The best parties are the ones you don’t plan, Fulcrom thought to himself as he meandered about the penthouse apartment situated on the fifth level of the city. That was probably why he could never organize a decent one himself: he was a ruthless planner, so any gatherings he conducted – rare though they were – were too precise, too stale and awkward for anyone to really enjoy themselves.
But this, Fulcrom thought, was a thoroughly ostentatious affair. Say what you want about the man, but Aide Tane knew something about putting people in a room and creating a good atmosphere. Daughters of landowners were dancing with investigators and sons of councillors and those with connections throughout the city.
Tane, in his short time spent with the Inquisition, was already a legend for hosting these events – his parties were whispered about long before and long after each night had ended. In his high-ceilinged, modern apartment, with those new-style paintings, white-tiled floors, ornate cressets, and the coloured sculptures made by the hands of Villjamur’s famous glassmakers, men and girls – rumel and human – would convene to forget about the rising levels of crime and the ice age and the far-off war in Villiren.
They tipped wine down their throats. They brushed their lips casually across those of a stranger. Fulcrom was only too aware that they did this because they wanted to forget. On some nights, in the wealthy quarters, you might have several parties going on simultaneously, and each would contain a board with the evening’s scheduled dances, so couples and groups could plan their entertainment well in advance.
Little of this appealed to Fulcrom; he could not rid himself of the thought of the refugees outside who were probably perishing in the plummeting temperatures.
In one corner, two young men around the same age as Tane, in their late twenties, were busy showing off the hilts on their new swords, and testing the steel. Behind them a girl was on her toes whilst she said something discreetly into another man’s ears. The musicians – lutists, drummers and singers fresh from the underground scene – carved amazing melodies and rhythms into the night. All the latest fashions were on parade – high collars, thick, low-cut dresses, and above-the-knee boots. Someone opened a window to rid the room of the humidity of so many bodies – a miraculous gesture considering the freezing conditions outside – and a cool wind brought in the scent of the pine forests.
One of the rumel investigators sauntered up to Fulcrom and, with toxic breath, muttered, ‘Say, that Tane, he makesh . . . makesh a terrible inveshtigator’s aide, but throwsh one helluva night, ah’ll give him that.’
Idiot, Fulcrom thought. But then again, perhaps he was right. Would Tane ever make a good aide? The man had been attempting to pass major exams for four years now. If it wasn’t for all his questionably large trust funds, which he so helpfully donated to supplying the Inquisition . . . Don’t be so hard on the lad, Fulcrom told himself. Not tonight.
Girls kept sauntering up to Fulcrom in dresses which weren’t fit for an ice age. Pretty young things with wide-eyed looks that promised the world, and when they spoke to him they licked their lips. ‘Why, I just love handsome rumels like yourself.’ ‘You’re so fine looking, and people speak so well of your deeds.’ ‘How come you don’t settle down with someone?’
Maybe Fulcrom was too polite, too diffident to really enjoy being a part of this lifestyle. He cringed at their suggestive words and kindly declined their offers. All the time, Ghale, the Inquisition receptionist, was dancing with some other rumel, constantly glancing towards Fulcrom to see if he was looking her way.
Fulcrom sighed. Would he ever be ready to love again? Maybe some things I won’t ever get over, he thought. How many years has she been gone now? It’s a good thing you’re a workaholic.
A conversation behind him caught his attention: ‘I don’t know why he bothers. Everyone knows he’s bloody incompetent.’
They were senior administrative staff from the Inquisition, black-skins who he’d met only in passing, the kind who hid behind their books rather than step outside to do a day’s graft on the streets.
‘Indubitably,’ one continued, ‘but he’s minted, so they say. Arch Investigator knew his family, allegedly.’
‘How did they get so rich anyhow?’ said the other, garbed in a red tunic. ‘And why’s he even bothering to work if he possesses such . . . ?’
Fulcrom peered across to Tane, who was suddenly standing before them: tall, blond, blue-eyed, and dressed immaculately in a purple tunic with gold detailing and buttons. Good-looking, the kind of man who bled charm, and even though he had witnessed this insulting conversation, Tane maintained a smile – his final barrier against what was being said.
He sighed and leant down to address the two who were bad-mouthing him. The slender human seemed to let the rage come then go with his breath. ‘Because, my dear fellows, some of us actually want to do some good in the world. Have you perhaps considered that, chaps?’
‘Tane, look . . . Sorry, we just didn’t realize you were there.’
‘Which, of course, makes it quite all right?’ They stood and backed off, smiling tentatively. Tane’s height bestowed on him the advantage of looking down upon their exit, as they squirmed through the mass of drunken bodies.
The slender human sighed, closed his eyes as the sound of the music washed over him, and Fulcrom had to feel sorry for him. He stepped over to place a hand on Tane’s shoulder – tonight, poor Tane, you will find you have purpose in life.
‘I wouldn’t worry about them, Tane,’ Fulcrom said. ‘Your time will come – sooner than you think.’
However, Fulcrom didn’t expect Urtica’s agents, some of his new secret guard, to claim Tane so late in the evening. The idea was to strike while the party was in full flow, to frighten Tane in front of so many people – to batter his ego into submission. Fulcrom had his doubts about this method, would have preferred something more cooperative, but the Emperor had initially wanted to use even more force. This was to be a more diplomatic solution.
The partygoers looked ready to push on through till dawn. It was late, way past thirteen, when the door burst open and four figures in tight grey clothing, wide-brimmed hats and with scarves around their mouths, marched arrogantly into the room.
Everything happened in the candlelight.
Matching Tane for height, they hauled the man up from his seat to meet him eye to eye. The few conscious people in the room turned to regard the scene, and Fulcrom waved for the grey coats to stay calm. ‘It’s fine, guys.’ He knew they needed to put fear into the man, but they looked ready to pulverize him.
So these were the Emperor’s special agents, the ones he was getting to do his dirty work behind closed doors, a more sinister replacement for the Night Guard. They gave him the creeps, but that was all right – the fear, he knew, was important.
‘What . . . what have I done?’ Tane spluttered, his mannered cool suddenly nowhere at hand. He glanced at each of the grey coats in turn, a look of startled exasperation on his face.
‘We’re going to sort you out, Tane,’ one of them sneered, Fulcrom couldn’t discern which.
‘You’re not wanted in the Inquisition, so we hear,’ another hissed, grabbing Tane by his collar. ‘Some say you’re a spoilt little fuck.’
‘Who claims such nonsense?’ Tane asked anxiously, struggling to pull his head back.
‘Just a rumour – the same rumour that says you’re a good man,’ Fulcrom intervened; the grey coats were enjoying their act a little too much for his liking.
The one holding him paused to look at Fulcrom, then released Tane, who brushed himself down. He now stared at Fulcrom with renewed awe.
‘Maybe I am, but I don’t see what business it is of anyone here.’ Tane made sure he addressed all the grey coats. ‘And just who the devil are you anyway?’
‘You mean well, sure, but you’re an incompetent fool,’ another man in grey hissed, his eyes flaring with venom. ‘This is common knowledge.’
‘Look, I’m afraid you just can’t come in here . . .’ Tane tried to push through them but the group hauled him back, thrust him into the chair and slapped his face – Fulcrom thought it was probably a good thing he was still drowsy from all the drink. A few of the partygoers rubbernecked from their slumped positions, and a couple were still kissing on a chair in the far corner, oblivious to the scene.
‘Shut up and listen, fuckwit. You’re keen, but you’ve got problems, we know this. We also know how your parents got their money, and we know why you’re so keen to help the Inquisition.’
Tane’s eyes widened. That’s right, Fulcrom thought, this is what really frightens the good man Tane. It frightens him to have his secrets paraded in front of so many people.
‘We know why you’re throwing all these parties,’ a grey coat whispered, ‘buying friendships, making people happy, and you think your feeble attempts at playing investigator aide will rid you of some of the guilt—’
‘All right, all right!’ Tane shouted. ‘You’ve proved your point. Gentlemen, you have earned my attention. Now, please – what on earth do you want with me?’
‘You’d do well to listen to these fellows, Tane,’ Fulcrom interrupted. ‘Don’t mess around or they’ll make life damn awkward for you.’
‘Are you with them?’
‘Look, the city has need of someone like you, Tane. Someone who’s honest and keen. Someone who we know will serve us without running off. Someone with whom we have an understanding – one that says you will be . . . compliant.’
‘Blackmail, I suppose,’ Tane observed.
‘Hey, he’s not as stupid as everyone makes him out to be,’ one of the others said, and Fulcrom glared at him.
They didn’t need to humiliate the man. Tane would come all right, all they needed to do was make him feel threatened in the right way – publicly. A grey coat grabbed Tane’s mop of hair and pulled his head back, though to Tane’s credit, he didn’t let the pain show.
‘Compliance is what impresses us the most,’ the agent said.
‘So I’m compliant,’ Tane replied. ‘Just let me go.’
The grey coat turned to him and nodded; Fulcrom was surprised that the man actually responded to his signal by releasing his grip. Tane lunged backwards, and took a casual stance. How much authority did Fulcrom possess exactly?
‘He’s yours – you can handle it from here,’ said one of the agents. To Tane he said, ‘If you fuck up at all, and Fulcrom gives us the nod, we will not hesitate to hunt you down wherever you’re hiding and kill you in a slow and painful manner.’
‘Fine,’ Tane whispered. ‘But, look, I don’t even know what you want with me.’
With a surprising calm, they all slipped out of the room one by one, leaving the door ajar.
A little breathless now, Tane dusted himself down and composed himself, then turned to Fulcrom. ‘I knew you kept yourself to yourself, but this is a bit of a surprise.’
‘Not only to you,’ Fulcrom replied.
‘What do you need me to do?’
‘We’re taking you deep into Balmacara. But first, take a look around, remember these faces, these people you’re trying to impress. You want everyone to love you . . .’ Fulcrom leant in closer to breathe, ‘Think how popular you’ll be if they knew where you got your money from?’
The expression on Tane’s face, one of utter resignation, confirmed to Fulcrom that they had him on board, that he would cooperate.
‘Exactly. They’ll probably want to lynch you themselves. You have been chosen, Tane. Don’t let me down.’
‘OK. At least let me clean up this mess before we go.’
The next one wouldn’t be so easy, Fulcrom realized. The next one wouldn’t respond to intimidation.
There was a riotous noise outside his window. A drunken youth out in the ice decided that so-and-so was sleeping with his girlfriend, and now was the time to pick a fight in order to resolve the issue. Vuldon heard the way the kid’s sword was unsheathed, with great strain or hesitation. The guy was either emotionally unstable – and would get himself killed; or he was too cold to fight properly – and would still get himself killed. These weren’t the conditions in which to start pointless fights.
Villjamur isn’t a nice place any more. Barely was in the first place . . . His old life flashed back briefly: knife fights in the dark; brutal combat on bridges; arriving too late and discovering blood-covered floors and severed heads . . . No, perhaps those days were bad enough.
Vuldon closed the shutters behind the thin glass to keep in the warmth, poured himself a glass of cheap Black Heart Rum, lit an arum weed roll-up, slumped in a battered leather chair and, as he did every night, dredged his memories for something to cling to.
As he brooded in his isolated terrace apartment, alone in the darkness, he couldn’t quite make the memories become continuous. They came piecemeal, these images of his life, brief and distorted. Nearly every night he’d review a particular moment with distant melancholy.
Those days are long gone, Vuldon, so let it be.
But he failed to abide by his own mantra. Every muscle that ached, every bone that didn’t sit quite right, he could assign the probable cause, or guess at things that may or may not have been the root of his pain: a broken-up knife fight or a clifftop scramble or slipping from a bridge whilst trying to save someone.
Thirty years ago, almost to the day.
Thirty years and now they were coming for him again, the Emperor’s men. Agents who worked behind the layers of the city, men that not even the Night Guard knew about. Vuldon knew them all right – he’d worked with their likes before, in whatever guise each city ruler decided to cast them.
Vuldon wasn’t stupid. He’d been waiting. He’d tracked their movements two hours before: their trademark loitering, the way they’d check street corners and grace rooftops. They were there if you knew where to look. They were heading for his home on the second level of Villjamur, a dreary third-floor hole above a closed-down tavern; about as far from his former glamour as he could possibly be.
They kicked open his door whilst he slouched on a chair in the dark, the bottle of Black Heart Rum on the floor beside him, a roll-up between two of his fingers, its embers glowing in the half-light.
In their long grey coats and wide-brimmed hats they stood around him, scarves across their mouths, mere shadows against the dusk spilling through his open doorway, five of them in all, tall and slender. They were lingering like wraiths, with their hands in pockets, cool and aloof. Same as always, they didn’t like to get too close to people like him who knew their way around a fight – didn’t want him to see who they were.
‘What took you so long?’ Vuldon muttered. Arum smoke circled around his reclined form. ‘You lot are more cautious than ever. Least you’re not as clumsy as the city guard.’
‘Gotta be these days, Vuldon,’ one of them said, a harsh and wispy voice. ‘There’s a lot going on in Villjamur – most of it underground.’
‘Yeah? I don’t pay attention to any of that any more.’ A drag on the roll-up. ‘So what do you want?’
‘You, Vuldon. We’ve come for you.’
‘The hell do you want me for? You think you can use violence on me?’ He laughed, though the noise seemed more hollow than he would have liked.
‘No violence here, we know it won’t work – you’re too stubborn anyway.’ This voice was different – firm and polite, probably the leader. He spotted a tail wafting behind them – that meant a rumel, and that reeked of the Inquisition.
‘You got that right,’ he replied.
‘You’re a legend, Vuldon,’ the voice continued. ‘In fact you’re the Legend.’
‘Legends don’t live above a grotty tavern.’ Vuldon dismissed them with heavy hand gestures, palming them away, leave me alone. ‘I’m too old,’ he repeated in his dreary room, unable to see much but their silhouettes. ‘You only know me from the stories. Isn’t how it was. I’m getting on for sixty now.’
‘We have cultists who can sort that out,’ the rumel said.
‘We have new techniques,’ another chimed, one of the agents.
Vuldon couldn’t see their faces, not that it mattered. They gave him the creeps, the way they’d come in and invade people’s evenings like this. ‘Leave me to die in peace. I can’t do anyone any harm that way.’
‘Emperor Urtica has made a request for you to return.’
‘Urtica?’ Vuldon enquired. ‘What happened to the Jamur girls?’
‘Don’t you read the news? They’ve long gone, tried to kill all the refugees. Urtica took over, arranged to have them executed but they managed to escape. Urtica’s in charge of the Empire and Villjamur.’
Vuldon didn’t seem too bothered that the Jamur lineage had cleared out of the city. Jamur blood sent a rage burning in his heart.
Thirty years ago . . . ‘So what does Urtica want of me exactly?’ Vuldon demanded. ‘Have you taken a good look at this place?’ He struck a match and fumbled around to light a lantern.
Vuldon gestured at himself: he was standing there wearing a gown and loose, ragged breeches. Everything in his house was as crippled as he was: strips of curtains, stained carpets, dishes he hadn’t washed in ages, piles of paper in one corner. Grey hairs on his once-muscular chest seemed to stand out as a sign of his age, so he covered himself up, suddenly aware of what he had been – a long time ago.
‘You stink,’ one of the agents said. ‘This whole fucking place stinks.’
‘Not exactly made much of myself these days. Told you, this isn’t like the stories. You were probably kids when you were hearing those for the first time.’
‘You could be someone again, Vuldon,’ the rumel said, a brown-skin, with more than a hint of optimism in his voice. ‘If you come with us, we’ll see to it that you’re treated well.’
‘Why me?’ Whatever answer they gave wouldn’t satisfy him: it wasn’t how these people worked. These agents would tell you only what could influence you – truth and lies, well, they never came into the picture.
‘Because you were the first one and the best, Vuldon,’ the rumel declared. ‘You were the Legend. You know how it all works, you know how to play this game. You understand criminals better than anyone else – hell, we’ve all heard tales, even in the Inquisition.’
‘That’s the problem – plenty of tales, not enough fact.’
‘You’ve got your old job waiting for you, in a new guise. We’re offering a chance to reinvent the Legend – all you need to do is come with us.’
As they spoke he glanced to the floor, walking his mind back in time. ‘I don’t care for that name any more. I’ve not thought about him in decades – just leave me alone.’
‘You’re lying,’ the rumel said. ‘I can hear it in your voice. Think on – Legend. We’ll be back tomorrow evening.’
Vuldon eventually looked up but they’d gone and left the door open. The family next door were starting to surface, their kids screaming the place down. A cat trotted by in the corridor, looking in tentatively, nosing the air, then moved on, thinking better of it. Vuldon peered around his room at his meagre possessions: decrepit furniture, a few old books, a stack of blank parchment, empty bottles of alcohol and ink, unwashed plates.
Brushing his thick stubble, Vuldon chuckled. Not even an animal will venture in here.
He felt too jaded to close the door, but eventually he forced himself to do so.
With a groan he took the lantern and shuffled slowly to his bedroom, but pausing by a cupboard. A minute passed, maybe two, as he contemplated what was beyond.
When he finally nudged it open a bar of light fell across some of his old clothes – the ones from way back. Dust motes filled the air. His fingers walked across some of those items, across some of his memories. There it was, his old uniform, the one he wore when he was someone else, but he didn’t want to get it out just yet.
No, he wasn’t ready for any of that, and shut the door, and headed to his bedroom.
As he lay in bed that night, his own history came back to provoke his dreams.