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THIRTY-ONE


Fulcrom found the article in the afternoon, as it fluttered about the streets, and he picked it up only because he’d seen more than a few citizens eagerly reading their own copies.

Time stood still; even the snow seemed to linger hesitantly. He could feel his pulse quicken as the words filtered through his mind. Things connected there. He realized that the anarchists would have used the printing press stolen from the Inquisition to make this and that somewhere along the way, someone had betrayed them. But these were his final thoughts – his first concerns were for Lan.

Immediately he stormed back to the clifftop hideaway to find the other Knights, but they were out, and Lan was, of course, still with Ulryk. Fulcrom fumed and stomped about the complex, shouting at whoever was around. He ordered every available cultist and staff member into a brick-ceilinged antechamber, whereupon he held up the faked copy of People’s Observer, and read it aloud.

That was when Feror broke down in tears; all eyes turned towards him.

Fulcrom moved over to the cultist, and dragged him by his collar into the Knights’ quarters. He slammed him up against the cold stone wall. ‘Talk,’ he snarled into his face.

Feror slid down the wall, drew his knees to his chest and began to sob.

‘You have one minute to tell me why I shouldn’t kill you!’ Fulcrom shouted.

Feror was merely the sum of his emotions then, nothing more, nothing less. ‘They . . . they made me.’

‘You know,’ Fulcrom said, ‘we hear that excuse all the time. They made me. Who the fuck made you, and what did they make you do?’

‘They took my family – my daughters, they’ve got them hostage. Still have. What was I to do? It was my family, investigator . . . Y-you understand, don’t you?’

‘You should have come to us first. We could have helped. We’re the fucking Inquisition, if you hadn’t noticed.’

‘They said they would kill them in an instant,’ Feror blubbered, ‘if I so much as breathed a word about it to the Inquisition. They just wanted background information. I didn’t see it as a big issue, just a little information.’

‘Have you seen People’s Observer? This forged rag that has now spread about the city like a plague?’

Feror nodded, and he closed his eyes with more tears streaming down his face.

‘There’s your big fucking issue. The effectiveness of the Knights depends upon the population’s favour now. I’ve no idea how they’ll react, but I’m guessing it won’t be kind – especially to Lan. They’ll probably want to lynch her.’

‘I know,’ Feror sobbed. ‘I know.’

Fulcrom stared at him for a while longer, and kicked at Feror’s legs to release some aggression. ‘What do you know of the anarchists’ organization? I want addresses. I want names. Otherwise I’ll hand you over to the Emperor’s special forces and let them deal with you.’

The distraught cultist revealed only a handful of facts. He didn’t know any leaders, had never even seen Shalev. The anarchists – such as they were – operated in splinter cells, virtually independent of each other, united only in their hatred of the rest of the city.

Feror had seen his family one member at a time in the top floor of a backstreet tavern, and only for a few minutes at the most, enough to ensure his loyalty to them. He’d pleaded for their return but they refused until they’d bled him dry of information.

‘Are they still with the anarchists?’ Fulcrom demanded.

Feror nodded.

Fulcrom’s rage ebbed, and mental clarity returned to him. Could he have acted any differently than the old cultist who was protecting his family? What if they’d taken Lan? Fulcrom hauled him to his feet and stood toe-to-toe with the man.

‘We’ll get them back for you.’

‘How?’ Feror’s eyes brimmed with hope.

‘We’ll use the Knights while we still can.’ Wherever the hell they are. ‘Presumably you had a contact, someone to go to when you found something useful?’

‘A landlord at the tavern. I’d go to him and he’d send word. We’d meet in his upper room.’

*

Tane and Vuldon returned to their quarters, finding Fulcrom and

Feror sat across a table from each other, in a contemplative silence.

‘Which fucker told?’ Vuldon demanded.

Cautiously, Fulcrom explained what Feror had done while the old man stared at the table, not daring to meet their eyes while his guilt was aired. Neither of the Knights made a move to threaten the man, which either showed how much they’d grown into their role, or revealed how stunned they were.

‘Now what?’ Vuldon asked.

‘We go to get his family back for him,’ Fulcrom replied.

‘Are you fucking kidding me?’

‘Vuldon, we get his family back. You of all people know how important his children are to him.’ He wished he didn’t have to mention that fact, but it seemed to hit Vuldon where required.

‘Where’s Lan?’ Tane enquired, padding around to Fulcrom’s side.

‘Still with Ulryk.’

‘I suspect it’s easier for the old girl to keep away for now.’

‘You don’t hate her?’ Fulcrom asked. ‘You didn’t know her history.’

‘Oh, we knew everything, old boy,’ Tane replied with a wink, much to Fulcrom’s surprise. ‘These cultists yap like hounds to please us Knights. Who knows, the amount of information I took from those show-offs, I might have made a decent Inquisition aide after all.’

‘And it never bothered you?’

Tane shrugged.

Fulcrom glanced to Vuldon, waiting for his response. ‘I know what it’s like to be judged,’ Vuldon grunted. ‘She proved herself. Only thing that matters is a job well done.’

‘Whether or not the people of the city think that’s what matters is something else entirely,’ Fulcrom said.

‘No good crying over spilt milk,’ Vuldon declared. ‘Action’s better than us sitting here wondering what they think of us.’

‘What,’ Tane said, ‘we’re just going to ignore any of this happened?’

‘I’d say so.’

‘But we’re nothing more than the Emperor’s tools for propaganda and now that opportunity has gone.’

‘No,’ Vuldon snarled. ‘Well, yes, that’s true, but what else d’you expect from politicians? We’ve also done fuck-loads for this city, saved dozens of lives and halted just as many crimes, and I’m not giving up because of this. I’ll only stop when I’m dragged away – you can bury me in this outfit.’ Vuldon pulled at his shirt before turning to Fulcrom, who felt a spark of pride. ‘So,’ Vuldon continued, ‘do we get this joker’s family back or sit here like idiots?’ Vuldon tilted his chin to indicate the cultist, who was silent but wide-eyed.

‘We get his family,’ Fulcrom replied.

*

They headed into the caves undercover, an hour after Feror had gone ahead with his request to deliver information. He had given them an address across the road and been told to wait. It was a run-down shell of a room that overlooked the street alongside the Dryad Tavern, a three-floor joint deep in the new territory of Underground North. It was night, and the glass that lined the roof of the enormous cavern cast no light in the darkness. The street was empty and something didn’t quite sit right with Fulcrom: there was an absence of activity. With a couple of hundred thousand people within this cavern, he expected to see some of them.

According to the cultist, Feror was always taken to the top floor of the Dryad Tavern by hooded Cavesiders, where he would then reveal any information about the Knights: their movements, their general status – and, of course, their pasts.

‘How do you feel,’ Fulcrom asked the two Knights, ‘about the anarchists hijacking the People’s Observer?’

Tane wore a pained and tired expression. ‘It wasn’t fully correct, not that the people would really care. I don’t have any dealings with my father’s business. I frittered away all the money deliberately, because of where it came from, and I . . . Oh what’s the point?’

Vuldon mumbled, ‘I suppose in this case, the People’s Observer is generally closer to the true facts than the shit the Emperor’s been hawking around.’

‘Are you fit to put this aside and carry on?’ Fulcrom asked.

‘If you think the public will be fine with us,’ Tane said. ‘Let’s face it, most of what we were about was image and now look at it.’

‘Then maybe we can replace that with some substance,’ Fulcrom replied.

After that brief exchange, they focused on the window opposite, waiting for evidence of life on the top floor. Finally lanterns were lit and figures stirred on the inside, three or four of them.

‘Time to go,’ Fulcrom declared. ‘Tane, search the side rooms. It’s unlikely they’ll show him his family at first, but they’ll be nearby.’

Back into the streets. Tane followed the route up over fences and along the rear of the adjacent building, searching for a high entry point, while Fulcrom and Vuldon took the more difficult and obvious route of heading through the tavern.

The spit and sawdust joint was quiet inside, maybe five customers staring into their drinks at the bar in a fug of weed smoke, while the man behind it – a thuggish-looking brute dressed more like a bounty hunter, with close-cropped hair and earrings – tried to stop them from reaching a doorway leading upstairs.

‘Out of bounds, lads,’ he warned, jumping over the bar with a surprising athleticism.

He made a move to grab Fulcrom, but Vuldon intercepted him, grabbing the man’s fist in his own and punching his jaw, snapping his head back to one side. The man didn’t make a sound as Vuldon, with a pugnacious rage, jumped up and kicked him in the chest with so much force that the man flew backwards and smashed into the bar. Only a couple of the drinkers peered up from their pints to observe the racket.

Fulcrom and Vuldon headed up the stairs with stealth until they were on the top floor. Around the rim of one door, at the end of the corridor, Fulcrom could see light leaking from the room and, as they approached silently, voices beyond became prominent. One of the speakers was Feror.

‘Go,’ he whispered to Vuldon.

The Knight took a few steps back, then charged forward, aiming his shoulder at the door. It exploded open, revealing Feror at a table, surrounded by two men and a woman in dreary-coloured tunics, and who each instantly drew their swords.

‘I got ’em,’ Vuldon announced.

Fulcrom ran over to Feror and pulled him out of the ensuing ruckus.

‘Any idea where your family might be?’ Fulcrom asked, as Vuldon did something that caused one of the men to shriek in pain. Fulcrom didn’t wish to see what he was doing.

Feror, with a petrified look about him, could only shrug. ‘They must keep them nearby. They only let me see one of them at a time.’

They tried a couple of the other doors until they found a sparsely furnished room occupied by two young girls and a middle-aged woman. On closer inspection, Tane was at the far end of the room by the window, with his arm hanging out of it.

‘Go on,’ Fulcrom encouraged. Feror peered around cautiously before hurtling towards his family and pulling his daughters to him. They collapsed together on the floor in tears of relief.

Fulcrom permitted them a brief period of privacy.

‘What’ve you got there?’ Fulcrom asked, walking over to Tane.

‘Take a look, old boy,’ Tane replied.

Out of the cheap glass window, Tane was dangling one of the hostage-takers by his collar, and pressing one claw against the back of his neck. The man’s feet kept kicking the side of the building in fear – it must have been at least a thirty-foot drop below.

‘I’m debating whether or not to let go,’ Tane declared cheerily, and loud enough so that the man would hear. ‘Any thoughts?’

The man outside whimpered.

‘We might get some answers out of this one,’ Fulcrom suggested. ‘I’m guessing Vuldon might not have been so kind to the others.’

As if rehearsed, Vuldon’s stomped into the doorway, a single fleck of blood on his cheek. ‘All done,’ he grunted.

‘Did you leave any alive?’ Fulcrom asked.

‘You didn’t say to,’ he replied. ‘Sorry.’

*

Feror and his family were returning with the Knights to the clifftop hideaway, in case the anarchists returned for revenge. The group started the return journey with their captive in tow, choosing more obscure routes to avoid detection. Fulcrom was aware that, as more time passed by, the scandal in the faked issue of People’s Observer would be having a greater influence on the people of Villjamur. Vuldon lugged their prisoner in a large hessian sack, deliberately dragging him along the cobbled roads, and doing his best to be as careless as he could.

They entered a small stone courtyard on the third level, and came across a religious ritual, with a priest of Bohr blessing a small crowd rammed between the high buildings, in front of his church.

‘Hey, stop!’ someone shouted at the rear of the gathering, peeling off to block their route. It was a man in his thirties with a thick leather tunic, stout boots and grey cloak. ‘Aren’t you lot the Knights?’

Fulcrom raised his Inquisition medallion, which glinted in the firelight. ‘Sele of Urtica, citizen. I’m afraid we’re in a hurry.’

‘It is – I recognize that one’s cat face,’ the man gestured towards Tane.

More people at the rear of the audience drifted nearer, surrounding them. Fulcrom turned to Feror and whispered, ‘You know the way. Get your family back.’

‘What about the others there – the cultists?’ Feror asked. ‘Will they lynch me for my betrayal?’

‘I’d revealed what had happened and said you weren’t to blame. You’ll just have to hope for the best in human nature.’

‘But—’

‘Just go!’ Fulcrom snapped, and the cultist guided his family away.

Fulcrom turned back to see that the crowd were now in their faces. Tane was stepping away, but Vuldon stood his ground. They were shouting things at him now. Someone held up a copy of People’s Observer, demanding to know why it had been kept a secret.

A young woman in a shawl asked Tane, ‘Is it true?’

Lie, damn you, Fulcrom thought.

‘Yes.’

‘Tane – you don’t have to tell them that.’

‘It’s been hanging over me for ages. I’d wager it’s better out in the open.’

You don’t know what people are like. They’re not interested in the truth, just being told what they want to hear.

There must have been thirty or forty in the mass, crowding just the three of them. They started to shout things at Tane: about his deception, blaming him personally for his parents’ role in slavery, saying he had no right to be here. Tane kept trying to talk his way out of it, to justify himself, but it was no good – there was no way he could be heard against their chorus of accusations.

And to Vuldon, who was still holding the captive in a sack, they simply spat at him and cursed him, blaming him for being a child-killer, saying he wasn’t fit to do his job, that he should just clear out.

Fulcrom watched the man-mountain stand there silently, not moving, barely responding – his vision had fixed onto some point above them, as he chose to ignore the torrent of abuse.

Or at least that’s what Fulcrom thought. Suddenly Vuldon screamed – an immense, bass roar – and everyone was stunned by his eruption. As people stared dumbly at him, Vuldon pushed through the crowd, knocking several of them to the ground and a woman cried out as her head hit the ground.

Oh shit. Fulcrom followed the gap Vuldon had created in the throng, steering Tane along with him. He kept apologizing to the citizens on his way through, palming the air, keeping his head low.

They found a quiet area in one of the many quarters of the city currently in development. They huddled under a massive viaduct surrounded by scaffolding. Overhead a horse and cart rattled across over the arches. City lights extended into the distance.

Vuldon dumped the sack containing their captive, who squirmed within, pleading to be let out. Vuldon kicked him until he fell silent.

‘Now what, investigator?’ Vuldon asked.

‘Do you have control of yourself now?’ Fulcrom demanded.

For a moment Vuldon strolled along the edge of the work area, his feet crunching grit into the stone. ‘It just got to me.’

‘You’re not to take it out on the people, Vuldon. We’re all just grown children, especially in crowds, and sometimes people act on emotions, without much thought.’

‘I know. I know.’

‘Tane, how are you feeling?’ Fulcrom enquired of the unusually silent werecat.

Tane sighed, crouching and rubbing his face. ‘I had hoped to keep it all hidden just a tad longer.’

‘Yes, well, this changes everything now,’ Fulcrom said.

‘How do you mean?’ Tane asked.

‘The Knights are only effective with public support. You were created for that very reason – to assist the populace, to reduce crime, but most of all to give them something to believe in. A symbol.’

‘Propaganda,’ Vuldon grunted.

‘Of a kind,’ Fulcrom admitted. ‘But at least you were out there helping people feel safe, and you were recognized for that.’ Which is more than I’ve ever been.

‘So what now?’ Tane asked with a look of expectation on his face.

‘We get this guy back to the Inquisition headquarters, and we’ll question him there. Meanwhile, I suppose I should really see if I can meet with your employer tomorrow.’

*

Fulcrom didn’t sleep well that night, worrying about Lan, if she was all right in the underworld, and struggling with how to explain the recent developments to the Emperor.

Fulcrom had put in a request to see Urtica and, unsurprisingly, the Emperor wanted to see him anyway regarding the publication of the Imperial newspamphlet. After addressing minor administration, and avoiding conversations with the other investigators as best he could, he made his way to see the Emperor.

Level after level, the streets were becoming deeper with snow, as if the cultists couldn’t keep up. Morning traders were fewer each day, and the irens were hollow experiences now. There was less to sell, but there were increasing numbers of bric-a-brac stalls, or more innovative traders who restyled the waste and accoutrements of the city into more appealing delights: swords melted down into cutlery or metal and glass sculptures.

His mare took her time, the poor thing, trudging up the hazardous cobbled roads, the cold air whistling around them both. He left her at a guard station on the fifth level, where only registered horses were permitted – which was news to him, but he wasn’t going to argue with the military. At each guard station, at least three men searched him thoroughly, despite his Inquisition medallion. They asked him questions and were sceptical even when he showed the papers for his appointment.

‘This level of security is ridiculous,’ he said to one of the guards.

‘Sorry, chap – captain’s orders. Every few days we add to the list of questions. Just the way of things.’

Fulcrom eventually plodded on by foot, up the gently sloped road that led to Balmacara, wary of what he would say to the Emperor.

*

The Emperor peered back at Fulcrom as he finished his explanation of what had happened: of the printing press being stolen from the Inquisition headquarters, of being betrayed by Feror, whose family had been taken as hostages. Fulcrom could see in his eyes that he was a tired man – redness and dark rings around his eyes indicated a lack of sleep, his bitten nails seemed to suggest it might be down to stress. What’s more, Fulcrom could smell the musky odour of arum weed on the man, and his breath stank of some disgusting alcoholic beverage.

If Urtica was using substances, Fulcrom expected some backlash, an outburst perhaps, and given what Fulcrom had seen himself of the Emperor’s decision-making – for instance, the attempted slaughter of refugees – there was no one in this city Fulcrom feared more. But the Emperor merely acknowledged his acceptance of what Fulcrom was telling him, now and then gazing out of the vast, diamond-shaped window across the spires of the city.

‘But,’ Fulcrom continued, ‘we have captured a member we’re sure is close to the key figures of the movement in the caves, and I hope to have the names of those involved very soon.’

‘Yes . . .’ Urtica muttered.

Fulcrom paused and looked nervously at the man sat across from him. ‘My Emperor – forgive my asking, but is everything all right?’

‘I have’, he sighed, ‘been better.’ Then he slid his chair back, which was no small effort for him, and from a drawer to one side he retrieved a map and a handful of pebbles. As he unfolded it before Fulcrom, the Boreal Archipelago, creased and under a grid, was presented.

‘We have reports from garudas,’ Urtica started, ‘of the war in Villiren, and of the invasion force attacking from Tineag’l. This is common knowledge.’ Urtica placed a pebble in the island of Y’iren, where Villiren stood.

‘Is the combat going well? I see the occasional article in People’s Observer . . .’

‘That news outlet aside, I believe we are on course for victory,’ the Emperor replied, with a momentary glimpse of enthusiasm. ‘Now, however, there have been reports of incidents here, here and here.’

He placed a pebble in three locations, on various islands, each one closer to Jokull. It was only then that Fulcrom realized the Emperor’s hands were shaking.

‘Incidents, my Emperor?’

‘Massacres, of varying degrees. The first was the remnants of the Order of the Dawnir.’

‘The Dawnir?’ Fulcrom asked, surprised. ‘Does that include the famous Papus?’

‘Indeed. She had been dispatched to track down a rogue cultist. It was a minor affair, and between us both, ridding this city of two major cultists was no bad thing.’

Sly, Fulcrom thought. Thus allowing you more influence over the rest of them . . . ‘How was such a . . . legendary order wiped out?’

‘Probably a clash between her order and another. The other incidents are more concerning. All of them indicate something is heading right towards our island. Possibly to Villjamur itself.’

‘Is it related to the war in Villiren?’

The Emperor shook his head. ‘None of us are certain what it is, but there has been violence in several towns. What few eye witnesses are still alive have suggested that magic has been used.’

‘Cultists, then,’ Fulcrom suggested. He couldn’t hide the allure of this mystery.

‘Whoever it is,’ Urtica concluded, ‘they are heading on a path here.’

‘And this causes you concern?’

‘Nearly a thousand people have died at the hands of this . . . this thing, this cultist. Do you have any idea what such a presence could mean for this city?’

And that’s why you’re not that concerned about the Knights being exposed, Fulcrom thought. ‘My Emperor, I wonder if the Knights would be in a position to offer some resistance to this threat.’

‘The Knights . . . but aren’t the people turning against them?’

‘We’ve had just one minor incident, but it’s too early to tell.’

‘I’ve had nearly a hundred of the most influential citizens in the city register their disgust at the Knights.’

‘They can’t help their own pasts, my Emperor. Part of why they were chosen was because of those pasts. This is the reason they were created.’

‘They were created to protect the citizens of the city, investigator, no more, no less. Their secrets were their security to us. If the people fear them for being monsters of whatever kind, then they are of no practical value. Feror, of course, we will execute for his betrayal.’

‘But his family—’

‘We must stay strong, investigator, until the very end. Feror will be used as a warning to others, and a symbol to the anarchists that we will not tolerate their ways.’

Fulcrom clenched his fists behind his back, and allowed the Emperor to continue. ‘My Emperor, I’m pleading with you, don’t—’

‘Don’t plead, investigator, not in my company. It isn’t decent.’ Urtica leaned forward and ran his hands through his hair. ‘Given that their secrets are out, especially Lan’s, it makes us all look like fools – particularly me. Is something wrong, investigator?’

‘No, my Emperor. However, whatever you believe Lan was before, she is now a committed member of the Villjamur Knights. I have a wonderful record that I can write up for you on the way she’s served the city.’ Fulcrom could feel his mouth becoming dry.

‘That may well be, investigator, but given the crises faced by this city, the people need to look up to the Knights. They’ve certainly cost me enough money. We can rebuild Tane’s reputation, perhaps. Vuldon’s too – a few articles in the People’s Observer can do that – but Lan . . . well, I have contemplated the issue in some depth and decided that it’s just not natural, is it? Already I’ve been receiving messages from councillors and various moneylenders to the Treasury, as well as the senior officials from the Jorsalir church, all expressing their concerns about what Lan is. A little slavery is OK, it seems, but I won’t gloss over her past. I rule strongly, investigator, but I need people on my side in times of a crisis.’

Fulcrom swallowed, felt hot. Don’t say anything that could get you executed.

‘Now,’ Urtica continued, ‘Lan is beyond salvation. Consider her decommissioned—’

A banging on the chamber door interrupted them. Disturbed, Urtica snapped: ‘What is it?’

A senior military official poked his head around the door sheepishly, with his helm under one arm. ‘My Emperor, I bring grave news.’

‘Out with it,’ Urtica ordered.

The officer stepped inside and took a stance as if he was on parade. ‘Combat has broken out from the caves, my Emperor.’

‘What kind of combat? Can’t your lot deal with it?’

Fulcrom noted the concerned look on the soldier’s face. ‘We believe we will have the situation controlled within a couple of hours.’

‘Hours? What the hell is going on?’ Urtica demanded. Fulcrom felt lucky: the Emperor’s tone with him had been remarkably mild. To this officer, it was filled with venom.

‘It seems that a significant number of citizens have armed themselves with weapons. What’s more, I suspect there’re relics in use.’

‘How many is a significant number?’

‘About four thousand, give or take, my Emperor.’

Urtica sighed, and glanced down at the maps before him, his fingers slowly scrunching up the corner. He suddenly stood and walked over to the soldier. With the pathetic effort typical of someone not trained in combat, Urtica struck his face with the back of his hand. The soldier showed only surprise; he lowered his head and muttered his apologies for delivering the news to Urtica. A silence lingered.

‘So, how many military personnel are there now?’ Fulcrom enquired of the soldier. ‘All ranks. Three thousand?’

‘Two and a half,’ he replied, cautiously eyeing the Emperor. ‘Skilled fighters, mind – not like those Cavesiders.’

Fulcrom nodded. ‘Sounds like it’ll be in hand then.’

Urtica began to walk away, the tension began to drop, but before he sat down he snapped, ‘I want a report every hour, on the hour, is that clear?’

‘Yes, my Emperor, of course.’

‘Get out.’ Urtica sat down then peered at Fulcrom, more tired than before, more desperate. ‘Return to your post, investigator, and await further instructions.’

Fulcrom stood, but dared the Emperor’s wrath one more time. ‘And Lan?’

‘We’ll decommission . . . her. I’ll send notice soon for her powers to be extracted.’

*

Fulcrom stomped back to his office, nearly starting fights at each guard station. He didn’t have the time to deal with pedantic idiots any more.

Insane. That’s what he was – an unhinged individual. How that man can lead this city – let alone an Empire – is beyond me.

How could the Emperor be such a fucking fool? Lan was immensely valuable to the city. She was – and had always been – a woman. It was as simple as that. Why should she have to suffer because of everyone else’s small-mindedness?

After he arrived back at the Inquisition headquarters, settled back at his desk, he looked at the walls and desperately tried to form some kind of strategy.

Warkur opened the door then knocked on it gently.

‘You got the stare, Fulcrom,’ he said.

‘Sir?’

‘The stare. Seeking that distant place, wishing you were anywhere but where you are right now. Be fucked if I don’t know that well enough myself. Can I sit?’

‘Sure,’ Fulcrom grunted, indicating the chair opposite his desk. He lit another lantern to brighten the room.

‘What’s eating you, Fulcrom?’ Warkur asked with a thunderous sigh as he slumped in the chair.

Since when have you cared? Fulcrom thought. ‘A few concerns.’

‘How did it go with Urtica?’

Fulcrom explained the situation with the Knights, and his meeting with the Emperor, and his thoughts about how to move from here.

Warkur listened in unusual silence, offering no pearls of wisdom, no sarcasm – not even when Fulcrom mentioned that the Emperor reeked of drugs. Something’s wrong with you as well, Fulcrom thought.

‘These, uh, Knights of yours,’ Warkur started. ‘So the Emperor is fine for Tane and Vuldon to continue as normal?’

‘More or less, yeah.’

‘And the other?’

‘I’d rather not dwell on that, sir.’

‘You see, that’s a little tricky, Fulcrom. Some of the fellows in here have registered a complaint about your relationship with this Knight.’

‘She has a name, sir. It’s Lan.’

Warkur’s face betrayed his discomfort. ‘I, uh, yeah . . . You’re a good investigator, Fulcrom. One of the best lads here. You’re young, what fifty-odd? You’ve got a big career ahead of you, well over a century of good investigative work. Don’t piss that away because of some woman.’

Fulcrom stifled an incredulous laugh. ‘Misogyny aside, sir, I take it that you have a problem with my relationship with Lan? Perhaps it’s not so much my relationship – your problem lies with Lan herself.’

‘Not me personally, you understand,’ Warkur replied, breathing deeply.

‘Then who?’

‘It’s . . . well, the others say she’s just not natural, and if I’m honest, there are some people here who have – there’s no easy way to put this – raised speculation over your sexuality because of this. That this Lan figure is some kind of he–she, well – you know the laws of the city as well as I do, Fulcrom. You don’t want to face the executioner on those city walls, so come on, have a think, yeah? It just can’t be permitted if you want to stay in this role. Relationships, they come and go – trust me, I know about them.’

‘With respect, sir, you know nothing about relationships,’ Fulcrom replied, glaring at his senior officer.

‘No, I guess I don’t.’ Warkur stood to leave, his mannerisms full of uncertainty. He inched towards the door. ‘Fulcrom, don’t be foolish – just think about it, yeah?’

‘Let me get this clear: you’re threatening me with dismissal, because of my relationship with Lan, and what you don’t like about her is that she does not fit into your neat little view of the world?’

‘It isn’t like that, and you know it. It’s about perception, it’s about the law.’

‘The law’, Fulcrom growled, ‘says nothing about a situation like this.’

‘They’re saying once you’re a man, you’re always a man no matter what cultists say. That means you’ll be drawn into this. Get out of it while you can.’

‘You’re right – I’ll get out of it,’ Fulcrom said, sliding back his chair. He rummaged around his neck to unhook his medallion and sent it clattering across the floor by Warkur’s feet.

‘What’re you doing, Fulcrom? Don’t be a fool.’

Fulcrom gathered his cloak and bundled a few items in a satchel while Warkur assaulted him with trite reasons as to why he should reconsider this move.

‘You’ll regret it,’ Warkur concluded.

‘No,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘All I’ll ever regret is working with people I no longer have faith in. It’s been a pleasure, sir.’

Fulcrom offered his hand, but Warkur merely gave him another world-weary look. ‘Fulcrom, you’re our best investigator.’

‘Will you get the others to reconsider their views? As my superior, will you help to find clarity in our legal system?’

‘Those things can take years . . .’

‘Will you?’

Warkur sighed and shook his head. ‘The others, they’ve dug up old Jorsalir texts about the souls of men and women . . . I don’t think it could ever happen.’ He stared at the floor, and Fulcrom pushed past him, through the old, dusty hallway, past the offices of the other investigators and past the receptionist, Ghale, who was staring dreamily over her desk at some other rumel, and he headed right out of the door, past the guards and down the steps into the snow, where he wondered just what the hell he was going to do.


PEOPLE ’S OBSERVER | The Book of Transformations | THIRTY-TWO



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