Clothed in black, the Knights lingered on a bridge adjacent to the Astronomer’s Glass Tower. The monument towered upwards, glinting as if it was a gargantuan sword puncturing the low clouds. Lan did not know the material it was crafted from, this alien structure in a city full of eclectic architecture, but it stood out from most buildings she had seen, with several sides and its tip like a multi-faceted crystal used by tribal healers.
Within, it was said that astronomers could monitor the orbit of the moons, or calculate how long the ice age would last. Vuldon made wild claims: he had seen within, many years ago, where astrologers, not astronomers, divined the night sky for guidance for the Emperor on various Imperial policies. This would have been blasphemous to Jorsalir ears.
Dozens of buildings were being patched up or fully rebuilt. Spires and bridges were being repaired after a millennia of neglect and decay. Those on the verge of crumbling were being ripped down in controlled cultist-guided explosions, and new architecture built. During the day metal, skeletal frames were loaded, crosshatching much of the stonework, with masons crawling across them like ants. Work had already commenced on the enormous job of repairing the Jorsalir Bell Spire. The Knights had passed the site on the way here, and various tundra flowers, messages and strange totems adorned the boards blocking off the wreckage. Luckily, since much of the structure tumbled into an area being redeveloped, the death toll had not been great – forty, when it could have been in the hundreds.
Lan had seen the Emperor’s plans for the city. Villjamur was to be reconstructed in the shape of the great cultures of the past, and the Knights were here to protect that dream. Which meant clearing the streets of crime.
‘It’s awfully cold up here.’ Tane slapped a black-gloved hand on the rail of the bridge and peered between the buildings either side. Then he turned his focus to the city beyond. ‘I can smell what’s being cooked in bistros even from up here. A few herbs and spices.’
‘I can smell more bullshit,’ Vuldon replied.
‘No, it’s true.’
This was the seventh night in a row they had waited on the bridges, scrutinizing the city for any signs of trouble. It seemed an odd brief, to fight crime in such a random way, and to be so visible to the citizens. But they understood that they were there for morale, a visible presence, as much as a deterrent. At least it was a gentle way to get used to her powers. Though they had received days and days of training before being released into the city, she still couldn’t quite master her sense of balance and spatial awareness. She had twisted her ankle on a rooftop or narrowly missed knocking herself out on a bridge a few times.
‘So this is what my life has become,’ Vuldon grunted. ‘Waiting to see what a cat-man can find for me to hit.’ He shifted his weight from foot to foot, rubbing his arms to stay warm.
‘I prefer werecat,’ Tane replied tartly.
‘And what exactly was your life before this point, Vuldon?’ Lan asked. ‘Sitting alone in the dark feeling sorry for yourself? Face it, you love doing this again.’
‘Fair enough, lady,’ Vuldon replied with a sharp grin. Occasionally he seemed so soft and strange for such a brutish-looking man. ‘So, Tane, the werecat, what can you hear? Now a councillor’s been blown up, we need to haul in some fuckwits so it looks like we’re doing our jobs effectively. I know how the authorities work – they don’t deal in subtleties. They want numbers to recite at each other in meetings.’
Lan had felt the burden of expectation on them ever since Fulcrom had reported the assassination of Councillor Mew'un at the hands of the anarchists. He had asked the Knights to step up their patrols, to question the public, to make themselves seen, and to bring in anyone they suspected of misdemeanours or being connected to the terror group. Moments like this, hanging around and waiting for more intelligence, seemed to exaggerate that pressure.
‘Give me a moment. I think I’ve got something.’ Tane leant forward and tilted his head this way and that, his face-fur clear in the moonlight. Whether or not it was her imagination, every day he seemed less like a human. ‘I’m hearing raised voices – there is an incident . . . somewhere around Gata du Quercus. Yes, I am most definitely getting something, someone just screamed.’
‘Any idea what it is?’ Lan asked.
‘I think,’ Tane said, leaping up onto the side of the bridge with surprising agility, ‘that we’ve a bit of a brawl on our hands, chaps. It could be a gang of some sort, I’m not sure. I can’t quite perceive exact sounds from this distance. Maybe it’s the anarchists?’
‘Fucking crowd control, then,’ Vuldon said. ‘Gata du Quercus it is. I’ll try to be quicker this time.’ He turned to sprint down the bridge, whilst Tane leapt down onto the roof below and sprinted along the tiles on all fours.
Lan inhaled and tapped in to whatever it was she could control, connecting with the new forces inside her and tuning them with the gravity that pulled her to the earth. She pushed herself up onto the side of the bridge, steadying herself for balance. Find it . . .
One foot out . . . She still hadn’t grown used to her powers, but within a minute she had glided down. A rush of chill wind, the tiles moving towards her vision, then – look up! – she nearly hit her head on a piece of guttering. The city seemed constructed purely to annoy her. She pushed off with one foot, skimmed down slanted roofing, then hovered gently upwards, upwards, and started running through the air . . .
Lan glided down to land behind Tane, who was crouching by a street corner, gripping the brick edge of a building, claws bared, his head tilted to listen into the distance.
Vuldon turned up a few moments later, slightly breathless. ‘I might be strong, but I sure as hell can’t get around the city like I used to.’
‘That’s because you’re old,’ Tane whispered.
‘Shut it, kitten,’ Vuldon said.
‘Guys, please,’ Lan interrupted. ‘Tane, are we near the situation?’
‘It’s right ahead, my dear.’
Towards the end of the street, two rival factions were in a standoff. Rumel versus human, a conflict possibly born out of racial tension. Tane glanced back. ‘They’re saying something about rumels causing the genocide on another island. Does that mean anything to you?’
Lan and Vuldon shrugged.
She said, ‘Well we can’t let this flare up any more – we’re here to keep order.’
‘Where are the city guard right now?’ Vuldon demanded. ‘They should be looking after little skirmishes like this.’
‘I suspect that there is your answer, old boy.’ Tane pointed a clawed finger at the few armoured men lined up alongside the humans. ‘It appears that the fear has infected them, too.’
Lan thought suddenly of Investigator Fulcrom, a rumel. ‘We can’t just stand here and allow it to inflame. Let’s go.’ She pushed past Tane, and towards the fray, surprised at her own assertiveness.
There were maybe twenty rumels and twice that for the human line. All wore work gear, dark breeches, dirtied jumpers and cloaks. Broken bottles, swords and torches were being brandished, and chanting and screaming increased in intensity as she came nearer. She saw there were a couple of men with the rumel, standing between the sides, hands held out and demanding peace. At the centre of the ruckus was a rumel woman and a blond male human, him protecting her. A human leapt forward from the opposing ranks to strike the other man, drawing blood from his head. Vuldon burst from behind, and into the group, the sheer force of his mass ploughing several men to the ground in an instant.
He dragged one of the human offenders nearer and kicked him in the stomach. Another two attacked him with swords but he grabbed their wrists, broke their arms. He stood to regard the simmering masses. No one dared to go near him.
Vuldon did nothing but breathe heavily and stare at the offender at his feet. Tane joined them, and together the Knights stood between the two opposing lines.
A silence of sorts fell across the scene.
‘What’s going on here?’ Lan demanded to the group.
‘Why should we tell you, bitch?’ came a reply.
‘Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen, sweetheart?’ laughed another. ‘Why’re you dressed like a bloke?’
Lan blanked their comments. ‘I’ll repeat my question: what is going on here?’
‘Fuck this.’ Vuldon grabbed the man on the ground by the scruff of his neck, then yanked him upright, clutching his throat in one immense fist. ‘Someone will give the lady an answer, or I squeeze. And don’t even try to call my bluff. This runt means nothing to me, and the older I get, the more impatient I become, so you better hurry up.’
‘He’s not lying,’ Tane chimed in, grinning.
‘It’s them.’ A stout human gestured to the interspecies couple. ‘Shouldn’t be allowed, not with them rumel invading Tineag’l like that. How can we trust rumel scum now?’
Lan marched up to the man and woman in question. The fear was clear to see in the black-skinned girl’s eyes. She was pretty, delicate and well-dressed, and this scene was no place for her. Lan placed an hand on her shoulder, then told the couple to run – which they did in an instant, the blond man mouthing, ‘Thank you.’ Their steps echoed down the street, between the crumbling stone walls, fading into the distance.
‘Why’ve you let the fuckers get away? Slut!’
Vuldon heaved his victim into the air, and tossed him wailing into the mass of bodies. Tane and Vuldon moved forwards, full of violent promises. Some of the gang challenged them, foolishly, and the boys set to work.
They threw stomach-blows, kicking legs away from under people, slamming them into walls. A couple ran down a side street, some drew the injured bodies to one side, the rest saw sense and backed off, surrendering themselves.
‘What’re you meant to bloody well be then?’ someone called out. ‘On yer way to a fuckin’ party?’
A ripple of awkward laughter, and Lan became aware of the Knights’ matching black costumes.
‘We are the Villjamur Knights,’ Tane declared. ‘And as citizens of this city, as subjects of the Emperor, you must respect order.’
Tane’s anger surprised even Lan: he sprang up and then into the group to grab the man – a skinny fellow with bad teeth and no hair – and slit a line across his face. He collapsed to the floor screaming, and Tane held out his claws. ‘Does anyone else have a problem with our attire?’
This act made Lan feel uneasy – she did not like the way the two of them would use their powers so casually. She would have to mention this to Fulcrom later.
‘So,’ Vuldon said, ‘which of you are in league with the anarchists?’
‘None of us,’ a man called out. ‘But we’ve nothing against them. They’re changing things, so why don’t you just leave them be.’
‘They’re criminals,’ Vuldon replied. ‘Anyone caught associating with them will be imprisoned.’
‘What, and now you want us to admit we’re one of them? Fuck off, mate.’
Vuldon cringed at his own stupidity. ‘Go. And if there’s more trouble, we will hunt you down.’
Grumbling, the group dispersed. Somewhere out of sight a bottle broke, a sword scraped on stone.
Lan turned to the rest of the Knights. ‘So no one’s willing to reveal who the anarchists are. How can they be so good at hiding?’
Tane padded a circle on the cobbles, peering around the street corners, or through grubby street-level windows. Two dead bodies lying on the ground he regarded with absolute indifference.
Vuldon picked up the discarded weaponry, drew out some material and wrapped them up for the Inquisition. ‘We’re gonna have to stay out each night and catch the anarchists in the act. That’s the only way.’
Lan didn’t think much of that. ‘We’re charged with an impossible task: to find the most efficient criminal operation in a city that’s getting out of control. It seems so hopeless. We’ll never do it.’
‘And I thought old Vuldon was the one who liked a good mope.’
Tane raised one eyebrow in her direction.