For hours the next day, the Knights sat in their lounge area, in silence, uncertain of whether they should go back onto the streets. They had received no instructions. Instead they gazed at the black pall of smoke hanging over the city: vast funeral pyres, carrying away the souls of the deceased; this was the limit of respect the Cavesiders had received from the authorities.
Exhaustion filtered through every fibre in Lan’s body. She stretched out across the floor beside the fire, into which Vuldon was gazing intently, prodding it now and then with a poker. Tane emitted the odd sigh, but was otherwise sprawled forwards across the table like a drunk. They avoided eye contact with one another. ‘It could have been worse . . .’ Tane finally offered, but a grunt from Vuldon terminated that conversation.
Lan felt immense guilt over what had happened but tried to find a logical explanation for why it had occurred. ‘They targeted the Emperor’s new trading area with violence – true. But this was a peaceful protest. Maybe the anarchists are just an extreme faction of the Cavesiders, but the majority want a more peaceful solution?’
‘It would explain the military’s heavy-handedness,’ Tane agreed. ‘They probably expected the worst after the events in the iren.’
‘And those bombs the soldiers were throwing,’ Vuldon suggested, ‘they were either to control the crowd or to incite violence. The cynic in me needs no persuading, I’ll say that much.’
‘I can’t believe they turned on our own people,’ Lan breathed. ‘It’s inhuman.’
‘It’s politics,’ Vuldon muttered. ‘No matter who’s in charge of this damn city, it’s always the same. Things going on behind the scenes. You can bet right now that—’
A polite knock on the door and Feror entered the room.
‘Not now,’ Vuldon told him.
Feror seemed not to notice, walking in distractedly without so much as a glance in their direction – he seemed a completely different man from his usual, cheery self. Nervously he began asking questions, the usual, but this time his voice was monotonous, as if he was reading badly from a script.
Vuldon muttered ‘Fucksake’ and gently steered him from the room. ‘Not now, old guy. We’re not in the mood.’ The cultist gave him a defeated look and quietly closed the door behind him.
‘What do you think was that all about?’ Lan asked.
‘Who gives a shit?’ Vuldon replied. ‘We’ve bigger things to worry about.’
‘Where is Fulcrom?’ Tane asked.
‘Maybe I should go and find him,’ Lan offered, pushing herself upright.
Tane snorted a gentle laugh. ‘Maybe you should.’
He wasn’t at home, so she walked to the Inquisition headquarters, giving no displays of her power, no signs of her abilities to step out across the air. She pulled her thick woollen cloak so tight that her Knights uniform – and its symbol – could not be seen. She was used to being despised for what she was, but after witnessing such overwhelming hatred when she thought she represented something good . . . that was different. Being a Knight had given her something on which she could construct a more positive existence. Having it called into question was difficult.
Taking two steps at a time, she headed into the Inquisition headquarters. A couple of officers tried to halt her as she entered the building then, on noticing who she was, allowed her through.
Continuing down the corridor, she examined the office doors for Fulcrom’s name. Finding it, she knocked on his door repeatedly but there was no answer. Why can’t he be here?
As she was about to turn, he opened the door. ‘Lan, I didn’t want to answer but I thought I heard . . .’
She entered the office and noticed the bags under his eyes, the set frown. ‘You look worried. What is it?’
‘I’ve had a hell of a night.’ Fulcrom sighed and picked up a note from his desk. ‘And I found this on my return. It claims to be from Shalev, saying that she wants revenge on the Knights for scuppering her plans. It’s probably nothing. We get threats here all the time.’
‘She may be a bitch,’ Lan said with a sigh, ‘but she may have a point.’
Fulcrom looked at her with surprise. ‘I heard the opening of the iren was . . . eventful. You saved the Emperor. Everyone is impressed. You’re the talk of the town again.’
His words of praise pleased her because they were coming from him, but the content of what he said did little to raise her spirits. While he perched on the edge of his desk, Lan paced, her hands brushing her hair, relating the events of the iren to him, then the attack on the citizens.
His face darkened. ‘That’s not what I heard,’ he said. ‘I was told by the senior officers that there was a minor, violent uprising from the caves, but the military managed to stop those responsible with,’ he paused, and stressed the final part as if it had been read from a statement, ‘minimal loss of innocent life.’
Lan couldn’t believe that such crap was being spread. ‘I wouldn’t call it minimal loss,’ she said. ‘That isn’t how it happened. That isn’t what we saw.’
The city walls of Villjamur were no place for a stroll, but the long grey platforms, nestled behind crenellations, were at least somewhere where they could be alone and talk without being overheard.
On one side was the refugee camp, more sparsely populated than when she had arrived, and on the other archers of the city guarding the walls. She looked at them and shivered, remembering the flights of arrows loosed upon the people. She explained what had taken place, and what the Knights suspected. Fulcrom said nothing, merely allowing her to relate her story. She could see his mind working, weighing up the information, assessing where it fitted in with the bigger picture.
After she had finished, he told her there was nothing they could do. There would be an official statement, and that would be the one that was recorded, issued, discussed, and already trickling through to the future.
‘I’m too tired to be angry,’ Lan said. ‘But just so you know, if I had the energy, I would scream.’
At that point she gazed across at the refugees – those who had been abandoned by those inside the walls. Including herself, she thought guiltily. A raw wind rolled in, deep and chilling, settling ice further into the city.
‘Why do we even bother?’ she asked. ‘People say the world is dying. Seems to me like this culture is already dead.’
‘Because there’s always something worth fighting for, Lan,’ Fulcrom told her. ‘So we don’t have the guilt from having sat around doing nothing while the world caves in. Come on, let’s get a drink.’
The tavern was a tiny, two-up two-down affair that had been converted into a cheap but charming salon. Lined with old fishing and agricultural gear, with cheap candles melting slowly onto ancient wooden tables, it was usually a quiet place, though tonight there was a bawdy bunch in the adjacent room. These days it seemed there was a lot of heavy drinking going on.
Fulcrom swirled a beaker of malt whisky, whilst Lan sipped a warming wine. There were contented, pleasant pauses in their conversation. Occasionally there was eye contact loaded with potential meaning. Where did their tentative plans for romance fit in with all the recent violence?
Fulcrom was nervous. He was terrified that he might see his dead wife – or indeed any other ghosts – at any point. He hadn’t yet reported his findings to anyone – not that he had any findings really. If only a few dead had surfaced, then maybe he could find them one by one, and persuade them to go back down again.
He wanted to share his burden with Lan, this woman who was becoming increasingly more beautiful to him.
‘I shouldn’t stay out too late,’ Lan told him. ‘Vuldon will just get frustrated if we don’t get back to work before long. Have we any plans for how we deal with the anarchists now? We’re loathed by the Cavesiders – who knows what damage the massacre has done to the people there.’
Fulcrom peered into his glass. ‘We stand up, brush ourselves down, and carry on. We have no choice. You take your brief glory for saving the Emperor – and you will have to ignore what happened with the protesters.’
A short man with a ginger beard stood by the end of the table and asked to shake Lan’s hand. ‘Sorry to disturb, lass, but jus’ wanted to say ta for doing a great job keeping us lot in business. Things’d be a lot worse if it weren’t for you Knights.’
Glancing to and from Fulcrom, she obliged, took his thanks, and said little else. An awkward silence came and went, and the man trotted off happily enough.
‘This fame,’ Lan said, ‘I’m not used to it. Somehow it doesn’t feel right. It’s like I’m being thanked for nothing. I don’t feel like I’ve protected anyone.’
‘People are grateful for what you’ve done,’ Fulcrom said sincerely. ‘Enjoy it.’
‘All I’ve done is enforce the law – and I saw what that meant this afternoon. The law is geared up to protect the people in here from the people out there.’
‘I guess so,’ Fulcrom confessed. ‘Depending on where “here” and “there” is.’
‘The Cavesiders, the poor – they have just as much right to our protection as the rich do.’
Fulcrom frowned. ‘You need to be careful who hears you talking like that. That’s what the anarchists’ new slogans say,’ he said. ‘Walls are being whitewashed daily to remove such sentiments.’
Lan sighed and leaned forward to take Fulcrom’s hand. ‘I know. Let’s not talk about work. Can we go back to yours?’
Don’t let her see you react, Fulcrom thought, dreading that Adena might be there waiting for them.
‘We don’t have to if you don’t feel you want to,’ Lan said.
Fuck, now you’re caught between the ex-wife and exacerbating Lan’s deepest fears. ‘Sure, we can go to mine,’ Fulcrom said. ‘I’d like that. Though, are you sure you’re not too upset about the events yesterday? I wouldn’t want to be seen to be taking advantage . . .’
Lan just smiled and kissed him.
They held hands as they ascended the stairs to his apartment, kissed against his door, and all the time Fulcrom feared letting her down. As her lips gently pressed down in tender ways across his neck, he couldn’t help but worry if his dead ex-wife would be waiting to berate him on the other side of the door.
He held his breath as they blundered into his apartment . . . but there was nothing, just the empty silence of his room. He sighed with relief and lit the fire in the stove, perched on the end of his bed, then he noticed how Lan froze. Again he thought of a ghost, but then he guessed that this one was probably her own.
‘Are you OK?’ Fulcrom asked softly.
‘Yeah, of course. Yes.’ Her words were almost to herself, but he didn’t mind that, and didn’t even mind the hunch that he was helping her move on somewhere in her own headspace. In many ways, she was providing the same relief for him, too. He removed his cloak and she laughed as he folded it neatly on the chair to one side. ‘How spontaneous,’ Lan whispered with a sarcastic grin.
‘I like to be neat.’ Fulcrom chuckled and sat down next to her.
They kissed. There were tentative gestures of exploration. He could feel her tense up, then gently unfurl, offering herself to him. Surprisingly he found that his desire to help her through whatever issues she herself might be suffering, her anatomical-based fears, overtook his own concerns that this was the first woman he had kissed since the death of his wife.
Half-clothed and worried she had forgotten how this sort of thing was done, Lan laid him back and straddled him. He fixated on the symbol on her Knights uniform. She peeled it off, joking, ‘No one’s going to save you now.’
Please not my dead wife . . .
He moved his hands inside underneath her uniform, helping it off. Again she became still.
‘What?’ he asked.
‘Cold hands,’ she replied.
After losing the rest of her clothes he could tell she waited for his reaction, so he was quick to show her that she was – as indeed she was, and damn she was – a fine-looking woman.
‘You’re beautiful,’ he breathed against her neck, kissing her gently, and inhaling her fragrance. He whirled his tail around and ran it down her spine. She arced her back like a crescent moon. Lan seemed so small above him, in the gentle glow of the fire, so vulnerable. Something inside of him melted. He could not help himself. He wanted her.
He spun her over, unleashing years of introverted agony. He levered off his breeches with his tail whilst running his lips against her legs.
Lan made it clear she didn’t want anything more than this. They lay under the sheets for an hour, embracing, curling, fondling, learning each other’s quirks and preferences. And he simply enjoyed having her soft human skin against his tough rumel hide.
Whenever she shuddered he paused to check it was because he’d done something good, and not disturbed a memory – and she told him to stop worrying, laughing it off. There was something so wonderfully free about all of this, about having waited so long, about the not knowing, and it filled him with so much adrenalin, so many emotions, that it was an exquisite agony.
After their passions had ebbed, they lay there, a pleasing tangle of legs and arms and tail.
Eventually, breaking this monumental sense of peace, Lan said, ‘I shouldn’t fall asleep here.’
He agreed and after another long, slow kiss, she climbed out of bed. He watched her like a voyeur dressing in the half-light.
Reluctantly he roused himself, pulled on his breeches, and moved to see her out. He kissed her at the door and, as they parted, he noticed how she seemed a different person – they both did. Barely a word was uttered – and there was no need, because the warming look in her eyes told him enough. She brushed back her glossy black hair and sashayed sleepily down the corridor. By the top of the staircase, one hand on the rail, she blew him a kiss.
Beaming, he glanced away and strolled casually back inside—
Where his heart nearly stopped.
Adena was there, fully formed, with a ethereal sheen and a black-bloodied neck, sitting on the chair next to his bed. The room felt colder than it had previously, the fire had gone out. The darkness was more oppressive than before. He peered around anxiously.
‘Fuck,’ Fulcrom declared, agog. He felt guilty, a sinner, a cheating spouse, in the midst of some ridiculous love triangle between the living and the dead.
‘How long have you been there?’ he demanded.
‘Enough to see that you’re still the attentive lover you always were.’
Adena was wearing some kind of dress – though it was more or less in rags – and her dark hair contained bright silver streaks, her scruffy fringe hanging lankly before her eyes. The bones of her body seemed to jut out more than usual, darkness pooling in sunken skin. Her presence still sent a shiver through his body, and his tail was rigid with fear. Now more than ever there was a sinister air about her, although her expression remained muted.
‘Where were you when . . . ?’ Fulcrom faltered, his voice was weak, as the world around him tried its best to reduce him to pure insanity.
‘In the corner of the room,’ she replied. ‘I chose not to be seen though.’
‘Why didn’t you say something? I don’t know, spook us, slam a door, flip a book across the room. Why did you just watch something so obviously painful?’
‘I don’t know,’ she answered flatly. ‘Because it didn’t affect me the way I thought, I guess. When I first watched you, through the mirror, everything seemed intense.’
‘I . . .’ Fulcrom faced the floor and closed the door behind him. ‘I’ve no words for this situation,’ he continued honestly. ‘What can I say? I thought you were – are – dead. I know you are a ghost at least. I even went down there, and saw others like you.’
‘To the underworld?’
He placed his hands on his hips and tried to gauge his situation, to remain logical amidst this madness. ‘Yes, I was told all about the escape from the priest himself, and I followed him to the city beyond the river.’
‘Would you go back?’
‘It’s not exactly top of my travel destinations. There’s no way to return you there forcibly, if you were wondering. You have to go back by your own will.’ He found himself being remarkably stern, harsh even, perhaps a panic reaction, but what was he to do? He was talking to a ghost. There were no rules for such a discourse.
‘You’ve kept well,’ Adena said, ignoring his not-so-subtle request, and only then did he realize he was semi-naked, showing evidence of his betrayal.
‘You shouldn’t have stayed,’ he said.
‘I had to see it through, Fully,’ Adena muttered. She seemed to curl in on herself as the conversation continued. ‘I had to know if there was a chance of us ever getting back together.’
The emotions came from somewhere, and he found himself on the verge of tears. ‘There couldn’t be, Adena. You’re not alive. It was never possible.’ He knelt before her on the floor and tried to take her hand. It was colder than a frost and he released it in an instant. ‘We’ve been allowed a rare moment to see each other, but you have to realize that out here – in the real world again – time goes on. I can’t just stand still, though there was a time I contemplated . . . joining you. But that was long ago.’
Adena glanced up and gave him a deathly stare. She didn’t mean to frighten him though, and he knew it – it was just the way she was now. When will the madness stop? he thought, logic suddenly visiting him. Get a grip on this, immediately.
‘You know, it isn’t as bad as you think,’ she said. ‘Everything still hurts, but it’s . . . Look, I’ve had a few years to get used to coping without you, too. That makes it a little easier.’
‘What will you do now?’ he hinted.
‘You’ve made it clear there’s nothing for me here.’
‘There’s a world down there that you can make your own, surely?’
‘No. It’s pointless to have much ambition there, Fully. When you have all the time in the world, nothing seems to happen. Did you notice time dragged by so slowly while you were down there? Well, it’s the pressure of dying, I think, that makes you do things quickly up here, whether or not you lot realize.’
They talked a while longer, he didn’t know how long, didn’t bother looking at the clock. He was too drained to care any more. His eyes were sore, and he was exhausted, mentally and physically. This had been the most bizarre day of his life; and a healing one, too. Now old wounds were being poked at, but he forced himself to be mindful that he was more than a pile of emotions.
Adena spoke of wishing she could visit him, but she thought as soon as she crossed that river once again, that was that, she would never speak to him again. Awkward silences grew now, he suspected, because they were waiting to find something profound to share in that final moment, the last sentence they would breathe to each other.
He consciously tried to hold her again, but she flinched. ‘Just because I might move on, doesn’t mean I won’t think of you. The reason it’s taken me this long is because I couldn’t get over you.’
‘I know,’ she agreed miserably. ‘It’s just me being selfish and I should leave you alone. There were only a few of us up here, the dead, but a lot of those have gone back now. The fun wears off pretty quickly when you can’t feel much.’
‘I loved you. I just have to make the most of what time I have here.’
‘Loved,’ Adena whispered. ‘Look after her, Fully.’
I’ll do my best, he thought, welling up again, feeling the lump in his throat becoming unbearable.
Adena stood up from the chair and again he noticed how similar she was to Lan, something about the face shapes, the body; and whether or not his subconscious had been at work, he didn’t care at all. Adena walked – drifted, almost – into a wall . . . and then the ghost of his wife was gone, just like that.
The fire in the grate sparked into life and he jumped. Warmth erupted, dissipating the chill her ghost had left.
Glancing over his shoulder, he climbed and then collapsed onto his bed, where he cried himself to sleep.