Councillor Mew'un shuffled from his temporary office and moved further into the heart of the Imperial residence of Balmacara. Dressed in official state colours of a green tunic and grey cloak, he strolled down the endless, shining corridors, considering the ornaments, portraits and marble decor. As far as temporary workspaces went, this wasn’t too bad.
He smiled politely at the administrative staff who rushed past with armfuls of papers, and he stopped only to reflect upon his greying, balding head and expanding waistline in one of the gold-gilded mirrors. With the excitement and energy of Urtica’s new political regime, the last few months had simply flown by. A slender young woman passed him in the corridor, one he recognized as a being a former servant to Councillor Boll, who was murdered some time ago. She was full of saccharine smiles, yet with her soft young skin and red curls, she was a startlingly tender and humane contrast to his paperwork.
She made the mistake of asking him a question: ‘Have you had a good morning, councillor?’
Mew'un took this as an opportunity to rid himself of his anxiety about city affairs. ‘Not so far, no,’ he told her.
‘Oh?’ she asked, taken aback on realizing she must actually engage in a conversation whether she liked it or not.
Tough, he thought. ‘Oh indeed. Refugees are collapsing dead, heaping up on the doorstep to our city, and nothing can be done about it. They can’t come in, of course, what with resources being so precious. No, the lucky corpses lay on pyres, those worse off rot in the snow, bringing further disease to their neighbours. We fight a brave war on our northern front, which depletes our resources further. And this endless winter . . . well, it certainly makes logistical decisions and planning more challenging, I suppose.’
‘The fact that smart people such as yourself are helping Villjamur is very much noted, councillor,’ the girl droned.
‘Ah, to be so uninvolved with the affairs of this world. To be so naive! I envy you.’
She gazed right past him, choosing to remain silent. It was a good thing. He was fully prepared to spurt his anger at the fact that forces in Balmacara could organize a military campaign, but not, it seemed, know when to take his laundry.
Mew'un made to leave, hearing the scuffed footsteps of the girl’s escape.
Amidst another flurry of activity from servants carrying trays of food, Mew'un eventually progressed from Balmacara’s depths and slipped out of one of the side entrances – which was Urtica’s suggestion. Mew'un was fine with all of these procedures, of course, though he couldn’t help but think the Emperor was being a little too . . . paranoid.
Outside, the weather was arse-bitingly cold. Even around the back of Balmacara, in the shadow of the chunky basalt walls where one of the majestic, arch-shaped new Council carriages awaited. A brown mare stood glumly with her face lost in a cloud of her own steam; the winter had found a way to stretch its icy tendrils even to her.
‘Morning, councillor.’ The stout old man standing before him was his driver, and he opened the door of the carriage, which was a huge dark-wood affair outfitted with luxurious ruby red trim. Mew'un popped up, ducking his head, and plunged inside with a groan.
‘Thank you, Edsan,’ Mew'un called out, once he was safely within the opulence of the carriage.
‘Where’s it to today, sir?’ his driver enquired.
‘The indoor iren project, if you please.’
‘That open now, sir?’
‘Not yet, no, but very soon – I’m giving a site visit to make sure we’re all set for the grand opening.’
‘Very good, councillor.’ Edsan slammed the door and, through a little hatch, Mew'un watched him trudge around the front of the carriage. A few minor rumbles later, a few terse words, with the undergear cranking as the mighty wheels turned, they rocked forwards.
Mew'un shifted into the corner, rummaged around in his pockets, and drew up a roll-up and a box of matches. A few moments later, he promptly lit up and eased back, allowing the sounds of the city to wash over him, the calls of traders, the sharp orders of the military, the crunch of wheels and the horse’s hooves on stone. Outside, the sun peered beyond the clouds, giving the city a rich, red veneer. Snow seeped from roofs round chimney breasts, dripping onto the streets incessantly, whilst children hurled snowballs at each other. They must have been entering an open plaza, as the scents of fried food from vendors filled his nostrils—
Something brown flashed by the hatch. What was that? Something rattled underneath.
Mew'un scrambled to the opening to see a hooded figure in brown clothing sprinting down the street in the opposite direction.
As he frowned, he heard something fizz, and could smell burning, followed by an enormously bright flash and loud ripping and fire streaming upwards and oh shit oh shit his skin was burning . . .
‘Fulcrom, get over here.’
Fulcrom strode cautiously through the chunks of charred wood to Warkur’s side. The rumel superior’s face seemed distinctly unimpressed by the carnage, and who could blame him? Debris littered a zone nearly a hundred feet wide: flesh was scattered amidst the remnants of a carriage and, a few feet away, the burned and mutilated corpse of a horse lay gruesomely on its side. Even Fulcrom, who had seen his fair share of dire things on the streets of Villjamur, was forced to cringe. At the moment it wasn’t snowing, but he wished it would, just enough to cover this mess.
The iren had been forcibly closed, the traders ushered on, the citizens steered away. It was possible there were some civilian casualties amidst the wreckage, but it wasn’t easy to tell. Other Inquisition aides had been sent to recover the bodies and any evidence, and they sifted through the scene with sketchpads or assiduously made notes.
‘What’re you doing here – aren’t you supposed to be looking after the Knights?’ Warkur snapped.
‘I heard about the incident and rushed here as soon as I could. Looks like we’ll need military assistance on this.’
‘If my hunch is right, we’ll need whatever help we can get. You know who I’m thinking did this?’
‘Did you see the flag too?’
‘On the wall over there.’ Fulcrom pointed to an old red-brick structure between two whitewashed shops. Tied to a windowsill was a black flag: similar to ones that had been found at the site of every major anarchist crime to date.
‘You and your powers of observation,’ Warkur muttered. ‘I’m not as young as I used to be – I’m missing even obvious things now.’
One of the human aides, a red-haired man, lunged onto the scene out of breath: ‘Sir, we’ve got some information on the event.’
The carriage was one of the new models – strips of wood bore fresh Imperial logos, but there was no glory to be found in this mess, only the remains of a politician. A councillor had been in the carriage. The aide provided the name of Mew'un, who had left Balmacara earlier.
Fulcrom knew the name, though couldn’t put a face to it – but the title was enough. Sure, councillors were murdered from time to time, and there had been public incidents in recent months, but generally such matters were kept low-key and away from prying eyes.
‘This is some damn public spectacle,’ Warkur said.
‘It was obviously intended that way,’ Fulcrom added. ‘We know these anarchists like to make a show of things. They must have known a councillor was using this route, or they followed him from Balmacara.’
Warkur shook his head in disgust: ‘How’ve they become so damn effective all of a sudden?’
‘Do you want me to pursue this case, sir?’ Fulcrom asked.
‘Though I don’t fully trust orders from the top, and we could do with someone like you checking the day-to-day investigations, you’ve got enough on with the Knights,’ Warkur said, waving him away.
‘Well, we all have plenty to be getting on with, sir,’ Fulcrom replied.
‘It’s possible all investigators are going to have to work together from now on. Means we’ll have to pass over full control of monitoring the refugees outside to the military.’
And I know just what the military would do to them under Urtica’s control, Fulcrom thought grimly.
‘So’, Warkur continued, ‘you just look after those precious Knights and make sure they’re ready to prevent shit like this from happening again. If our Emperor’s beloved news rag is anything to go by, they’ll have some pressure coming their way. They’ll be famous. Everyone out here knows their names and faces. With all that damn fuss, they’ll find it difficult to get close to the enemy. In the meantime, I’ll start drawing the investigations together. See if we can spot patterns or find new leads. Fuck, at this rate I might as well get some tribal priests in for shell readings – maybe they can help us find out who the hell these anarchists are.’
Warkur kicked a piece of wood, and it skittered across the street and into the wall. A few passers-by had snuck into the scene, and there were several more leaning out of windows despite the cold, voyeuristically curious. Two human aides were now surveying the debris and lifting pieces of flesh into large metal containers. It would take a while to clean it all up.
‘These Knights of yours – they’d better be good,’ Warkur bellowed, before skulking off into the distance.
What difference can three humans possibly make in a world like this? Fulcrom thought.