Authors: Adrian Tchaikovsky
Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure
For Doctor John Vandenbrooks,
Arizona State University
The war against the Empire concluded in a troubled stalemate with the newly crowned Empress Seda dealing with those rebel governors who refused to accept her claim to the throne. Now the Empire has quelled its internal dissent and is rebuilding its power. Unknown to most, Seda herself has lost her Aptitude and fallen victim to bloody and unnatural appetites.
In an attempt to come to terms with her own newly Inapt nature, Cheerwell Maker has travelled to the ancient city of Khanaphes and met with the immortal, subterranean Masters, who claim to be the first lords of mankind and the first great magicians. Having spurred them to defend the city above from the hordes of the Many of Nem (attacking with Imperial support), Che is now heading north with Thalric, intending to stand between her fugitive foster-sister Tynisa and the vengeful ghost of her father, the Mantis Weaponsmaster Tisamon.
The former First Soldier of Khanaphes, Amnon, has travelled to Collegium with his lover Praeda Rakespear, a Master of the College, but news of an open Imperial invasion of the old city have sent them both hurrying back to help Amnon’s people.
Tynisa herself has been missing for some time, having fled Collegium shortly after the end of the war which claimed both her father, her close friend Salme Dien, and Cheerwell’s lover Achaeos, the latter of whom died from a wound that Tynisa inflicted.
She remembered how it felt to lose Salma, first to the wiles of the Butterfly-kinden girl, and then to hear the news of his death, abandoned and alone in the midst of the enemy.
She remembered seeing her father hacked to death before her eyes.
But of her murder of Achaeos, of the bite of her blade into his unsuspecting flesh, the wound that had sapped him and ruined him until he died, she remembered nothing, she felt nothing. In such a vacuum, how could she possibly atone?
The world was a wall.
The Barrier Ridge was what they called it. In Tynisa’s College lectures she had seen it marked on maps as delineating the northernmost edge of the comfortable, known territories referred to as the Lowlands. Those maps, set down by Apt cartographers, had been hard for her to follow, and the concept of the Ridge harder still. How could there be a cliff so great as the teachers claimed, and no sea? How was it that the Lowlands just stopped, and everything north from there was . . . elsewhere? The Highlands, by logical comparison: the mysterious Commonweal which had, for a fistful of centuries, rebuffed every attempt by the Lowlanders to make contact diplomatic, academic or mercantile.
knew that, just as everyone knew so many things which, when looked at closely enough, were never entirely true.
On those maps, the Ridge had been a pair of long shallow curves with regimented lines drawn between them, like a stylized mouth with straight and even teeth. The imagination had been given nothing otherwise to go on, and year after year of students had left the College with the inbuilt idea that the world, or such of it as was worth learning about, somehow came to its northern limit by way of a cartographer’s convention. Now she looked up and up, seeing the heavens cut in two. To the south was a sky swirling with grey cloud. To the north, ridged and corrugated, rose a great, rough rock face that had weathered the spite of a thousand years and then a thousand more, that had cracked and split and had sloughed off whole fortress-weights of its substance in places, but which remained the barrier keeping the Lowlands and the Commonweal apart. Only the greatest of climbers could have attempted scaling it. Only a strong and confident flier would trust his Art to take him over it, penetrating the foul weather that traditionally boiled and clawed over the land’s division.
To her back lay the northernmost extent of a tangled forest that housed two Mantis holds – and too many secrets. The airship that had brought her this far had sailed high to cross it, far higher than weather or hostile natives might otherwise account for. Its pilot, Jons Allanbridge, had simply shrugged when queried.
‘I don’t like the place,’ was all he would say on the subject, while beneath them the dark sea of trees remained almost lost in mist and distance. ‘Now Sarn’s behind us, I’ll not make landfall before the Hitch.’ Seeing her expression, he had scowled. ‘Who owes who for this, girl? You’re in no position to ask any cursed more of me. Got that?’
Which was true enough, Tynisa had to concede. The knotted, clenched feeling inside her had twitched at being balked in such a way, but she held on to it, fought it down. Her hand stayed clear of her sword hilt, and it, in turn, stayed clear of her hand, in a tenuous pact of mutual non-aggression.
It had been cold in the upper reaches of the air, but she had planned ahead for that, remembering their journey together to Tharn. She had packed cloaks and woollens, and still she shivered, crouching close to the airship’s burner, while Allanbridge bustled about her. That voyage to Tharn had been in his old ship, the
and Allanbridge’s status as a war veteran had proved currency enough to finance his trading the
for this much grander vessel. She had the impression that he was finding the craft difficult to run single-handed; not that she would have been able to help him even had he asked.
He called this new vessel the
, which Tynisa thought reflected a lack of imagination on his part, but then he was her benefactor, and she the one who had so unfairly imposed herself on his conscience, and so she had said nothing.
They had been aloft many days now, with Allanbridge stoically rewinding the
’s clockwork engine each day. He cooked their meagre meals and did incomprehensible things to the airship’s mechanisms in response to changes in the
’s handling which Tynisa was unable to perceive. He was not one for conversation so their days together passed in silence. She slept in the hold, while he had the single cramped cabin that was the benefit of having acquired a larger airship than the little
. This lack of talk, of any meaningful human contact, suited her very well.
Sometimes she had company other than Allanbridge, or at least her eyes twisted the world to make it seem that way. From the corner of her eye she would see a slender, grey-robed figure hunched at the rail, his posture twisted as if racked by illness, and she would think,
He always did hate travel by airship
, then close her eyes hard, before opening them to see the rail untenanted again.
I killed you,
she reflected, and she could not deny his ghost its place in her mind.
Or she would come up from below decks to see a familiar golden-skinned face, that damnable smile that twisted in her heart, but he faded, he faded, so much less real than Achaeos’s image had been.
, she cried silently, and she would have held on to him if she could. Where the murdered Moth put the knife in her with his presence, Salma rammed it home with his departure.
Then, again, sometimes it was Tisamon – who she had actually seen die. When the vibrations of the airship denied her rest, when the other two hallucinations had been stabbing at her conscience, as she looked over the
’s rail and could find no reason not to simply vault it and find briefly another kind of flight, then she would look along the length of the airship’s decks and see her father, exactly as she had seen him last.