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THIRTY-TWO


Tired and relieved, Lan strolled back with Ulryk out of the library, down the main steps and into the beautiful courtyard. It was daylight, though she didn’t know which day it was, and the snow had just ceased, leaving a light dusting that had yet to be absorbed into the warmth of the buildings, be cleared by cultists or trodden into mush.

Ulryk hugged his books in his satchel while Lan was watchful, concerned for his protection. It wasn’t long until someone called out to her, the words echoing around the stone. ‘Hey, Lan! You’re Lan, one of those Knights, right?’

‘Yes!’ she shouted back, trying to find the person speaking.

‘You fucking freak, man–woman!’ the voice called. ‘We know about you now. We’ve seen the truth. You’re disgusting.’

Like a bolt through the heart.

Her world ready to implode, Lan spun round to see three middle-aged men in thick coats, one of whom was shaking daggers from his sleeves.

‘What the—?’

‘I am assuming this recognition is not always a good thing?’ Ulryk cautioned.

The three men moved closer, continuing with their obscenities. She began to shake. She could feel her heart beating at an incredible rate, suddenly bringing her to a state of alertness. She closed her eyes and blocked their words, then located her powers once again.

Opening her eyes at the sound of feet scuffing stone, she saw one of them – a heavily built man with long hair – run at her, a long blade in his hands. She lunged back and allowed him to fall forwards. The other two, skinnier, followed suit, attacking simultaneously. She side-stepped, air-stepped and stepped over them, their knives narrowly missing her feet.

‘Get down, weird bitch,’ one snarled.

‘Man–woman!’

She landed hard, spun, and realized she had had quite enough of this. She ran at them – burst into an absurdly quick sprint – shouldered the thickset one and sent him tumbling over on the cobbles, cracking his head. The other two came at her then, viciously swiping this way and that. She grabbed one arm whilst shoving her boot in the other’s stomach – and while he buckled over, muttering ‘Certainly fights like a man’, she broke the arm she was holding over her knee, sending his blade skittering across the ground.

Then a blow to the back of his knees sent him face-first into the stone.

The final assailant regarded her with such an expression of disgust she was taken aback. How could anyone look at her like that?

You’re not a monster, she reminded herself. People like him are.

He tried one final attempt to lash out, but she jump-kicked him, sending him tripping over the bodies on the floor – not dead, but certainly out of action.

Ulryk stared at her in surprise, but never questioned her. ‘Come on,’ she said. ‘We should find Fulcrom.’

And maybe I can find out just what the hell I’ve missed.

*

Lan entered the Inquisition headquarters but was blocked at the front desk. Guards asked her – politely but with caution – to wait.

The black-skinned rumel called Warkur headed out to meet her, his face cracked with stress, his tail wafting about with agitation. She knew something was wrong when he tried to get her to step into his office.

‘Is it Fulcrom?’ she asked. ‘Is he dead?’

Warkur laughed nervously, eyeing the priest, the guards behind, never seeming to look her in the eye. ‘Nah, Fulcrom’s not dead. But he’s no longer part of the Inquisition.’

‘What?’ she asked. Ulryk’s peaceful face could offer nothing.

‘He quit.’

‘Why?’

Warkur reached into his pocket and gave her a crumpled-up copy of the People’s Observer, and thrust it at her. When she took it he put his hands in his pockets and waited for her reaction.

Lan read it and stood there shocked. More than once she opened her mouth as if to say something, but couldn’t. There were bad things about Tane and Vuldon, too, but she couldn’t help but think of her own problems the most. ‘I . . . I—’

‘You can’t believe it,’ Warkur said. ‘I get it.’

‘But why did Fulcrom quit?’ she asked, wary now of the scene presenting itself: the presence of several investigators and aides, the bulky looking guards looming ever closer.

‘That doesn’t matter,’ Warkur said. ‘What matters is that you get yourself back to those cultists who gave you a bunch of powers you don’t deserve.’

Her thoughts connected quickly: she was exposed and she was to be stripped of her position in the Knights, but Ulryk seemed a step ahead: he was chanting something, slowly, the words seeming to hang in the air. Suddenly the gathered throng on one side began to grip their ears as if hearing a deafening noise, and some began to scream.

Ulryk, still chanting, tugged at her sleeve and pulled her away and out of the building.

*

They found Fulcrom in his apartment, and when he opened the door Lan buried herself in his chest, almost in tears. He held her there for a moment, while Ulryk lingered without comment in the doorway.

‘We went to the Inquisition but they said you quit,’ she said, as he guided them into his home.

Fulcrom turned to Ulryk, eagerly asking, ‘Did you get it – did you find the book?’

Ulryk patted his satchel.

‘Good.’

Lan looked around the room. Everything was in boxes, his clothes, his personal items, and paintings were off their hooks. ‘Were you planning on running?’ Lan asked.

‘Not exactly, no. I was going to put all this in storage,’ he gestured around the room, ‘but I have a suspicion I’ll be a wanted man, so it’s—’

‘Why?’

‘For not doing my job,’ he replied. ‘I take it you’re aware I’m required to hand you in to the cultists?’

Lan signalled her understanding, trying not to reveal just how upset she was. ‘Why did you quit?’

A pause, while he gazed into her eyes. ‘I quit because I worked for a bunch of Neanderthals.’

‘Will they come for us?’ Lan asked.

‘They will, but they have other concerns at the moment.’

‘What concerns?’ Ulryk enquired.

‘The anarchists are leading an uprising.’

‘Should we do something?’ Lan asked.

‘No,’ Fulcrom replied.

She grasped his arm. ‘But I want to help.’

‘The Knights are over, Lan.’ He held her gently by her wrists. ‘I’m sorry. The anarchists have exposed everyone – but it seems the Emperor is still happy with Tane and Vuldon to continue with their duties . . . but he refuses to accept you.’

‘Because . . . ?’

‘Yes, because of that,’ he whispered, low enough so Ulryk wouldn’t hear.

‘So what happens now?’

‘Good question.’

‘I’m not going to hand myself in to be “decommissioned” – whatever they mean by that,’ Lan said. ‘I don’t want that. I like who I am now.’

‘I know – I don’t want it either.’ Fulcrom sat down on the bed, Lan perched alongside him. Ulryk considered the view out of the window.

‘And because of that,’ Fulcrom continued, ‘they’ll want to arrest me, too, for obstructing the Emperor’s commands, for protecting a criminal, because that’s what you’ll be if you’re not handed in.’

‘We’ll be fugitives,’ she said with a surprising eagerness. ‘We can leave the city.’

‘It’s a possibility,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘To be honest, I’ve not thought it through.’

‘That doesn’t sound like you,’ Lan muttered.

‘This time, it really is. My whole existence has been based around the Inquisition, so I’m a little lost right now. First, though, I want to see certain jobs through, and I know that the uprising is going to buy us some time.’ His gaze turned to the priest. ‘Ulryk, will you want to do . . . whatever it is you’ll be doing, then?’

‘I will,’ he replied. ‘That building, is it what I think it is?’

Fulcrom stood up to move behind Ulryk, following his line of sight. The priest raised his arm, pointing to the structure that crested the immediate rooftops, reflecting what little light there was.

‘That’s the Astronomer’s Glass Tower,’ Fulcrom said. ‘Why?’

‘Is it used any more? I haven’t had time to find out. But I will need access to it.’

‘I don’t think so. It was originally used for predicting phenomena, but back in Johynn’s rule the Jorsalir church finally convinced him it was blasphemous and it was shut down.’

‘That is no surprise,’ Ulryk chuckled. ‘Such glass structures can be found across the Archipelago, most of them in forests or along coasts. They’re ancient buildings, constructed on top of channels of . . . I’m not even sure what the right word would be in modern Jamur. Ley lines, perhaps. I wish to visit it and conduct my rituals from its rooftop.’

‘I didn’t even know it had a rooftop,’ Lan said, joining them. ‘I thought it was a sheer face of glass.’

‘There will be a rooftop,’ Ulryk declared.

‘Lan,’ Fulcrom said, ‘will you ensure Ulryk’s safety? You must be careful though. The streets are starting to become extremely dangerous with the clashes and I’d change from your uniform if I were you – or at least cover your head, and that symbol.’

Lan rummaged around Fulcrom’s wardrobe until she found a hooded jumper. Once she was wearing it, she accompanied Ulryk to the door and glanced back at Fulcrom. ‘Are you coming?’

He shook his head. ‘I can’t yet. I need to find Tane and Vuldon and get to them before the Emperor or his agents do, and I could be a few hours.’

‘How will you do that? If you’ve quit, you won’t be permitted access to them surely?’

‘I know. Look, for now, please just ensure that Ulryk completes his task, but return here if you can’t get through the streets easily because of the violence – I might know of some alternative route. Whatever you do, don’t risk your life recklessly.’

‘And what about afterwards?’ she asked.

He turned to her and took her in his arms. Tenderly in her ears he whispered, ‘I’ll meet you here. Whatever the hell happens, we’ll do it together – just you and me. No one gives us orders any more.’

*

Stopping on the way to collect a case full of flammable fluids obtained from a cultist who owed him a few favours, Fulcrom headed towards the outer city, to an abandoned building.

Despite the population pressures, Villjamur was full of disused regions, which was part of its charm. There were chambers and catacombs dotted around the city, usually subterranean spaces where it wasn’t unreasonable to assume people could scrape some kind of living. These zones occasionally harboured criminals on the run, the occasional drug addict or, before the ice became bad, Caveside whores looking for a quiet place to take their clients for a quick fuck, but today they remained eerily dormant.

Fulcrom had hoped that under Urtica’s reign there might be a renovation of these urban spaces and that the authorities might permit some of the refugees to enter the city and be housed there. Alas, this was not the case, and security had been tightened further, denying most people access. But it wasn’t the subterranean territories he was approaching right now – instead he sought a vacant hotel on the fourth level, one that had lost all its business long ago.

He strolled through the streets, head down to prevent the gusts of snow from skimming into his face. A couple of taverns had boarded up their windows here, and quite a few store premises were for sale. Eventually Fulcrom arrived at his destination and looked up at the broken facade of the enormous hotel, which was taller than he remembered, at least nine or ten storeys, which for Villjamur was significant. Three gothic arch windows sat each side of a central stairway, which led to a thick wooden double door. Several months ago these very steps had been the scene of a brutal double murder, and that – combined with the hostile weather – had ensured the owners were better off selling up to the Council, and since then it had stood empty.

Fulcrom slipped a dagger from his sleeve and prised open the lock. He headed inside, through the murky light, and up several flights of stairs that had been colonized by bulbous spiders the size of his hand.

He heaved the case of fluids up onto the flat roof, where he was struck by the chilling wind. There were a few discarded items here, a few dead hanging baskets, a table and chairs that hadn’t seen action since warmer times, but all these items would help. All around him rose the spires of Villjamur, and he suddenly felt a pang of loss that he might have to leave this city he loved so much.

Fulcrom gathered the junk and spread it across the surface of the roof. Then he opened the case containing seven vials of transparent fluids and picked one out. He poured its contents across one side of the roof, away from the door to the stairs, being careful not to spill any on himself. In the distance, from the direction of the caves, came the sound of rioting – it was faint, a mass chorus of voices – but at that moment it wasn’t his concern.

Satisfied that he had covered enough of the area, he poured one final vial containing blue fluid in a neat line between himself and the rest of the roof. He took out a piece of flint from one pocket and some kindling from the other. Sheltering in the lea of a wall, he struck the flint several times with the steel hilt of his dagger, and eventually a few sparks shot off onto the kindling. He blew gently, encouraging the flame, then, with great caution, dropped the burning bundle on the other side of the line of blue liquid, and dashed back towards the stairway.

Fire exploded across the rooftop, tearing into the heap of junk he’d prepared, and assaulting him with heat. He stumbled back, but was amazed at how well the fire respected the line of blue fluid.

He had saved one chair, of course – he didn’t know how long he was going to be up there – and placed it by the stairway. According to the cultist’s assessment of the liquid, Fulcrom guessed he had maybe three hours at the most. So he simply pulled the chair back towards the view of the city, and waited.

*

The priest said he needed an hour. Just an hour to work through both books to find the links required.

After Fulcrom had left, Ulryk stationed himself at the rumel’s desk beneath a window with a distracting view of the cityscape, and set to work.

With reverence he opened both copies of The Book of Transformations and began examining them. Lan lay on the bed, her eyes half turned to the priest.

‘What exactly are you going to learn in an hour?’ Lan asked lazily.

‘Shush,’ Ulryk replied.

‘Fine.’

He turned the books page by page, switching his gaze between them, assiduously comparing the detail within, and making notes to one side. By the seventh turn of a page, Lan was beginning to embrace the pillows on Fulcrom’s bed. She had no idea how long in real-time she had spent under the city, though it had been a matter of a few of hours judging by the clocks in the library. She dozed off, catching up on some much-needed rest. Dreams flashed in her mind, images of warm and distant lands, leaving her with a craving to flee the city . . .

Ulryk made a noise that startled her awake. He rubbed his eyes and examined the pages with a new-found zest and a smile.

How long have I been asleep? Lan propped herself up on her elbows. She looked around in case Fulcrom had returned, but there was no sign of him. ‘I take it you’ve worked it all out?’

‘I have, yes!’ His face betrayed his relief, his voice was full of an optimism she hadn’t heard before. ‘It was coded in the woodcuts, just as he inferred.’ He chuckled to himself. Now come, we must get to the tower.’

And then maybe all this can be over, Lan thought as she stretched herself further awake.

*

Lan and Ulryk only had to head across a few streets. It was a simple enough task, but there were plenty of warnings she should have paid attention to: the lack of traffic through the lanes; the line of garudas stood atop the crenellated rooftops, silhouetted against the sky; the distant noises she wrongly attributed to city life.

Ulryk, clutching his satchel containing both copies of The Book of Transformations, steered her towards the shadow of a wall not too far from Fulcrom’s apartment.

‘What is it?’ she asked.

‘Something does not feel right,’ Ulryk cautioned.

‘We should just hurry – the Glass Tower is only over there.’ Lan gestured to the glittering facade over a rooftop.

‘Wait,’ Ulryk said again. Then carefully he pointed at a street corner, behind which a unit of soldiers was waiting, and they were making whistles that she had previously mistaken for the call of a pterodette. From the open door of an adjacent building a dozen archers sprinted, joining the other unit. Two took positions on the corner, one standing, one crouching; they nocked their arrows, ready for whatever was coming.

‘It appears,’ Ulryk sighed, ‘that the Glass Tower is the other side of this incident. Fulcrom was right about the violence.’

Soldiers were now lining up in the open street in two rows, one row kneeling just before a standing row, and they were facing towards her – but it wasn’t Ulryk or Lan they were interested in.

With an effortless, fluid motion, the two archers on the corner released their arrows, pulled more out of their quivers, readied them and released them, repeating the process several times until they ran out of arrows.

The nerves they must have . . . Lan thought, as a heartbeat later a surge of citizens rounded the corner, a few of them with arrows buried in their crude shields.

The line of archers loosed their arrows and wave after wave of civilians collapsed to the ground. People began to scream – both men and women – their voices intense between the walls around them, and Lan simply looked on, unable to help. People scrambled for cover in twos or threes, shouting for a retreat. Another cluster of civilians came to evacuate the injured, and pull back the dead from the bloodied cobbles, while the army coldly picked off whoever was left, one by one.

Ulryk was whispering a prayer.

Civilian militias were jogging in tight units, heavily armed; carts were being turned up on their sides to be used as crude shelters, spilling produce across the streets. Military archers were sniping from above, while youths with scarves pulled tight across their faces were beginning to launch their own attacks from street corners.

‘It’s so confusing who is fighting whom,’ Ulryk said.

‘Do you have to do whatever you need to on the Glass Tower?’ she asked.

Ulryk opened his eyes slowly. ‘I’m afraid so.’

‘Don’t worry,’ Lan replied. ‘We’ll get you there. Somehow.’

*

How was it possible not to have an obvious chain of command and still form an army? The notion went against everything Caley had been brought up to believe, against all his instincts. No one was instructing them on what they should do, but there were those who were clearly more skilled than others, ferocious-looking people, those good with a sword, or rogue cultists who had been given a new lease of life. The rest of the Cavesiders clustered around these groups, looking for guidance or advice. Almost everyone wanted to help out – they knew they had come so far, and that they were on the cusp of achieving something significant: bringing down the Emperor and all those who had repressed the people of Caveside.

From the corner of Sahem Road and Gata Social, Caley could see a rim of real daylight where the caves met the city, and he swallowed hard. Surrounded by now-aggressive men and women, he didn’t know what to do, and looked to others for direction. There were hundreds, probably thousands of them, and they seemed to follow each other, as an organic mass. Within the throng he had forgotten just how cold it was – the wind always blew in strongly at the mouth of the caves, as if the elements were aiding the segregation.

I’m in too deep, he thought. I’m gonna get myself killed this time, for sure.

Several individuals wheeled carts up and down their lines, issuing homemade weapons, rough blades that had been perfected in the dark, away from prying, Imperial eyes. Caley took a crossbow that looked pretty neat, and he already had a sword at his side. Another woman came past with a cartload of armour, so he took a crude helmet that didn’t quite fit and was remarkably heavy, but he figured it was better than going without.

The energy here was incredible. People buzzed with nervousness and anticipation, but mostly with a genuine thrill that this was it, this was where they would take over the outer city. Several major groups had gone on ahead – some of the elderly and less able forming more peaceful lines of protest, unafraid of what happened previously because they knew the military would be busy enough; and there were more groups of youths looking to create agitation in almost random pockets of the city, sudden outbursts of violence that would cause chaos and distraction. To them, this was good sport.

A little deeper into this moment of anticipation, a message rippled Caley’s way. It came via one of Shalev’s runners, fast youths who were carrying information around the self-organized units. A letter was handed to him by a tall, grubby blond boy with a long face and a dagger at his hip. Caley unfolded it, then stared awkwardly at the meaningless script. He couldn’t meet anyone’s eyes as he handed it back to the messenger. ‘ ’Fraid I can’t read much.’

The lad nodded back, opened the paper and, as a few of the Cavesiders came to see what was happening, he cleared his throat and read out:

‘Caley, do you want to help us kill the Emperor?’

*

Eventually, as the flames began to eat into the roof to a now-dangerous level, Tane and Vuldon arrived, sprinting up the stairwell. They both stared at Fulcrom, who was sitting with his arms folded.

‘What took you so long?’ he asked.

‘There’s a war on, or hadn’t you seen?’ Vuldon replied.

‘So I heard,’ Fulcrom said. ‘Is it bad?’

‘Yeah, ridiculously so. Fuck’re you doing up here anyway?’ Vuldon demanded.

‘The old methods of communication are not what they once were,’ Fulcrom replied coolly. ‘I needed to talk to you.’

‘I don’t get it,’ Tane said. ‘Why cause a fire? Has all the stress finally turned you insane? Why not just come back to our quarters like you usually do?’

Fulcrom informed them of everything that had happened since he’d last seen them. He told them about his meeting with the Emperor, and then with Warkur. He told them he’d quit the Inquisition. He told them of what was going to happen with the Knights.

‘No more Lan?’ Tane asked. ‘Seriously?’

Fulcrom shook his head, stood up and leant on the edge of the building to observe Villjamur.

‘But you and her . . . you were close, right?’ Tane asked. ‘That must have made matters rather difficult.’

‘Right,’ he replied.

‘No wonder you quit.’

Vuldon grunted. ‘That’s this fucking city for you,’ he said. ‘Asks you to give your heart and soul for it, and once you’re no longer able to be exploited, it spits you out again.’

‘The Emperor will keep you in employment,’ Fulcrom continued, ‘but since I’ve walked out of the Inquisition, I’ve no longer the same level of access to you. Hence the fire. You’re on your own now, but it’s likely they’ll want you to consider hunting down me and Lan.’

‘That’s all right,’ Tane replied, ‘we can feign ignorance.’

‘Shouldn’t be too hard in your case,’ Vuldon muttered. ‘Don’t worry, we’ll not come after you.’ Vuldon, in a gesture that was almost a show of emotion, placed his enormous hand on Fulcrom’s shoulder. ‘I’m not a fan of investigators, but you were all right. The rest of them can fuck themselves.’

‘Thanks, I think,’ Fulcrom said. ‘Look, you’ll still be required to work for the city, else they’ll decommission you, too.’

‘I’d like to see them try,’ Vuldon replied.

‘You can still do some good,’ Fulcrom said. ‘People still need you. The city’s teetering on the brink of collapse.’

‘Nah, it’s just a skirmish, I imagine,’ Vuldon muttered. ‘The military will sort it out, then we’ll be back to normal.’

‘The military is heavily outnumbered, and . . . there’s something else heading to the city that the Emperor seems very worried about, and it’s not just his paranoia.’ He repeated his conversation with Urtica.

‘We’ll deal with that if it comes to it,’ Tane said. He suddenly turned away and began smelling the air. ‘Trouble isn’t far off,’ he announced.

Fulcrom said, ‘Look, I should get back.’

‘Where to?’ Vuldon asked.

‘Good point,’ Fulcrom replied. ‘Somewhere, anywhere. Away from the law, and the Imperial hands – that ought to be enough.’ It felt strange to say that: to run from the very thing he had represented all his life.

‘Will you be taking Lan with you?’ Vuldon demanded.

Fulcrom put his hands in his pockets. ‘Yeah.’ He glanced to one side, contemplating the flames and heat which were now dying down. ‘We’ve a little extra business to sort out with Ulryk, but once we’ve helped him, that’s it.’

‘Look after her,’ Tane said.

‘She’ll be looking after him if she’s still got her powers,’ Vuldon declared.

Fulcrom smiled at that. ‘You might be right.’

An arrow narrowly clipped the rooftop, drawing their attention towards the city. Someone screamed. Fulcrom crouched and shifted near the edge of the building, Tane and Vuldon behind, ready for conflict.

There were calls from below, where a scene was developing.

‘This battle,’ Fulcrom said along the wall, ‘just how big has it become?’

At least a dozen youths with black scarves covering their faces were strutting with intent down the street, kicking up puffs of snow. There was a guard unit of no more than two or three in front of them, armed only with swords, and another guard lay dead in the street with arrows in his body. Two of the youths were now firing crossbows, forcing the soldiers to cluster against the wall. Another few were busy drawing the strings back on their crossbows or loading bolts.

‘Those soldiers are surely dead,’ Fulcrom breathed.

The black-scarved youths surrounded the guards, with their crossbows raised to shoulder height, and the soldiers began to lash out with their swords: arrows and bolts thudded into their arms and legs, and they toppled to the cobbles, screaming, backing up against the wall. This was drawn out for enjoyment, not a swift kill.

Vuldon and Tane stood up on the edge of the wall but Fulcrom called, ‘Wait!’

He indicated down to the left, by an intersection of three streets, where almost a hundred civilians – no, armoured civilians – were massing, carrying crude weapons.

Back to the soldiers now, and all Vuldon, Tane and Fulcrom could do was watch. The youths hollered and whooped like feral beasts as they executed the soldiers against the wall. A surge of civilians came round the corner and something more wilder than a celebration ensued.

‘What were your orders?’ Fulcrom asked.

Vuldon climbed down form the wall, Tane skipping back behind. ‘We didn’t really have any.’

‘You probably won’t get any either,’ Fulcrom declared.

‘What do you suggest?’ Vuldon asked. ‘We still want to help people. I don’t care about what we were before – even if we were the Emperor’s puppets, we still kept people safe.’

‘Exactly,’ Tane said. ‘No matter what you do in this city, it seems someone’s getting a rum deal. We might as well carry on trying so tell us, Fulcrom – tell us what we can do to help.’

‘I’m not in charge of the operation now,’ Fulcrom said.

‘What do you suggest?’ Vuldon demanded. ‘I’m asking you as someone who knows what the fuck he’s talking about, not as someone giving orders. What is our purpose?’

‘Don’t spend your time looking for a damn purpose.’ Fulcrom gave an awkward laugh, and shook his head. ‘All you’ve ever been required to do is make the innocent feel safe – and to protect the Emperor, of course.’

‘Who knows where he is,’ Tane cooed.

‘Indeed,’ Fulcrom said, contemplating the man’s state earlier. ‘You’re still employed by the Emperor to protect people, and once this has calmed down you’ll be required to do exactly the same. So all you can do now is protect the innocent. I’d advise you making your way towards Balmacara to offer your services – but on the way there, make sure any civilians you meet are not in danger.’

‘Civilians hate us now,’ Tane said.

‘Don’t pick sides,’ Fulcrom warned, ‘don’t support the armed forces or the anarchists. You are not the military – this war is theirs. There will undoubtedly be civilian casualties, people who have no interest in fighting, and you need to prevent as many deaths as possible. You’ll probably find that civilians will hate you less when they realize their lives are in danger.’

Vuldon offered his hand, and Fulcrom shook it. ‘You speak more sense than seems possible. We’ll take these as our last orders. You know, I hoped we could be better than this – be something more.’

Fulcrom repeated the gesture with Tane, who then rested a hand on his shoulder. ‘Cheers, Fulcrom. We’ll have a civilized glass of wine or something the next time we meet.’

Tane and Vuldon lumbered to the stairwell and down. A moment later, Fulcrom peered over the edge of the building to see the two of them jogging down the street.

*

Do you want to help me kill the Emperor?

If Caley accepted, he would be writing history. The notion was not lost on him: what Shalev was asking was important, and Caley had absolutely no hesitation in choosing to go.

Caley had followed the runner back along several side streets that were emptier than a few hours ago. Past taverns and shopfronts, behind surprisingly well-stocked gardens and structures he knew to be gambling dens, they eventually arrived at a terraced cottage rammed up against one of the cliff faces. Caley’s pulse was racing.

Do you want to help me kill the Emperor?

It was just somebody’s home, this place, a two-up two-down pile of wood that oozed a heady smell of arum weed. Inside, there was nothing in the dark room except a few candles and a solid table, but moments later several cloaked men and women stepped in from an adjoining room.

And then came Shalev.

‘Caley,’ she declared, ‘you have made it. This, I am glad to see.’ Shalev thanked the runner, who then stood in the corner of the room with his arms folded.

Shalev regarded Caley, who was so awestruck he could barely return an answer. ‘It is all right, brother – we are all equals here.’

Her words didn’t do much to settle him. ‘You need me to help?’ he asked.

She smiled and gestured to a spare chair. He sat down next to a pretty woman with red hair, who had lit a pipe. The heavy fug of smoke soon obscured the other faces.

Shalev began addressing them all. ‘We are all of us equals, in Caveside, but you have all suffered a little more than most.’

No one said anything.

‘I lost my family to the Empire,’ Shalev continued in her weird and enchanting accent. ‘I came from the island of Hulrr, but I was adopted by those on Ysla, which is where I learnt many of the techniques and organizational skills I have shared with you all. I was adopted because my family and most of my tribe were slaughtered by Empire soldiers who were trying to take another territory. For all my life I have wanted to kill the head of the Empire, whoever that may be, and to bring down its structures, to establish a truly democratic system like on Ysla, where people have control over their lives and don’t surrender decisions to murdering . . . scum. And I am not alone in having such a history, am I?’

Shalev sat down in front of them and glanced around the room, waiting calmly. The pipe-smoking woman next to Caley began to speak. Her name was Arta. She told a story of her own parents being evicted from their outer-city property for removing their funding from certain councillors when they were in the Treasury – namely Urtica. When her parents refused they had been hacked down with a blade in the night. She escaped, but was forced to scrape a meagre existence down in the caves.

They all had a story. Everyone in this room had been personally affected in some way, had their lives ruined personally by Urtica. It seemed to be a gesture from Shalev to allow them all to have the opportunity to kill the Emperor: to allow them to bury their ghosts.

Eventually it was Caley’s turn to speak. He wasn’t one for sharing his inner thoughts, he just wanted to get on with life, but reluctantly he cleared his throat, wanting to get it over with as quickly as possible. ‘About a year or so after I was born, my dad was working in Balmacara as a cook when the Emperor – it was Johynn then – became increasingly paranoid that people were out to get him, so there were tough checks on anyone who worked there. According to my aunts, he’d come home complaining each night apparently. Anyway, one night Urtica and a few councillors began feeling really unwell and the blame was traced to a banquet the evening before. Urtica was the Chancellor at this point and so he sends soldiers to our house in the middle of the night to try to get my dad in for questioning. He was a stubborn one, so he resists arrest and a fight breaks out and before you know it he’s got a knife in his back and Mum’s outside screaming. She got killed too by the way. I get found the next day, by my aunt, but she was a lot older and she died a couple of years later. So I end up in the caves, like everyone else.’

He wasn’t upset about it – he was too young to know anything other than what his relatives had told him – but he knew Urtica was the man responsible for taking away what chances he had in the world.

Seemingly satisfied, Shalev briefed them on what would now be required. Caley listened on, amazed that he would be playing such an influential role.

Shalev said, ‘The military is going to be engaged in a constant conflict, and our overwhelming numbers will wear them down eventually. An initial ten thousand of us are up against their handful of units, which I believe to be two thousand. They will eventually bring in the Inquisition, and possibly seek the assistance of other civilians. The Knights are out of action for the moment, according to my sources. Everything is in our favour. And whilst erratic conflicts continue across the city, this true anarchism leaves Balmacara vulnerable. I can offer no training but I can offer weapons and guidance with relics. All of you may choose not to be involved, and it will not be held against you – you may rejoin the rest of the rebellion.’

Not one person in the room wanted to miss the opportunity.

Shalev smiled, stood. ‘Then brothers and sisters, I shall return momentarily with all the tools we’ll need.’


THIRTY-ONE | The Book of Transformations | THIRTY-THREE



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