Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky
‘Popular everywhere we go,’ Allanbridge muttered. ‘They realize, I hope, that I’m Collegium, not Helleron, right? I never went near a mineshaft in my life.’
‘Don’t think that would make a difference, even under normal circumstances,’ Achaeos told him. ‘Our coming was foreseen, though. At least,
coming was foreseen. The Skryres are expecting to speak to me.’
‘Foreseen, expected, whatever,’ the Beetle muttered. ‘You just get your business done with, so we can be gone from here. Those lads with the bows aren’t looking at me any nicer than before you went to speak with them.’
There were rooms set aside especially for foreigners in Tharn, providing one comfort that the natives did not require, which was light. Heating was not part of the Tharn hospitality, it seemed, or at least the stone hearth remained conspicuously empty. As the light was by way of a stone wall carved into an intricate fretwork that let directly onto the icy air outside, they remained bundled in their thick clothes. The room was rich in elaborate engraving, poor in furniture, so they sat huddled about the walls and waited.
Achaeos himself had been given no chance to attend to their comforts. The moment that they had stepped in from the outside air there had been a messenger waiting for him, a girl of no more than thirteen.
‘You are Achaeos,’ she stated flatly.
Her blank stare was horrified yet fascinated. ‘The Skryres send for you, right away. You have to come with me, now.
‘You were ever a troublesome boy,’ the Skryre chided, as she drifted through her private study. Four carved stone lecterns supported open books and she paused at one to read a few idle words in the utter darkness. She turned her head sharply, catching Achaeos in the midst of shifting his footing. ‘By questioning what we did not wish, failing to question that which was given you to investigate, you always showed yourself a far from diligent student of the greater arts. Furthermore, clearly a man of poor judgment when it came to choosing his companions. Your tastes have changed, I see, and not for the better. For now, as well as the Hated Enemy, you bring us Wasps.’
‘Renegade Wasps,’ Achaeos explained.
Her expression remained disdainful. ‘The very kinden that you yourself warned us of, and now you bring them to spy out our halls. It must be some perversion of spirit that, every time you return home to us, you court banishment. Banishment at best is what you deserve.’
‘I require your aid,’ Achaeos persisted.
‘You have no claim on it,’ she reprimanded him. ‘Your last crusade left many fools amongst our people dead, merely to cripple some single mechanism of the Hated Enemy. Now the eastern Empire holds the city of our enemies, and raises a fleet of flying machines. Their soldiers are coming here, Achaeos.’
‘I . . .’ Achaeos’ mouth was suddenly dry. ‘I had not realized, so soon . . .’
‘Oh, this is no great campaign for them,’ the Skryre said acidly. ‘This is a winter pastime for them, a mere diversion, to send a fleet of flying ships up here and install themselves as lords amongst the savage mountain people.’
‘But what will you do?’
‘What we have always done: husband our knowledge against the storm, pry our minds into the cracks and shelter in the darkness. Do not measure us by your crooked standards, Achaeos. The Arcanum has a long reach, and we have found our path to survival.’
‘What is it? Tell me!’
‘I tell you nothing,’ she snapped. ‘You have lost our trust, Achaeos – a son of Tharn and yet your allegiance hangs by a thread. When last you came here, you carried a taint; now you are utterly rotten with your embracing of the enemy.’
He swallowed, hoping that to be just a poor choice of words on her part, but knowing it was not.
‘Why have you come here, Achaeos?’ she demanded.
‘I must have your aid,’ he repeated. ‘No matter what you think of me, I must have it. You have to know that someone has found and freed the Shadow Box of Darakyon. Surely it cannot have escaped your notice.’
‘I have felt its passing,’ she admitted, seeming abruptly subdued, wrapping herself tighter in her robe.
‘I shall retrieve it,’ he said simply. ‘It was stolen for the Wasps, but now it is loose, and I shall find it. And then . . .’
‘And what?’ Her words hung in the air as, eyes blazing in the darkness, she stalked towards him. ‘Where will you bring such a thing, Achaeos? Have you even considered that? Will you give it to the Hated Enemy and bid them build their confounded machines around it? Will you let the Empire have it, so as to teach them a cruelty even they do not yet possess? Perhaps instead you will lend it to the Spider ladies and lords to become a pawn in their endless games. Perhaps you shall reunite it with the Mantis-kinden, and thus destroy them with weeping over their lost family.’ She was standing only inches from him, glaring. ‘Or would you bring it here?’
‘I . . . had thought . . .’
‘You had not.’ Her skinny hand clutched at his collar. ‘Should we lock it here in darkness, Achaeos? Should it be our secret alone, that none may lay hands on such a vile and corrupted thing?’ Her smile, when it came, cut him like ice. ‘And if you could track such a thing across the Lowlands, now that it is awake, which of our people would not hear it beating like a heart within the vaults of our mountain? Which neophyte or seer, or even Skryre, would not dream of the power that box contains, until they would have no free will or choice but they must seek it out. You would make us all into the very mad renegades that laid waste the Darakyon in the first place. You would infect us with their crazed ambition.’
‘But . . . it will fall into
‘If the world is just, it will merely fall to some collector, like that man in Collegium, who will lock it away in some machine-haunted place where it may be lulled to sleep. Otherwise . . . at least, when the worst comes, it will not be of our doing again.’
She pointed to the doorway. ‘Leave me now, Achaeos. And leave Tharn as soon as you can. Do not return here unless you keep better company than your present. Perhaps it would be best if you did not return at all.’
The words left him feeling weak and sick inside. He had not realized how much strength Che had lent him, when they had last been here together. Through the malaise, something dark rose within him, something dark and barbed.
‘And if I keep the box?’
She fell still, and he thought he saw a glint of caution on her lean face.
‘You have assumed that I would pass it on to some other,’ he said, a little tremble in his voice. ‘What if I should open it myself?’
‘Silence, boy!’ she snapped at him. ‘You are rotted to the very heart. Best to slay you here and now, for who knows what doom you might call down upon your own people.’
‘I am at the bid of the Darakyon,’ he reminded her, ‘so slay the forest’s messenger and who knows what it may do? I would fear to sleep for what dreams might visit me, if I had done such a thing. Yes, even if I were a Skryre of Tharn.’
The Skryre bared her teeth. ‘You will be the end of us. May the Wasps destroy you and the wind scatter your dust! Go, Achaeos. Leave here, and if there is any kindness in fate then you will fail in your quest and be destroyed.’
He turned from her, shaking inwardly with loss and fear, but also with a new anger.
When I have the box, we shall see who commands whom
, came the thought, and only later did he pause to wonder where it had come from, for it had not been his own.
The ruddy-skinned Ant, who had seemed on the defensive for the last few passes, suddenly came out with an explosive punch through the guard of his opponent, hammering into the man’s jaw. The bone blade of his Art tore bloody gashes and his victim was spun to the ground, only to be up on his feet a moment later. The two of them, both Ant-kinden but of different cities, circled, and then closed again. As they both tired, more blows got through their defences, more blood was shed.
The crowd loved it. Not just any crowd, of course. This was an assembly of the great and the good: generals, high-placed mercantile officers from the Consortium, men of good family and great wealth. They stood and shook their fists and roared when the blood flew, howling and chanting and urging on the combatants, who needed no such encouragement.
There were only two islands of quiet in this bloodlust. Uctebri was one.
What a spectacle
, he thought drily.
What wasted blood.
The scent of it was in the air, tweaking his senses in a way no other smell could. No Spider harlot’s perfume could touch him like this. To his mind, the odour drowned out the crowd itself.
He sat behind the man who now believed himself Uctebri’s master. They had taken Uctebri’s old dark robe from him and given him another that was quartered, black and gold. It was to show that he was a better degree of slave than he had previously been: a
slave. He was valued enough to be finally allowed out of his cell. Or perhaps the Emperor just wanted to keep him close.
The Emperor himself was staring coldly at the fighting Ants. This fight, the whole series of brutal matches the evening had in store, was being thrown in his honour by some favour-seeking family. All around him the lucky invitees were baying for carnage and here sat the Emperor, not missing a moment, not enjoying a move. He never did, Uctebri knew. It was not that the spectacle was lost on him. He had no conscience to stain with the blood of these pugilists, nor high ideals that soared above them. He was a man on whose word 100,000 soldiers would butcher towns and villages. He could have his household slaves gutted before his eyes, his armies raze cities, his Rekef assassins slay monarchs and, knowing he could do all this without effort, he took no pleasure from it. Such ambitions were too petty to hold his interest, and so it was with all his pleasures. He lay with his concubines and ate his fine meals, ordered his subjects and counted his wealth, and it jaded him, day by day, whilst the burdens and fears of his state only preyed ever more on his mind.
Burdens such as the succession, of which there was none clear. An Emperor must have a successor, as Alvdan knew, and yet he took no wife, legitimized no offspring. Any child of his would inevitably become a threat, a tool for the power-hungry. That threat was now contained in the form of his one surviving sibling, Seda, whose death warrant he daily considered. She lived only because, whilst she was under his control, so was that threat of overthrow. A son would change all that, of course. So it was that the Emperor of the Wasps, most powerful man in the world, lived in an agony of fear and suspicion, the food ashes in his mouth. Until, that is, a certain Mosquito-kinden was brought before him to make a remarkable, indeed impossible, offer. For if an Emperor were to live for ever, why should issue, so to speak, continue to be an issue?
Such dangerous games we play.
Uctebri, within the shadows of his cowl, permitted himself the shadow of a smile. Was he merely the prisoner and slave of the Wasps, or were they doing his bidding? It was a question worthy of a magician, because magic dealt in the gaps between certainties, and the truth of his status would only be resolved into fact once he tried to change it. Until then, he and the Emperor held to their opposite opinions. His were a scarce kinden, never numerous but now rare indeed, surviving as little more than the folk-tales of peasants warning their children:
Go to sleep or the Mosquito-kinden will come and drink your blood.
Sometimes, in remote places, they did.
Emperor Alvdan II had never quite asked what Uctebri intended to gain for himself from his planned ritual, though. He was so used to people offering him things in return for his favour.
The fight was apparently over, although Uctebri had not been watching it and had not noted which Ant had won. As people turned to talk to their neighbours, of sport or business or both, the Emperor leaned back. ‘Well, monster?’ he asked. ‘Do you appreciate the honour we have bestowed on you?’
Uctebri sucked a deep breath in through his pointed nose, savouring the last of the shed blood. ‘Indeed, your Imperial Majesty.’
‘Displease us, creature, and we may yet see you too in the pits.’
‘I fear, your Imperial Majesty, that I would make a poor spectacle.’
Alvdan snorted at that, and then turned to his left to relay the Mosquito’s words to his neighbour. The man sitting there was the influential General Maxin, who thought he was using Uctebri to court the Emperor’s further favour, just as Uctebri thought he himself had used Maxin to secure access to the Emperor.
Doubt and shadows, the very drink of magicians.
Uctebri settled back, hearing someone above him say that the next fight would pitch a predatory beetle against a half-dozen slaves, and would therefore be good sport and worth watching.
After the entertainment was done it was for Alvdan to rise first, which he did without even a glance at the night’s anxious sponsors. The Wasp hegemony amused Uctebri. They set their Emperor up as inviolable and so far above them. Everyone else, officers in the army, scions of rich families or factors of the Consortium, all of them were within merely a pace of each other, and thus they jostled and fought for place. After the Emperor and his immediate retinue had gone, Uctebri knew there would be all kinds of elbow-jogging over who should follow next.
He had cast several narrow glances meaningfully at General Maxin as they left, and now the burly, grey-haired Wasp dropped back a pace to walk beside him.
‘You honour me with your attention, O General,’ said Uctebri with a sly smile.
‘You forget your place, slave,’ Maxin told him coldly. ‘What do you want?’
‘But you know what it is I want, General,’ Uctebri said humbly. ‘What I need, in fact, to bring his Great Majesty’s plans to fruition.’
‘Your box,’ Maxin snarled contemptuously. ‘I have my men travelling to Jerez even as we speak. You’ll soon have your trinket.’
‘However, General, so that I may be sure of it, I have asked a kinswoman of mine to attend at that place, and bend her own efforts to the same goal.’