barely a glance.
“This delivery will be searched,” he slurred, beckoning to the other guards.
Sophia glanced behind her, putting a hand on the small lump that had squirmed once beneath the robes. Thirteen large sacks, bulky and tied with string, lay in the open bed of the haularound.
“Is it necessary?” she asked in Parisian. She made her voice raspy, full of stones. “I need to be on my way before nethermoon.”
But two gendarmes were already climbing over the wooden rails and into the haularound, swords glinting in the light of a bonfire. Before Sophia could protest further, one of them raised his arms above his head and thrust his sword straight down into the nearest sack, piercing the thing inside it with an audible
Sophia turned away, smoothing the voluminous black robes while the gendarme grunted, twisting, trying to pull the blade back out again. The other guard stabbed sacks with abandon, ripping at the coarse cloth. When they had finished their search thirteen sacks lay in shreds, and the bed of the haularound had become a sea of rolling potatoes.
The more sober guards were at the cliff’s edge now, pointing down into the fuming hole, the people of the Upper City doing the same from their balconies, dark figures many stories high, calling to one another across the air bridges. The iron gates swung open. Down in the chasm, a fire bell tolled.
“Long may you rise above the city,” Sophia said in the voice of the holy man, smiling at the swaying gendarme as the haularound rattled through the gates.
LeBlanc leaned back in his chair, a slow smile curling the corners of his mouth. Gerard had not screamed. LeBlanc was impressed.
He gave the man a moment, in case he should retch, but Gerard merely panted, leaning over the puddle of blood on the table. The end of Gerard’s forefinger now lay several inches from the rest of his hand. Two of the gendarmes released their tight grip on his arms while the third, a man with a wispy brown mustache, thrust a bloody knife back into his belt. LeBlanc twirled a black-red feather between a finger and thumb, his voice soft, almost pleasant.
“Do you know rooks, Gerard? Survivors of the Time Before, a symbol of those who have lived and overcome. The divine spirit who took the form of a rook during the Great Death, leading the sick and dying to the safety of the hidden catacombs beneath the city. The rook that became a streak of light, flying across the night sky to light their way. Surely you were told that story as a child? We all were. But do you know the true story, Gerard? That the light was only what was called a satellite, a machine of the Ancients, burning and falling to its ruin near the entrance of the catacombs, the emblem of a bird still visible on the metal of the wreckage. Fate struck down the satellite, Gerard, so that what would be would be, to show her strength as a Goddess, and in so doing she showed her mastery over the weakness of technology. Those with wits enough to use the Luck that Fate sent found their way to the underground and survived. That is how the world works. But the people now, Gerard, they think only of the myth. Of the benevolent, saintly rook leading them from death into life.”