Covered in sweat, and wearing loose-fitting pale clothing, Lan marched from the training area, through the catacombs, with the warm light from cressets lighting the way back to her room. Today more techniques had been gleaned from ex-military combat specialists, where she had been forced through routines and manoeuvres that were brutal and efficient.
Lan came to the realization that her new role was in fact growing on her. Though she understood her anonymity was constantly in the balance, this existence was one she’d never been able to enjoy previously.
She had respect. She had a challenge. She had a future.
And being one of the Knights meant helping society, and that helped her feel good about herself, too – not that she’d actually helped too many people so far . . .
Lan pushed open the door to the plush, marble-tiled bathroom, and saw that her bath had been filled for her. The scent of lavender wafted through the air, and there were several small lanterns placed about the room. Without any further hesitation, she removed her clothing and plunged into the warm water, feeling the heat begin to penetrate her aching muscles.
Well, perhaps it is nice to think of my own needs from time to time . . .
An hour after her luxurious bath, Lan stood on the safe side of a thick pane of glass staring out at the snow, whilst Tane and Vuldon slouched on the plush sofas behind her contemplating some of the Inquisition reports, studying the recommendations and suggestions of those with a better knowledge of the anarchists’ movements.
‘Still no developments in finding Mew'un’s killers, apparently,’ Vuldon announced. ‘And the councillors are becoming increasingly worried about travelling through the city on their own.’
‘Never mind that, old boy,’ Tane added, holding up a parchment. ‘It states here – albeit with appalling punctuation – that crime has gone up massively in the last fifty days. There have been more reports of burglary and vandalism than in recent memory. Shops are being destroyed, bistros burned down. Says there are two hundred thousand people on this side of the city, and most of them are worried about walking through the streets alone. That isn’t right. I think we have some work to do.’
‘It would be nice to have some strategies in place for us,’ Lan said, ‘rather than just being let loose aimlessly.’
‘We can think of things ourselves,’ Tane declared excitedly.
‘The city’s so big,’ Lan added. ‘There’s such a huge area to cover. We need Fulcrom’s help, too. I trust him – he seems a good sort.’
‘I’ve never yet met an investigator I can trust,’ Vuldon drawled.
Lan forgot her worries by staring at the sea. Nearby, hamlets cluttered up the shoreline, little white cottages were dotted into the distance, and Lan imagined they had to be brave people, whoever lived there, facing those bleak wintry seas.
Today, the submarine giant was passing again. The top of the creature’s grey crown breached the surface, and all around him the water banked and swirled, whilst seabirds arced in the skies, following his painfully slow progress through the tides. As he came nearer, into the shallower waters, torrents skimmed down his thick, green hide. He took one, longing glance into their clifftop retreat, then one to the land beyond as if he knew he could never survive there long enough to enjoy it – before he moved further along the shore, spraying seawater across the villages.
The Knights had been given use of this clifftop dwelling. It was safer for them here, Fulcrom had told Lan. Such sanctuary allowed them to develop their skills according to the designs of cultists without distraction. These headquarters were less than half a mile from the centre of Villjamur, where the city buried its back end into a range of hills, and under which the underground docks opened out and met the sea. Although built into a cave network, there had been a lot of structural and design work. The walls had been smoothed and covered in plaster then white paint. Ornate cressets burned from walls, coloured lanterns stood in corners, cushions and throws and thick-pile rugs were scattered tastefully about the place. Fires burned in the corners and thick windows faced outwards that were so clear they assumed cultists had interfered with the production.
At the sound of the door opening, Lan turned to face the room.
Feror, the cultist-cum-attendant who saw to their every need, tottered in with his notebook. He was nice enough, a tough, wiry old fellow, with lank brown hair and a soft smile. He wasn’t a servant – cultists didn’t seem to stoop that low. Now and then he’d plug in some relic to ‘monitor’ them. Cultists. The people in black lingered like swamp midges. They pottered from adjacent rooms, or catacombs deep in the cave system, carrying relics, pieces of technology she’d never understand, before disappearing with patronizing smiles. There were orders here who had been operating in secrecy for years, now on projects that the new Emperor had tapped into.
‘Good morning, dear Knights,’ Feror called out. ‘How are we today?’
Tane and Vuldon barely grunted their acknowledgement, and Lan felt guilty on their behalf. ‘We’re fine,’ she said, ‘feeling well. Not much for your little notebook I’m afraid.’
‘Oh, it all counts,’ he replied, enunciating crisply, in his rather charming way. He began to prod them with a few questions, and they gave brief answers. Yes, they felt fine. No, there were no side effects yet. No, their muscles did not ache. No, they had not fainted, or had spells of dizziness or nausea.
Beleaguered by such endless repetition, Lan distracted him with a query about his family, and he responded with vigour, telling of his second daughter’s first day at school, how his wife was developing a range of relic-based techniques of heating liquids quickly. Lan was fascinated by people’s lives: perhaps it was because she hadn’t experienced an easy life herself.
Feror, ever the patient and passive man, eventually went away clutching his notebook to his chest, humming to himself as he went, and Lan pondered just what secrets that notebook held. ‘I’m bored with this research,’ Tane declared, and flounced around the room with as much energy as some of the dancing girls in the circus. Ever since his transition, he possessed an over-the-top and hyperactive edge. ‘Bored, bored, bored.’ He stood before Vuldon, whose broadness dwarfed the slender werecat. ‘If we’re not actually getting outside fighting crime, surely we could be, I don’t know, having people round. Drinks and dancing, parties, that sort of thing. I can throw quite the event . . .’
‘We’re supposed to keep a low profile when not at work, idiot,’ Vuldon grumbled. ‘Emperor’s orders. Out there you can be as attention-seeking as you want. When you’re not beating someone up, be quiet.’
Tane sighed theatrically, and collapsed onto a plush green settee alongside Vuldon. Lan was entertained at first by their repetitive bickering – Tane’s optimism repeatedly corrected by Vuldon’s pessimism – but now it was becoming annoying. While most of the time they got on, occasionally the conversation would deteriorate into childish banter as the two of them prodded each other, testing how far the other would go in response.
Tane suddenly held a hand out for silence. ‘Fulcrom’s here,’ he announced.
There were only three of them in the room and a moment later the door at the far end opened. Investigator Fulcrom strolled in, and greeted them amiably.
‘Spot on again!’ Tane said. ‘I could smell you a mile off.’
Fulcrom chuckled, and stood with his hands on his hips, his Inquisition robes parting around his tunic. ‘I hope my current scent works well for you, Tane.’
‘What’ve you got for us this time, investigator?’ Vuldon stood up and folded his thick arms. Lan knew that Vuldon didn’t much like the Inquisition, but surely he could trust Fulcrom?
Fulcrom motioned for them to be seated and then lowered himself onto the floor by the settee, a gesture of respect, Lan thought, that spoke volumes. The hazy light from the window spilled across him and the surf droned against the base of the cliff, resonating even up here.
Drawing his knee up, Fulcrom leant back casually and said, ‘The Emperor wants to open a new indoor iren in a few days. Its construction has been kept from public eye, mostly because of the anarchists, and generally because he doesn’t quite know who to trust.’
‘Indoors?’ Lan asked.
‘It is,’ Fulcrom said. ‘A hundred or so trader units under one roof, more or less. It’s to encourage more people to part with cash during the Freeze, in a safe and sheltered environment. Some of the city’s top smiths and artisans are ready to move their wares there. He’s hoping such moves will give people hope.’
‘While refugees die in the ice outside the city’s walls, the Emperor wants to build a palace in which the wealthy can entertain themselves?’ Lan asked. She stopped herself from going further, fearing what would happen if she did.
‘It isn’t our concern,’ Fulcrom said, with an understanding glance at her. ‘We all have to do our jobs without ever being able to sway Imperial policy. It’s the way of the world, unfortunately – but you should be grateful for what has been done.’
‘Are we not allowed to help them at least?’ Lan snapped.
Fulcrom drew a deep breath, but he didn’t put her in her place; he didn’t react the way she expected.
‘I’ve done many things for this city without thanks,’ Fulcrom said. ‘I’ve saved lives only for the very same people to die later. I regularly tell families that their loved ones have been killed, sometimes in the most brutal way. I do such things without your smart outfits, a glamorous abode, or enhanced abilities. I do it because I care for people.’
Lan closed her eyes and wished she hadn’t been so blunt. ‘I’m sorry,’ she breathed.
‘Touching,’ Vuldon grunted. ‘What do we have to do for this fancy iren? Pose for artists?’
Tane chuckled at that, as he padded around behind Vuldon. ‘You do have a sense of humour after all.’
‘No,’ Fulcrom said. ‘There’s going to be an opening ceremony, and Urtica is concerned that it will be a prime target for the anarchists. Security is going to be tight but you three are to make sure nothing happens on the day. It also means, as well as fighting crime on the streets at night, we’re to assemble a more thorough investigation and head out into Caveside in order to seek out the offenders.’
‘A little unsubtle, don’t you think?’ Vuldon asked.
‘Perhaps,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘But the Emperor has suggested it’s time you became better known. He’s already made sure the city criers are spreading the good word, and there will be more write-ups in People’s Observer in addition to that introductory article a few days ago. It takes time for people to find out about these things. People keep hassling the Inquisition, worried about who you are – because not everyone knows yet, so we must help that along. But that’s all something we can do behind the scenes.’
‘I’d rather not be up in front of people,’ Lan said. ‘Not everyone is like Tane, and wants attention drawn to themselves.’
‘Such scandalous accusations!’ Tane mocked outrage, arms wide.
‘I think it might be good for the city,’ Fulcrom said. ‘Heroes don’t just exist – people create heroes in their own minds. In the Freeze they want to believe in something, and with the current crime situation, having manufactured heroes could be good for them. You’ll most likely raise morale. I’m not quite sure you realize how much you might mean to the city.’
‘What, even Misery over there?’ Tane gestured to Vuldon, who remained unperturbed.
Fulcrom was looking serious now. His gaze was optimistic, full of a visionary hope. He was immensely persuasive. ‘None of you chose to be who you are, and none of us can control what the Emperor requests – but you have to do what is requested of you, for your own good, and that of the city’s. That’s no bad thing, all right.’
‘I’m in,’ Tane said. ‘And so is Vuldon.’
All eyes turned Lan’s way, but how could she explain just how different her situation was from their own? She loathed the attention.
‘Fine,’ Lan sighed, and stood to walk to the window again. ‘Let’s just do this, then stop the anarchists so we can all have a quiet life.’
‘Sounds like a plan to me,’ Tane declared, and padded off to his chamber. Vuldon followed him a moment later.
Fulcrom joined her to gaze out across the sea, watching the white tips of surf break across each other.
‘What’s wrong?’ Fulcrom asked. ‘Is it the focused attention?’
‘A little, if I’m honest,’ Lan said eventually. ‘But it’s not just that – I’m worried about the boys. They sometimes use their powers so unnecessarily. They can be too harsh. We’ve brought a couple of people in, but they could be innocents, and treating innocent civilians so brutally seems . . . Well, I’m just not comfortable around it.’
‘They’re just getting used to their new powers – mentally, that is. It was one of the things we expected – especially from Vuldon, who, according to plan, is the strongest individual in the Empire. But you – how are you coping? Tane says you seem a little . . . reluctant.’ Fulcrom placed a hand on her arm and she suddenly froze. She both wanted it there and . . . no one had touched her like that: gently, softly. Not in this form. Not for years.
‘I’m sorry,’ he said, withdrawing. ‘You’ve been brought into this position against your will, but there’s nothing I can do about that. I’d like to help you get over that – that’s my job.’
‘Is that why you’re being so nice?’ she asked. ‘Because it’s your job?’
‘It may well be my job, but there’s no reason to treat you all like shit is there? You’re hardly going to trust me if you hate me.’ Then, ‘Besides, we’re in this together. If we don’t catch Shalev and the anarchists, the Emperor will have me killed.’
Lan was shocked, and her expression must have showed it.
Fulcrom continued. ‘He’s said as much. I’m to manage the operation to help purge the anarchists, and I’m to keep an eye on you lot. If you fail, I fail.’
‘You spend more time with me than Tane or Vuldon, is all.’
Fulcrom and her had shared several hours of conversation, debate about life and the city, yet at no point had either of them revealed much about themselves. Fulcrom didn’t seem to have a life beyond upholding the law.
‘They have their moments too.’ Fulcrom smiled.
They remained there, in companionable silence, watching the return of the submarine giant as he moved out to sea, and on the horizon, dark, low clouds began to mass.
Later, they could see lightning.