Lan awoke in a cell, her body thronging in agony. The brick walls around her drifted in and out of focus. More than once she was forced to lie sideways on the mattress to relieve the pain, her hands bound behind her, rope around her torso, only to stare at the ceiling, her head aching as if she was on the bad end of a riotously good night’s drinking.
Everything since her return from Ysla had merged into a sequence of disconnected images. Had the cultists done something to her head and messed with her memories?
No, they had not, and the realization came back to her like an echo.
The cultists had taken care to provide her with forged documents to allow her back into Villjamur, as a woman, and without any attention being drawn to her history.
As she rode up to the main gates of Villjamur, guided only so far by the cultist associate on horseback, she had been mortified to witness the tent-city outside, where refugees had massed. A humanitarian disaster spread for half a mile along the main road into Villjamur, a settlement of tin shacks and canvas houses and small pit fires that leaked paltry trails of smoke. Grubby and layered in rags, people bore expressionless faces, yet eyed her closely as she rode through their mass. Now and then she spotted people clothed in fine Jorsalir robes, handing out flatbreads. It was a haunting trek up to the gates.
After passing through the high levels of security at the gates of the city, a task made effortless due to the fine faked documents produced by Cayce, there was a small administrative matter to attend to, where she had to collect her key from one of the sub-Council posts annexed to the Villjamur Inquisition, which merely required a number to be recited and money would be handed over.
Is it really that easy to be reborn in Villjamur?
She eventually strode back to her family’s old home, a large two-up, two-down on the fourth level of the city.
Nostalgia washed over her as the lanes and crumpled granite facades ignited her memories. When she stood inside for the first time, smelling the musk of her dead parents, she immediately began the process of shredding all traces of her former existence – letters and deeds and heirlooms. The Caine family name was assiduously eradicated from Villjamur. Despite the fact that she had been left the property, despite clear evidence that her parents must still have possessed some love for her, for her own sanity she needed to purge the past. Like herself, she would have the house transformed. She had suspected that many of the rooms would hold bad memories for her, but she was relieved to discover that she had blocked much of her childhood from her mind. Memories were unreliable at the best of time, but over the years she had accepted what her parents felt towards her, accepted their hatred of who and what she was. As she let them go for the last time, she felt relief. Lan repeated to herself that people only ever feared and loathed anything that was different. Her transformation was nearing completion.
Lan had been in Villjamur for twenty days since her operation on Ysla, and her body still hadn’t fully recovered from the procedures. Bruises had formed in surprising places, and she discovered internal aches in previously unknown regions. Just underneath her ribs, a small, knife-thin wound was noticeable, but aside from that there was very little in the way of actual scarring. She felt moments of acute weakness and dizzy spells and occasional nausea but, over time, they too diminished. By the twentieth day of her return, she was feeling well again.
Ever so slowly, she was learning what it was like to be a woman in Villjamur. It was years since she had lived in the city, and there was a lot to get used to.
Lan was now fully – anatomically – a woman. She possessed the same rights as a woman, and she would be treated by others like a woman. But the city, it seemed, was not constructed for the benefit of womankind. Doors were opened, quite literally, and that was rather lovely at first, but she became ultra-sensitive to further gestures from men. She did not feel especially pretty, but could feel their gazes. Looks from others were penetrating and loaded with new psychology, and other women seemed to judge her out-of-touch fashions. Whenever she spoke up in the iren, the traders would patronize her. She sought employment – she had enough money for the short term, but wanted to be out doing something, engaging with the world, and with enough wealth to live well. She wandered from street to street, up and down the levels for several days, exploring what work was available.
The few job offers available were positions such as waitressing or making clothing. Guilds seemed to bar many female members, and she could hardly pursue a ‘career’ as housewife. If she really wanted she could have joined the military, who accepted women, but a life enduring extreme conditions at the fringes of the Empire wasn’t quite what she had in mind. Still, she had time on her hands, which meant she possessed something greater than most women in the city: the luxury of choice.
During her routine search for employment a bizarre sense of paranoia followed her. Whether it was acclimatizing to her new body, or something sinister, she didn’t know, but she couldn’t help feel that she was being actively monitored. Were the cultists observing her in some perverse reality experiment? Cayce did suggest he might try to locate her at some point to check on her adaptation to the magic – no, technology, that was what he called it, and he corrected her every time she used the ‘m’ word.
Maybe they were watching her. Maybe they were keeping her safe.
One morning, with sleet in the air and a distant tang of frying food, Lan was browsing stalls, searching for spices to cook her evening meal. The iren was packed with soldiers, their swords unsheathed and exposed to the crowds.
Lan wondered why such an innocent location required so many soldiers from a Regiment of Foot, in their intimidating mud-brown uniforms and cheap armour. The iren was busy nonetheless, with row upon intricate row of commercial activity. Fish traders had all sorts of specimens lined up under coloured awnings, whilst smiths were out hawking their wares – new blades or shields crafted from stronger metal. Cheap gemstones were being promenaded in handcarts that clattered across the cobbles, whilst trails of young women fawned over them. Everywhere were shouts of orders and prices as vendors grilled spiced seafood over hot coals.
Was that someone calling her name?
No one in the city could have known her, especially not as she was now. Foolishly, she turned around to see who it was—
Slam. Screams rippled across the plaza.
One of the last images she remembered was of a group of soldiers rushing forward – then retreating under newer orders.
Two punches to her stomach and a strike around her head and she blacked out.
Later, when her groggy head cleared, figures garbed in long grey coats with scarves around their mouths came into her cell and bombarded her with questions. Lan was hunched sideways on a mattress, rope around her chest, handcuffs binding her wrists, digging into her skin. Beneath her restraints, she was wearing a thick grey tunic over black breeches, but inexplicably she felt it somehow wasn’t enough.
Lan could soon see that the cell was actually more like a bedroom, which was not what she imagined a prison unit to be, and it suggested that she wasn’t in immediate trouble. People came into the room. The figures jutted lanterns towards her face with severe motions. Relentlessly they asked her questions, demanding her to confirm details they seemed to already know.
She was forced to confirm she had been taken to Ysla to visit the cultists.
She felt their interrogation to be deeply abusive. Soon she wanted to cry but she wouldn’t let herself, not in front of them. It was carefully explained to her that her body had already proven extremely adaptive to ancient technologies. If they knew that, why did they ask questions?
What was it Cayce had said? Not everyone is as pliable as you. And the words were repeated back to her at least twice.
At first she told them little – paranoid and deeply afraid that she would lose a sense of her new self, as much as anything else.
Thankfully, after a few hours they untied the rope around her abdomen, and left the room to contemplate her answers. Lan immediately began busying herself by investigating the cuffs around her wrists. Escape artistry wasn’t foreign to her: she understood the quirks, the tricks, the insider knowledge. She knew that most handcuffs could be mastered with a pick or even applied pressure, though it would have helped if she had seen the mechanisms beforehand. By touch she guessed these were nothing unusual, and that she could open them with a blow on the right spot. Looking around, she noted a metal ridge on the bed frame. It was an awkward manoeuvre but she managed to twist herself around and, with her hands held behind her, she repeatedly hammered the handcuffs down, close to the hinge. It took eight blows until they sprung open, then she enjoyed letting the pain in her arms subside.
Seems they do not use expensive restraints in Villjamur, she thought, rubbing her wrists.
Her kidnappers returned and didn’t quite know what to make of the open cuffs she’d cast down the foot of the mattress, but to her surprise they didn’t beat her – instead, they gave her water and good food, flatbreads and spiced curries. Such luxuries confirmed to her that they weren’t going to immediately kill her. It was, perhaps, some consolation.
A clank of iron woke her. Those grey-coated figures returned, hovering in the doorway. But someone else stepped inside her cell: a tall brown-skin rumel sporting the crimson colours of the Inquisition.
His words came with an unusual tenderness.
‘Hello, Lan, I’m Investigator Fulcrom. Are you feeling all right? Please, come with us. I’m sorry you’ve had to go through all of this. They were . . . wrong to be so harsh.’ Tense glances were exchanged between the investigator and the grey coats. ‘We’ll explain what we require in a moment.’
Lan pushed herself up from the mattress, spun her legs over the side and brushed back her hair. The rumel took her hand and lifted her to her feet.
‘There you are,’ he said.
Lan rubbed her eyes and shuffled after them.
Soon they passed through a more civilized location – smooth walls and floors, cressets giving light and warmth, brass trimmings and skylights. It was daytime at least, but she could see only pale grey clouds. In this rare moment of normal vision, she glanced at the faces of those escorting her, but they were hidden still by the scarves across their faces. With rimmed hats or hoods, only their eyes were exposed – they were all human, all pale, all weirdly androgynous-looking. Aside from the rumel, of course, who now and then turned back to give her reassuring glances.
It took two of them to open the massive oak doors, and she was led through them. The next room was certainly imposing – the movement of air and the echo of boots against stone indicated it was vast. In the dim light she could make out very little, save for the glittering metallic instruments at the far end of the room, like bookshelves, but with wires and vials of fluids. A light shone on them – from them – and they seemed to spark alive.
In the centre of the room were three leather chairs, two were already occupied. Whilst the figures in grey fanned out in a circle around them, she was propelled into the final chair. She peered at the other two present: one was a broad and stocky man who must have been in his fifties. With a square, stubbled jaw, an arm as wide as her thigh, he appeared to be every bit a thug, but there was something immensely sad about his posture: he was slumping – had spent years slumping – and his gaze was directed mainly at the ground. When he did look at her, his vision passed over so casually she might as well have been an item of furniture. He wore black breeches, and a dark red sweater that was too tight for him – he was once heavily muscled, probably still was under a few years of bad living.
The other man was in his late twenties, tall and slender, with blond hair and dazzling blue eyes. He sat back with one shin resting on his other knee, his hands folded casually in his lap as if he was waiting to be served a meal in a bistro. He gave Lan a polite smile, but she was in no mood to return it.
Who were these two? Only the three of them were illuminated by tall lanterns in the centre of the table; the circle of grey coats stood back, in the shadows. Suddenly, the circle parted at one end, and there were others who joined them. Someone whispered the Sele of Urtica, and then she heard that name repeated. Urtica.
It can’t be him, she thought. What would he want with me?
‘I am Emperor Urtica,’ the man declared. He was much better-looking than she imagined. The atmosphere in the room changed with his mere presence – it was now soaked with fear. ‘This to my right is Investigator Fulcrom.’ The brown-skinned rumel, in his crimson robes, moved forward, and gave a warm greeting to them all, before stepping aside for the Emperor to continue.
‘You three,’ Urtica announced, ‘have each been chosen for a reason. All of you are bound, in some way, by your pasts, and I will make it abundantly clear that we will not hesitate to use these pasts against you as a secure bond against the gifts that will shortly be bestowed upon you.’
‘Think I give a shit about that?’ grunted the broad-shouldered man. His mood was utterly despondent. ‘I’ve no reason to do what you say.’
‘I have heard much about you, Vuldon, and admittedly your case is not the same as these two,’ Urtica muttered. ‘I understand your bitterness. You have other motivations – as do you, Tane. I knew your family well.’
The skinny man sat up and leaned forwards, taking time to compose himself. ‘What exactly are you insinuating?’
‘I will forgive you your rudeness this once,’ Urtica replied calmly. ‘Investigator, please continue the briefing.’ Urtica motioned for the rumel to speak.
‘Thank you, my Emperor,’ Fulcrom replied, with a small bow of the head. He turned his attention to the others. ‘Tane, you have an unrelenting – if a little unfocused – will to do good. You have a moral code, and this is good. You’re also not wanted in the Inquisition, and so your name has been put forward especially for this mission. You should just shut up for once and pay attention – you’ll do well out of this . . . if you’re pliable.’
Tane sat back, disgruntled, possibly weighing up whether or not to make a witticism.
‘Vuldon – you used to be a legendary hero of this city. Unlike the others, no one has forced you to be here. Emperor Johynn and his lineage are long gone, so you can put your faith in Urtica, and in what is being offered to you. It’s a chance to regain what you once had. We can make that happen.’
Vuldon’s expression seemed to be hiding years of pain.
‘And you, Lan,’ Fulcrom turned to her, ‘are a fraction more than a coincidence. You have proven remarkably adaptable to cultist technology, according to our notes, and we have had some minor failures with adaptation in earlier experiments. You are resilient and your past career in the circus has given you a useful athleticism, so you seem rather perfect for the forthcoming role. I’m aware of what’s gone on and it seems there is a gap in our legal framework when it comes to understanding your transformation. We’re therefore going to gloss over such changes in order for one further transformation.’
She was totally disarmed by his directness, and also by the way he did not abuse the power of secret knowledge: he was privy to her history, and yet he spoke to her without disrespect.
‘And what is our role supposed to be?’ Lan enquired.
‘You are,’ Urtica interrupted, ‘to become the Villjamur Knights, protectors of the city. It is a prestigious role.’
So why treat me like shit . . . ?
‘You are’, he continued, ‘to see that the citizens of this ancient city are well protected, but your precise roles in all of this will shortly become a reality. Now that your introductions are over, you should familiarize yourself with each other. You three, and Fulcrom here, are going to be spending a lot of time together.’
‘And, pardon me for asking, but why should we do any of this?’ Lan asked, feeling no fear of the Emperor, not after all she’d been through. ‘It’s clear that you need us – or rather, we mean something to you.’
All eyes turned to Urtica as if expecting his rage to be on display. Instead he leant forward onto the table. ‘Would you wish to be placed in stocks, and for a crier to announce to the city who you used to be?’ The Emperor moved behind her now, and whispered into her left ear, ‘Indeed, the cultists did a very good job on you, but it doesn’t take much for a crowd in this city to become fearful – hysterical enough to pull you apart with their bare hands. Of course, I would not like to see such an act.’
As Lan let the paranoia sink in, Urtica stood to regard the room. ‘Are there any more questions?’
‘It’s Shalev that’s causing you much trouble, isn’t it?’ Vuldon said, but the Emperor remained silent.
‘I thought you didn’t pay attention to things these days?’ Fulcrom replied.
Vuldon looked away, while Tane cleared his throat and announced, ‘I would just like to add that I’m definitely in. I think it’s an absolutely super idea.’
‘Stop sucking up to him, kid, you don’t know what it involves,’ Vuldon grunted, glancing up for the first time. ‘What’re our obligations in all of this? If we agree, what the fuck will you have us doing? Bet we ain’t going to be standing on display.’
‘I’ll leave the particulars for Fulcrom to explain, but we will begin with your transformations this very evening. After that, you will develop into a force used to tackle the great unrest that has been plaguing our city. There will be further training, accommodation and support. As you made perfectly clear, Vuldon, you in particular have no reason to do what I say. Fulcrom will explain the details of what our offer will involve, but now I’ve Council business to attend to. It has been a pleasure to meet you all, and I hope to see each of you turn in for duty.’
Urtica spun on his heels and, with a nod to Fulcrom, marched from the room. A small body of guards emerged like ghosts from the darkness to escort him out.
In this ensuing silence, Lan, Tane and Vuldon all observed each other with uncertainty.
Fulcrom leaned forward into the light. ‘Well, I suppose you’re wondering what happens next?’