Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky
And, of course, General Maxin’s own middle daughter was here. Alvdan had slept with her only once. In fact he slept with them all at least once. He knew Maxin was notoriously unsentimental but still he felt that, if it came to that, the death or disfigurement of his daughter might at least bruise the man’s iron self-possession.
What am I in the mood for tonight?
Alvdan asked himself. Something unusual, he decided.
‘Bring me Tserinet,’ he instructed the Warden of the Concubines, an elderly woman who had served in the post since his father’s time. There were no male servants allowed within the harem, and here, in their armour and with spears to the ready, were the only fighting women in the Empire, a dozen hand-picked female Wasp-kinden who were rumoured to be the equal of any elite duellist serving in the Imperial Army.
When the woman was brought out, Alvdan nearly reconsidered. She was no great beauty, Tserinet. Short and dark, with a flat face and a lean body, he had lain with her four times and each experience had been the same: passionless, without any sign of emotion from her. She had let him stamp himself upon her, and clearly willed it to be brief. Even when he had struck her in frustration she had not reacted.
Still, she now looked as forlorn as he could wish. When she met his gaze briefly there was something wretched and terrible in her eyes. Yes, she would do.
He owed it to his Empire, after all, to visit every part of it, at least vicariously. That accounted for all his concubines of other races: women of importance from the Empire’s subject cities, serving as hostages to their families’ good behaviour. At the moment, none was more important than Tserinet.
He wondered what news she had gleaned of her own city. The local governor worked them hard there, and work they did, each long day become a grind to produce food for the Empire, or armour and weapons and machines. Since its conquest, after the end of a long siege, Szar had become quite a pillar of the Wasp Empire, a city that practically ran itself for the Empire’s good – and more loyal than the Emperor’s own people because here was its queen: Tserinet, the ruler of Szar, adored of her subjects, queen of the Bee-kinden.
Yes, tonight he would stamp his rule upon Szar once again. Those Bees should be honoured by the attention.
He had been expecting the usual passionless and unresponsive coupling, but this was different. Tonight she met his attentions with a desperate fire, grappling with him like a real lover, locking her legs about him, moving with him as though she had a thirst only he could quench. He wondered at it, even as he thrust and gasped atop her, how this woman could have thus metamorphosed from the affectless creature he had known previously. When she grasped him now it was as though she was taking some great leap into an unknown and unplumbed void.
She left him quite spent and, when he rolled off her, she stared at the ceiling with tears in her eyes. He did not understand her at all but he had no urge to scry into the minds of all the subject peoples of his Empire. Well satisfied, he left her, still trembling, for his own bed.
It had been a farewell of sorts, that final act of hers, and not to the man she hated most in the world but to the world itself. For the next morning they found Tserinet dead. During the night, she had taken a broken shard of pottery and gashed at her own wrists, bleeding slowly to death. Tserinet, Queen of Szar and hostage for the obedience of her people, was no more.
When Solarno came into sight it was as though a second sun had risen in the north. Che caught her breath and held onto the rail, seeing that field of white bloom and glow on the horizon, amongst the surrounding green hills.
So much else she had seen: the familiar streets of Collegium, where she had grown up; the avaricious energy with which Helleron’s grime and vice trampled over its own poor; the stark simplicity of Myna, bitterly waiting for its revolution; the steadfast order of the Ants of Sarn. She had even seen the Spiderlands: the walled elegance of Seldis and the sprawling, unbounded luxury that was Siennis: its wood-framed spires and minarets defying the laws of architecture to soar into the sky, its bazaars roofed with a fortune in silks. Seeing this city for the first time, though, she decided that Solarno was the most beautiful place she had ever laid eyes on.
‘I never grow tired of it.’ The Fly aviatrix, Taki, was at her elbow. ‘I’ve seen places, you know. I’ve travelled all about the Exalsee, and there’s nowhere to match her.’
The northern shore of the great lake was a gentle slope that plunged into the waters without beach or foreshore, and Solarno had been cut into it, tier upon tier, a broad but shallow band of the work of man extended against the rolling green of fields and pastures that rose steadily behind the city itself. Solarno was predominantly white stone with roofs of red and orange tiles, like surmounting flames, and it was brilliant wherever the sun struck it. Looking at it now, from the water, Che could discern its hierarchy at once: the great villas ranged closer towards the hills’ crests and the commercial district lining the waterfront. She could see the sprawling west side of the city, where the houses were smaller and shone less brightly, and the compact east where rose the stacks of factories that hugged the waterfront along the lines of two rivers, turning the great water-wheels that drove the machines inside.
She saw domes rising above the roofline, supported on so many arcades of columns that some lofty buildings seemed to have no solid walls at all. The markets were all crowded into warrens of streets, the awnings of stalls forming a second roof layer, whilst the open spaces were parks or, on the higher tiers, airfields.
From the waterfront that ran the entire length of the city, a network of piers and promenades reached out onto the lake, and she now felt the ship’s engine change pitch as it turned to move in on its dock. There were men there already waiting to receive them, more of the sandy-skinned Soldier Beetle-kinden, and also some Flies. Solarno was a Spider city, she had been told, but she saw precious few of their kind to begin with. She tried to remember what Stenwold had told her about the place, from what little information he had coaxed from Teornis. Solarno was not actually part of the Spiderlands, for only the western shore of the Exalsee had that honour. The rest of the littoral was split between the half-dozen communities that ringed the great lake, each supposedly independent. And yet Solarno was intrinsically a Spider city.
‘I’ll meet you on dry land shortly, Bella Cheerwell,’ Taki told her. ‘Only, if I don’t now send ahead for a hauler, then my poor
’ll sit on deck until morning, and we’re due rain before then.’
Che looked into the sky, seeing that there were indeed a few clouds gathering but nothing that would suggest a downpour. The winter chill of her journey eastwards had been left behind, and the Exalsee seemed to be basking in last summer’s warmth.
Taki’s wings blurred into sight and she lifted from the deck with a nimble control Che could only envy, skimming across the water towards the city, almost low enough to touch the waves. A flurry of motion beside her told of the arrival of Nero.
‘Keeping your distance?’ Che asked him.
‘She bites, that one,’ he grumbled. ‘Still, I’m not done with her, you’ll see.’ He displayed a ragged piece of paper for Che’s approval. It was a sketch, in charcoal and graphite, of none other than te Schola Taki-Amre, executed deftly and with the minimum of shading, and yet a match close enough that someone bearing only this picture could have picked out the pilot from a throng of other Fly-kinden.
‘For her?’ Che asked him, puzzled.
‘Nuts to her. For me.’ Nero looked at the bustle of the approaching wharves, and past it to the citizens taking their ease on the promenade. ‘This place isn’t quite what I guessed at, but I like it.’
With the engine backing up, the trade ship ground to a halt, and the dockhands began to moor it. Nero flew over the rails to hover over the quay, feasting his eyes on these new surroundings. Che herself waited until the gangplank was lowered, and then again until the Spider slaver, Miyalis, had assumed his due precedence and strode down onto the dockside to find his factor and consign his cargo. It gave her a chance to study the crowd some more, to pick out the different faces and kinden.
Che was soon trying to decide what a typical Solarnese looked like, but the dock, as with docks anywhere, was a bustle of different races, so that was no easy task. The sand-coloured Soldier Beetle-kinden seemed most prevalent, resembling the people of Myna in feature, though so different in skin-tone. They dressed mostly in white, from the plain sleeveless tunics of the dockers unloading ships to the dazzlingly clean loose shirts and trousers of the men and women strutting along the promenade with curved swords at their waists. A few wore dark armour and stood about in bands like mercenaries, with small crossbows hanging from straps at their belts. Others advertised the fact that they were of higher class by dressing in Spider-fashion coloured silks, though never quite pulling it off. For each of the natives she examined, though, there were two others awaiting her inspection. The few genuine Spider-kinden progressed like aristocracy through the crowd, but without the effortless detachment of their western kindred whose every step was smoothed for them by the sweat of a host of slaves they seemed barely to notice. There were Fly-kinden too, a multitude of the little people. In the Lowlands they dressed soberly, but here their garments were gaudy and bright, and phenomenally tasteless, each one a riot of silks and sashes.
And of course there were the others. The Dragonflies with patterned tattoos on their arms and cheeks could have been siblings to the pirates who had attacked them out on the lake. Here, too, they walked armed to the teeth, looking a far cry from her civilized Salma. Ants with greenish skin loped through the crowds, clad in shelly hides and paint, or just bare-chested. There were kinden that she did not recognize at all.
She stopped and stared. There were Wasps. Not just any Wasps but soldiers of the Empire. A pair of them, standing right there on a street-corner, watching the Solarnese throng just as she had been.
Teornis had been right in his assessment of the situation at Solarno, it seemed.
As she set foot onto the dock she saw her first blood shed in the city. Without any warning there were two men shouting at one another, standing almost face to face and bellowing, and yet the exchange had a formal quality, the insults extravagant and convoluted. For a moment she was unsure whether it was not some kind of play. Then the blades came out, thin, curved steel whisking from scabbards, and it seemed they would cut each other to pieces right there. They were two of the sand-coloured Solarnese, dressed in near-identical white tunics, save that one wore a flat hat with a red badge and the other had hair shaved close to the skull.
Then they had stopped, and taken a few wary paces backwards, and the crowd was giving them what seemed to be a precise amount of room, retreating in a way that put Che right at the edge of this impromptu arena. The two men, who a moment ago had seemed incandescent with rage, brought their blades up to their shoulders and gave each other a stiff little bow, before assuming identical stances, offhand flung forwards, sword held high and back a little. Che saw that they both wore heavy gloves, metal plated over leather, on their left hands.
A duelling society
, she realized, and of course she was familiar with that. She herself had done her time in the Prowess Forum at Collegium. Still, those swords they carried were far from practice-blades.
The two men circled, still crouched in their odd poses. Around Che there was money changing hands as a dozen opportunistic bookmakers gave odds. She soon gathered that the man in the hat was a narrow favourite.
Then they leapt forwards, blades flashing, and were past each other, each having palmed off the other’s sword with his armoured glove. Back to back, they glared at the crowd, and then spun on their heels and went back at each other. Che heard four separate clashes of the blades as they passed.
This time the man in the hat had a narrow wound across his right arm, and Che thought this would be the end of it, because she had accepted the violence as a formal duel, and in her experience those were not fatal.
In Solarno they fought by different rules, she now discovered. The men turned, and the first blood seemed to mark some milestone, because then they just went at each other, the shaven-headed man pressing his advantage, lashing at his enemy from all sides with swift, sweeping strokes that looked as though they would cut him into ribbons, driving him around the circle and shouting out wordless war-cries as he did so. The cheering crowd was rapt, devouring the spectacle for all it was worth.
Then the shaven-headed protagonist missed a parry, his enemy’s sword slicing across his forearm beyond the glove’s edge and, as he flinched, the man in the hat continued his motion, spun all the way about, and drew the curve of his blade across the other man’s throat.
There was a gasp from the crowd and then a great cacophony of whooping and yelling. Without warning there were armoured men pushing their way through the crowd, cuffing left and right with metal gauntlets to make room. They were more of the locals and they seized hold of the winning duellist, who seemed not a bit concerned, and also several members of the crowd, apparently at random. The newcomers wore hauberks of metal plates on a white leather backing, and flat-topped helms the same shape as the duellist’s hat.
Their officer called out something like, ‘Who agitates?’ which in retrospect Che realized might have been, ‘Who adjutates?’ because she had heard the title ‘adjutant’ used for the master of ceremonies in a duel. She had seen no one appointed, but a Spider-kinden came out of the crowd with a reassuring smile and, with a few words, put the soldiers at their ease. Satisfied, they let go of their prisoners and took a few respectful steps back. The winning duellist strutted over to the body and then looked around at the crowd, who were obviously waiting for something more. Che had a moment of horror when she thought he would mutilate the corpse, but then he pointed out two onlookers: a Solarnese woman, and Che herself.